Built in 1878-79, the Vineyard House stands on a hill overlooking the town of Coloma, nestled close to the American River in the Sierra Mountains of California. This four-story Victorian structure, with nineteen rooms, nine fireplaces, encircled by a porch with a second-floor balcony is haunted.
The story began when two men’s lives became strangely entwined and both died shocking deaths. Martin Allhoff, a native of Germany, and Robert Chalmers, a Scotsman, came to California during the rush of gold seekers hoping to strike it rich in the land around Coloma. They found some gold, but neither found great wealth.
Disillusioned with the difficulties of gold mining, bloody hands, broken bones and such, the two men decided to change occupations. Allhoff became a vintner and Chalmers an innkeeper.
Allhoff and his wife Louise enjoyed a prosperous life. He boasted that he had the best varieties of grapes, Concord, Cataawha, and Eden. Beyond the vineyards were his wine cellars, where the grape juices would be aged into multi-tasting delicacies. When he was jailed for alleged tax and liquor license violations, he brooded about the shame and disgrace he’d brought on his family and business. He committed suicide.
Robert Chalmers acquired the Sierra Nevada Hotel. He made a decision that was both unique and courageous for the gold rush country. In a region inundated with saloons and hotel bars, guests at his inn would be limited to teetotalers. No one came, the rooms remained vacant, the cashbox empty. In time he developed a small clientele of religious zealots and families seeking to protect their children from the influence of dens of iniquity all around them. He sponsored several civic affairs, but hardly any money came in.
He needed to look for more profitable means. He thought of the vast vineyards of his deceased friend, Martin Allhoff. His wife inherited the vineyards, winery, and cellars as well as all the other assets of her late husband. They married in 1869 and began a period of prosperity. As with Allhoff, Chalmers’ wines won special awards. In 1878, nine years after his marriage to Louise, he began his dream home. It would be called the Vineyard House. It became the home for his family, and a hotel considered the finest in all of Northern California. On April 4, 1879, a grand opening was held, and in all its pageantry, a large crowd partied and participated in the festivities. It became the meeting place of the elite, those who had found riches and wealth in the gold fields, and those who had it without the hardships of labor.
Former President Ulysses S. Grant visited and discussed the Civil War and Chalmers announced he’d been elected to the State Legislature. Then disaster struck. But unlike Allhoff, his started with a loss of memory. He’d say one thing and do another. He became short tempered, frightening his wife and children as well as the household staff. He would watch a grave being dug in the cemetery across the street from the mansion where Allhoff was buried. He’d go and lie in it, his arms crossed over his chest in the traditional position. His family and staff would have to restrain him and bring him home.
Several servants threatened to quit and, frightened for everyone’s safety, Louise had a cell with iron bars constructed in the basement. She convinced her husband that he should look inside, and once there, she locked the door behind him. There, alone, in the solitary world of his own demented illness, Chalmers drifted into the crazy darkness that he was destined for, without a worry of harming others. He writhed and moaned, cried out and banged his head against the bars which held him captive. Eventually he lost his eyesight and mumbled incoherently, as he moved about in this black, miserable cell. He was fed and checked on a daily basis, a chore no one in the family looked forward to.
In the end, he thought his wife was trying to poison him so he stopped eating. In 1881, he starved to death. After Louise died in 1900, strange occurrences started happening at Vineyard House. Robert Chalmers, although dead, refused to leave his home. A spirit, a part of his psyche, chose to be earthbound and stubbornly decided to remain at the mansion. Tenants complained of mysterious voices and sounds of ghostly footsteps and stomping that echoed along the corridors in what should have been the quiet hours of darkness. One boarder fled in the middle of the night so frightened he refused to say what he’d seen.
For many decades the Vineyard House was operated as a run-down rooming house and restaurant under a succession of owners. Ghost rumors abounded and the weird phenomena continued. Guests complained of hearing the rustling of skirts, metallic clangs and heavy breathing. One couple said they heard a group of noisy guests enter the front door and start up the stairs. Planning to complain, the couple opened their door to quiet the revelers. What they saw were three men in Victorian clothing who vanished before their eyes.
In 1975 a former restaurateur purchased the mansion and started renovations. Floors, stairs and balustrades were stripped to the natural wood. Walls were papered. Paint was applied where needed, which meant everywhere. They found forgotten furniture in the dark corners of the attic which helped their plan of refurbishing the mansion back to its original state.
No matter what plans the owner made for redecorating, it seemed to be predestined. “I’d painstakingly choose colors and wallpaper, paint and accessories,” he said. “My order would arrive in completely contrasting shades than what I asked for. This happened consistently. Imagine my surprise when thumbing through an old Vineyard scrapbook I found that the colors and fabrics that had been delivered matched the original Vineyard House décor. That’s when I began to realize somebody from beyond our world wanted to keep this house the way it was.”
He went on to say, “Strange things began to happen right after I purchased the mansion. A cup would be misplaced; a treasured bud vase would disappear and be rediscovered in some ungodly and most unlikely spot.”
Several old style wood coffins were discovered under the porch during the restoration – the homemade type, wider angled in the middle, held together with wood slots. It was known several prisoners who occupied the basement jail in the 1800’s had been executed, strung from an old oak tree the front yard of the Vineyard House. Another coffin was found in an old crawl space.
Today Robert Chalmers’ ghost bangs the walls when he’s aggravated. His spirit takes pride in annoying the guests that do not meet with his approval. His presence is felt throughout the house, including the basement, which when occupied, houses a downstairs dungeon-like pub, alongside the cell he once occupied. In life he was not a man sympathetic to the consumption of alcohol. “One night while tending the bar in the downstairs pub,” one of the owners said, “my customers and I were startled to see one cup in a series of eight hanging from nails on the wall begin to rattle by itself. It tweaked and moved while the others were still. A hollow silence fell over the place. Then, the cups started to bang and bump against the others in random disorder. Then as quickly as it began, the cups calmed and stopped. I thought it was over, but not the case. When I picked up dual shot glasses from beneath the counter, and wrists up, placed them together on the bar, I turned momentarily to grab the bottle to fill them. As I turned back, ready to pour, I saw the teetering and jumping of those two shot glasses, unaided by any human hands, proceed to slide across the bar to the waiting customer, empty.”
So many more sightings have happened over the years. Right now the place is empty, at least of mortals. I always look to see if Louise is standing at an upstairs window when I drive through Coloma, past the Vineyard House. Rumors that she walks the halls protecting her home still persist.
Information found in Nancy Bradley and Robert Reppert’s accounting in their book, “Gold Rush Ghosts.”