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From lodges to gay bars, a rich heritage of haunting in San Francisco East Bay

Across Oakland and Alameda, California ghost hunters have searched for clues to prove rumors of hauntings spurred by the region's storied past.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Across the bay from San Francisco, a wealth of rumored real-life “haunted houses” draw curious visitors every year — and local researchers say paranormal activity may be very real.

While its more famous neighbor has many locations drawing seekers of the paranormal, the East Bay has many stories of its own according to people who study the extraordinary. Retired medium June Ahern says the same combination of historic events, from the Barbary Coast and the Gold Rush to the local boom during World War II, may have contributed to hauntings reported all over Oakland and Alameda.

Ahern has spent decades writing books on the paranormal in the San Francisco Bay Area and contributed to the recent docuseries “The Haunted Bay” by filmmaker Ying Liu, who spent several episodes exploring locations with reported spirit sightings in Alameda County. After years investigating rumored hauntings, she insists that certain places in the region are full of “spiritual activity.” 

Residents have long said some old Victorian homes in Oakland and Alameda, such as the Camron-Stanford house on Lakeside Drive and several along Castro near Interstate 580, are full of ghosts that still draw local interest — and a San Francisco Chronicle investigation

Other public sites that confirm their haunts include Alameda’s Elks Lodge, built in the early 20th century. Full of old furniture, hidden nooks, mysterious stairwells and a historic mahogany bar, rumors of Elks members haunting the place have drawn ghost hunters for years, according to former Elks exalted ruler and volunteer Shirley Bierman.

“Yes, we have ghosts in the building. But they’re happy ghosts,” Bierman said. She described moving glasses of water, loud ghostly footsteps and — during ceremonies held to honor deceased members under the preserved stained glass dome on the top floor — her distinct feelings that ghosts of members long dead are gathering for a party.

The fact that two men were once murdered by shotgun in what is now the billiards room adds to the intrigue, she added. 

The city's Eagles Lodge, not far from Elks Lodge, is one of several locations “The Haunted Bay” and Ahern explored. During each investigation, the film crew visits first with equipment to see what they can pick up, and Ahern arrives later with no prior knowledge of the location or its history, to see what she senses. She likes to go in “cold” in order not to taint what she might detect. 

Ahern said in an area so diverse with a rich history of immigration, there is great potential for hauntings. She said spiritual encounters she’s experienced tend to lead her back to the region’s tragic history, particularly during the crime-ridden Barbary Coast red light district period in the 19th century — full of corruption, sex trafficking and murder. Places with a history of death and trauma may be more likely to hold spiritual activity, she claims. 

“They (spirits) hang out where there’s a lot of paranormal activity taking place,” she said. “Think of it like a vortex of energy, and that vortex is keeping them from escaping it — nor might they want to.” 

Liu, who spent nearly a decade researching the region, said she finds it uncanny how often Ahern has correctly identified forgotten tragedies or a historical event at a location. Through Ahern, she has discovered history connected to the death of Indigenous people, or others who died in mysterious or violent ways.

“When things are highly emotional like that, and people may have died before their time, I think maybe it leads to them lingering longer. I think there’s a lot of heartbreaks and tragedy here,” she said. 

Liu said her experiences with Ahern brought her off the fence to a belief in the paranormal. She described how “nonbelievers” experienced phenomena, like a crew member who felt like an apparition was "pressing down on his shoulders and he couldn't swallow" at Oakland’s White Horse Bar, considered the nation's oldest gay bar operating since Prohibition. Liu said some report seeing a man in a hat behind the bar, or hearing strange noises like the voices of children. 

Oakland's White Horse Bar, considered the oldest remaining gay bar in America, decorated for Halloween. It's long been rumored the site of many hauntings, including behind the bar. (Natalie Hanson/ Courthouse News)

“There was a part of me that was rational and logical,” she said. “But when I actually had experiences, it freaked me out.”

Liu insisted that when her film crew visited the Eagles Lodge to investigate suspected sightings, she saw an apparition crouched in a stairwell and her team recorded voices they had not detected. Ahern said she contacted spirits of a woman and man while in the building. 

Ahern has also explored locations like the “most haunted ship in America,” the U.S.S. Hornet in Alameda. Many visitors have reported unusual “encounters” on the ship, and Liu said one of her film crew saw a man in a uniform in a doorway and heard laughter and movement. Such investigations have added to the mystery of the ship’s history.

Two of the area’s best known universities, UC Berkeley and former private university Mills College, have their share of rumors.

One legend at UC Berkeley involves the specter of a professor, Henry Morse Stephens, sometimes spotted in a chair at 19 Minor Lane in Berkeley. Ahern said there are ongoing rumors that spiritual “upset” continues on the campus because the university is holding on to Indigenous remains, possibly in a museum under the Hearst gymnasium. Representatives of the Ohlone tribe have said these people need proper burials “and they think the spirits can’t rest,” she said. 

Rumors of ghost sightings have also hounded Oakland’s formerly private university Mills College for many years, as students have reported seeing things all over the 165-year-old campus — from apparitions at Lisser Hall to a phantom carriage at residence halls. 

“Alas, I have not heard about the campus being haunted,” said Roqua Montez, UC Berkeley’s Office of Public Affairs executive director, when contacted. Mills College’s public relations team did not respond to a request for comment.

Liu’s advice when visiting “haunted” locations is to keep an open mind, as not everyone comes away with a supernatural experience.

Ahern added people must be respectful when they visit locations looking for a haunting. 

“We don’t go in provoking them (ghosts), which they do on some TV shows,” she said. 

“You have to be very respectful of the space. Show your appreciation, and don’t disrespect the ghosts either.”

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