Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Vanishing Hitchhiker- Is There Real History Behind It? Or Just Another Urban Legend?

So, I am sure at one point or another in your life you have heard of a story about a vanishing hitchhiker. Some stories tell of young maidens in distress, being picked up on the side of a dark desolate road and offered a ride home, only to the dismay of the driver of the car when he realizes she has vanished. There are also tales of even men or old women being picked up on the side of the road and sometimes they foretell events that may take place, only to later disappear after giving the driver their “message.”

I remember as a kid hearing about the “Prom Night” hitchhiker, the lonely girl on the side of the road who gets picked up by a young man. They converse in the car, sometimes the driver becomes “attracted” to the young girl, only to find that she was never really there. Some stories tell in more detail the way the girl looked, or dressed, the smell of her perfume or the color of her attire. More often than not, the story goes on to tell that the driver continues on to the destination the girl had given him directions to only to either find the girls home or a graveyard.

In the scenario where the boy arrives at the girls home, he is often greeted by the girl’s mother who inevitably explains that her daughter died years ago and on this night every year a young man shows up at her doorstep dumbfounded that he picked up a girl only to have her vanish before his eyes in his car on the ride over.

In the scenario about arriving at the graveyard, usually the boy walks around only to find his jacket he had previously gave to the young woman to keep warm, is laying on a grave. When he picks his jacket up he realizes the name on the grave is that of the girl he had just given a ride to, and she had been dead for a long time. This scenario was even played out on a television episode of “Growing Pains” in the early 1990’s for a Halloween themed show, and I remember this one well because the real name of the girl who played the vanishing hitchhiker in the show was Jamie, and my name is J’aime, too.
Where Did The Story Come From?

The Urban Legend of the “vanishing hitchhiker” has been going around for nearly 75 years or longer, so the stories say. In 1941, the “Orson Welles” show aired a debut broadcast of Lucille Fletcher’s “The Hitch-Hiker.” In that story, the driver was the ghost whereas the hitchhiker was alive. An episode the “The Twilight Zone” used a similar adaptation of that story in one of their episodes in the 1960s.

Local Legends- California "Niles Canyon Ghost"

Around the early 1940’s allegedly a local journalist admitted to having invented the story of a “ghost girl” roaming the remote area known as Niles Canyon in Alameda County as publicity ploy to drive sales for the paper. Then in 1947, Radio personality Mel Ventner spoke of a ghost story in Northern California, known as the Niles Canyon Ghost. As the story goes, there was an automobile accident on Niles Canyon Road on February 26, 1938 where a young woman was killed. Some say she was coming from or going to a dance in Sunol, while others claim she was on her wedding night. The unsuspecting driver pulls over to offer the young lady a ride, by the time they get to the Dumbarton Bridge, she vanishes. By February of 1950 the local paper in Fremont, California known as the “Township Register” had published an article with similar details as the previous radio broadcast by Ventner.

This article inspired a young teenager by the name of Clarence Chivers and his friends to go out to Niles Canyon to parade around with a sheet on himself, pretending to be the “ghost girl” only to give the local police a good scare. Upon arriving, the officer started shooting his gun in the air to scare the boys down off the hill. The boys were arrested for their shenanigans and the whole ordeal catapulted this ghost story into an even more infamous tale.

Over the years, there have been many people, including a friend of mine who claim to have seen this lady. I am not discrediting what they firmly believe they saw because I am sure they saw something, however, I don't see recorded history showing that this story of this girl having ever taken place over there.

History or Hype?

I am such an avid history researcher that whenever I hear about stories such as these I have to look into it to see if I can find real evidence to support the history behind the story.  I did find a story of a lady by the name of Annie Londonderry, who was injured, but didn’t die on April 11, 1895 during a bicycling accident in Niles Canyon after being hit by a horse drawn carriage. Again, this lady did not die.

A Real Death In Niles Canyon

I did find one death out in Niles Canyon, but this accident involved a man, not a woman. On May 23, 1906, Stockton resident, William Harris died from his injuries after falling off a trestle in Niles Canyon late that previous evening after inspecting his daily work with his lantern before planning to retire for the night. All the other members of the surveying party had gone to bed, so no one knew he had gone missing until they found him the next morning. He had fallen 30 feet and lay there until he was found and later died.  He was an employee of Western Pacific Railroad.

Another possibility....

I found a rumor, again there is no way to know for sure about this, that a man named Bronco Billy Anderson (Max Henry Aronson) that ran  Essanay (S and A) Studios out of Chicago and yes, Niles Canyon, may have been involved in this tale.  From the stories that went around, there had been some sort of Halloween party at the studio down there in Niles Canyon and a young aspiring actress that was dressed in a white gown, dolled up to be Cleopatra had come to the party to confront Anderson and his wife. She had allegedly been having an affair with Bronco Billy and decided to "come out" with their affair in public. Whether there was an exchange of words, or some other means of humiliation the girl ran off crying into the night, never to be seen or heard from again.--- Again, this is a great story, but I can't find proof of this either.  However, in this time period, given the amount of power one in the movie business could have access to, the fact Niles Canyon was basically in the middle of nowhere, I wouldn't put it past anyone if her death, be it an accident or foul play was covered up to avoid scandal.

Other Similar Accounts

According to information published by American Folklorists Richard Beardsley and Rosalie Hankey in the 1940s, they had come across 79 different, yet similar accounts of this “vanishing hitchhiker” all across the United States.  All accounts were categorized in distinct versions:

1.      The hitchhiker gives an address to where he needs to go, whereas upon reaching this place he then learns he had given a ghost a ride.

2.      The hitchhiker is an old lady who foretells a disaster or future event.

3.      A girl meets a boy at an event or place where she gets a ride home with him. She is given some sort of token (usually a jacket of the driver) and the driver later finds the token on the girls grave.

4.      The hitchhiker is identified as a local divinity.

5.      Finally where a driver picks up a girl, drops her off only to remember that she left her sweater or scarf in the car so he goes back to the house to return it to her but no one is there or he speaks to her mother who tells him that she died many years ago.


Do I believe that there are people who have had “experiences” that cannot be explained? Yes, I don’t doubt that for a second. I believe the people who have seen things out there on the canyon, really did see something. The fact that I didn't find any proof of this mystery woman dying in Niles Canyon, doesn't mean that a girl didn't die there in that vicinity at another time. Obviously something happened out there on that road in Niles Canyon at one time or another, it's just that no one has found out who, when and what, just yet.  I am determined to continue searching for answers regarding the Niles Canyon mystery.

I do believe that these Urban Legends were not conjured up just by imagination. Whoever started this story must have been influenced by a legend he or she had heard, perhaps from another town or area, with similar details. Most stories come from some fact based account, and over the years they develop into their own “larger than life” tales that spread like wildfire. These stories intrigue, scare or fascinate the reader or the recipient who is told the story, whether it be heard around a bonfire while camping or told as a bedtime story while you are tucked away in a warm bed on a dark stormy night.

This story, I am sure, will continue to be told and many will venture out to Niles Canyon at night for a glimpse of this “vanishing hitchhiker." 

To learn more about all the urban legends of Niles Canyon, please purchase your copy of "Stories of the Forgotten: Infamous, Famous & Unremembered" today on Amazon! 


(Copyright- Dreaming Casually)

San Francisco Call, 5/24/1906
San Francisco Call 4/12/1895
Niles Canyon Ghost Revealed- David Mostardi 2/26/2012
Around Sunol- Victoria Christian 2/26/2007
“Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends And Their Meanings”- Jan Harold Brunvand
“Haunted San Francisco: Ghost Stories From The City’s Past”- Rand Richards
“California Folklore Quarterly”- Volume I, No.4,  Volume II, No. 1, Volume II, No. 4.- Richard Beardsley and Rosalie Hankey.

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