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For The Ghosts, Step Right Over Here

01 October 2014 Written by  Stephanie Dourgarian
Published in October 2014 Articles

Halloween is the appropriate time to remind people that East County is a spookier place than most residents realize.

My friend, Amy Schrader, and I have been drawing people’s attention to the fact by conducting weekly Ghost Tours in some of the more spiritually active locations in this part of the county. We use K-2 EMF meters that search electromagnetic frequencies for the emissions that spirits supposedly emit. The meters are able to detect a spirit when its presence breaks the field immediately in front of the meter. We also use Electro Voice Phenomenon (EVP) recorders that search for spirit-generated sounds on different frequencies than a human ear can hear, listening for those other voices that spirits use for communication.

When Amy and I set out to become authorities on the topic of East County hauntings, one of the best sources for our research turned out to be local business owners. Many of the stories we were collecting revolved around people and events associated with buildings in downtown Brentwood and Byron. The business owners have been fabulous! Peter, the owner of Sweeney’s Restaurant, introduced us to an amazing location. The lovely and gracious restaurant and bar areas have been recently remodeled. However, only a few feet below the beautiful public spaces lies a world of dusty intrigue. Sweeney’s occupies one of Brentwood’s oldest structures and, duringProhibition, a series of tunnels were dug connecting Sweeney’s building, which was a saloon and a gathering place for women of ill-repute, with a structure on the other side of the street. Tunnels permitted the free flow of bootleg booze and prostitutes between the two buildings, eluding any police or revenue officers that might be looking for them.

Peter let us go into the old tunnel area. We descended through a trap door in one of his back rooms and dropped into a dark, dusty, and spooky dirt passageway that provided access to the tunnel entrances. The dust was so heavy that we could have worn respirators to keep our airways clear. The passageway was low, forcing us to get down in the dust and creep forward on hands and knees. The part of the tunnel that actually goes beneath the street has been closed off. However, we were also able to gain access to the entrance at the other end of the tunnel.

You can easily believe that some spaces in that area are the habitat of restless spirits. In fact, we’ve met some of them and, in particular, have made the acquaintance of an important but shady historical character, named Joe Rolando, who was the original owner of a large saloon and other businesses that formerly occupied an entire downtown city block. He was gunned down in the back of his saloon. Joe often shows up on our tours and likes to speak to us, using our spirit box to tell us actual words. We learned that Joe is fond of whisky, which was no surprise, but that he also likes ice cream, which we hadn’t expected.

Old Town Byron is perhaps the most powerful point of contact for encountering spirits. The Wild Idol Saloon was the site of a number of violent deaths and murders. However the main area where spirits seem to congregate is at a point on the nearby railroad track where, on December 17, 1902 a swiftly moving train, the Stockton Flyer, smashed into the back of a stationary passenger train, called the Owl Express. Twenty-seven people perished at that point, with an untold number of other deaths on the way to the hospital in the primitive conveyances available at that time. We’ve had numerous conversations with some of the spirits. We often speak with the spirit of a young mother, named Penelope, who had come with her baby to the railroad station to meet her husband who was arriving on the Owl Limited; he was one of the 27 people who perished. For the first time, we recently contacted the doctor, named Dr. Bird, who attended the wounded and dying.

One of our methods of communicating with spirits is with a set of copper dowsing rods that are sensitive to the surrounding electromagnetic fields. The spirits are seemingly able to affect the fields, permitting us to hold the rods loosely in our hands while we engage them in conversations, which consist of us asking questions to which they are able to move the rods in response. A side-to-side movement of the rods indicates a “no” answer; crossing them over each other indicates a “yes.”

I’m not as sensitive to the “other side” as some people are. On various occasions, three genuine sensitives have joined our tours. All of them were good about not injecting their own opinions into our presentations and trying to grab attention. However, they answered our questions and provided an uncanny and seemingly undeniable validation of our facts. Because of the focus of spiritual energies they could detect, they independently identified the exact same spot on the railroad line as being the point of impact on that sad long-ago December day. They each came on different days and I don’t think they even knew each other, so there was no chance they were perpetuating some kind of hoax.

Our Brentwood tours include visits to the All Inked Up Bookstore, where our meters often indicate the presence of spirits. A sensitive who was with us on the tour once said, “Ask about the little girl.” When we asked about “the little girl,” our equipment went crazy and we discovered the presence of a little girl spirit. Now we bring a doll with us on our visits to the bookstore, place one of our meters on the doll, and invite her to play. Almost every time the meter lights up brightly.

We are women of faith. People sometimes think that there must be something fundamentally wrong with what we see in our meters and in the shadows, but we’re perfectly at ease because the fact is we have no worldview or system of belief that explains all of this. It is what it is. We find the phenomena fascinating and entertaining but don’t find anything we can use to create a system of belief.

There are malevolent spirits, I suppose, but I’ve never run into anything that seemed terrifying. If I ever feel that something is not right, I just shut it down. I listen to myself. That happened once in Virginia City but really hasn’t happened around here. We have a healthy skepticism ourselves about mystic phenomena. There’s a popular belief in the presence of an energy field surrounding individuals that can be detected by photographs that show orbs and balls of

light surrounding the subject that is taken to be the manifestation of energy or spirits. I imagine the real explanation in each case is much more prosaic — dust or moisture on the lens, perhaps, or reflections. Cameras are unpredictable. I have, however, seen a few pictures in which some shape in the background is blurred because it was apparently moving. These perhaps actually captured something.

Our husbands are rational and skeptical about what we do, but they support us. They understand our interests and the good things that come out of our tours.

I’ve always been drawn to the mystical, supernatural side of life and have been interested in ghosts since a ghostly experience I had as a teenager while visiting my best friend at her house in San Ramon. I was sleeping alone in the downstairs bedroom when, in the middle of the night, I was awakened by a movement in the hallway outside my room. I could clearly see through the open doorway of my bedroom a man walking across the hallway, into the bathroom, and closing the door behind him. The appearance surprised me because I had thought that my friend, her mom, and I were the only occupants of the house. However, I didn’t think much of the incident and went back to sleep.

The next morning when I mentioned the strange man to my friend and her mother they just said, “Oh, you saw Grandpa.” My friend’s grandfather, who had been dead for years, had occupied the room where I was staying. Neither of the women were surprised or upset by the appearance; Grandpa apparently stopped by from time-to-time to pay a visit.

Five years ago Amy and I were invited to go ghost hunting with friends to Virginia City, location of the famous Comstock Lode. I fell in love with Virginia City almost immediately because it was like stepping back in time. The Old Town is a single street with a wooden boardwalk and lined by ancient buildings. The town is famous both for its mining history and for a multitude of ghosts that hang around the city streets and the public buildings that were new and bustling with life when the spirits supposedly still inhabited living bodies. Virginia City is a good location because in its heyday it was a lawless place where people were routinely killed over poker hands, women, or nothing.

We arrived about 11:00 in the morning. The first thing we did was to check out the notorious Washoe Club, which had been a popular place of entertainment. A saloon on the first floor provided whiskey, poker, and floozies for the laborers who came in following a hard day’s work in the mines.

The second floor was the site of a gentlemen’s club that catered to local millionaires offering them better quality liquor, higher-stakes gambling, and classier women. In the 1960s the building was converted to apartments but the deaths continued because a number of residents committed suicide in them.

We joined a ghost tour that turned us loose on the Washoe Club’s top floor. We were there for three hours — the “witching hours” from midnight to 3:00 a.m. The Washoe Club was spooky in the dark. We picked up a single word RUN, spoken in a whispering voice, and I saw a shadowy dark man-like shape moving across a back wall. A number of other participants also reported seeing the figure. At another point I felt someone tugging on the hood of my jacket and got goose bumps when I turned and nobody was behind me — at least nobody that I could see.

Amy and I were hooked on Virginia City, and it is still one of our favorite locations. On each visit we encountered mystical phenomena and one time, in particular, we actually got a picture of an apparition, the figure of a cowboy leaning against a wall and tipping his hat in our direction. After several ghost hunting trips to Virginia City, it occurred to Amy and me that we could find ghosts of our own much closer to home. We knew that East County had a rich history that included locations in which there occurred the sorts of drama, tragedy, and violence that seemed to give rise to the hauntings that we were familiar with. So the two of us began to research past events, exploring local historical societies and perusing archived newspaper articles and pictures. We collected from local residents stories and legends that had come down through oral transmission from the past and especially interviewed a number of families who were longtime residents of the area. They recounted many fascinating stories, some of them marvelous and others horrible, about events that had taken place generations earlier and had become part of the families’ oral history. Amy and I are both writers, and we began to compile a record of the histories we were finding.

I’ve had too many unexplained things happen to not believe that something is “out there.” Some people naturally question whether anything real is actually happening, but anyone who has successfully used our dowsing rods will tell you that the rods really do move of their own accord. The actual effect itself, at least, is undeniable because we really can feel the force moving them in one direction or another. We’re not doing anything but holding the handles. Sometimes no spirit seems to be present, at other times the effect is a little tenuous, but many times the rods move in an obviously deliberate manner under the direction of some will or mind — certainly not ours. We are often surprised. The rods are sometimes blown by the wind, but that’s an altogether different effect. The same thing is true of our spirit box. Radio interference can influence it, but there are other sounds that can’t be explained. We’ve heard voices that were definitely not the radio.

Our ghost tours are ways of bringing the history of East County to the attention of residents. People sometimes aren’t too interested in history, but they love a good ghost story.

Besides that, Amy and I are having good Halloween-type fun all year long.

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