Were one to find oneself dropped
unceremoniously into the middle of Sacramento, it would look
much the same as Los Angeles. Souped-up cars vie for space along
"cruising" avenues, the same chains of discount stores
and fast food vendors are everywhere.
If, however, one were to hop
onto a convenient freeway (yep, they have those too) and head
Due East, a very different world would soon reveal itself. Slowly
the terrain would rise and fall like waves of grain, forming
ever larger hills sporting fewer and fewer signs of human interference,
and soon the road itself would narrow, as if acknowledging its
lesser power here in a world as yet not made over by humankind,
and tall trees would gradually take control of the surroundings,
and finally one would find oneself in the middle of a forest
primeval, driving through mountains and trees and a terrain of
towering heights and perilous depths, bathed all the while by
the warm California summer sun so that all glowed with a . .
. golden light.
You would have just entered
It is an eerie thing, to return
now to the roots of "Anglo" California, to that land
that so inflamed the greed of a Nation that we felt impelled,
against the wishes of politicians such as Abraham Lincoln, to
take the land by force. Once ten thousand souls fought and cursed
and drank and died and occasionally struck it rich in these quiet
hills - now it is almost as if the Gold Rush had never happened,
as only a skeletal remnant of that robust population remains.
More often than not, those
who tarry here tend to the past, to the artifacts and still standing
buildings that bear mute testimony to those wild years. What
do they see, one wonders, these descendants of the Forty Niners?
Do the walls and headstones and rocks remember those Glory Days?
Do the few remaining mansions of old, now converted to stores
and Bed & Breakfast Inns, remember?
The great lore and history
of the place stands just out of reach - very real and yet incredibly
remote, and one finds oneself wishing the walls could speak.
And sometimes they do . . .
My wife and I had spent the
day rafting on the American River. We had passed the very spot
where gold was first discovered, getting thoroughly soaked in
the process, and were now desirous of food and rest. We chanced
upon an old mansion that was now known as the Vineyard House,
and settled down to enjoy a magnificent meal. A waitress three
tables over was carrying on a rather animated conversation with
a couple, and the occasional word would drift over as occasional
words are wont to do.
Only this time, one of those
words was "Seance".
Now, most of you know me through
this column well enough to correctly imagine my reaction. The
Vineyard House had been standing since around 1850 - if any place
deserved to be haunted . . . you get the idea. Needless to say
I immediately set to work unraveling the tale.
The house was built by Robert
and Louise Chalmers. They had made their money, as had so many
others, not by digging for gold but by selling goods to the tens
of thousands of prospectors that swarmed over the mountains in
those days. It took a long time to build, and was completed in
At this point in time Robert
Chalmers began to lose it, as the expression goes. He began to
speak only in whispers, and suffered premonitions to the point
that he would check out every freshly dug grave to see if it
would fit him. He eventually became a raving lunatic, and died
chained by his wife to a wall in the basement of his mansion,
having starved himself to death in the belief that she was trying
to poison him.
Immediately the crops began
to fail, and the business dealings turned sour, and by 1890 Louise
Chalmers was only a renter at the estate she once ruled. The
basement had been turned into a jail to provide additional income.
Among the prisoners who thus
now joined her in "residence" were a schoolteacher
who had murdered one of his students, and a common highwayman.
Both were to leave the house only to be hanged - the teacher
reportedly reciting poetry as he ascended the scaffold to his
doom . . .
Louise had hit bottom. Only
a few years before she had presided over the emerging social
elite of the Mother Lode country - throwing many a party at the
Vineyard House (which boasted a ninety foot ballroom, among other
things). The Chalmers had been honored for the wines they produced,
her husband had once been among the governing elite of California,
and indeed Ulysses S. Grant had once made a speech from the very
steps of the house!
All that was gone by the turn
of the century. Decay had come to the Vineyard House, decay that
announced itself with every creak of every abandoned door, with
every crash of some neglected shutter . . . No abundance of crops
now kept the chill Northern California wind from having its mournful
way with the all too still interiors of the nearly deserted domicile.
Such was the state of things
when Louise Chalmers died, alone, in 1900. The house was now
put up for sale in earnest, and sold again and again. For some
reason, no one seemed to want it for very long. There were reports
of unaccountable noises, of things that could not quite
be explained . . .
One of the last people to try
to inhabit the site as a private dwelling abruptly packed and
left in the middle of the night, and refused to his dying day
to discuss what he had seen in the accursed place.
So it was that the former home
of California Gold Country Society was turned into an Inn in
1956. It seemed reasonable to expect that, with the influx of
groups of loud, noisy, alive people, things would settle down
It did not particularly reassure
the new owner to find a cache of old coffins hidden under the
front porch of the mansion.
Nevertheless, the Vineyard
House has been owned and operated as an Inn for the past 33 years,
with hardly a mishap. It just goes to show you that spirits seem
to be at their best in areas of relative solitude . . . in the
cold . . . in the dark . . .
There may be a few
of you new to these pages who are wondering what exactly is going
on! Indeed, I myself had to question the validity of allowing
a Halloween-style ghost story to overlap into our Christmas issue.
After all, what does a ghost story have to do with the Yuletide
"A Christmas Carol",
in addition to its perennial position as Christmas story non-pareil,
is also probably the earliest ghost story most of you will be
able to recall. Christmas was, for Dickens, chiefly an excuse
allowing him to bring a new tale of the supernatural into the
For many years he continued
this practice, expanding his hobby to accommodate an entire magazine
devoted to the collecting and publishing of ghost stories! We
all look back with fondness at Cratchet, Fezziwig, and little
Tiny Tim, but I believe Mr. Dickens' fondest memories were reserved
for the grim, animated shroud that foretold Christmas Yet to
Come, and perhaps the horrifying visage of Jacob Marley, dead
seven years and as ghastly a chain rattler as ever there was
. . .
No, the true Victorian Christmas
celebration was never thought complete without a gathering around
the fire some dark holiday night, revelers all still with eyes
wide and trained upon the story teller, whose solemn task it
was to scare the living daylights out of one and all . . .
And so I feel somewhat justified
in my little tale, as if perhaps - what's that? You don't feel
quite satisfied with my story? You think perhaps there was more
to it than I've let on?
Balderdash! Stuff and nonsense!
What sort of things do you expect could possibly happen in an
old house with a history like that?
Of course, there WAS the matter
of the doorknob that was seen to turn of its own volition - with
no one on the other side. Then there were the several reports
of invisible footsteps loudly ascending the main staircase .
Come to think of it, guests
over the years have reported such things as the sounds of chains
rattling, skirts rustling, and heavy breathing.
But don't take my word for
it - the Vineyard House is in the middle of some of the most
beautiful country in California, and seems a great place to stay.
Of course, you may not want to dine directly under the chandelier
in the Dining Room - two weeks before we visited the house it
had come crashing down without warning - fortunately only onto
an empty table.
Of course, if you should decide
to stay there, it would be prudent to be patient with late night
revelers. One couple, angry at having their sleep disturbed,
threw open their door and remonstrated with the three men whooping
it up outside to "take it somewhere else".
At which point the three men
slowly faded from sight . . .