The Niles Canyon Ghost Revealed

I have written previously about the Niles Canyon Ghost, who supposedly has appeared on Niles Canyon Road every February 26 since 1938 (or 1940), trying to hitchhike to San Francisco. The couple who stop to pick her up proceed to the Dumbarton Bridge Toll and pay for three people (before 1951, the bridge toll was based on how many were in the car), but the tolltaker says they’ve paid for too many: the woman has vanished from the back seat. Those who continue onto the address in San Francisco meet a sad woman who says that the same thing happens every year. The ghost is the spirit of her daughter, who was killed in an accident on Niles Canyon Road, and on the mantel is a photograph of the woman who flagged them down.

This story is now known to be one of many variants of the “Vanishing Hitchhiker,” a common urban legend that was first researched in 1942 by American folklorists Richard Beardsley and Rosalie Hankey.

As a teenager, I had first read about the Ghost in The History of Washington Township—indeed, that was usually the reason I opened the book. But I also enjoyed studying the old maps on the endpapers, trying to figure out where our modern-day suburban house would be. The story of the Ghost appears in the 1950 second edition, but not in the scarce 1904 first edition. I very much doubted that the compilers of the History invented the story. Where did it come from? One day, I thought, I would research this and find the truth—but others have beaten me to it (A Place Called Sunol, by Connei DeGrange and Allen DeGrange, DeGrange Publishing, 1995, pp115-116). The first detective work was done by Tri-Valley Herald reporter Liam Pleven in 1991 (Tri-Valley Herald, 26 February 1991), with further sleuthing by Victoria Christian (Around Sunol, 26 February 2007). The true story of the Niles Canyon Ghost can now be told.

The story was probably invented about 1942 by a local journalist as a ploy to sell newspapers. Nothing much happened for the next few years, but in 1947 radio announcer Mel Ventner repeated the story and it began to capture the public’s attention. On 24 February 1950, an article about the Ghost appeared in the Township Register. Two days later on the 26th, many drivers reported seeing a white figure waving from a railroad trestle: it was 19-year-old Clarence Chivers wearing a white sheet. Alameda Country sheriff’s deputies William R. Rose and E. B. Pavon responded and fired warning shots, then proceeded to arrest him. The next day, one newspaper led with the headline “Shivers Shakes as Sheriff Shoots” (although my headline would have been “Chivers Shivers as Sherriff Shoots”). In 1952, officers arrested a 22-year-old for a similar prank, and reported that twenty or thirty kids were hiding along the roadway. Clarence Chivers passed away in 2007 at the age of 75.

It’s no surprise, then, that the 1950 edition of The History of Washington Township, published during the heyday of the Niles Canyon Ghost, would include the story. Tonight raise your glass to the memory of the Ghost, invented on this day about 68 years ago.

Update: In October 2021, almost ten years after I posted this, I received an email from Mike Chivers, nephew of the late Clarence Chivers. Mike confirmed that his uncle Clarence did indeed stage the legendary prank, and often recounted it to family members over the years. Mike also reports another interesting angle: Deputy W. R. Rose, who arrested Chivers in 1950, was the son of another Sheriff William Rose who responded to a carriage crash in Niles Canyon in the late 19th century. Rose found the overturned carriage and a drowned horse, but no human remains were ever recovered.


I recently stopped to take this photo of my odometer. They don't keep track of tenths of a mile anymore, otherwise I would have waited until 88888.8

Whenever our family went driving when I was young, I checked the odometer to see whether an interesting number was coming up. For example, perhaps we were about to hit 45678.9 or 50505.0. My brother and I would get in position so we could watch the magic moment. If you read my previous post about numbers, you are already nodding your head in recognition.

Those of you who are a certain age will remember that automobiles used to have mechanical odometers—mechanical!—including a wheel for tenths of a mile. Because the tenths wheel was in constant movement, the precise number 45678.9 lasted only for the briefest moment, and then was over. Are we there yet?

The grand prize, of course, was when the odometer rolled over from 99999.9 to 00000.0. That only happened twice: once in our old 1967 Chevy station wagon, and once in my own car. These days, odometers don’t have a tenth digit, but do have a hundreds-of-thousands digit. This means that I’ll never have my car long enough to see the odometer reach 888888, and so must settle for 088888 (in the old days, I could have had 88888.8).

I’m not sure how to explain my fascination for symmetrical odometer readings when I have so little for seemingly symmetrical calendar dates such as 11/11/11. Part of it is that the date is really 11/11/2011, which isn’t symmetrical at all. Or that the same date is 14 Cheshvan 5772 in the Hebrew calendar, or in the Mayan calendar, which aren’t symmetrical either. On the other hand, the odometer readout could be in base 8, in which case 88888 would be 255470, or in base 16, which would be 15B38. So the next time your insurance broker asks you what the odometer reading is, ask him “base 8 or base 16?”


I used to write down numbers.

Well, for a few weeks in fourth grade, I wrote down numbers until I grew tired of it. On a sheet of ordinary paper I simply wrote one number after another and kept going.

… 2371 2372 2373 2374 2375 2376 2377 2378 2379 2380 2381 2382 …

You get the idea. WHY THE HECK DID YOU DO THIS, I hear you cry. As Tevye once said, “I will tell you. I don’t know.” I remember classmates leaning over to watch me to this, especially when an interesting number was coming up, like 4444. Fourth grade must not have been that exciting if David’s numbers were the best show in the room.

opalka numbers
One of Roman Opalka's early "details"

This whole episode flashed back into my memory this week when I read an obituary of painter Roman Opalka, who died on August 6th at age 79. Opalka wrote down numbers, only he kept at it for the rest of his life. He called each of his paintings a “detail,” and they all had the same title: “Opalka 1965 / 1-∞”. Each detail was the same size as his studio door in Warsaw, and the numbers on each detail picked up where the previous one had ended. As he painted each number, he whispered its name in his native Polish. He started the project in 1965, and painted about 400 numbers each day. By the time he died he was well over 5 500 000—he used no commas—though he had originally hoped to reach 7 777 777.

At first he painted white numbers on a black background, but in 1968 he changed to grey, and in 1972 he began adding 1% more white to the grey background each year. By the 2008 the ground was essentially as white as the figures: both the numbers and the visibility merging into infinity.

Croatia 5: Klapa

One of the women's klapa groups. The banner reads "25th evening of Dalmatian klapa and folksingers". Sudamja is the name of the festival, a contraction of the Croatian words for "Saint Duje"

We arrived in Split two days before St Duje’s Day, and discovered to our delight that one of the festivities was a klapa concert. It was to be held in the peristil, the central collonaded area in Diocletian’s Palace. No fewer than sixteen different klapa groups participated, almost half of them women’s groups (until very recently, klapa groups were exclusively male). This was very definitely a concert by and for Croatians: the audience was mostly friends and relatives of the various groups.

The Croatian crowd listening to the klapa concert

It was also a lesson in local customs. The audience was supportive, but also talked freely during the music, and didn’t care about blocking the views of those sitting down on the side stairs (even ignoring other locals who were complaining to the standees in Croatian). Smoking? No problem: almost everyone smokes cigarettes in Dalmatia. We even saw pregnant women smoking.

Klapa is wonderful music, but it’s nothing like the Croatian music I’m most familiar with. Why is this? A glance at a map of Europe reveals dozens of small countries, but most of them are composed of even smaller regions with distinctive languages and traditions. Over my folkdance career I’ve learned many Croatian dances, but it turns out that almost all of them are from Slavonia, the northern inland area of Croatia bordering Austria and Hungary. Our vacation was in Dalmatia, along the south-eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea: just 150 miles from Slavonia as the crow flies, but a very different place. We think of Croatia as an Eastern European country, but Dalmatia has a very western feel, much like Italy. This is not surprising given that the Republic of Venice controlled and influenced Dalmatia from the middle Ages until the Napoleonic Wars. Italy also occupied several pieces of Dalmatia between the two World Wars. All of which explains why klapa sounds so pleasingly western to my ears. If the words were in Italian instead of Croatian, I would never guess that the music wasn’t Italian.

Klapa Dalmacija, our delightful evening's entertainment the night we were docked in Korčula

We were treated to a second, more intimate klapa concert while in Korčula. Klapa Dalmacija, a group from the town of Vela Luka on the other side of the island, serenaded us during dinner. Later on, while they were having their own dinner, they kept singing. We bought one of their CDs and play it often as a reminder of our trip.

Read David’s other blog posts about the Croatia trip!