Haunted San Francisco—The Atherton House

There’s nothing ominous about the house that sits at 1990 California Street, overlooking the intersection of California and Octavia.  In fact, it’s got a sunny disposition, with a bright yellow coat of paint and blue accents.  So, it came as a surprise to find out the house is haunted.

When I think of haunted houses, images come to mind of dark, mysterious homes with peeling paint and shutters akimbo.  You know the ones.  Each neighborhood has one.  The place that everyone talks about, where old Mrs. So-and-So died with her 50 cats.

One of the ghosts of the Atherton House centers around such a character.  In 1923, Carrie Rousseau, a single woman, bought the house, which was in disrepair at the time, and converted it into multiple apartments.  Taking unit 13 for herself, Ms. Rousseau reserved the adjoining apartment for her 50 cats.  When she died in 1974, at the age of 93, her cats stood in attendance.

However, there were accounts of paranormal activity while Carrie Rousseau was still alive.  Several tenants reported instances of rushing winds, when there were no windows open, and others were awakened by knocks on doors in the middle of the night.  One tenant fled his tower apartment upon seeing an apparition floating through his room.  After learning about the tragic history of the original owners, the tenants assumed they were being haunted by the spirit of George Atherton.

In the late 1880’s, Dominga Atherton, following the death of her oppressive husband, moved her ineffectual son, George, and scandalous daughter-in-law, Gertrude, into San Francisco from their farmhouse down on the peninsula.  Both women ran the roost.  Dominga, an immigrant from Chile, had a fiery disposition.  Gertrude was uncommonly independent for women of the time, bringing scandal to the family by writing racy novels.  And then there was George, who “barely had initiative to tie his own shoes.”

One night, the family hosted a dinner for visiting Chilean sailors.  Over the course of the evening, the sailors encouraged George to join them on their journey back home, an offer he eagerly accepted.  But the next morning, he began to doubt his decision, until Gertrude stepped in—wanting her husband off her coattails for several months—and goaded George into going, telling him that the respectable thing for him to do would be to stay in San Francisco and find a job.  George practically fled to the ship, but mere days into the trip, he died from kidney failure.  His body was returned to the Atherton home, pickled in a barrel of rum.  When the butler pried open the barrel, he said, “I know he’ll haunt me for the rest of my days.”

But decades later, when famed psychic, Sylvia Brown, held a session in the Atherton House, she only sensed three female spirits, who “just don’t like men.”  “One keeps saying, ‘This is my dwelling,’” she said.  With no proclaimed knowledge of the previous owners, Brown went on to describe these spirits using details that fit Dominga, Gertrude, and Carrie.  Right before ending her session, Brown felt a male presence, a pale and frail spirit.  Poor George is ineffectual even in death.

This story got me wondering about other homes in San Francisco.  Many of them are old.  Most of them are well-maintained.  How many of them have equally haunting histories?  If I did some digging around about my own home, an old Victorian, what kind of sordid past would I dig up?  Maybe it’s best if I just leave those ghosts alone.

Photo Journal–Lost Souls Cemetery

It’s no surprise that Halloween is a sacred holiday in San Francisco and the skeletons and jack-o-lanterns hanging from windows and front doors throughout the city attest to this.  But these people have taken it to an extreme, turning the front lawn of their home in Buena Vista Heights into the Lost Souls Cemetery.  On a typical day, this house is a foreboding presence with it’s dark brick walls looming over a yard fenced in with black wrought iron.  Add a cemetery to the mix and you get true creepiness–despite the jovial quips on the fake tombstone.

13 Haunted Places in San Francisco

It’s the final week ‘til Halloween and what better way to kick it off than with a list of thirteen of the most haunted places in San Francisco.  Though I have never encountered the paranormal, I love a creepy ghost story.  Something that raises the little hairs on the nape of the neck.  Here are some places you can go to get a fright.

1.      Alcatraz—The spirits of past inmates are still imprisoned here, chatting with each other in the mess hall and walking up and down the hallways.

2.      Stow Lake—A ghostly woman in white searches along the water’s edge for the toddler she lost in a boating accident.

3.      Haskell House—The ghost of Senator Broderick, who lost a duel in September 1859, paces the floorboards of this house in Fort Mason.

4.      San Francisco Columbarium—The apparition of a little girl stands watch over the cubby hole where her ashes rest.

5.      Cameron House—A number of Chinese immigrant women, who were hidden from being sold into prostitution in the basement, lost their lives during the 1906 earthquake but still haunt this Chinatown home.

6.      Queen Anne Hotel—Mary Lake, the old headmistress of this, once, girl’s school, is said to tuck guests into bed each night when they stay in her old room, room 410.

7.      Curran Theatre—The ghost of a ticket taker, killed during a robbery in the 1930’s, regularly appears in the large mirror in the entryway of this theatre.

8.      Sutro Baths—Restless spirits of people, who are said to have been sacrificed in the tunnel to the right of the ruins, toss candles lit at nightfall into the briny sea.

9.      The Mansions Hotel—In the older half of this hotel of mansions, guests have reported numerous accounts of paranormal activity, from weird noises to toilet seats flying across their rooms.

10.  Atherton Mansion—The angry spirits of Dominga Atherton and her daughter, Gertrude, still torment George’s weaker spirit.

11.  Whittier Mansion—The original owner, William Franklin Whittier, still hangs out in the basement of his mansion, completed in 1896.

12.  Safeway on 16th Street—In this grocery store that was built on the site of the old Seal’s Stadium, apparitions of baseball players roam the aisles.

13.   Hotel Union Square—Famed playwright Lillian Hellman is said to haunt room 207.

Haunted San Francisco–San Francisco Columbarium

“In the midst of life we are in death.”

Nowhere is this quote more poignant than in the San Francisco Columbarium, where it is inscribed beneath the stained glass window of an elegant woman.

The Columbarium, built in 1898, is the last fragment of a cemetery that once stretched for 167 acres into what is now the Inner Richmond neighborhood—a reminder that there were once numerous cemeteries within San Francisco, before pressure from city expansion forced officials to move all the bodies to Colma.  The Columbarium now stands majestically at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac, Loraine Court.  Its Neo-classical columns and patinaed copper dome tower over the nearby homes.

My reasons for visiting the San Francisco Columbarium were twofold.  A building devoted to housing cinerary urns—with over 8,000 niches lining four floors— was too interesting to pass up.  And the building is said to be haunted.

It has been reported that the caretaker, Emmitt Watson, speaks of the ghost of a little girl who haunts the building near the niche where her ashes remain sealed in her urn.  Another account tells of a woman who felt a hand on her back while visiting the Columbarium.  When she turned, no one was there, but a white hand print appeared on her shirt.

On my visit, I didn’t see a little girl’s ghost and I didn’t feel a hand on my back, though their accounts weighed on my mind.  However, I did experience a closeness to the departed that I’ve never felt in any cemetery.  Most of the niches in the round building are fronted with clear glass, granting full view of the urns, many dating back to the early 1900’s.  Most urns are brass; others are ornate porcelain.  One niche holds two ceramic Elvis Presley busts.  Several contain memorabilia exhibiting the interests and passions of those whose ashes are at rest: little figurines of cats and dogs, tiny bottles of vodka or whiskey, or favorite books.  The niches vary in size, some are large enough for an entire family, others are shoe-box size cubbyholes.  Empty niches, many of which are marked reserved, await Death’s next victims.

I went to the Columbarium in search of ghosts.  Though I didn’t encounter any, the closeness I felt to the deceased will haunt me forever.

Photo Journal–Treasure Island Music Festival

I took this photo at the Treasure Island Music Festival on Saturday.  In the center of the festival, the Pacific Art Collective set up several temporary walls for a group of mural artists to showcase their handiwork.  There were several great mini-murals, and I found this one particularly captivating.  As the sun set, this spooky painting seemed to glow in the darkness.  Appropriate for the Halloween season, don’t you think?

Photo Journal–Tonantsin Renace

I’ve walked by this mural–Tonantsin Renace (TonantsinReborn), by Colette Crutcher, at 16th and Sanchez–a thousand times easily; but, I never stopped to look at it.  This reincarnation of an original piece, La Madre Tonantsin, was done in 1998, and I guess in a city where there’s such a strong culture of murals, a culture that started in the Mission and has spread to other neighborhoods, it’s easy to understand why I’d walk by such a beautiful piece of art without stopping to gasp in amazement.

Today when I walked by, I made a point to stop.  I didn’t just stop.  I lingered, and I studied every inch of this mural.  But I have to admit, I don’t know what most of the symbols mean.  I can only guess that it’s a spiritual piece:  Tonantsin means Our Mother, and this goddess has the sun and the moon on either earlobe, like dangling hoop earrings.  However, my lack of understanding didn’t take away from the power of the mural.  This photo doesn’t do justice to its largesse.

If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend checking it out.  And if you know more about this piece, please feel free to share in the comments.

The Embarcadero–Something New and Something Old

I like nothing more than discovering something new.  Well, new to me anyway.  Last weekend, a typical warm spring day in the city, I decided to go for a walk along San Francisco’s waterfront.  Starting out from the Ferry Building, and after working my way through the bustling weekend Farmer‘s Market, I headed west along the Embarcadero, toward the Golden Gate Bridge.  Definitely a day’s walk, but I had Flat Stacey photos to finish taking.

Walking along, I noted all the changes taking place along the Embarcadero.  New restaurants.  Pier renovations.  Public promenades.  And as I approached Pier 17, I saw a new storefront and a sign above the window that read “TCHO Tasting Room.”  I wondered, what the heck is TCHO.  So, I went in.  Evidently, a chocolate factory has set up shop on Pier 17 and the small storefront serves as a tasting room/coffee shop/chocolate store.  Its just big enough for a small counter, where coffee and chocolate drinks are served and the free tasting chips are mounded on plates, two wire shelving units holding displays of packaged chocolate squares, and about six people.  The first thing to catch my eye was all the color in the room.  Each color represents a flavor on their Flavor Wheel: six flavors from Citrus (yellow) to Chocolaty (dark brown).  All their flavors are currently blended with dark chocolate, which is not a problem for me.  Dark’s my favorite.  But their beta version of a milk chocolate is available on their website.

I am excited about having a new chocolate factory in San Francisco.  The TCHO factory is in the pier behind the storefront.  The woman working the tasting room mentioned they will offer tours in the near future.  They pride themselves on making their chocolate from the bean, and carefully choosing the source, trying to promote social change.  So they’ve partnered with cacao growers to help incorporate best growing and harvesting practices.  And the care they put into the source reflects in the final product.  The chocolate tasted so fresh and it became smooth and creamy as it melted on my tongue.  They are definitely a welcome addition to the waterfront.

There have in fact been many changes along San Francisco’s waterfront.  It all started several years ago when the palm trees that line the Embarcadero were planted.  I remember thinking, why are they planting palm trees…in San Francisco…along there.  Back then, the Embarcadero, between Market Street and Pier 39, was a wasteland.  A stretch of road traversed mainly by tourists on their way to Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf or people who worked in the decrepit buildings that lined the water.  There was no reason to stop along the way.  Now many restaurants have popped up and piers are going through renovations, one by one.  I read that even the Exploratorium, which has long been housed at the Palace of Fine Arts, will be moving to Pier 15 in a few years, after some serious renovation.  Sketches of proposed changes are inspiring.

But upon approaching Pier 39, and then Fisherman’s Wharf beyond, the changes end.  Abruptly.  The shops along Pier 39 haven’t changed since I moved here 12 years ago, and I imagine since long before that.  The buildings and tacky storefronts along Fisherman’s Wharf are all circa 1950’s—featureless and without character.  It’s the land that time forgot.  Sure, droves of tourists still flock there.  It is the Wharf, world famous for steamed crabs and sourdough bowls filled with chowder.  And perhaps I’m a bit jaded because I live here, but I’m often embarrassed at the site of that area.  Its lack of character that is prevalent throughout most of the rest of the San Francisco.

Perhaps the change that is spreading out from the Ferry Building’s clock tower will eventually reach Fisherman’s Wharf.  Only time will tell.