A city that has survived massive earthquakes and fires resulting in thousands of deaths is likely to be home to ghosts, and plenty of them. So it’s no surprise that there are loads of haunted places in San Francisco. But finding these ghosts isn’t easy. It takes the guidance of a professional and the right equipment combined with excellent timing.
I’ve taken a few ghost tours in other cities and always enjoyed them. It’s a unique way to explore a city through it’s dark past and ugly secrets. But Jason had never had this experience, so during a recent trip to San Francisco, we decided to take a ghost tour together.
Haunted San Francisco Tour
Just after dark, below the iconic Transamerica building we met our guide, Jade, from The Haunt Ghost Tours. She came prepared with an EMF meter for each guest so we could carefully track spirit activity along the way. If you’ve not seen an EMF meter before, it looks a bit like a small walkie talkie, but it is supposed to track electromagnetic fields that some believe indicate the presence of spirits.
After introducing herself and setting the scene for the evening, Jade asked each participant to share their level of belief in ghosts or spirits. It was a thumbs up for “I absolutely believe”, thumbs down for “There’s definitely no such thing as ghosts” or thumbs to the side for “I’m not sure if there are ghosts, but I’m keeping an open mind.” We had a nice mix of all three in our group which certainly meant our guide had her work cut out for her.
Haunted Places In San Francisco
The starting point for our tour was on the edge of the Jackson Square Historic District, one of the oldest parts of San Francisco, which we would come to learn is home to several historic events along with plenty of ghosts and ghost stories.
We began with a stroll down Hotaling Place, an alley lined with iron hitching posts and paved with parallel waving lines marking the city’s old shoreline. The street was named for the entrepreneur Anson Parsons Hotaling, a tremendously successful seller of whiskey. During the great fire of 1906 one of the few things that survived was Hotaling’s large store of booze. Rumors were rampant about how this “miracle” occurred.
Our first ghost story of the night also took place in the alley. We learned that during the great fire 50 bulls broke loose from Cow Hollow and stampeded through the city causing further damage and killing several people. Exactly one year later a shoreman loading cargo onto a ship heard a loud rumble and looked up to see the ghosts of those stampeding bulls charging towards him.
Ghosts And The Gold Rush
If you’ve read anything about the Gold Rush then it will come as no surprise that there are ghost stories associated with it. Beginning in 1848 after the discovery of gold in Sacramento Valley, the Gold Rush is one of the most influential events in American history. Untold numbers of fortunes were made and lost during this period and it fueled a precious metal seeking frenzy that impacted everything in its midst.
Our tour continued to Gold Street, a destination in San Francisco that I’d never heard of, but found truly intriguing. This was where the assay office was located during the Gold Rush, or the place where nuggets were weighed and sold, making some instantly rich. Like in most gold mining towns, those who suddenly had money were eager to spend it on booze, women, and gambling. But at the same time these newly rich men became easy targets of theft. Gold Street soon became the most violent part of the city. As a result, this street is home to many ghosts, and it was our first chance to try to communicate with one.
San Francisco Ghosts
Jade took us around the corner and produced dowsing rods (also known as divining rods); two long copper sticks with handles that have a long history of being used to find water and ghosts. Tonight we were looking for a ghost, specifically a teenage boy who lived in the late 19th century.
A volunteer from our group stepped forward to hold the rods at a ninety degree angle while Jade asked the questions. She offered the ghost options for answering based on the movement of the rods. At first the ghost seemed to be silent and the rods remained still, but eventually movement was seen in response to the questions. Simultaneously a few of our fellow tour guests reported that their EMF meters began to leap into red territory indicating the presence of a spirit. Jade said goodnight to our ghost and we moved on.
Haunted Houses In San Francisco
A few blocks away we stopped in front of the Hippodrome, once home to dancing, gambling, and a brothel. Running beneath the building are tunnels–sometimes called Shanghai tunnels–once used to smuggle illegal goods like opium. With so much illicit activity you know there has to be a ghost, this time a woman, though no one knows exactly who she used to be. But it’s said that many people have seen a woman dressed in Victorian garb that occasionally appears in the upstairs windows.
Read Keeping Portland Weird to learn about the Shanghai tunnels in Portland, Oregon.
Ghosts In Chinatown
Our final destination for the evening was Chinatown. We stopped at Great Star Theater, formerly a Cantonese opera house where Bruce Lee’s father performed. Over the years performers and patrons described seeing a female ghost which may or may not have been connected to the opium den that was rumored to be on site.
A block away we gathered in front of the Golden Dragon restaurant, the unfortunate sight of San Francisco’s largest mass murder in 1977. At the time gang activity was common in the city and two rival gangs descended on this spot to fight. Five people were killed and eleven injured, but none were members of the gangs involved.
San Francisco Ghost Tour
So in the interest of full transparency, Jason does not believe in ghosts and I’m very skeptical. We were honest with our guide at the beginning, and while we had a great time, the tour did nothing to change our positions. The addition of EMF meters and dowsing rods added an element of fun, but they didn’t convince us ghosts were present.
So why do I enjoy ghost tours so much? First, exploring a city after dark brings a new, often less crowded, perspective. But more importantly, the history and stories shared add depth to the usual sights tourists see during the day. It’s often during these tours that I’ve learned about a city’s great tragedies that subsequently shape its future. And along the way there are colorful legends, myths, and stories shared that make it all more entertaining. So the next time you're in San Francisco, I definitely recommend booking a tour with The Haunt Ghost Tours.