San Francisco's modern history doesn't go very far back. Most people would date the real beginning back to the Gold Rush that hit it's peak in 1849 (of course I'm well aware that there was plenty of action going on in the area for millenia before!). I've owned cutlery that's older than that! Nevertheless not only has San Francisco built up an interesting history of characters over it's short life, it also seems to have picked up a few otherworldly residents too.
Sadly a lot of the stories appear to be ill disguised urban myths. I'm not saying that most ghosts stories are not urban myths. But most hide it a little better than those from San Francisco!
Headless Man On The Bay Bridge
On the 17th of October 1989 an earthquake rocked San Francisco and evidence of this is still easily visible around the Bay. But did it leave more than just physical scars? Could this be the cause of an apparition that supposedly now haunts the San Francisco - Oakland Bay Bridge? During the Loma Prieta earthquake a section of the Bay Bridge collapsed and one person lost their life. Did their spirit stick around long after the rescue crews had left?
Late night drivers on the bridge's lower deck say that when driving across the bridge late at night they hear a tapping on their side window and sometimes when they turn to look they find a headless body running, and keeping pace, alongside their car.
Do I believe it? Hmm... my sceptic hat says no... Far too urban myth like. I can't find any sources except for some forums from "witnesses" but I can't exactly trust them now can I?!
The Ghost Ship Of San Francisco Bay
The ghost ship has been sighted on "many occasions" according to the sources I read, most of whom point to the SS Tennessee as the originator of apparition.
The SS Tennessee was a steamer ship which brought thousands of gold-seekers to the City. On the 6th of March 1853 she sunk just outside of the San Francisco's always foggy headlands, in an area now known as Tennessee Cove. Though the ship was lost all the passengers, baggage and mail were rescued, and as such it seems an unlikely candidate for the ever popular title of "ghost ship".
Some stories told of the ship attempt to make it "spookier" (as if the apparition of a sunken ship was scary in itself!) by claiming all hands aboard were lost. This is a lie, as can be seen from this contemporary report. 3 people did die but not from the sinking but more likely from exposure and stress setting off previously known of conditions.
A famous sighting occurred when the U.S.S. Kennison passed an unusual vessel in the straights, which didn't appear on their radar, on the morning of September 15, 1942. One of the better sites (who does not reference the Tennessee might I add!) describes the incident thus:
It was cutting through the fog toward the Golden Gate Bridge, when seaman Howard H. Brisbane heard a series of faint hissing noises from his watch station, followed by creaking and popping sounds. As the morning fog lifted, Brisbane began to see a ship.
"It wasn't just any ship," Brisbane said. "It was an old-fashioned sailing ship, the kind with two masts and lots of rigging." He went on to say that it appeared to be unmanned, and that "She was unpainted, and the rigging was clearly dilapidated. "She was under full, but ragged, sail."
He called other sailors to come see the strange sight, and torpedoman Jack Cornelius informed the bridge about the strange ship. The event was noted and the ships log and forgotten, although the phantom schooner still makes an occasional appearance in the bay.
Based on his description, and also the supposed reference to the Balclutha in some 911 calls reporting a ship loose in the bay, I'd suggest this apparition (if of ghostly origin or not) is definitely not the SS Tennessee. Take a look at the picture on this page and you'll see the ship was quite clearly not as described above.
That's not to say a ghostly ship doesn't haunt the Golden Gate. But if it does I'm sure it's story is far more tragic than the rather unexciting sinking of the Tennessee.
But that isn't the only ghost ship mentioned in San Francisco (given the amount of old ships lying in the bay and around the headlands this is hardly a surprise!) check out the ghost ship Squando
I'll be writing a post totally about Ghost Ships at some point in the future, because they fascinate me... especially the real ones! Yes, Dear Reader, there really are "ghost" ships out there but they might not be quite what you are thinking of...
Phantom Cow of Yerba Buena Island
It's one of those stories you can't pass up. I saw it here:
Before California became a state, however, Yerba Buena Island was known for its phantom cow, which could be seen wandering the island mooing mournfully. Supposedly the story goes that the cow's calf was butchered and devoured by pirates. The cow now sorrowfully roams the island searching for its lost eaten calf.
I couldn't find mention of it anywhere else, but I don't care if it's true or not. It is just a great little story. Plus in my searchings I did come across another bovine related story of Yerba Buena! Check out... the Bull Patrol!
Goat Island became a favorite resort for holiday-makers and at times they were a tax on the Dowlings. However, an ingenious device for keeping off intruders was adopted, by allowing a bull, with a marked antipathy for strangers to range about the island. His presence, together with his reputation had the desired effect. Finally the bull became a menace to those living on the island and a hunting party was organized to despatch him. Not finding him for a time, the party divided and one of the divisions came upon him suddenly in an open path. The situation was dangerous, but not without humor, the six sportsmen, armed to the teeth, taking refuge in the upper branches of neighboring trees. But in their haste, they dropped their weapons and these the bull trampled into uselessness. However, that evening Taurus was ingloriously noosed and executed in cold blood. A reminder of this terror of the island remains in the doggerel:
"On Goat Island's secret shore
Many's the hour we've whiled away
Listening to the breaker's roar,
Which haunts the beach, both night and day
When we landed on the isle,
Dowling met us with a smile,
And his bull gave us a roar
As we left Goat Island's shore."
And on that note, this post has gotten mighty long and I think the tales of the Ghost of San Francisco will have to rest and I'll come back to them another day...
For all your San Francisco history needs go to Sparkletack. It's just plain great.
Ghost Hunter's Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area - Jeff Dwyer