Ghosts of Los Angeles Harbor

Photo of Los Angeles Harbor Main Channel from the early 1900s

If you believe in ghosts, San Pedro, as with virtually any city in the world, has many. A well-known paranormal researcher and author advised against researching San Pedro’s ghosts because they are apparently generally regarded by the field as being the meanest, nastiest you’ll find. That’s not necessarily surprising, given the mythology of San Pedro as a town of hard drinking sailors.

Still, back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, San Pedro’s Waterfront was a pretty rowdy place.

The most notorious buildings are generally long gone. Many were along Front Street (now Harbor Blvd.) and Beacon Street and in are that was called Happy Valley—the saloons, dance halls, brothels, even street corners—where crime and death were so frequent during the roughest days of the seaport town. Some of the street corners don’t even exist anymore because of redevelopment and the reconfigurations that came with it.

But some say that ghosts are not necessarily cemented to a particular building; they may linger in the area where they died or had some other horrific experience—or where they just want to spook people.

And based on accounts, we can assume that San Pedro’s ghosts are probably hanging around geographic areas when “their” buildings are gone.

Front Street. as it was back around the turn of the 20th Century no longer exists. It’s been replaced by Harbor Blvd. and that replacement meant moving a lot of dirt and destroying all of the buildings.

But Front Street does still exist in two places. One is north of the Vincent Thomas Bridge where the road still carries that name. The other is, if you believe, in the spirits that still haunt a particular part of town that used to be Front Street.

Peppertree Park sits adjacent to the San Pedro Municipal Building, popularly known as, “San Pedro City Hall.” In its day that area was bounded by Front Street on the East, Beacon Street on the west, and Sixth Street on the north. It was the location of the San Pedro News Company (a cigar and confectionary store), Nelson Ward Grocery, harness maker C.O. Widlund,  a number of insurance companies, and The Criterion saloon.

In 1891, Gus Lindblatt, a Swedish sailor, was found in grave condition at the rear of the building, suffering either from a brain hemorrhage or a blow to the head. The coroner concluded it was a brain hemorrhage—he’d had a stroke or an aneurysm had given way and leaked blood into his skull.

But both causes of death are fairly rare for a 33-year-old man.

And if present day paranormal evidence is any guide, the coroner and coroner’s jury that affirmed the verdict were wrong. If you’re out at that corner late at night when traffic is quiet and people aren’t around, you might hear someone with a Swedish accent saying, “No! No money! No! Don’t you…” And the voice trails off.

Before 1909, the land along the Waterfront was between 30 and 50 feet higher than it is today. The area was excavated, taking away a series of gulches that were collectively known as, “Happy Valley.” Joe Barca, an Italian immigrant who was considered to be a quiet, unassuming man, but who got into many fights—generally defending his wife’s honor—at one time accidentally killed a man.

Despite the reporting of the time, it’s apparent that Joe was never a very happy or quiet man. He was quite jealous.

And there have been reports of shouting—sometimes it’s said to sound like Italian—late at night or early in the morning in the area that used to be Happy Valley.  Nowadays, it’s home to the Port of Los Angeles headquarters, a high school, the empty county courthouse, office buildings, and the everyday structures of a city’s life.

It’s not an area people frequent at night. Still, the ghost of Joe Barca, looking for the most recent person who slandered his wife might be walking those streets. He especially seems to give special attention to couples walking together. And many couples have taken off running when confronted with the ghost of Joe, wondering who that is with his wife.

Whatever you do, don’t get into an argument with him.

Saturday nights were, of course, the busiest and rowdiest in Happy Valley. Not that other nights were particularly quiet, but most workers had Sunday off and after an arduous six-day work week, Saturdays were a time to unwind.

And because the customers were taking the opportunity to blow off steam, Saturday nights were the most work for the bouncers and constables in town.

One owner, though, Alf the Butcher, took a hands-on approach to running his business—and running off business that was causing trouble. He owned a number of recreational establishments in Happy Valley and beyond. And when need be, he would usher a disorderly patron to the door or pick him up by the seat of his pants and carry him out the door or just take a swing at him.

If you happen to be anywhere around Fifth Street or the area that was once Fourth Street or sometimes even by Third Street between Palos Verdes Street and Centre Street late on a Saturday night, there’s a good chance you will hear a booming, gruff voice telling you to, “Get out and stay out!” You won’t be able to tell from where the voice comes, whether it’s echoing off one of the many new buildings in that area or if it’s right behind you.

No matter. Many a late night stroller in that area has taken off running because Butcher Alf told them to get out.

Vinegar Hill is officially a historic district of the City of Los Angeles in San Pedro. It is said to have gotten its name from the wineries that were located in the area during the 1800s and early 1900s. The vintners, it is said, discarded the spent grape skins and other materials left over from pressings on the slopes of the gulches that make up many of the area’s streets. These leftover grapes contained enough sugar to interact with the yeast naturally occurring in the air and would ferment, eventually becoming vinegar and smelling like it. Thus, the area is Vinegar Hill.

As the years progressed, and by 1910, before the development of the Vista del Oro area and other homes up the slope of San Pedro Hill above Gaffey Street, Vinegar Hill was regarded as one of the finest places to live in the town.

Nowadays, Vinegar Hill is a mix of turn of the century homes, some restored to near-original and some modernized and reflecting the various fashions of design that have been popular over the past century or so, to post-mid-century apartment buildings. Not so much has changed, though, that some semblance of the heyday of the neighborhood is completely hidden.

And ghosts probably like that.

It was on Vinegar Hill that August Timms lost his life. The well-respected chief of detectives of the Los Angeles Police Department, who investigated the crime personally, said it was obviously an accidental fall that killed Timms. No coroner’s inquest necessary, he declared.

But there were some odd points about this man’s death that may lead one to believe it was not an accident.

A man jumped out of a car that pulled up while police were investigating the death scene at 265 W. Eighth Street. “Has there been a killing?” he asked before jumping back in the car and speeding off.

Despite a good description of the man and the car—even the license plate number—the police quickly abandoned their search for it. And with it they abandoned their chance to find out why anyone would ask such an improbable question. Improbable, that is, if the man and his companion had just been passing by.

But that man was reported to have had marks on his face, perhaps indicating he had been in a fight.

Now, this was 1925 and fights along the waterfront and Beacon Street were far less frequent than they had been in an earlier era. There were no reported fights in either of those areas that night.

August Timms had just quit his job as a captain on the cross-channel ferry. His plans, if any, are lost to history.

But it was not the kind of job that many men gave up willingly or on a whim.

And so the death of August Timms remains, despite official findings, a mystery. It’s those kinds of mysteries that seem to make the deceased very unhappy in their afterlives.

That could be why late at night Eighth Street in San Pedro’s Vinegar Hill gives people walking along it pause. Or a fright.

It’s been reported that those walking on the south side of Eighth Street—the side where August Timms died or was murdered—will sometimes quite suddenly jump because they have the sense that someone has jumped in front of them or has rolled down the embankment in front of them.

But invariably there is no one there.

There is a fairly famous house in Vinegar Hill—we won’t name it here, but it’s easy enough to figure out which one it is because it’s got a name attached to it. It was reportedly built around 1912, supposedly by a Danish sea captain.

This big Eastlake style structure has a turret with a widow’s walk verandah around it. During the stretches of time that it’s been unoccupied, late night passers-by have reported seeing from a distance what looks like a lantern on the outside of the turret. But when they get closer to the home, there is no lantern there and it’s never been captured in photos, either from a distance or close up, even when the light is visible to the naked eye. And observers are certain it is not a reflection from a nearby street light.

There are no available reports of nefarious activities around the house, but some surmise that the ghost of the sea captain’s wife may still be around, lighting the lantern for her husband to see as he arrives back in port, just as she did some hundred years ago.

A few blocks south of what is today the Vinegar Hill Historic District is a non-descript square two-story building on the southeast corner of Centre and 12th Streets. It has a retail space on the bottom floor that has been largely vacant over the years and apartments above.

But back in the 1930s the building was the local headquarters for the Industrial Workers of the World, a union and political movement often referred to as the “Wobblies.” The IWW, founded in 1905, still exists and is both a general and industrial union that uses revolutionary tactics in its operations.

Back when it had a San Pedro headquarters the IWW was widely regarded as being communistic. And that didn’t sit well with some quarters of the Southern California population, particularly the few who were members of the Ku Klux Klan, which had a meeting hall on 10th Street west of Gaffey Street.

A couple decades ago an old-timer who grew up in San Pedro recalled the KKK coming to raid the IWW headquarters. The robed members pulled up in a couple of pickup trucks and proceeded to ransack the building’s interior, chasing the members out and reportedly even throwing hot coffee on one of them and causing serious burns.

After doing their dirty work, the klan members then went down Centre Street to a marshy field at 22nd Street and burned a cross.

While that was apparently about all that came of that night, there are reports that people can still hear what sounds like a raucous union meeting going on in that building sometimes, even when it’s unoccupied. And there’s almost always the smell of coffee in the air when anyone walks past it.

Well-known paranormal researchers have investigated reported sightings at San Pedro’s Ft. MacArthur. But they have always come up empty when they approach the location with their recording equipment and teams of observers.

But ghosts aren’t stupid. If they don’t want to be found, they won’t be.

Ghost sightings usually take place at night. There are theories about why this is so. Some contend it’s because most ghosts don’t actually want to be seen by the living. Others contend that the darkness is just the ghosts’ “time.” That is, the night is their realm. Yet others believe that it’s just easier to see ghosts in the night because what we’re really viewing is their aura or some energy that they possess.

Whatever the reason, the reports of ghost sightings at Ft. MacArthur usually occur at night. But the presence of ghosts there can occur at any time.

Nowadays, Ft. MacArthur—the former main section of the base known as the Middle Reservation—is primarily housing for personnel stationed at Los Angeles Air Force Base and personnel support facilities, including a chapel and community center. There is also an Inn where active duty and retired personnel can stay.

The base is pretty quiet at night. At nine each night Taps plays from a recording, echoing through the cliffs and northward, some nights if the wind is right and the fog hasn’t rolled in, as far as Vinegar Hill. The community center holds events and hosts parties. But by and large that part of Ft. MacArthur is a residential area with few people out to experience what ghostly apparitions may make themselves known—willingly or not.

The base is protected by federal security guards and one former guard has recalled some strange occurrences when he happened to draw the graveyard shift.

He was making his regular 2 a.m. rounds and was around the side of the community center when he heard a couple laughing, sounding like they were probably drunk. There had been no events at the community center that night. As he made his way around to the nearest street side of the building he heard a car door slam, then a few moments later a second car door closing. Then an engine starting. He rounded the corner of the building just as he heard the car put into gear. But when he rounded that corner, there was no car in sight, not near the building and not on the road.

The engine, he said, didn’t sound modern and smooth, but more like the sounds of the classics of the 1930s and 1940s he knew from his teen years. It was a stick shift he heard, he was sure, because of the familiar grinding of the gears. And the sound of the car driving off was that of another era.

The guard radioed the gate, but his colleague on duty there said no cars were around.

And he heard a nearly identical play of sounds every Tuesday that he worked the graveyard shift and did the 2 a.m. rounds.

The Warner Grand Theatre is widely regarded as the crown jewel of downtown San Pedro. This elaborate restored 1931 movie house was dedicated by Jack Warner himself, principal of the Warner Bros. film company and he called it, “The Palace of Your Dreams.”

It was an active movie theater for many decades, but by the 1990s, after having gone through various owners with various schemes to present art or make money, it was becoming derelict and was in danger of being demolished—in an era when old buildings were looked upon as objects to be torn down, replaced, and forgotten.

But the community banded together and the city council member wrangled the funding and the city of Los Angeles bought the theater and today it is a venue for plays, concert performances, and even films.

Beneath the stage of the Warner Grand is something of a rabbit warren of rooms joined by a long hallway. The rooms are generally used for dressing during plays or as green rooms for performers.

Given the grand nature of the theater house itself, many think that any spirits who reside there must spend their time where the performances were and are held.

But it’s down in that hallway that the greatest number of ghost sightings has been reported.

There’s the ghost of the former theater manager who, it is said, stands by in the hallway during every performance of any kind, as if he’s waiting to be called upon to solve a problem or usher a singer or speaker upstairs. He’s a ghostly figure, indeed, seen only in a kind of green shadow. And it is said that he appears to be constantly looking at his wrist, as though checking his watch.

Then there’s the Diva. No one knows who she is or might have been. Perhaps she was a latter day performer or perhaps she was one of the stars who occasionally attended showings of their movies in the old film palace’s heyday. Either way, she’s very demanding. No one has reported hearing her say anything, but they have seen her in shadow, apparently dressed in a flowing white gown. And they say she’s a diva not just by her appearance, but because she pushes people around—literally, as in she will physically push people, either in the dressing rooms or hallway. Those waiting to go on stage for one of the many theatrical performances staged in the Warner Grand have reported being pushed over, for example, the make-up table and when they turn around to see who pushed them, no one is there, although they might feel a rush of air, as though someone is just leaving.

Milo Smith was an attorney who was brutally murdered in his office in the Matthews Building on Pacific Avenue by two men he had befriended while out cruising and drinking on Beacon Street. The Matthews Building is not out of the ordinary today, but was a prestigious address back in the late 1950s when the murder took place. The back of the building, aside from its brick construction of the old style, isn’t very special, either. It’s on an alley. But there are those who swear that they hear the roar of a big V8 engine every morning at 2:55 a.m., about the time Smith’s driver had left the office headed for home in the attorney’s beige Cadillac—and just minutes before the exact time Milo Smith was reportedly killed.

But whenever anyone looks out to see where the sound comes from, there’s nothing to be seen.

There have also been reports of more than one person laughing in that alleyway, always between 2 and 3 in the morning, but with no person in sight. Eerily, though, the laughter is always followed by a lone voice saying, “No! No! You don’t know what you’re doing!”

And, what’s more, cab companies have gotten so used to getting phone calls for a cab to pick someone up at the Matthews Building early in the morning—with no one there when the cabs arrive—that they routinely ignore the calls. On the night of the murder, there were two calls for cabs to the building, but no one ever emerged to take the taxi.

Pirates have never been much of an issue in the waters around San Pedro, although that’s the nickname of the local high school’s athletic teams. But there is one confirmed sighting of a pirate ship directly off the southern edge of the harbor.

One early morning some years ago, a longshore worker had finished an overnight shift and stopped for breakfast at Kinetti’s, a café that used to be adjacent to the harbor’s commercial fish market. After breakfast, just before dawn, she went to her truck and was checking for voice mails on her phone. It was a foggy morning, but not pea soup thick. And through the break in the fog she saw what she thought was a sailing vessel. Looking more closely as the ship drew closer, she was certain she saw the skull and crossbones flag that’s stereotypical of pirate vessels.

She got on her phone and called her best friend, awakening her, to excitedly tell her what she was seeing. The friend, not very pleased about being awakened two hours early, mumbled, “they’re filming a pirate movie, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’” and hung up.

So the vessel was, indeed, a pirate ship of sorts. But in reality, it was a regular sailing ship (probably the Lady Washington) that had been outfitted by the production company to look like Capt. Jack Sparrow’s vessel.