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[whitespace] Brookdale Lodge
Photo courtesy of the Museum of Art and History

Ghosts, Food, Lodging: Brookdale Lodge remains a favorite haunt for 'Sarah,' a restless spirit who drowned in Brookdale's creek more than 50 years ago.

Suburban Legends

It should come as no surprise that local Santa Cruz lore boasts a slew of curses, hauntings, freaks and creature features

By Mary Spicuzza

HE HUSHED his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "You know, I've heard there's a Native American curse on Santa Cruz. I guess all male-female relationships here are doomed," an ex-boyfriend once told me.

Within 30 seconds, I was able to trace the source of this supposedly ancient legend--a frustrated male friend who hadn't had a date since the Summer of Love. I laughed it off, mentioning that I've heard American Indians blamed for just about any local ailment--from residents perpetually trapped in town to young people doomed to wander aimlessly until they turn 30 years old.

But when I jokingly mentioned this story to local historian Phil Reader, he set me straight pretty quick.

"Oh, but there is a curse," Reader says, explaining that a giant portion of local oral tradition is devoted to the famous jinx.

Santa Cruz isn't alone in its countless urban--or suburban--legends. Just about everyone has heard rumors of surprise organ removals, sociopathic hitchhikers and parents' most-feared phone call, "Have you checked the children?" And those television junkies who remember Life Cereal's Mikey may also recall tales of his untimely demise in a freak tragedy involving Pop Rocks and Coca-Cola.

But unlike Mikey (who's alive and well, and even made a guest cereal-box appearance) and many other urban myths, most of Santa Cruz's suburban legends come with some basis in reality. Calls to old-timers, local gossips and oral historians quickly confirmed that whether it's ghosts on vendetta float-bys, birds falling from the sky, savage sea monsters, mad men of the mountains or Hitchcock-inspiring haunted houses, Santa Cruz proves to be a vortex for a wide range of wandering spirits.

With the map of Santa Cruz reading like a ghostly guide to the bizarre, perhaps the greatest local mystery is whether odd folks are inexplicably drawn here--or just freak out once they arrive.

Bone Yard

LOCALS HAVE uncovered at least three known burial grounds of Santa Cruz's first natives, and most are rumored to contain some mighty angry spirits. The most famous cursed lands lie in the Potrero district off River Street, stretching from the Evergreen Cemetery to Costco. Here a young American Indian was put to death for standing up to his elders, according to local lore.

"With his dying breath, he cursed the tribe, saying he would forever haunt them," according to an old Spanish woman named Mother Chapar.

It was there a fierce group of Yachicumne Indians from Stockton invaded Santa Cruz and attacked the unsuspecting local Ohlones. Mother Chapar and others told tales of walking from Portrero to Mission Hill without ever stepping on the ground, because so many skulls and bones covered the earth.

Since the slaughter, more than 20 mysterious deaths have occurred in the Portrero area. Here a teen named Ida Wells took a small tumble out of a carriage and broke her neck in 1892, and four years later a young bride named Lucy Santiago was standing in her doorway--preparing to leave for the wedding chapel--when a rock from a far-away explosion struck her on the head, shattering her skull. Portrero has also hosted numerous lynchings, strange robberies and mysterious murders throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

"Do I think that the evil spirit of the San Lorenzo still exists?" Mother Chapar once mused. "I don't know. I leave that for the white man who studies the supernatural to explain."

Haunted Honeymoon

JUST ACROSS the river from the cursed lands of the Costco Hills one can find the stomping grounds of another one of Santa Cruz's oldest ghosts, known as the White Lady. This glowing maiden arrived on the scene in the 1870s, when an old German drunkard sent away for a mail-order bride from Massachusetts and received a beautiful young girl. They married shortly afterward and settled in his tiny house on the hill overlooking Ocean Street Extension, near what is now The Last Supper shroud museum.

The story goes that the old lush got drunk every night and forced his bride to wear her wedding dress. Then he would beat her mercilessly. When she told friends of her plans to leave him, he found out and beat her to death, decapitated her, then burned down their house with her body in it.

Immediately after she disappeared, hordes of people began reporting apparitions of a glowing ghost wearing a wedding gown. According to one report, the ghost hurled an ax at one boy's head--although historian Carolyn Swift says that "White Lady" was most notorious as a make-out spot.

A decaying cement slab of a little house still sits on the hill along Ocean Street Extension. Believers say that the White Lady still floats along the road from the cemetery to Paradise Park Masonic Club looking for revenge.

Arm and the Man

JUST AS THE White Lady began making her postmortem appearances, the north coast started experiencing some mysteries of its own. In the 1870s, when bears still roamed the Santa Cruz forests, a mama bear attacked man-about-town William Waddell when he and his hunting dog got too close to her cub. The bear mangled Waddell's arm so severely that a local doctor had to amputate it. The limb was then buried in a north coast meadow. The famous pioneer died shortly afterward, but when mourners tried to find the arm for poor Waddell's funeral, it had disappeared.

For years residents as well as people passing near Waddell Creek, on what is now Highway 1, would mysteriously lose things. Whether it be a pie cooling near an open window or a traveler's lingerie, people suspected the missing limb. So many things disappeared that stagecoach drivers would always warn passengers gathered around the campfire on foggy nights to keep a close watch for the sticky fingers of William Waddell's arm.

Shearwater Terror

SANTA CRUZ'S BIZARRE vortex isn't limited to the human realm--even feathered friends have freaked out flying above our coast. On Aug. 18, 1961, the Eastside neighborhoods stretching from Pleasure Point to Rio Del Mar hosted a mysterious invasion of sooty shearwater seabirds.

Residents awoke in the middle of the night to find hundreds of birds slamming into their homes. Those who ran outside with flashlights or tried to escape in cars were attacked as hordes of birds flew toward the lights. By dawn the streets were littered with hundreds of birdie bodies.

Because the shearwaters had just eaten, disgorged bits of fish skeletons and an "overpowering fishy stench" also covered the Eastside, according to witnesses. The wayward creatures smashed countless windows, bit at least eight people and commanded the attention of Alfred Hitchcock, who kept a summer home in Scotts Valley. He directed his classic The Birds just a few years later, and it contains a memorable mini-monologue about the events in Santa Cruz.

Some attributed the sooty shearwaters' freak flight of fancy to a heavy fog; others claimed that a rare toxin in the bay triggered the phenomenon, but no one could say for sure what caused the attack. Two truckloads of bird bodies were gathered and destroyed, but some shearwaters did survive. Maybe it's their descendants tormenting residents of Aptos and Capitola, who still complain of strange encounters with bonzai birds attacking their homes.

McCray Hotel
Photo courtesy of the Museum of Art and History

Stir of Echoes: The old McCray Hotel on Beach Hill, Alfred Hitchcock's inspiration for his Bates Mansion in Psycho, boasts a sordid history of Satanists, drug dealers and angry ghosts.

Bates and Switch

NOW FRONT STREET'S Sunshine Villa Assisted Living retirement home, the old McCray Hotel once sat abandoned on Beach Hill for almost a decade. The known history of the property begins in the 1860s, when the wealthy Kittredge family built a mansion and sprawling garden across the property. But legends say that the Ohlone Indians performed regular rituals there, thanking the sun for its daily return.

The property changed hands continuously for almost a century, the old Victorian crumbling more with each new owner. While abandoned, drug dealers and Satanists seeking ritual spots flocked to the hotel, according to police reports. After new owners transformed the mansion into the McCray Hotel in the 1960s, their son Charles Kilpatrick began seeing ghosts. The house also spooked Alfred Hitchcock, who used the McCray as inspiration for the Bates Mansion in Psycho.

New owners set out to give the troubled home a face-lift in the mid-80s, and removed all traces of the house's twisted past. But Sunshine Villa housekeepers and staff members have since reported cold presences, mysterious blue lights and the voices of women calling from the shadows.

Ghost Train

FOR YEARS, locals have looked to the Santa Cruz Mountains with a combination of awe and terror. For all the beauty of their redwood forests, the hills supposedly host a large percentage of Santa Cruz's satanic rituals, methamphetamine labs and murders. The numerous bodies found in the mountains suggest that, once again, there's often truth in legend.

At Felton's Roaring Camp Railroad, hikers recently found human remains, completely intact except for the pelvic region. Nobody knows for sure whether it was a man or a woman, but since last year's find, trains on night excursions keep stalling exactly where the body was found. And conductors have repeatedly seen a woman crossing the tracks, each time bringing the train to a screeching halt, only to find no one there.

Old Man of Monterey Bay
Photo courtesy of the Museum of Art and History

Something Fishy: Unlike some less-fortunate sea monsters, Santa Cruz's infamous Old Man of Monterey Bay always managed to evade the nets of local fishermen.

Old Man of Monterey Bay

Some of our greatest legends started at sea. Shortly after World War II, fishermen sailing the waters south of the wharf first spotted a strange sea monster, known as the Old Man of Monterey Bay. Longtime local Robert Stagnaro never saw it, but he says his brothers encountered it many times. And lifetime fisherman Victor Ghio says he first came across the Old Man when he was a little boy and saw it for years afterward.

"There were all kinds of sightings. It always stayed in the same spot, bobbing up and down," Ghio recalls. "It seemed like it had a home there or something."

Ghio, who still goes out to sea almost daily, says he hasn't seen the creature in 35 to 40 years. And he believes it was only a sea elephant. But nobody seems to know why the creature took a liking to his particular spot, what exactly it was and what really happened to the Old Man of Monterey Bay.

Brookdale Lodge

BUILT IN 1923, the beautiful Brookdale Lodge nestled between Ben Lomond and Boulder Creek has had its share of frightening visitors. A getaway for the rich and famous throughout the 1940s, the lodge drew guests ranging from Joan "Mommy Dearest" Crawford and Rita Hayworth to President Herbert Hoover.

But "Sarah" is undoubtedly Brookdale's most famous guest. Sarah, a niece of the first lodge owner, drowned in the hotel's creek, which still flows through the dining room. According to guests, she began making ghostly appearances during the end of hotel's heyday.

After Sarah's premiere appearances, a series of tragedies struck the hotel. A fatal fire in 1952 was followed by disastrous floods in 1955, then another blaze. Visitors still report hearing voices calling to guests, glasses shattering by themselves, and big-band tunes echoing through empty rooms--and seeing a mysterious young girl wandering the halls in '40s fashions.

"The thing that has always impressed me is that this is nothing new," Phil Reader says. "Strange things have been going on since the beginning of Santa Cruz's written history."


Metro Santa Cruz would like to thank the following for their contributions to our slice of local lore: Sgt. Steve Clark of SCPD, Dee Craft, Harry Ferrari, Victor Ghio, Ross Eric Gibson, Rachel McKay, Phil Reader, Robert Stagnaro and Carolyn Swift.

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From the September 22-29, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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