Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Urban Legends of Niles Canyon, California

Photo originally published in
Township Register Newspaper between 1947-1950

For those who grew up in the bay area of Northern California, specifically around Hayward or Fremont, tales and urban legends surrounding the area known as Niles Canyon are widely circulated. Many often wonder where or how these urban legends started, and if they were actually based on real events?  Believe it or not, just like the road through Niles Canyon, the urban legends surrounding it has some pretty exciting twists and turns.

The Vanishing Hitchhiker

“Many years ago, on the twenty-sixth of February, a young girl was killed in the canyon. Every year, on that day, she appears on the roadside, begging to be taken to her home in San Francisco. Invariably, when her kind deliverers reach the Dumbarton Bridge toll gate, she is gone. Drivers who go on to her San Francisco address are told that the same thing happens each year. Credence ranges from those who openly scoff to those who fear to drive through the canyon on February twenty-sixth.”— History of Washington Township, 1950

The urban legend of the local vanishing hitchhiker  has been going around for nearly 75 years or longer, so the stories say. 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.   In 1941, the Orson Welles show aired a debut broadcast of Lucille Fletcher’s The Hitch-Hiker. In that story, both the driver and the hitchhiker were ghosts. In the 1960s, The Twilight Zone used a similar adaptation of that story for one of their episodes.

The earliest documentation I could find regarding the story in Niles Canyon, besides the mention in the History of Washington Township, was the articles in various newspapers of the time.  Bay area radio personality, Mel Vetner had also aired a program on KQW radio in 1947, mentioning the story in detail which spread the legend even further.

By February 24, 1950, the story popped up in the Township Register in Niles, although other newspapers mention the Register having ran the story every year since 1947.  The Healdsburg Tribune, dated May 5, 1950, also mentions this, and adds that on February 27, 1950, a local boy decided to head out to the canyon to play a prank on unsuspecting drivers which faired badly for him when the police showed up. After hearing of the story, 19-year-old Clarence Chivers decided to dress in his best white sheet and roam the trestle near the road in Niles Canyon pretending to be the ghost. After several cars passed by witnessing this faux entity,  many nervous and frightened people telephoned the police, who were then called to investigate the scene.

Upon arriving, the officers were met by several carloads of people stopped near the railroad trestle looking up.  One of the officers fired a warning shot, scaring Chivers enough to drop the sheet and come down off the trestle.  Although it was meant to be a harmless prank, this sparked more interest in the story than ever before, and within the next few years students from the Fremont area, especially those from Washington High School, would flock to the canyon every February 26th, trying to catch a glimpse of the alleged apparition.

I have been researching the tales of Niles Canyon for a few years now, after first hearing about it from Roland Boulware.  Roland grew up in Hayward, and being a local to the area, he was very much aware of the urban legends and folklore surrounding Niles Canyon.

“I grew up with these stories, “ Roland recalls. “I heard many stories about those of the older generation who claimed to have had their very own experiences out there back in the 1930s and 1940s.”

According to Roland, a family friend, Evangeline, told him many times that her brother claimed to have given a girl a ride in Niles Canyon back in the late 1930's.  When he noticed a young woman wandering on the road, he pulled his truck over to the side and asked her if she needed a ride. She politely accepted and hopped  into the cab of his truck. He claimed that during the middle of a friendly conversation while driving, she just vanished.   Evangeline stated that her brother talked about his experience for years, as he could not wrap his head around the fact that a young woman he believed was flesh and blood, could simply vanish into thin air.

The Woman in White 

Then there is an even older tale of the woman in white, said to have fallen off of her carriage and was run over by buggies or an early version of automobile on her way to or from a wedding. This version claims she wanders the road at night.  Both stories have all the ingredients of the standard urban legends that have been popular in western folklore for over a century. Some of the earliest stories involving such types of tales in the United States started after the Civil War, and continued on with each generation, adapting and adding things according to the time period. Of course, these sorts of stories often mirror earlier myths and legends famous in European countries for centuries, such as "Las Dames Blanches."

The question that persists is, “what if some of the origins of the stories came from real events?”

In the older version of the story, in which the woman is run over by cars, many times the last name Lowery is thrown into the mix.  This addition of the name seems to have been started by an old caretaker at the cemetery in Pleasanton. Many times he had told the story to visitors at the cemetery, as well as being quoted in a local paper that the woman’s name was Lucinda Lowery, and that she had died many years ago after being run over by cars.  The Pleasanton Memorial Gardens Cemetery index cites a "Lucinda Lowery" who purchased deed # 61, in Lot: 178, at the cemetery on September 24, 1895. It also showed that either the date of death or date of burial was September 24, 1895, the same day she purchased the plot. Something else stood out in the index, the wording, "killed by cars."
After further research I found that the asterisk near her name on the list meant that cemetery employees added her name to the "deceased" years later. This meant her first name was not in the original book, it only showed Lucinda as the purchaser of the plot, not necessarily the one buried there, meaning that the person buried there might not be Lucinda after all. Still, I wanted to know for sure.

For the record, besides the cemetery plot/deed index mentioning Lucinda Lowery's name and a cause of death notation under it, I had not found any records that show a lady with the last name Lowery (Lowerey, Lowrie, Lowry, etc.) having died in the area.  Let me add though that just because I haven't found it, doesn't mean it didn't happen, but the likelihood of two people with the same last name having a similar tragedy in the same local area sounds a bit far fetched.

So who was Ms. or Mrs. Lowery? Well, I kept trying to search for her in Alameda County records, to no avail.  Then I found a Mr. John Lowrie who had a large ranch near Niles in the mid 1850s.  He was a prominent man who had a lot of farm land in Niles, Centerville and Newark.  Interestingly, he and a business partner Samuel Marston, took their ship "Lady Anne" up to Alaska in 1882, where they struck gold while mining. Unfortunately on their way home their ship sank, taking not only their newfound treasure, but also their lives. According to historical write-ups, they were never heard from again.

John Lowrie Home, 1878 Atlas of Alameda County

When I saw the drawing of Mr. Lowrie's home, I was instantly pulled into the picture. I imagined perhaps this girl in the urban legends, "Ms. Lowery", could have lived there. Maybe she was his daughter? Maybe she was the girl standing on the porch in this picture? Unfortunately, that was not the case.  According to records, John didn't have a daughter named Lucinda. 

After searching the index of deaths in Alameda, I came across another person with the same last name who died in 1895. Could this be a coincidence? A man named Samuel Lowry was killed on September 4, 1895,  by the 91 train near Pleasanton when he was run over by the rail cars. His wife’s name was Lucinda. According to the September 7, 1895, issue of the San Francisco Call, it stated that he was working as a farm hand for John D. Smith. The next issue of the San Francisco Call answered some more questions.

"The Coroner's jury in the case of Samuel Lowery [Sic], the man killed by a train near Pleasanton, were unable to determine whether it was a case of suicide or not. Coroner Baldwin has received a dispatch from the wife of the deceased, who is at Ballard, Washington., stating that she has no money and asking that the remains be buried here."--- 9/8/1895- S.F. Call

What I think happened was either (a) someone in town paid for Samuel to be buried at Pleasanton Memorial Gardens and put Lucinda's name as the deed holder, or (b) she had to pay directly or even perhaps travel down to California and purchase the plot herself, thus the gap in time between Samuel's death and his burialIn reality, Lucinda didn't meet her demise in Niles Canyon, Pleasanton, Sunol or anywhere else in Alameda.

When Samuel died, Lucinda was pregnant with her first and only child. I believe that Samuel had come to California to work, perhaps in order to save for his pending family. Unfortunately, he was never able to see his son born or be reunited with his wife. Lucinda was now a 28-year-old, penniless widow with a baby on the way. I can only imagine the fear, grief and shock she must have felt to be put in that position at such a time in her life, and during that era. As the years went by, city directories show her living at a boarding house on 3rd Avenue in Ballard, Washington.

The 1910 Census shows her working as a cook, raising her son Alfred, who by that time is now a young man. By 1920, she is still a cook and Alfred is now working as a logger, helping to contribute to the household. On July 11, 1924, at the age of 57 years, Lucinda Lowry, left this world and passed on. She was buried in Section 6; Lot 38; Grave 7-A, at Bayview Cemetery in Bellingham, Washington.

So if Lucinda Lowry did not die in the canyon, then who? Over the decades, there have been numerous deaths in the Niles Canyon & Sunol area.  I have yet to find documentation of an event that quite matches either of the urban legends, but I found more deaths that are worth mentioning.

Creek in Niles Canyon (Copyright, Roland Boulware Photography)

More Deaths in Niles Canyon (or surrounding areas)

The Sacramento Daily Union dated On May 30, 1877, shows that James Sheehan, the son of P.R. Sheehan of Oakland, was killed after being run over by train cars in Niles Canyon.  Sheehan had been traveling on the late train to Stockton to attend a fireman’s picnic, when the accident occurred. He and his comrades were riding on the top of the train and while hopping from one car to the next, he slipped and fell in between the cars, immediately causing death.

On January 4, 1879, Patrick Fitzgerald, who had been missing since New Year’s Eve, was found dead in Niles Canyon. The Coroner’s inquest found that he had fallen off of a cliff 160 feet high.  Another story  thirteen years later was about Ephraim Tyson who was thrown from his wagon and run over. He died in the town of Niles back on June 9, 1892.

The San Francisco Call mentions another tragic death that occurred on July 3, 1898. Alfred Sartorius, 18, drowned while on a camping trip with friends. He was a resident of 1346 Howard Street in San Francisco. By the turn of the century there were even more stories. One mentions an unidentified Indian (Native-American) woman who was run over by the Sacramento local train, just two miles between Pleasanton and Sunol on May 10, 1900.

 “Her injuries were such that she died before she reached here, where she was brought for medical assistance. The fireman saw the woman on the track, but not in time to prevent the accident.”— Los Angeles Herald, May 11, 1900.

The stories do not stop there.  Next was a tragic story involving another sudden death of a woman in Niles Canyon.  On July 2, 1905,  a young lady by the name of Julia McQuaid lost her life while camping in Niles Canyon. The circumstances of her death were so sudden and so tragic, that it made a larger than usual headline in the newspapers.
July 3. - Death suddenly sealed the lips of Miss Julia McQuaid last evening while she was blithely singing in a company of friends who were in camp at Niles Canyon. The distressing occurrence was the more shocking because of the attending circumstances. Miss McQuaid had been lolling in a hammock trolling a merry ditty to the enjoyment of the gay party of which she was a member. In the midst of her song, without an instant’s warning, the young woman’s voice broke with a gasp, her notes ceased and she fell from the hammock, dead into the arms of Mrs. L. G. Malloy, one of the camping company.

For a little while the stricken campers were in confusion from the shock. Efforts were made to revive their friend, but the labor was fruitless. Members of the party hastened to Niles for physicians, but they could be of no service. Nothing was left to be done except to notify the Coroner. Deputy Francis of Centerville took charge of the remains. Heart disease is supposed to have been the cause of death.  Miss McQuaid, who was 26 years old, was one of a number of young people from San Francisco who had established a summer camp at Niles Canyon, naming it “Camp Frisco.” The party has abandoned its outing on account of the sad occurrence.”— San Francisco Call, July 4, 1905

San Francisco Call, July 4, 1905

Julia McQuaid was the daughter of Julia and John McQuaid of Virginia City.  Julia was born on October 1, 1876, in Virginia City, Nevada.  Her last place of residence was at 60 Harriett Street in San Francisco.  According to funeral records, her funeral took place at St. Roses Church and interment at the Holy Cross Cemetery.  The cause of death noted on the record states “Valvular Heart Disease.”  She was 28 years, 8 months and 4 days old. 

I have often wondered if somehow the story of Julia McQuaid’s sudden and shocking death in Niles Canyon could have initially inspired the tragic story of the ‘lady in white’ over the years? Even despite the fact she did not die from being run over from cars as the legend puts it,  Julia’s death was still a terrible tragedy, and one I am certain was spoken about for a long time in the local area.

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.

Just a year later, two men were killed when the five mile tunnel of the Western Pacific near Niles Canyon had a cave-in. Pete Colozzi, 50, and Nick Neanravioch, 40, suffocated from noxious gases underground when the tunnel caved in around them on October 26, 1907.  

By February of 1910, another shocking death occurred when a Western Union lineman, Michael Farrelly was electrocuted while strapped at the top of a pole in Niles Canyon.  After making physical contact with what was usually a harmless wire, but when the current hit it, it ran through him causing death. 

The newspaper described his last seconds, “for a few moments Farrelly’s body writhed and swayed in the air, then fell limply alongside the pole.”  His body was taken to the parlors of J.C. O’Connor & Co, at 770 Turk Street. A “requiem mass” was held at  Mission Delores Church, and then his body was taken to the Holy Cross Cemetery for interment.  Michael Andrew Farrelly was 36 years old, and a native of Athlone, County Westmeath, Ireland. Then there was the sudden death of Alfred Fletcher, who was only 14 years old at the time. During a family camping trip, Alfred tumbled off of a rock in the canyon and sustained internal injuries. He lingered for two hours before finally taking his last breath on the evening of August 17, 1922.

With all the deaths I found in Niles and the surrounding areas, I also found several non-fatal accidents that took place.  First to note, a lady by the name of Annie Londonderry who was injured on April 11, 1895, during a bicycling accident in Niles Canyon after being hit by a horse drawn carriage.  Although she was hurt, she did not die from her injuries.

Years later in 1927, the newspapers reported a couple who crashed their vehicle at the “four corners.” Mr. and Mrs. Peter Mallegol of Livermore, were on their way to vacation in Santa Cruz when their vehicle  overturned while rounding the turn near Sunol. Mr. Mallegol was trapped under the car, suffering from a broken collar bone when he felt burning liquid hitting his face. It was battery acid that was pouring from the car and into his eyes.  Thankfully the couple was saved by passing motorists who stopped to offer assistance. Both were taken to Judson Hospital. The newspapers stated that they were expected to make a full recovery. The physician treating Mr. Mallegol, Dr. W.E. Judson, claimed that he was not expected to be permanently blinded from the accident.

Of course there were plenty more accidents involving deaths and non-fatal injuries but I simply could not list all of them.  The last one I will mention though, happened on November 30, 1931, in Niles Canyon.  The headline read, “Man Escapes From Freak Automobile Accident,” and the story itself was something that you would expect from a highly suspenseful movie.  According to the Livermore Journal dated December 3, 1931, a  man named Charles Ellington narrowly escaped death after his car skidded over the wet pavement along the road in Niles Canyon. Ellington, a cook in a local Niles restaurant, was traveling through the canyon when he lost control of his vehicle and slid off the road and down the 25 foot embankment, rolling his vehicle not once, but three times.
Murphy’s Law was certainly going to have its way with Mr. Ellington that night because his vehicle landed on the worst possible spot,  the north end of the Western Pacific tunnel No.1,  right on top of the railroad tracks. By nothing short of a miracle, the newspaper reported that Ellington managed to exit the vehicle uninjured and leapt out of the car “just a minute or so before an on-coming freight crashed into the car.” The vehicle was pushed through the tunnel with the train completely demolishing it. The car was then thrown to the side upon the train’s exit out of the tunnel.  When it was all said and done, Ellington claimed that he knew it was a miracle that he survived at all that day.
Going back to the legend, The Argus, a newspaper in Fremont, published an article back on February 26, 1976, mentioning several accounts and reiterating the old local folklore.  One such account that stood out in my mind was that of a man from Centerville named Fred Rogers.  His experience was not on the road, but near the creek in Niles Canyon. He claimed that on a “cold February morning” he “saw a girl in a white gown, combing her long, black  hair.” He mentioned that she was sitting on a rock near the creek and that when he decided to walk in her direction to get a closer look, she just disappeared. He was very adamant about his experience, and also stated that he could “pick her out of a crowd” if he ever saw her again.

The same article mentions Robert Townsley, Ph.D., who was said to be from the California Society for Physical Study, and who conducted a research about this story back in 1968. Dr. Townsley claimed the entire thing was just a “publicity stunt.”  He believed that the story centered in Niles Canyon was actually much older than most expected, and that it may have actually originated on a road from Oakland to San Jose, and not in Niles Canyon at all.  As he claimed, the story was either “adapted” or was simply made up to coincide with the present area. 

There have been reports of sightings of a ‘lady in white’ along Redwood Road in Castro Valley, which runs  North to the Oakland area. Could that be the road in which all the legends originated?

I do believe that these urban legends had some type of origin. Whoever started the Niles Canyon story must have been influenced by a legend he or she had heard, perhaps from there or even another town or area, with similar details. Most stories come from some fact based account, and over the years it develops into larger than life tales. 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, these stories intrigue and instill fear.

Unfortunately, the direct origins of the vanishing hitchhiker or the lady in white stories attached to Niles Canyon continue to remain just out of our grasp, for now.  With that being said,  I hope that by highlighting the real stories that took place there, and by shedding light on those people who tragically lost their lives in Niles Canyon and the surrounding areas, that those individuals will never be forgotten again.  --- Chapter 18, of "Stories of the Forgotten: Infamous, Famous & Unremembered," by J'aime Rubio (Copyright 2016)

To read more stories like this one, please check out my book "Stories of the Forgotten," available on Amazon. 

Path in Niles Canyon - (Copyright, Roland Boulware Photography)


U.S. Census Records, 1910, 1920; Seattle Directory, 1897, 1899; “History of Washington Township,” authored by the Country Club of Washington Township, Second Edition, 1950; “California Folklore Quarterly,” (Vol. I, No.4, Vol. II, No. 1, Vol. II, No. 4), Richard Beardsley and Rosalie, Hankley;  Pleasanton Memorial Gardens, Deeds and Burial Records, page 39; 1878 Atlas of Alameda County; Township Register (1947-1950); Healdsburg Tribune, May 5, 1950, August 18, 1922; “Haunted San Francisco: Ghost Stories From The City’s Past,”- Rand Richards; “Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and their Meanings,”- Jan Harold Brunvand; “Around Sunol,”- Victoria Christian, February 26, 2007; “Niles Canyon Ghost Revealed,”- David Mostardi, February 26, 2012; Find-a-grave; The Fremont Argus, February 26, 1976;  San Francisco Call, (6/1/1877, 9/7/1895, 9/8/1895, 4/12/1898, 7/4/1898, 7/4/1905, 7/5/1905, 5//24/1906, 10/26/1907, 5/15/1909, 2/6/1910, 2/7/1910); Sac Daily Union, January 6, 1879, August 7, 1879; Sacramento Union, May 27, 1906, October 27, 1907, February 6, 1910; Daily Alta California, June 1, 1877; Marin County Tocsin, June 18, 1892; Los Angeles Herald, May 11, 1900; Livermore Journal, June 15, 1927, December 3, 1931; Interview with Roland Boulware.

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