Saturday, October 31, 2009

Demanding to be haunted

Since it's Halloween and all...

Some places speak distinctly. Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwrecks. --Robert Louis Stevenson

One would think that, of all places, the scenes of the Donner Party tragedy would be haunted, but there just aren't many Donner ghost stories, and with few exceptions the ones I've encountered are distinctly unsatisfactory. The paucity of stories is no doubt due to the fact that nobody actually lives at Donner sites to witness anything (if there's anything to witness at all, of course). Oh, sure, people "live" temporarily at the campground at the state park, but not at the actual cabin locations, and while the (shudder) development around Prosser Reservoir blights the environs of the Donner family camp, no one lives at Alder Creek. Whatever walks the meadow walks alone.

I've read a variety of "true" Donner ghost stories which are obviously based on peoples' faulty notions of what happened back in 1846-7, like the appearance of a woman in bloody, old-fashioned clothing (taken as "proof" that Louis Keseberg murdered Tamzene Donner). Pfft. I much prefer stories of vague, creeping dread that might -- or might not -- be due solely to the imagination of the percipient.

For example, back about 1997 I asked a Donner Memorial State Park ranger if she knew of any odd happenings. To my delight, she said yes. Occasionally when staff worked alone in the museum at night they would experience disquieting sensations of not being alone, of being watched, and would hear unexplained noises.

Then there was the woman who bought a Murphy cabin vial with tags signed by Frances Donner Wilder. The purchaser had never had any problems before, but after she displayed the vial in her home next to some old family memorabilia, odd things began to happen. She and her husband heard the sounds of a child's voice, her dogs whined and growled savagely when in proximity to the vial, a small rocking chair moved and rocked by itself, and so on. When they got the vial out of the house, the phenomena ceased.

Probably my favorite Donner "ghost" story comes from Alder Creek, where, in 1998, a young woman named Elizabeth toured the site. It was late afternoon and she was by herself -- no other cars in the lot, no other people anywhere around -- yet she was overcome with the sensation of not being alone, of panic, and depression as she walked the site. While using the women's restroom, she heard a sound like scuffling feet and a tinkering noise, as of someone sorting through a toolbox, coming from the men's room next door. She was relieved to get away.

When I related this story to a friend with whom I'd visited Alder Creek, she was taken aback. "Oh, wow," she said. "I heard weird noises from next door and got a really creepy feeling when I was in that restroom myself."


Doug said...

I was raised in Kings Beach.In 1990we were at the top of the hill at the farthest western camp area in the Prosser campground during a weekend of fishing.Around midnight, and I should mention it was a windy night, a moaning wail started.At first we thought it was the wind but it evolved into the sobbing of a woman.Deep, mournful sobbing.Absolute misery.I left the tent numerous times to check it out and whenever I'd get near the edge of the hill, the sound would abruptly stop.During the entirety of this experience, our dogs who had the good sense to stay in the tent,were growling with their hair up.Unfortunately, I've never lived anywhere that I didn't notice "Stuff". It's not a gift, they can have it back.Just my two cents on the Donner area.

Kristin Johnson said...

Brrrh! Great story! I've had a one or two odd experiences myself -- not at Donner sites, however -- so I'm not inclined to pooh-pooh them. Thanks for sharing.

Brian said...

In 1984 I listened to a story (at St. Michael's CYO Camp in Northern California) round a campfire from someone who claimed to have a relative living in the Donner Pass area. He described his family hearing the same kind of wind driven, moaning, wailing sound on numerous occasions. They also describe an event when they heard sounds of a young girl's voice calling for help without signs of a living girl. A local neighbor brought hunting dogs to track down the source. After more than a mile or two of walking, his dogs suddenly bolted in retreat. Then he said he heard a voice calling for help right in front of him but no one was there. It was told as a true story (albeit to young 15 year old campers) but it always rang true to me if ghost stories are to be believed. He said his family sold the home after the event.

Kristin Johnson said...

This is so interesting -- people are good at spooking themselves, but dogs? I don't think they're that imaginative! They must have been reacting to something -- but what? [Cue Twilight Zone theme.] Hope this isn't a downer, but I feel obliged to mention that many other people have lived and traveled in the Truckee area, so this sort of phenomena isn't necessarily related to the Donner Party -- but it's natural to think so! Thanks for adding to the Donner creeplore.