Haunts and hoaxes

Chico’s ghostly places and other mysteries

Photo By Josh Graham

At a glance, Chico may appear to be a bright, charming place to live. But every town has its folklore, and this one is no exception. Chico possesses its own colorful stack of tall tales that are sure to send a chill down your spine. Are there really specters from the town’s past watching us from the windows of Victorian-era homes, and apparitions lurking in historical theaters? You decide. Here’s a look at just a few of the local oddities:

Goodman House

Chico’s most documented haunted house likely is the painted lady that has been sitting pretty on The Esplanade for more than a century. The Goodman House is currently a bed and breakfast, where ghost hunters and those just looking for a comfortable night’s sleep occasionally claim to have inexplicable experiences. The stately Colonial Revival residence is believed to be haunted by the ghost of George Vogelsang, who lived in the house for nearly 50 years and died there in 1958 at the age of 90 after taking a spill.

“He fell down the stairs and died, or maybe he died and then fell down the stairs,” said owner Margo Graham. “Someone decided it was his ghost.”

A skeptic, Graham can usually find reasonable explanations for the supernatural phenomena people report experiencing and has never had a ghostly encounter in the almost six years she and her husband, Tom, have owned the house.

“I think people want it to be haunted,” she said.

The strangest occurrences were reported in the 1970s, when the home served as law offices. Graham said there were many stories at that time of doors and files that would suddenly refuse to open. Most recently, a painter working in the basement kept hearing footsteps upstairs, but each time he checked no one was there. That was back in 2003, shortly before the couple bought the house, so the ghost has been quiet as of late.

Some have a theory as to the ghost’s departure.

“Maybe he’s happy it’s back to a house and not law offices anymore,” said Graham, laughing.

Blue Room Theatre

A Masonic Temple existed for more than a century in the space now occupied by downtown Chico’s Blue Room Theatre. The small building is rumored to be haunted, though whether by former worshipers, actors or audience members is unknown.

Jeremy Votava, the theater’s former technical director, had some creepy experiences working late nights at the venue. Most of the encounters involved hearing strange noises and having the feeling of being watched.

One particular night while working on lighting Votava heard footsteps going up the stairs. When he went down to check, he saw that no one was there and the door was locked.

“You never know, though, paint fumes and dark rooms can do that to you,” Votava said.

Shoe tree

Photo By Josh Graham

Rock-throwing ghost

One of the more bizarre Chico phenomena dates back to March 1922, when rocks rained down on the warehouse of J.H. Priel and Clarence Charge, making national headlines. Locals were at a loss to determine who or what was causing the rocks to seemingly fall from the sky. Later that same month, shoppers downtown got a surprise when rocks pelted Main Street.

Then one morning, Charge and Priel found a letter from the rock-throwing ghost saying that it “got a kick out of the rock throwing,” and that the stoning would cease because it had to go “out of town on business,” according to reports at the time in the Chico Record.

John Gallardo, president of Chico’s Heritage Association, said the identity of the ghost remained a mystery for nearly 60 years until “the last kid” who pulled off the prank spilled the beans while on his deathbed.

Interestingly, the rocks weren’t the first thing to have fallen from nowhere. In 1878, The New York Times reported that fish fell from the skies over Chico. This strange event is now thought to have been caused by waterspouts, which are tornados over water that can pick up fish and debris and drop them hundreds of miles away, Gallardo said. Another account explains the strange occurrence as due to a dense fog that settled after the fish had laid their eggs, then rose, leaving the hatched fishies to fall from the heavens.

Other odd places

Bidwell Mansion, named for Chico founder John Bidwell, downtown’s Stansbury House, and Chico State’s Laxson Auditorium are also rumored to harbor ghostly inhabitants, although these days no one seems to be able to speak to a specific encounter.

Chico also hosts eerie places devoid of paranormal activity. The shoe tree in Don Simic’s almond orchard off Hegan Lane is a peculiar spectacle. After a walnut tree on the property died, Simic decided to hang shoes from its dead limbs. Passersby began leaving shoes at the base of the trunk, which he happily added to the collection. Dangling from the tree are athletic shoes, old-school saddle shoes, dress shoes, moon boots and even roller skates.

On campus, Trinity Hall has nearly as many impractical twists and turns as the Winchester Mystery House, the bizarre 160-room mansion in San Jose. It’s easy to get lost wandering through the maze-like brick building, which is rife with narrow staircases, art galleries and professors’ offices. Although the building serves as Chico State’s bell tower, the booming chimes that can be heard each half-hour emanate from electronic speakers rather than a real bell. Weird.