"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."

Angry Ghosts Fire Fears In Old Nevada City Firehouse



by Don Baumgart

World War II had ended three years before and a firehouse in Nevada City was becoming a museum.

Firehouse No. 1 was built in 1861, a dozen years after the Great California Gold Rush began. Towns had sprung up to house and supply the hard-working gold miners. Wooden towns. A good fire department meant a better chance that the town would still be standing next week. A Victorian tower on the firehouse held the bell used to warn Nevada City residents of fire.

In 1948 the Nevada County Historical Society took possession of Firehouse No. 1 and converted it into a museum of the town's history. (It's located at 214 Main Street. Call (530)-265-5468 for museum hours.)

Unfortunately, some unwanted history moved in with the historical artifacts housed in the new museum.

The director of the museum told friends he kept hearing footsteps when he should have been alone in the building. He felt very cold air when he walked into some parts of the museum.

When cabinet doors were closed they flew open again.

Historical Society president Rebecca Miller's experiences in the former fire house are detailed in Antoinette May's book Haunted Houses and Wandering Ghosts of California. "As fast as I could close the door, it would fly back open. Finally I said aloud, `Stop this, I don't have time!' It stopped. Then she heard footsteps behind her, turned, and found no one there.

When a Jesuit priest and two graduate students were touring the firehouse museum they complained about the red-haired woman wearing finery from another time and playing the piano upstairs. The piano was from a Gold Rush era whorehouse, and the prostitute playing it...wasn't really there.

These strange occurrences require that we be there at the moment they happen, to see them. Not so with all of the museum's ghostly aspects.

There's a photograph in the museum of a miner with a twelve-year-old boy...who wasn't there when the picture was taken. The miner supposedly told the photographer that he was thinking of his boyhood life when the photo was snapped.

Chinese ghosts figure prominently in the possible hauntings at Firehouse No. 1 Museum. If chinese ghosts are angry, it's easy to see why.

In China the news of California's gold discovery was called "Gum San" or "Gold Mountain" and as word spread young men began to dream of travelling afar and returning with great wealth. When they got to the mining camps they found them filled with ill will. They met resentment from the white miners who felt the foreigners had come to take riches that did not belong to them. Some mined, some worked at service jobs, but all suffered the dislike by miners directed toward the men and women of different skin color who sold dry goods, did laundry, and cooked during the Gold Rush.

In 1852 a "Foreign Miners Tax" was enacted in the Northern Mines area of the California gold fields. Chinese and Hispanic miners were required to pay between $3 and $6 a month to do what whites did for free...look for gold.

Maybe it was payback time.

In the Firehouse No. 1 Museum viewers of a thousand-year-old Taoist shrine, taken from a Grass Valley joss house, were being shoved by unseen forces. Some said they were tripped by something they couldn't see.

A psychic was called in and said he had contacted two Chinese spirits who admitted tripping pagans who got too close to the sacred altar. The psychic performed an exorcism to rid the museum of the ghostly "trippers" and the museum director put up a rail to keep viewers back from the shrine.

Hard to tell which one it was, but one of the remedies worked. No more shoving and other rude behaviors from Gold Rush spirits at Nevada City's Firehouse No. 1 Museum.

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Copyright Don Baumgart, 2003


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