The view from Point Sur Lighthouse is breathtaking. It’s perched up on a huge rock and surrounded by water on three sides. Shimmering views of the Pacific. Sea lions echoing up from the rocks below. Sea otters basking in the kelp beds. It’s utterly isolated, far away from the road on a craggy stretch of coastline just north of Big Sur.
It’s one of the oldest and most remote lighthouses in California, a beacon for ships navigating some of the most treacherous waters of the California coast. More than a dozen shipwrecks have happened nearby. This section of coast was also the site where the airship called the USS Macon (a precursor to the blimp) crashed in 1935.
The lighthouse was built in 1889, and the keepers and their families who lived next to it could get supplies only by ship. A doctor was a four-hour horseback ride away in Monterey. To leave this lighthouse in the early years, residents had to climb down nearly 400 stairs and trek several miles to a county road. Highway 1 wasn’t completed from Carmel to San Simeon until 1937.
Even though lighthouse life was lonely for the kids who grew up here, the lighthouse keepers and their wives often fell in love with these breathtaking ocean views. The head lightkeeper’s house, which has been restored, has an ocean-view window in every room, including the closets and bathrooms. Imagine watching whales spout and breach while brushing your teeth!
The lighthouse is now a state historic park. It offers limited visiting hours and tours, often led by docents like Julie Nunes. She drives two hours each way from San Jose to volunteer here.
“This is my Shangri-La,” she says. “It’s just so utterly beautiful and peaceful. There’s something about this place that’s so calming.”
So it makes sense, she says, that the families who once lived here have come back. As ghosts.
Nunes is not scared of ghosts. She’s intrigued by them. She brings her tape recorder when she volunteers here and says she often picks up the sounds of ghosts.
She plays me one of an eerie female voice whispering “Now she wants you to go home.” In another, a woman says, “Pokey, go to bed.” (Listen to the radio version of this story if you want to hear them.)
Nunes says that last recording captured the voice of Catherine Ingersoll, a Danish immigrant who was married to a lighthouse keeper. She’s apparently telling her daughter, nicknamed Pokey, to go up to bed. You can hear the faint sound of a little girl’s voice responding.
The lighthouse was automated by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1972, and the last lighthouse keeper left here in 1974. So these days, when you come to visit this rock, it feels very empty, even if you join one of their regular tours. You can’t see another house anywhere, and the winding path down to Highway 1 seems miles long.
Many families lived here over the course of nearly a century, and Nunes always knocks to ask permission to come in, in case any of their spirits are still around.
“Hello, it’s Julie!” she chirps to the empty house. “Hi Ruth! Can we come in to visit?”
She’s talking to the ghost of a resident she says used to live in this house. Nunes says Ruth’s spirit still hangs out in the kitchen, because she liked to cook. Nunes says Ruth’s ghosts often closes the doors in the kitchen, which has been restored to look like it did in the 1950s.
She’s hoping we’ll get to hear Ruth talking to us through a ghost-hunting device called an Ovilus, used by paranormal investigators. It has a dictionary of about 3,000 words, and supposedly each word has a different sound frequency that ghosts can use to “talk” to humans.
“Is anybody else here with us right now that we can’t see?” Nunes asks the empty kitchen. “Pokey, are you here? Can you come say hi?”
We don’t hear anything but the wind rattling the windows. The wind here can be strong, up to 50 mph. Nunes says at one point a lighthouse keeper’s dog got blown off a cliff. The dog survived.
It’s getting a little bit creepy. It’s hard to tell if this is a hokey trick for Halloween, because docents have decorated rooms with fake skeletons and witches' hats. But Nunes seems really convinced.
“Nothing evil or malevolent ever happened here,” says Nunes. “These are nice ghosts.”
She puts the Ovilus down on the kitchen table next to a pair of plastic skeleton arms, and asks any ghosts to tap the black box, so it can sense a vibration.
Look closely at the skeleton hand to the left, near the coffee mug. It begins to twitch. Just a tiny bit, but it’s definitely moving. I am utterly freaked out at this point.
Nunes asks the spirits to make the skeleton hands move again. No luck, but we do start to hear a weird static buzz through our headphones as we're recording our interview with Nunes. The buzzing doesn’t go away until we leave the building. Weird, right?
You’re probably thinking all of this is a gimmick to try to get people to visit this remote lighthouse. After all, Julie Nunes does a ghost-hunting tour to help raise money for lighthouse restoration on the weekends before Halloween. Even some of the other docents who volunteer regularly here don’t believe Julie’s ghost tales.
But one volunteer named Sheila Fraser says she used to be a skeptic, until she had her own encounter. The other docents call her “the level-headed Canadian.”
Fraser volunteers to clean the head lighthouse keeper’s house every Thursday. Usually she’s the only one in the building at that time. One morning, she was putting away the vacuum when she heard something downstairs. She looked down at the stairway landing, and says she saw a woman who looked very real.
“She was turn of the century. Had her hair up, maybe in her late 30s, early 40s... long sleeves, poofy, long skirt,” says Fraser. “She turned and looked up at me and she was gone.”
Fraser says she also had an encounter with a male ghost looking in at her through the living room window of the lighthouse keeper's house.
It all sounds a little far-fetched. Even Nunes’ ghost-sensing Ovilus isn’t picking up any words or vibrations from ghosts.
But the minute we walk into a different building, the former blacksmith shop, the Ovilus starts squawking.
“Who’s here with us right now?” asks Nunes. “Walter,” answers the Ovilus, which is programmed to sense words and articulate them in a robotic voice.
At this point we are thoroughly freaked out.
“They’re doing a radio show and they’d like to interview you, Walter,” Nunes says, like it’s the most normal thing in the world. “Would you like to be on the radio, Walter?”
Walter and any of the other ghosts don’t say much more. The machine stops talking. But it does spell out a few words that make it seem like the ghosts know who we are: PRESS. REPORT. INVESTIGATE. STATEMENT. THANK.
I am a level-headed Californian myself, and I don’t usually go for the supernatural. But as the sun starts to set, I’m pretty relieved to be getting back to Highway 1. I’m not sure I could handle walking through the spooky Point Sur Lighthouse at night.