Ghosts on the Coast

We were still in the cemetery as darkness was falling in Port Orford. I urged my husband to hurry as the graveyard in an unfamiliar town might not be the best place to spend the night. but he was anxious to determine if his elderly but colorful cousins were still among the living. As we had not located their graves in an extensive search of the old cemetery, I felt it was time to look elsewhere. The old pines which had seemed so stately in the daylight now loomed over us like prehistoric monsters casting ominous dark shadows across the lawn.

We had checked for the cousins’ names, Vance and Hughes, on all the more recent graves. I had made a quick survey of the older graves, but feared they might not have a family plot as they had migrated from Ohio to Oregon in the late 1950’s. Vance had left his position as an English teacher to try logging in the northwest. his father had already taken a position in a nearby town as a Presbyterian minister, and the two bachelor sons followed him, acquiring a large plot of forest land and building a modest cabin.

As I was getting in the car to leave, I heard my husband cried out that he had found them. He was at the very edge of the cemetery almost in the woods, the side of the cemetery near their own land. we probably should have looked there first. The stone was in good shape, but stated the sad news that they had died in 2006 and 2007, only a couple of months apart. next to their shared stone was a stone commemorating their mother and father who had attended Maryville College, one of the first fifty colleges in the United States. it was also Presbyterian and the two had probably met while attending college in the early 1900’s. She had also attended the University of Chicago, and he had a Doctor of Divinity degree. He had taken a position far from his native Wellsville, Ohio, on the beautiful Pacific coast, following the lead of his adventurous ancestors who had decided to leave Scotland a few generations before him and settle on the banks of the Ohio.

As elated as we were at finding their graves, we were also sorry that we couldn’t have met Vance and Hughes in person and had only missed them by five years and several states in our journey through time and space. I experienced an eerie feeling of being in another dimension as we left the graveyard, and I wondered what would happen next. we had been traveling through Northern California and Oregon and had already encountered Bodie, a well-preserved ghost town founded around 1860 when Waterman Bodey discovered gold at nearby Bodie Bluff and a mill was built followed by a town that existed into the 1940’s. on a daily basis miners would emerge from the mills and head for the bars and the red light district to spend their earnings. The mixture of money, gold and alcohol would often prove fatal. Newspapers report that townspeople would ask in the mornings, Have a man for breakfast? meaning, did anyone get killed last night?[1] in the small school house, the books were still open on the desks and the lesson on the board. A late night restaurant had offered sandwiches for the serious gamblers, and Bodie had also claimed a Chinatown and opium dens. we were impressed with their technology which included one of the first uses of hydroelectric power in the U.S. and a variety of mining equipment. The howling wind and extreme climate provide a perfect setting for ghosts, but back to the coast.

We secured a motel room for the night right on the Pacific Ocean, and decided to enjoy a stroll on the beach under a magnificent Thunder moon. The town seemed unusually quiet with streets empty of people and only an occasional car driving through on Highway 101. The hour was late, but Port Orford certainly didn’t seem like the usual Pacific Coast tourist town. we learned the next day that it was still pretty much like it had been when my husband’s cousins first moved there. now it is considered an artistic fishing town and claims to be the most westerly town in the continental United States and the only one with a dry dock port. Boats have to be lifted in and out of the water by cranes on dollies parked in rows on the dock, affectionately labeled a dolly dock. Port Orford also boasts Humbug Mountain, considered to be the tallest mountain in the lower forty-eight to descend directly into the ocean. And it had an historic Coast Guard lifeboat station operated from 1930 to 1970. The boat and other historic artifacts are displayed at the museum in the state park. The city takes its name from the Earl of Orford, a much respected friend of early explorer, George Vancouver.

After our quiet walk we were attempting to cross the highway to our motel, when we heard the roar of truck engines behind us. we saw two old pickups heading straight down the side of the cliff onto the beach. One had considerable difficulty making it down and the revving of its engine echoed through the night. The two trucks tore up and down the beach a couple of times at breakneck speed, shattering the stillness and sounding like race day at Daytona or Indy. somehow they ascended the cliff and tore through the town missing no side streets before heading south on highway 101 towards the cemetery. we headed for the only open bar to find out if anyone else had heard them. The bartender, said she had and that nothing like that had happened before that she could remember. after chatting with her for a while we learned that the owner of a restaurant on the north edge of town was also the town historian, and that he could probably tell us more about our cousins.

We were up early to have breakfast at the restaurant and talk to the town historian. Our efforts were quickly rewarded as he explained that he had been a good friend of the bachelor brothers. One had been in a nursing home, but the other had lived in his house until the end. He even had a picture of Vance and his girlfriend. They had loved to dance and had enjoyed several happy years together in Port Orford before her death which was followed quickly by his. The affable owner told us where their property was located but warned that it was in pretty bad shape. we found it with ease, as a sign saying Noble Drive identified the road that led into their land. The house was still standing, but was in poor condition. Finding an old bible outside the house with their father’s name engraved on it and some of his notes about his sermons was very encouraging.

We tramped around several tractor paths finding, broken down equipment, a camper, some fifty’s era cars and a huge array of old tools used for logging. The trees seemed to be growing back, and it was a pleasant morning walk although I felt like I was trespassing on the past at every turn in the road. I wanted to find the saw mill so we took a path leading downward toward a creek. Eventually we saw an old building that we identified as the center of the operation due to its sheltering of engines, pulleys and tractors. My husband tramped back up the trail, but I wanted to investigate more. I had seen fresh tire tracks and decided to follow them. at the top of the hill I noticed two old pickup trucks parked on the ridge. They were covered with mud and dust and obviously hadn’t been used in years. Old sun scorched papers covered the dashboards and the doors were locked tightly.

Nevertheless the fresh tracks led right to the trucks, and I noticed sand on the wheels. I had the strange extra dimensional feeling again and heard what sounded like someone chuckling. I looked around and saw only a squirrel, but the woods suddenly seemed frightening, and I made a dash for the house. Finding my husband, I suggested that we get out of there fast. later in the car he asked me why I had been so spooked. When I told him about the two old trucks, he laughed uneasily saying he felt like there were ghosts in the woods too. we remembered the trucks on the beach the night before and couldn’t help but wonder if our cousins had decided to give us a logger’s welcome. we headed out of Port Orford for the touristy town of Gold Beach and the sense of crowded security it provided. but we will remember Port Orford as a charming and unusual place to visit and perhaps even enter another dimension, little changed by time.

After Gold Beach we travelled along Highway 1 into California and were amazed to see an old wooden building along the road near Jenner and the Sonoma coast that looked very Russian. Making a quick U-turn, we were able to enter the National Historic Landmark of Fort Ross named for Rossiia or Russia. Fort Ross is a landmark in the history of European imperialism. The Spanish expansion went west across the Atlantic Ocean and the Russian expansion went east across Siberia and the Pacific Ocean. in the early nineteenth century, the two waves of expansion met on the opposite side of the world along the Pacific Coast of California, with Russia arriving from the north and Spain from the south. The United States of America arrived in 1846 from the east.I had never learned about the Russian settlement in the United States in my high school history classes.

Fort Ross was established by Commerce Counselor Ivan Kuskov of the Russian-American Company. [2] Russian managers introduced many European innovations such as glass windows and stoves. Reenactments are staged and firing of the cannon was a very audible example that occurred during our visit. Fort Ross was not only home to Russians but included Poles, Finns, Ukranians, Estonians and other nationalities as well as North Pacific natives, Aleuts, Kashay, and Creoles. A technological advance also occurred at Fort Ross in the form of windmills.Built in 1814, the windmill may have been one of the most significant structures at the Russian outpost, its 38-foot vanes turning in the Northwest wind. it was the first windmill in California, using wind power to grind grain — harvested by American Indians — into bread for the Russians.

Many Native Americans died because of diseases suchas small pox, but the Europeans living at Fort Ross were kind to the native inhabitants for the most part and enjoyed their stay until they were called back to Russia in the mid 1800’s. in addition to farming and hunting Ross colonists practiced blacksmithing, tanning, brickmaking, barrel making and shipbuilding. The first ship built in California was completed in 1818.[3] Instead of wild and crazy ghosts, we encountered happy contented ghosts. They were spinning, making beautiful baskets, and dancing in their varied costumes while children and dogs played on the beach. These ghosts are still visited by tourists and honored by the state and, except for those who had contracted diseases, seemed to have enjoyed their stay there.

Some say ghosts are a metaphor for memory and connect our world to a former world that we cannot know. others such as Paul Eno say that there are many universes in which our consciousness can exist and pass through and that ghosts are ordinary people going about their business in a parallel universe, another time or both. The ghosts we met on the coast were accessible, if a bit eccentric, and at home with the mists and the sea. we enjoyed meeting them.

I don’t believe that ghosts are spirits of the dead because I don’t believe in death. in the multiverse, once you’re possible, you exist. And once you exist, you exist forever one way or another. besides, death is the absence of life, and the ghosts I’ve met are very much alive. what we call ghosts are lifeforms just as you and I are.

PAUL F. ENO, Footsteps in the Attic


[2]Alekseev, A.I. (1990). The Destiny of Russian America 1741-1867. Fairbanks, Alaska: The Limestone Press.

[3]Fort Ross State Historic Park brochure, California State Parks, P.O. Box 942896, Sacrament, CA

Ghosts on the Coast

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