As a young teenager growing up on J Street in Benicia, I found myself inexorably drawn to the waterfront. Eager to ditch my parents but not quite driving age, I frequently embarked on meandering evening walks between home and First Street, spending time along the way contemplating gently lapping waves from various rocky perches. Some of my favorite haunts were the boat yard and the old Jurgensen’s Saloon at the end of First Street, before it was moved a few blocks north and restored for use as retail space. I had heard that Jack London used to drink there (I found out while researching for this article that he resided in a houseboat on the waterfront), and I wasn’t the only teen who yearned to gain entry in spite of the boarded up windows. These parts of town held an aura of romantic and almost forlorn living history, which appealed to the theatrical drama of my age. As I wandered through town I envisioned the coalescence of inebriated poets, ‘ladies of the night,’ robber barons, gold miners, sailors and adventure-seekers. There were times I could almost feel, almost see these figures rushing past me, as if their experiences made such a strong imprint on the fabric of time that they kept repeating themselves, just out of reach.
Yes, I have an active imagination. But I wasn’t too far off—Benicia’s boisterous history can’t be denied. If you think it’s a happening place now, imagine laying eyes on the first handful of gold discovered, imagine the dust clouds left by Pony Express riders, imagine river boats and ferry boats, naval ships and ships of industry depositing a daily potpourri of travelers. Do you know that in the 1870’s Benicia housed the largest ferry ever built—2000 horsepower and more than 3500 tons—that was fashioned to buck whole trains across the bay? The ferry brought so many people to the area that it put itself out of business in 1929 when the railroad bridge was built. The town’s infrastructure blossomed so rapidly in the 1800’s it was dubbed the “Athens of Greece.” Not that it didn’t have humble beginnings—in 1847, before Benicia’s first birthday, the Solano Hotel was erected on First and F Streets. The saloon’s bar required holes drilled to accommodate the buffalo horns used in the absence of glassware. The hotel itself served as a boarding house and later a house of prostitution, before it was razed by fire in 1931. Benicia was a hotbed of crime in its Wild West days. According to solanoarticles.com, “a thief stole three lengths of rusty stove pipe from J.W. Jones, who operated the store that sold books and stationary. Newspapers advised their readers to guard their stove pipes, as the thief no doubt was intent on erecting a stove for the winter season.” Present day Benicians can feel blessed not to have to abide such barbarous felony.
But the past persists—many colorful characters may yet be perceived, in spectral form. Eleanor Walsh, late wife of Captain Walsh, long roamed the rooms of the former Captain Walsh House Bed and Breakfast. The Union Hotel has experienced repetitive ghoulish activity from a young woman who hung herself in one of the rooms. She often appears at dusk in a hotel window, and may be heard crying and talking to herself at night. An O Street resident reported a gentleman in a checkered suit, who frequently appeared then disappeared in her home. When she learned that her neighbor had seen him too, they concluded the gentleman was circa 1800’s, because of his shoes. Owners of an 1850’s-built downtown residence report that the original owner, who drowned himself in the straights, has been attached to the house ever since, and makes his presence known periodically by moving household objects around.
For this small, representative handful, armloads of other supernatural sightings and happenings occur regularly in Benicia. Ask those brave souls who have attended our town’s popular monthly ghost walks, where one can meet ghoulish children, a Pony Express rider who still brings the mail, a ladies-man ghost and more.
Opinions vary widely as to the actual actual existence and nature of ghosts. Are they spirits of the deceased that missed the boat to the after-life and are doomed to repeat the actions of their former existence in a limbo-like state between being and non-being? Can all supernatural sightings be explained away rationally? Many do have common threads. Sightings are often accompanied by some kind of electronic interference—lights dimming repeatedly, phone lines crackling—temperature change such as a breeze or sudden chill, and sounds—rapping, tapping, crying, whispers, footsteps, etc. Ghosts may appear clear as day, but often they glimmer and fade, becoming thin, wispy and floaty, even passing through walls. Many ghost’s humanly ends were tainted with violence. Some believers site violent death as a reason a soul may get stuck—they must repeat the action until they are able to break the pattern by forgiving themselves or whoever perpetrated the act of cruelty.
Bona fide or imagined, their popularity spikes this time of year. Haunted houses and scary stories are Halloween traditions—with good reason—this holiday, like many, has its roots in earlier celebrations. The pre-Christian European holiday, Samhain (pronounced sow-an), on October 31, marked the final harvest of the season, the ritual slaughtering of animals to feed the village through the winter, and the lighting of each family’s hearth for the coming winter from a communal bonfire. Each villager walked between two bonfires in a symbolic purification ritual; and masked, costumed dancers imitated departed spirits in attempt to placate them through impending winter darkness. These customs were later incorporated in the Catholic All Souls Day. Similarly, the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos entwines aspects of the Catholic holiday and pre-Catholic Latin rituals of paying homage to deceased loved ones.
Perhaps Benicia’s supernatural aspect can be attributed to the anomaly of its existence. Imagine the bare hills and windy straights before 1847. No doubt a peaceful, quiet existence for the native population that roamed the land and the flora and fauna that thrived here. Then a fire pushed west, a fervor that became a frenzy the night James Marshall held out a handful of gold for Mr. and Mrs. Robert Semple to see. A mix of location and luck turned Benicia into a metropolis overnight. Perhaps our ghost sightings are merely the imprint of a time that couldn’t quite handle itself, that doesn’t quite realize it’s over and continues to careen drunkenly into the present. At fifteen, as I searched for meaning outside my family, I sensed Benicia’s living history in it’s old buildings and gentle waves.
Suppose for a moment that ghosts really are stuck entities. Putting myself in a pair of ghoulish shoes, I guess it would satisfy me to have my presence—spectral as it may be—acknowledged. Perhaps Halloween is a ghost’s favorite holiday.