When I moved to Mendocino in 1995, I lived in a fantastic two story Victorian with a water tower, built sometime before 1880. I was already a history buff and a fan of ghost stories, so when my mother-in-law started talking about sensing a “mysterious presence” at the top of the stairwell, I was over the moon. The stairwell was steep and narrow and had a door at the bottom that separated it from the living room. Every time I’d head up to the bedroom, I’d stop at the doorway, look up the painted wooden steps, and declare that I was coming up. I didn’t know if there was a ghost in the house, but I saw no harm in making sure I didn’t surprise it.
Mendocino is full of old houses and scary Gothic yarns. There are stories of loves lost at sea, lumbermen killed on the job, even jealous lovers seeking revenge. In the early days of Mendocino, living was hard and staying alive was also hard. I wanted ghost story details. To establish myself in town, I met with almost everyone who worked or lived here. I made friends with Kelley House docent and gardener, Martha Wagner, and we’d talk for hours about the history of the town.
One day, Martha handed me a copy of an article from The Mendocino Robin, a piece written by Laura Hopper Sankey about a phantom horse and rider that were once part of a coastal tribe until warriors from a valley tribe chased them into the ocean. The horse and rider vanished, only to be seen a week later, riding the crests of waves. Martha explained that she questioned the idea that local tribes went to war with each other, but she said that it might very well be the earliest ghost story told in Mendocino. That’s when I started to collect ghost stories.
The consensus in my own home was that the spirit within was female and she did not like other women. Multiple visitors tumbled down the steps claiming to have been pushed, and there was still that sensation of an angry disapproving presence at the top of the stairwell. I made trips back to the Kelley House, hoping to find some history on my house that might explain the possible spirit I was living with. I learned who built it, who lived there, and who played cards on the top floor of the water tower. I didn’t come up with satisfactory answers about the ghost, but I did find something more important: research into my own ghost led me to questions about ghosts elsewhere.
What else in Mendocino was haunted? Surely, the Mendocino Hotel had a spirit or ten. Wasn’t the Mac House home to a wraith or a ghastly apparition? These suppositions were both accurate and, with those discoveries, my interest in local ghost stories became greater.
It doesn’t matter to me whether ghosts exist or not. I’m fascinated by the stories. As a student of the past, I am expanding my knowledge of history passed down through an oral tradition. Ghost stories are a vehicle for us to learn about our history. They’re what drives us to keep learning more. I have collected over 100 ghost stories from across California, many of which haven’t been collected in books on the topic. Perhaps it’s time I write my own book, but in the meantime I can share some of my stories.
Since the spooky season is almost upon us, I’ll be giving a Haunted Mendocino walking tour on October 28th at 5 pm. The tour will be between one and two hours long and will stretch across the streets of our beautiful little coastal town. Tickets cost $25 and can be purchased on the Kelley House website.
I hope you’ll join me to hear my ghost stories and even share some of your own; that is… if you dare.
The Kelley House Museum is open from 11AM to 3PM Thursday through Monday. If you have a question for the curator, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to make an appointment. Walking tours of the historic district depart from the Kelley House regularly.