The Questhaven Legends – Part One

The following represents the first of a two part investigation into the ghostly rumors surrounding Elfin Forest and Harmony Grove.  While this piece tackles the ghost stories themselves, its follow-up will probe more deeply into the practices and history of the local religious communities.

No matter how much imagination society divests itself of, however secularized its educational institutions become, however deeply so-called “scientific thinking” becomes ingrained and prized, an uneasy disquiet and thirst for both knowledge of the hereafter and communion with the heretofore alike remains ensconced in the human heart.  A desire to tear aside the curtain of the future – a desire for certainty, purpose, and connection with the departed – is never fully eradicated.  According to The Atlantic, 42% of Americans believe in ghosts, and according to The Huffington Post fully 1/3 of women consult horoscopes on a regular basis. 1 in 12 Americans owns a ouija board.  Those who fit this mold are just as likely to be college educated as not, or just as likely to be avowedly secular as religious or spiritual. Psychologists puzzle over the tenacity of such pagan tendencies, but the possible answers as to why we have these tendencies is usually less interesting and always more verbose than considering the vividly imaginative stories and legends that are borne of such a predisposition.

Nearly every human community cherishes a treasury of ghostly  myths, borne of half-truths and uncertainty – the West, with its abandoned towns, often violent history, and distinctive culture being perhaps the most uniquely American source of inspiration.  Destinations from Virginia City, Montana to Bodie, California and all points in between are rife with legends of decapitations, hangings, and restless spirits, and in North San Diego County the foothills and gorges of the Questhaven and Elfin Forest Valleys hold the most extensive legendarium of its region.  The ghost stories – both decades old and (with the advent of the internet) hours young – are delightfully camp.  Their origin may never be fully known, but the stranglehold they have on the local imagination, as well as the subject matter of the plots themselves, grow with each retelling.

Having lived in the countryside above Questhaven for twenty-five years, the stories are familiar to me in several adaptations – the detritus of nouveau-suburbanite neighbors and high school and college friends seeking to pick my brain about what really happens between the shadows of the centenarian oaks.   The stories range from the absurd to the genuinely creepy, and many bear real-world inspirations that, shoveled through a never-ending game of telephone, became twisted and distorted into contorted and decrepit shapes.  Here, in the interests of intellectual integrity, we commence an exploration of the most tenacious (and interesting) of these legends – seeking their possible contacts with historical and physical reality.  The curious spirituality of the Questhaven Valley is palpable to nearly all who visit, and it is my hope that by surveying the stories – real and feigned – that perhaps some deeper appreciation and respect for the diversity of this small corner of the southern coastal highlands will be inspired before such potential becomes further lost under accumulated layers of suspicion, urban legend, and absurdity.

Spook Canyon

It sounds like a geographic label culled from a nonsensical sixth grade campfire yarn; the fruit of overactive imagination, perhaps – a moniker only retrospectively bestowed upon this region to provide it with a colorful backstory such that its tales could draw subliminal legitimacy from its very name.  Thus, it may come as a surprise to the historically-minded individual when he discovers that Spook Canyon is indeed the name bestowed upon Elfin Forest upon its earliest Euro-American settlement.  And the name may seem quite appropriate when one considers the legends attached to these inland valleys.

Elfin Forest Canyon, aka Spook Canyon.  Elfin Forest Road coasts through the canyon bottom at left.  (Photo by Author)

Located 15 miles from the edge of the western sea, Spook Canyon, or Elfin Forest, and its tributary watersheds comprise a heaving, sagebrush-ridden upland diving into 1,000-foot-deep canyons cut from unforgiving granite basement rock by the foamy waters of perennial Escondido Creek.  No more than a quarter-mile broad at its widest point, the canyon floor is densely planted and forested with stands of California Coastal Live Oak, sycamore, and cottonwood that enshroud the valley floor with a darkened canopy, while the breezy hillsides open quickly to the sky where water becomes scarce, blanketing the loamy soil with a carpet of virgin wild lilac, sumac, and manzanita.  Viewed from above on any of the surrounding summits, the Elfin Forest region appears as an expansive, muted green carpet of rounded hilltops, furrowed by spidery canyons arrassed with marching lines of old growth forests that seem to capture the morning fog in their desperate grasp. Morning comes late and evening comes early to these canyon bottomlands, which retain a cooled, verdant clime even on the most scorching of days, and fill with a fairy dusting of thule fog even on the most dessicated of nights.

Questhaven Retreat.png
Oak Forest, Questhaven Retreat (Photo from Questhaven Flickr)

To those who call it home, Spook Canyon is an oasis of sylvan quietude – a reminder of coastal San Diego’s quieter, pastoral provenance.  There is peace and beauty in the yawning character of the landscape.  There is a bracing energy in its chilled and draughty evening air. There is a picturesque majesty in the gnarled, knotted limbs.  To others, Spook Canyon is… spooky.  There is an inherent illogic to the idea that such a place has remained rural and unspoiled although surrounded on four sides by suburban sprawl… something must be wrong with it.  There is an unnatural dampness in the air… perfect for hiding dark deeds.  There is a threatening character to the landscape and every inhabitant… whether a groping tree limb, a barn owl’s ghostly face, or an eccentric woman living in a trailer beneath a sycamore tree.  The sense of unease becomes palpable, the mind begins to spin circles.  The power of suggestion becomes potent.  And a legendarium is born.

The White Lady of Questhaven and Other Stories

“White lady?”  asks a resident who has lived in Elfin Forest for over 30 years.  “Which story do you want to hear?”

It’s a telling reaction – different variants of “White Lady” stories are common knowledge, and countless permutations thereof no doubt float through the local ghost-hunting community.

The most popular riff on the tragedy is shared with a nearly identical version of the story from far-flung Warner Springs, about 25 miles inland from here.  In it, a young merchant and his beau climbed aboard a Butterfield Overland Stage coach in St. Louis.  Her father disapproved of the courtship, and thus they were determined to make haste for the west and elope into eternal happiness and untold riches.  They married when they reached Tuscon, Arizona – a lacy, ivory slip, dress, and veil serving as her gown.  In time, the stage rumbled onto a cobbled track worming its serpentine way into a darkened wood.  At a turn in the road, the coach capsized and fell into a bouldered stream, killing the driver with a blow to the head, the horses bolting into the fog.  Climbing from the wreckage, soaked to the bone, the bridegroom looked to his lady’s injuries, which were fortunately minor, and sensing foolishness in the proposition of walking to the next settlement of size at Del Mar, spoke of the necessity that he walk ahead to find the horses.  With a kiss and a smile, and an assurance that he would not be long, he disappeared into the burgeoning gloom.

Hours passed.  The young lady now disrobed to her slip, her entire wardrobe soaked by the unfortunate tumble, necessitating laying them – including the full ensemble of wedding clothes – on a rock to dry.  With shadows lengthening and the sun disappearing behind the mountain shoulder, she began to worry about her young husband.  Taking lantern in hand, she took to the narrow trail, thick fingers of gauzy vapor rising from the creek obscuring the way.  Her soft steps blew filmy clouds of fog away from her bare feet, and slowly the darkness closed around her, faltering only in the glow of the lonely candle she carried.

As midnight fell, after walking for what seemed like hours, a full moon broke over the canyon rim.  The gauzy fog now illuminated as an impenetrable silver curtain, and she perceived an orange glow beneath the outstretched arms of a nearby oak.  Curious as to the source, she approached cautiously.  As her eyes adjusted to the light, she descried a campfire, and her heart was lifted.  Surely she had found her husband – he must have found himself lost and in need of rest, and he was always good at providing for them when they needed it most.  She began calling his name, but her calls went unreturned.  Exhausted, her heart heavy with worry, she leaned her head back against the tree and closed her eyes.  With a sigh, they fell open again, her gaze tilted upward to behold a shrouded figure, swinging in the breeze, hung by a rope from the limb above.  Startled by the shock, she knocked the limp figure, the canvas covering its face dropping to the ground, revealing the figure’s countenance to be that of none other than her well-meaning but unfortunate husband.  The shock killed her instantly, her lifeless body falling dead at the foot of the oak.

Days later, another Butterfield Stage happened across the ruined coach, the dead stage driver, and a bundle of wedding garments lying against a rock.  Further down the road, they found the deceased couple. A stage driver and his passengers cut the young man down from the tree and buried him at its base.  Beside him they placed his wife – dressing her in the white wedding dress they found by the creek – veiling her as if it was her wedding day.  None could find out how and why her husband was hung – homicide or suicide, they did not linger to investigate.


Another popular version speaks of a tale of death and misery, weaved into the shadows surrounding the figure of a woman whose husband and son left her on the shores of Cape Cod while they sought their fortune in the decades following the rush of ’49.  Drawn by the promises of land speculators, who promised veins of rich golden ore that poured as petrified drops of sparkling rain when scraped by pick from their rocky vessels, upon failing to find their fortune at Julian they entered then-unnamed Spook Canyon by way of Indian trails (So their last letter home described, anyway).  With mules in tow they passed the bounds of a craven oak forest, the sunlight dimming, the incensed air weighing heavy on their lungs with its perfumes of lilac and cottonwood blossom, never to be heard from again.  Weeks later, Kumeyayy hunters found and buried their mouldering bodies on a flattened hillside beside a creek… along with spiriting away their conveniently alive and healthy mules… but never spoke of how the wayfarers’ demise came to be.  The widow, ever faithful and stubborn in her optimism, refused to believe that her family was dead, and perpetuated in that conviction until she herself made her way west and found their lonely graves.  The experience was evidently traumatic, for she developed eccentricities, living off acorn meal and olives while residing in a ruined thatch and adobe hut – the last earthly masterwork of her late husband – next to the graves, and only emerging at night, always wearing her bridal gown. That is, of course, until a suspicious fire destroyed the lonely structure to its foundations, and burned her alive.

Still more tellings follow much the same narratives, changing details such as the cause of her death (some say Indians massacred the homestead, others say she hung herself).  But whichever tale of origins one hears, the paranormal consequences are the same: to this day, on cold and foggy evenings, the motorist risks encountering a shrieking woman, robed in white, slamming into his vehicle hood, peering wide, lifeless eyes through his windshield, heartbroken tears streaming down her pale face.

Other tales abound.

There are rumors of a spiritualist group that practices human sacrifice, and that the partial remains of their victims surface from shallow graves from time to time.

There is the claim that an insane asylum once stood at the intersection of Questhaven, Harmony Grove, and Elfin Forest Roads, which was set ablaze one evening, killing all of its patients.  The screams of its occupants can still be heard during winter storms, emanating from stone foundations scattered throughout the meadow to the south.  Still other legends place this “asylum” on the grounds of the Questhaven Retreat.

There are allegedly loitering figures that suddenly illuminate in the beam of your headlights alongside the road – maybe Ku Klux Klansmen holding clandestine meetings.

The stories go on and on, becoming more and more incredulous and sophomoric.  For instance, one website yields stories of a giant man-eating barn owl that pries the roofs off of vehicles and devours their passengers.  Another speaks of a witch astride a black steed who possesses a Medusa-like power to kill humans with a single glance into her eyes.


While the above discussed strands of narrative interweave and contradict one another with greater regularity than do major party political candidates, they all share the same consequence: attracting ghost-seeking (and general troublemaking) high school and college kids onto Elfin Forest’s winding thoroughfares at all hours of the morning.  But they also raise questions – Was “Spook Canyon’s” name really inspired by these tales?  What contacts do these stories  have with historic reality?  What is it about this place that inspires such a cluster of legend?  Unfortunately, unlike many communities, Elfin Forest has yet to yield a true “local historian,” there is no local library of diaries and journals, and those scraps of history shared by locals are often mere speculation.  Thus, ready answers to these questions are not easy to find.  However, some informed theories may be approximated through investigation of primary sources, of which the only known source is the local newspaper.

Elfin Forest Map.png
Orientation Map of Elfin Forest, Harmony Grove and Environs

Spook Canyon

The earliest printed occurrence of the name “Spook Canyon,” “Spook’s Canyon,” or “Spooks Canyon” as applied to the Elfin Forest and Harmony Grove area exists in a small periodical note from The San Diego Union published on June 28, 1900:


Perfunctory and lacking any detail, the note might assume a measure of common local knowledge, suggesting that use of the name “Spook Canyon” most certainly predates 1900, and is thus not a late 1990s-internet fabrication.

An early date of usage thus being established, teasing out its inspiration becomes the next necessary step.  From the 1970s to the present, San Diego papers have made a cottage industry of reporting on Elfin Forest’s haunted nature with great sensationalism, and more than once speculated on “Spook Canyon’s” provenance.  Like the ghost stories themselves, the origin story changes from telling to telling.  However, three theories predominate: (1) That the name was inspired by the presence of Spiritualists.  (2) That the name was inspired by ghost stories.  (3) That the name was eponymously bestowed by an early settler named Spook.

The first theory hails from the earliest journalistic speculation on the canyon’s name, and is found in a November 23, 1934 Evening Tribune article by John Davidson as part of a series discussing San Diego County place names:

One of the most beautiful of our upland valleys is known facetiously as Spook canyon.  The ruins of four adobe buildings, homes and stables, mark the site where Parker Dear and his neighbors once dwelt comfortably in the midst of plenty produced on the fat lands of Santa Rosa Ranch.  The description of the surrounding country through which the canyon was reached was in 1888 correctly stated:  “Between Escondido and the coast the land is mountainous and rough for several miles, but scattered around in various parts of it are many settlers in small valleys.”  The explanation of the name Spook canyon is to be found in the fact that at one time spiritualistic camp meetings were held here or nearby.  Harmony Grove on the way to the Dear home site surviving also as a reminder of this fact. (Emphasis added)

This theory may indeed hold some historic veracity.  Most significantly, the Evening Tribune reported that on the Halloween of 1896 (no joke) Articles of Incorporation were filed to create “The Harmony Grove Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association of San Diego County,” whose object was the “establishing, holding, and conducting of annual campmeetings and the dissemination of the philosophy and demonstration of the phenomena of spiritualism.”  During the summer months of 1901 through 1906, The San Diego Union repeatedly reported that Spiritualist meetings were held at the Harmony Grove site (8/4/1901, 8/14/1901, 5/19/1902, 7/21/1902,  7/28/1906).  On July 24, 1903, no less than the director of the Spiritualist camp itself, J.H. McPheters, took out a letter to the editor promising “with what nature has done, the improvements and the selection of speakers and test mediums, who cannot be excelled anywhere, the camp will be a grand success.”  Thus, even at these early dates, the nature of the spiritualist camp’s activities are clearly stated, and evidence is present to back up Davidson’s 1933 theory that the term Spook Canyon indeed arose from these activities.  Indeed, so entwined was the Spiritualist Association’s activities with spiritual encounters that the camp  itself began pointing to its association with such encounters in its San Diego Union advertisements, such as this one from July 30, 1949:

July 30 1949.png

Thus it is apparent by context that the Spiritualist Camp credited itself  to be “the Spook Capital of the west” and that the canyon’s name seems to draw from the camp.

The second theory, however, only emerged in the 1970s, and presents a “horse-and-cart” problem that circles back to implicate the first theory.  In a March 22, 1979 article in The San Diego Union Dr. Ron Urban – founder of the Elfin Forest Vacation Ranch – speculated that “there are two theories attributed to the origin of that name, [one of them being] because of the spooks floating around at night.”  He went on:  “That’s probably one reason for that campsite being in Harmony Grove for those spiritualists’ he adds with a straight face that confirms his attraction to the second theory.”  Urban’s theory, however, that the presence of ghosts both inspired the name and brought the spiritualists to this location, is by nature more difficult to establish.  The absence of articles speaking of ghost hunters and the stories that attract them prior to the 1970s might suggest this theory is a fabrication emanating from Elfin Forest’s vacation ranch days.  Indeed, the absence of fanciful claims about the Spiritualists in early articles about them is telling, and the first printed mention of any of the “Spook Canyon ghosts” only comes in a December 7, 1973 San Diego Union article by Nancy Ray, which claimed that the “Lady in White” legend contributed to the area’s nickname.  This article post-dates the opening of Ron Urban’s public Elfin Forest Vacation Ranch by only a few years. A July 7, 1983 article in that same paper further suggested support for the ghost theory by claiming  that the Lady in White story inspired the term Spooks Canyon.  In all cases, however, mention of any Questhaven, Elfin Forest, or Harmony Grove ghostly personality only emerges after 1973, and thus no earlier evidence suggests specific ghost stories inspired the name.  However, the difficulty of proving a negative without explicit evidence to the contrary renders this a difficult conclusion to accept with certainty.  In any event, the theory is entirely based off the hearsay of successive generations of Elfin Forest residents, and is thus inherently less reliably substantiated.

The third theory – the one perhaps most attractive to paranormal skeptics, but also the least substantiated by hard evidence and local lore alike – was mentioned by Dr. Urban in the same 1979 article described above.  Here, he speaks of one “Mr. Spooks, an early settler [who] named [the canyon] after himself.”  The Elfin Forest Town Council’s website, before it was cannibalized by poor webmasters, seemed to back this up when it said that “in the 1880s, a Welshman named Spook homesteaded in the Elfin Forest valley. As recently as 1971, remains of his orchard could be seen. It is probably because of this man that we hear the term ‘Spooks Canyon,’ which has been a nickname our valley has had for years.”

There is, however, no indication of a Mr. Spooks making a home west of Escondido in primary sources of any sort – whether in newspaper archives or the county Hall of Records.  In fact, in the early 1900s and decades prior, the area Dr.Urban purchased was part of a 600 acre holding of local rancher William G. Henshaw.  Additionally, the olive “orchard” – whose last remnants were destroyed by the 1996 Elfin Forest wildfire – might have roots going back to Rancho Rincon del Diablo.  While the presence of “squatters” on Spanish land grants was common, including one in nearby Harmony Grove which induced the well-known local legend of Frenchman Pierre Renand who sold off his hard-earned 160 acre property to a local sheepherder for a single gold coin, Mr. Spook remains a shadowy, legendary figure, whose name, like the ghost stories themselves, only appears in hearsay accounts from the 1970s onward.  Indeed, some say it is Mr. Spook himself (the 1973 San Diego Union article described above even describes him as “English”) who was the lady in white’s unfortunate husband, possibly killed in an Indian raid.  Whatever the case, the Elfin Forest Town Council’s theory, as well as that of the Union, which characterized Mr. Spook as “Welsh” and “English” respectively, seems suspect – Spook is neither a Welsh nor an English name. Thus, the theory which, on its surface, sounds most believable, becomes no more substantiated than the idea that the canyon was named for the ghosts that live there!

The above evidence considered, it follows that the most reasonable conclusion for Spook Canyon’s provenance is that of the Spiritualists who arrived at Harmony Grove as early as 1896.  And, indeed, continue their practices to this day (and will be discussed in a follow-up to this article).

The White Lady of Questhaven and Other Stories

Like Spook Canyon itself, the stories discussed above, as well as their countless permutations, are a literary garbage heap containing layers and strands that possess hypothetical contacts with true history but, mostly, constitute fabrications.

In spite of their diversity, common elements thread through many of these stories.  First, there is the matter of the lady in white herself.  As discussed previously, the first ghost stories appear in print in the 1970s – all of them dealing with a lady wearing a white, flowing dress.  In one form or another, most of these tellings involve a reporter filtering the words of Dr. Ron Urban, Fire Chief William Barker, or his wife, Abby Barker, as they recount certain events.

lady in white.png

In a March 22, 1979 San Diego Union article entitled “When Spirits Roam the Forest,” Urban describes a “ghostly” encounter with the white lady when “a car was turned upside down on the dark canyon road.  ‘The driver, a kid, swore this is how it happened: We were riding down the road when the headlights began to flicker.  They went dim and got bright.  Then all of a sudden the White Lady came down out of nowhere and flipped the car over.  The other kids with him said, ‘Yeah, that’s how it happened.’  When the CHP got there, the guy told him the same story and the officer laughed too,’ the 32-year-old Urban said, then added musingly, ‘The only thing is when I walked around to the front of the car, the headlights grew bright and then dimmed a couple of times.  Just an electrical short of course.”

Five years later, the San Diego Union regurgitated this same event in an October 31, 1983 Article by Diana Chapman… but changed the details.  “Seven [sic] years ago, a group of teenage boys was traveling on Quest Haven Road when their car flipped over, [Joann] Samson said.  ‘When the fire chief reached the scene of the accident, the lights on the car were blinking on and off.  The boys had scrambled out of the car with pale,white faces.  They told the fire chief that the lady in white came out in the road and turned their car over.’  According to Samson, there were no signs the teenagers had been drinking, and the Sheriff’s department was unable to find skidmarks on the road.”  Seems like legends grow and important details change.  The same article goes on to quote Chief Barker himself, but conveniently neglects to ask him about this incident.

The roads threading through Elfin Forest, Questhaven and Spook Canyon have long born witness to teenage drama.  On September 21, 1971, 15 year old Pauline Vellez of Encinitas died after being struck by a car driven by 16 year-old Serifan Ramirez of Del Mar on Questhaven Road.  On August 2, 1965, a massive toga party attended by 300 juveniles, resulting in the arrest of 18 people and the confiscation of 96 gallons of wine and 64 gallons of beer, was broken up by county sheriffs in a field below my house.  In a December 7, 1973 San Diego Union article, Urban describes the wooded region along Questhaven Road north of his vacation ranch as being a “Lover’s Lane.”  In a November 14, 1983 follow-up to the infamous October 31, 1983 article in the San Diego Union, Chief Barker speaks of the “100 carloads of young people [who] come into our area Halloween night, many of them intoxicated… almost every mailbox in Elfin Forest knocked over… and or roads littered with bottles and beer cans.”  Generally, the region had a reputation as a sort of bacchanal for the young and restless and poorly supervised.  Thus, it is easy to deduce that most of the Lady in White stories surfaced as simultaneous entertainment and “convenient excuses” for their debauchery and to cover up its effects.

But ideas don’t just materialize out of thin air, which is where Abby Barker comes in.  As she told the San Diego Union in 1983, “There used to be a woman who lived there and one night she got so upset with people parking and the noise that she came out in her nightgown and yelled at them.  The gown was white, and she looked like a ghost to them.  The woman has since died.  And the young folks from Escondido still park there.”

And thus a possible explanation for how the legend of the Lady in White was born.

Where “the young people parked” along old Questhaven Road.  Now closed to vehicles.

But what of the other facets of her legends?  What of the burning house that killed her and her husband?  As described previously, there is no evidence of a homesteader from England, Wales, or Cape Cod… or anywhere… whose wife was killed in a house fire.  However, there ARE stories of fires.  For example, on July 15, 1931, Mrs. Luther Gordon, wife of the county fire warden, reported that Mrs. E.W. Huddleston started a fire that completely destroyed her home when she attempted to french fry potatoes for dinner.  She foolishly left the house to visit a neighbor when the fire started, and the neighborhood banded together to extinguish the flames.  Huddleston was unhurt and insurance covered the $6000 in damage.  (San Diego Union,  July 16, 1931).  Furthermore, brush fires are exceedingly common, and rage through Elfin Forest on the order of once every ten years. Indeed local resident David Hammond died in the 1996 blaze.  But again, there is no evidence to suggest that any woman ever died in a house fire in this area.

Details of the remainder of the legend, such as the stagecoach line, constitute similar half-truths.  For example, it IS true that stagecoaches and buggies often suffered accidents when traveling through Spook Canyon. Indeed, on July 13, 1908 two men suffered minor injuries when traveling between Escondido and Del Mar via Spook Canyon when they smashed their buggy to smithereens as it swung over a cliff and tumbled 50 feet. (San Diego Union, July 14, 1908).  So well-known was the dangerous nature of the road that a December 19, 1914 letter to the editor of the San Diego Union posited that the answer to local unemployment manifested in conscripting “idle men” and putting them to work to improve “one of the worst roads” in the county – the road leading through Spook Canyon.  It wasn’t until 1950 that the road was finally paved. There are, however, no reports of smashed stagecoaches leading to murder-suicides at any point in the road’s history.

An element of truth does lie in the story, however, in that the Butterfield Overland DID possess a route through Spook Canyon that linked Ramona, Escondido, Encinitas, Del Mar, and San Diego on a spur line from the main Tulsa route to Los Angeles.

Thus, at the end of the day, the Lady in White story COULD have happened insofar as the story speaks of a stagecoach accident along a dangerous road, while the iteration of the tale speaking of a woman who died in a house fire is unverifiable at any level.

As to the remaining legends, stories of barn owls and witches on horseback who wield laser eyes of death sound like the sort of acid trip yarns readily invented by indigent teenagers when they get sick of necking in the back of their Volvos, while the remains of the “insane asylum” at the corner of Elfin Forest and Harmony Grove Roads are easily dispelled as the remains of Dr. Urban’s vacation camp.  As in the 1960s, KKK meetings might simply turn out to be toga parties and bonfires.  And although the Questhaven Retreat DID experience a fire in 1940, that fire did not destroy any buildings.  And it is not and certainly never was an asylum.

So where do these stories come from?  Clearly a combination of teenage hijinks, enabled by mischievous journalists looking for autumn filler material for Sunday special reports.  Indeed, the papers themselves clearly exhibit the “game of telephone” that transforms an ordinary traffic accident into something more nefarious.  Which just goes to show that idle journalists are just as imaginative (and embracing of a cheap thrill) as idle teens.  I guess the big lesson from all this is don’t believe everything you read.

Local Color

It is indeed a shame that the ghost stories of Questhaven have taken such strong hold of Elfin Forest’s identity – the area’s history and true-life events are nearly as colorful as the legends themselves, and so many of them are unknown.  Even the most substantive intersection of the occult with the material world – the Harmony Grove Spiritualist Association (which still exists) –  is entirely overlooked in favor of ghost women and time warps.

Indeed, even locals are unaware that their canyons and hills were the scene of many illegal distilleries and wineries during Prohibition – including one man who was arrested for possession of 2,000 gallons of claret that he claimed he would neither “drink nor sell” but instead kept for medicinal purposes (San Diego Union, October 6, 1920)

None have heard of the saga of Eugenio Morales, who challenged his brother-in-law to a duel, the story of which is told in the right hand column below:

April 20, 1920 – Evening Tribune

The Evening Tribune reported that Morales’ case was vacated one week later.

Even fewer remember the weekend pleasure trips by horse and buggy, where schoolchildren performed skits for their parents to celebrate the end of their school year.  (“Olivenhain Holds Closing Program in Picnic Ground” 5/31/1936, San Diego Union).  Even more foreign is the idea that the San Diego Union would dedicate a whole column encouraging San Diegans to explore Spook Canyon just to see the wildflowers after a particularly wet winter – the same paper that would later pigeon-hole the coastal upland into its modern-day reputation as the most haunted spot in North County.  (2/26/1960)

All of these clippings reveal a glimpse into a simpler, more sylvan age – a time when Elfin Forest and its canyons were first known as places of escape and contemplative peace rather than paranormal havens.  Perhaps it is the fact that that very peace seems unnatural in modern society which invites such unease and distrust of its existence. Whatever the case, the essential quietude remains unmarred.  The valleys still cradle forests and glades, meadows and creeks.  Coyotes and bobcats still peer from the darkness. Spiritualists still read palms and hold seances under the oak trees of Harmony Grove.  Things never really change.

And maybe that’s the real reason things are different here.

Sunset over Batiquitos and the Pacific, from Mt. Whitney, Elfin Forest (Photo by Author)

Other Topics in This Series

  • The Comfortable Hills of Home – An Introduction
  • Double Peak Homestead – An Investigative History
  • Making San Elijo – An Investigative History
  • Antiquities – Glyphs and Ruins
  • Visions of Fortune – The Legacy of the Quarries and Mines of Cerro de Las Posas
  • Country Roads  – A Drive into the Past
  • Exploring the Coronado Hills – Where What Was Still Remains
  • Elfin Forest Reserve – An Extended Review
  • The Trails of San Elijo – An Extended Review

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