Whether you’re a believer or not, East Contra Costa County is filled with legends and ghost stories that have been passed through time. From haunted cemeteries and mines, to creeks guarded by the dead, mysterious roads and even restaurants, we’ve collected the counties’ legends and ghost stories.
Sweeney’s Grill and Bar, Brentwood
Located on Oak Street in downtown Brentwood, Sweeney’s has been in business since the early 1800’s. That’s over 130 years.
The original saloon was known as Bacigalupe’s Bar until Jimmie Torres came to California in 1880 from Genoa, Italy; and settled in Contra Costa County in 1887. Over 130 years of history, including murder, lie within its walls.
Torres purchased Bacigalupe’s Bar in 1888 and renamed it the Torres’ Saloon and Ice House. Two buildings were built in the back. One stored ice and the other was a bath house. Customers could pay a quarter for a bath. Hitching posts and a watering trough welcomed visitors in front of the saloon. People came in to socialize, for nickel beers and to play poker, which cost eleven cents to buy into a game.
Torres was loved by the community. According to historian Kathy Leighton, who wrote about Torres in her book titled East Contra Costa County Footprints, Torres was a small man with an infectious smile. He owned one of the first bicycles in town and would pedal up and down the dusty streets. Torres campaigned for the county to build a high school in Brentwood and was involved in several organizations which served to improve the city, including the volunteer fire brigade.
In 1917, while playing a game of poker, someone snuck in through the back alley and shot Torres in the back of the head. Torres loved this town and his saloon so much, he never left. His murder is still an unsolved case, as the murderer was never apprehended.
“We look at Jimmie as our protector,” says owner Peter Charitou, who shares Sweeney’s with the spirit of Jimmie Torres.
According to Charitou, Sweeney’s had a dishwasher very familiar with Jimmy Torres. The dishwasher, who worked after closing, would often see Jimmie sitting at the first stool by the bar. Before Jimmie disappeared, he would a nod his head and leave a dime and a penny at the bar, which was the cost for buying into a poker game when Torres owned the saloon. Even though Sweeney’s has been remodeled, the original bar still stands and is Jimmie’s favorite place to sit.
Charitou also shared that a janitor often witnesses a man sitting at the first or last stool of the bar. When the janitor was in Charitou’s office and saw a photo of Jimmie Torres, he recognized him as the man by the bar.
“Jimmie is a good spirit,” says Charitou. “He watches over us.” Charitou is even protective of Jimmie Torres. He doesn’t allow paranormal groups to come in to investigate because he doesn’t want to disturb Torres. “I respect him,” he says.
Charitou feels privileged to own a business with so much historical significance. When he opens the restaurant in the morning he often finds eleven cents sitting at the bar, and knows Jimmie was looking after the restaurant. While speaking to a few customers about the history of Sweeney’s, Charitou looked in front of him and between he and the customer was a penny and a dime. “I swear, it wasn’t there before” he says.
Where there’s a dime in Sweeney’s there will be a penny somewhere nearby, letting guests know Jimmy Torres is still ready for a hand of cards.
Sweeney’s Grill and Bar is officially known for their steaks, seafood and pasta. The owner makes homemade Tiramisu that is so delicious, it might be what keeps Jimmie Torres, a fellow Italian, nearby. Guests can sit at the first or last stool of the beautiful bar and toast to Jimmie because chances are, he’s nearby watching.
For more information visit: http://www.sweeneysgrill.com/
Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve and Rose Hill Cemetery, Antioch
Situated north of Mount Diablo, Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve contains relics of ghost towns, former coal and sand mines and the historic Rosehill Cemetery.
Black Diamond Mines was the home to many poor miners and their families in late 1800’s when coal was abundant in the hills. It received its name because miners risked their lives and often found death searching for prized black diamonds that were embedded in the hills. Black lung, diseases, hazardous working conditions, and mining accidents ended the lives of many miners. The hills are the final resting place of many of the workers who died chasing after cursed black diamonds.
Today, visitors have heard the sounds of shovels and tools in the mines, even though there is no one inside. Disembodied voices have also been reported.
Black Diamond Mines is also known for its permanent residents. Sarah Norton was a midwife who died when her carriage fell over when she was on her way to deliver a baby. She was crushed to death. Norton was not a religious woman and told her children if she were to die she didn’t want a funeral. When tragedy struck and her life was abruptly ended, the people of Somersville planned a funeral for her anyway. The day of the funeral a bizarre and fierce storm struck, preventing the funeral from occurring. The next day when they tried again, another storm reportedly came out of nowhere and the livestock were so alarmed that they charged through the town. The town decided not to try to plan another funeral and quietly buried her without any ceremony in Rosehill Cemetery.
Today her spirit has been seen in Rosehill Cemetery, hovering over the graves since her death in 1879.
Another famous resident is The White Witch. Mary lived at Black Diamond Mines during the 1800’s. She was a young woman accused of witchcraft and executed for it. Some believe Mary and Sarah Norton are the same spirit lurking about the cemetery and mines. Others believe they are two different spirits. The White Witch is said to guard the coal mines and protect the children who died during the mining days. The eerie legend reports that a woman dressed in white is seen hovering above graves at Rosehill Cemetery, guarding the mines and wandering along Somersville Road at night.
Perhaps next time you hike at Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve you’ll get to meet one of their permanent residents.
Empire Mine Road, Antioch
In 2005, Antioch city leaders closed and barricaded the road that legend says lead to the “Gates of Hell.” The road is closed to all vehicle traffic, but bikers and hikers still travel down the curvy stretch.
If you drive south on Deer Valley Road, Empire Mine Road lies after The Golf Club At Roddy Ranch. The desolate stretch behind barricades is filled with legends and ghost stories.
After the first bend on Empire Mine Road, there is an old slaughterhouse at the corner. It’s haunted by an old man who walks the grounds. Visitors report strange noises coming from the barns, like chains clanking. Footsteps have also been heard.
Past the slaughterhouse, it is rumored that there is a Gravity Hill. Like most Gravity Hill tales, there is a story about a bus running off the road into a creek that caused the death of children who drowned in the creek. If you go there and put your car in neutral around the turn, you get pushed up the hill. It’s like your car being on a conveyer belt moving upwards. The legend tells that it’s the kids who died in the bus crash pushing your car up the hill to prevent you from the same grisly fate they encountered.
If you continue down the road, there are cement barriers covered in graffiti. This is the “Gates of Hell.” People have passed on the tale of an old insane asylum being at the end of the road that has since been torn down. So much death and violence occurred at the asylum that it opened a portal into Hell. The pavement in front of the cement barriers is charred, as one would expect of a portal to the netherworld.
While none of these legends are factually documented, the Contra Costa Times reported some events about this location that occurred while it was still open that add to its ghastly reputation. On October 31, 2005, Contra Contra Times reporter Sarah Krupp discussed how in 1995 a 22-year old man stumbled from Empire Mine Road just as the morning commute began. He was soaked in blood and dirt from an ambush planned by his jilted ex-girlfriend. His throat had been slit, jaw broken and he was stabbed in the back.
According to Krupp’s article; that same year, more than a dozen of rancher Jack Roddy’s cattle were killed, one with an arrow.
This and over 13 fires on the road, 10 being arson, urged city leaders to discuss closing the road. Krupp reported that tombstone maker Ron Higgins, who lived on the property where the “slaughterhouse” sits, argued that the road would close “over his dead body.” Higgins was worried the road closure would kill his business (pun intended).
Krupp reported that resident Mila Gutierrez was an advocate for the road closure. The high school secretary found the road scary to drive down, even during the day.
Later that year, the road was closed to vehicle traffic and barricades were installed in the hopes that this would help decrease violence in the area. The legend of the long winding road still remains.
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, legends and ghost stories are all around us. They are part of our history and most people are not believers until part of history stumbles across their path. It could be a woman in white wandering along a highway, a friendly smile from an old -fashioned man at a bar or even seeing someone riding their horse along the creek.
By Amy Schrader
Arts & Entertainment Editor
Email: [email protected]