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Coloma is one of our favorite haunts

(Originally published on Nov. 4, 1988) JUST BEFORE Halloween, the Roadhouse Warrior -- ever the public servant -- went ghost-busting in the Gold Country.

My target was the old Vineyard House, a 19th-century Victorian in Coloma, the community where James Marshall struck gold at Sutter's Mill in 1848. After that, a lot of fools rushed into California.

The old Vineyard House supposedly has a bevy of ghosts, but the head ghoul is Louisa Chalmers, a sadistic dame who allegedly drove her first husband to suicide and kept her crazy second husband chained in the cellar.

The sinister Mrs. Chalmers died in 1900 and is buried in the old Coloma cemetery across the road from the Vineyard House. But folks say Louisa hasn't gone quietly -- her ghost still has the run of the rickety four-story hostelry and regularly scares patrons witless.

Last year, a Sacramento couple checked into the Vineyard House, which seems like a quaint, harmless bed-and-breakfast inn along Highway 49. Around midnight, the couple was awakened by horrible screams coming from the next room. They fled to Placerville and told the sheriff it sounded as if someone was being murdered in the next room. The sheriff went to the inn and entered the room. Inside were two of the owners, sound asleep, says Arnold Cambra, assistant caretaker. "It was kind of funny when you think about it." A subsequent investigation came up empty. This was a job for the Roadhouse Warrior.

I didn't go alone -- I took my friend Brian, an Ichabod Crane look-alike, for backup. Brian, like everyone else under 30, wears black leather and spiked hair, which ought to strike fear into any 19th-century matron, even a tough biddy like Louisa.

We drove to Placerville and then veered north on Old Highway 49, a road infested with more spirits than Liquor Barn. After eight dark, lonely miles of curves and swerves, we came to a fork in the road at the solitary light of the Coloma General Store. When Brian went inside to ask directions to the Vineyard House, a little boy said in singsong tones, "It's hawn-ted!"

We turned left, and there it was, a shadowy white Victorian covered with peeling paint and clinging vines. Bathed in the eerie glow of the full moon, it looked like every haunted house you've ever seen on "Chiller Theater."

While I was parking the Alfa, I was startled by a blinding flash of light. At first I thought it was lightning, but it was coming from the basement of the Vineyard House.

Slowly, we entered the basement door. There, amid cobwebs and crumbling bricks, a gypsy fortuneteller was telling futures for a spellbound audience of 50. She summoned a middle-aged man in a three-piece suit and chanted, "I see a long, successful future in real estate." The audience murmured.

Then she plucked a young woman from the crowd, gazed into her palm and predicted she, too, would have a long future in real estate. "Your lifeline is very long. You will have many relatives, all of whom you will sell homes to." The audience applauded.

The Warrior finally realized he had interrupted a seance for Edwards Realty, and the mysterious flash of light came from a flashbulb.

Diane Van Buskirk, whose brother David is one of the owners of the Vineyard House, said that when she came to work there 16 years ago, "I kept finding impressions on the beds after I'd made them." Other employees have seen water faucets mysteriously turn on and off when nobody's there.

David Van Buskirk admitted, "We've had a lot of weird things happen in the last couple of months. A little kid was really frightened because she felt someone was sitting next to her at the dinner table. Then a wine glass shattered and broke against all four walls 15 feet away. It cleared the dining hall out in 15 minutes."

A few months ago, a chandelier fell on the floor and shattered in the parlor, Van Buskirk said. He had seen enough. "I used to sleep here. Then I stopped. It's easier to accept it than be freaked out by it."

The Warrior cased the joint and found no evidence of foul play, except perhaps in the kitchen -- Brian's petrale sole stopped him cold, while my Thai chicken tasted suspiciously like American chicken with hot sauce and coconut flakes.

Dining alone at a nearby table was Davey "Doc" Wiser, a conductor on the Southern Pacific Railroad who has carried a torch for wicked Louisa Chalmers ever since he discovered they share the same birthday: Nov. 11.

Wiser, whose long, white beard hangs to his navel, related the tale of the French-born Louisa: At age 14, she came to California with her first husband, winemaker Martin Allhoff. For a while they had a flourishing wine business. But Martin got into some tax trouble in Nevada and took his own life in a prison outhouse in Virginia City on Oct. 9, 1868.

LOUISA, a broad, dour-faced woman, somehow managed to snare Lincolnesque Robert Chalmers as her second husband. The dashing Chalmers, a prosperous hotelier, married Louisa in 1869. In 1878, they built the Vineyard House.

"Things were good until Robert started acting funny," Wiser said. "A guy was digging a grave in the cemetery when Robert told him to get out of the way and then laid down in the grave himself." In 1880, Robert Chalmers was declared mentally incompetent. Chalmers, apparently afflicted with syphilis, became a blind, raving maniac whom Louisa kept chained in a windowless room in the basement. "He got paranoid and thought Louisa was trying to poison him, so he wouldn't eat," Wiser said. On June 2, 1880, Chalmers died of starvation.

Wiser hasn't met up with Louisa's ghost yet, but he's still hoping. "I know a lady who saw her in the blue room. The lady asked, 'Where did you get that elegant pink dress?' but Louisa ignored her. (The ghost) was the same; alabaster-faced woman as in the portrait (of Louisa hanging in the Vineyard House), and she was dressed in the same dress with the rose cummerbund, the same hat with the stickpin in it, the whole nine yards."

Next week, on their mutual birth date, Wiser and a party of close friends will go across the street to the cemetery and sing happy birthday to Louisa.

Despite the aura of mayhem that envelops the Vineyard House, Wiser claims the place is filled with good spirits. If Louisa's around, she made herself scarce while the Warrior was on the premises. As far as I could tell, the biggest mystery is the people who make the 90-minute drive from Sacramento just to eat the food.

I called caretaker Arnold Cambria on Halloween. He said that since Brian and I ghost-busted the place, everything's been OK.

THE VINEYARD HOUSE is at the corner of Cold Springs Road and Highway 49 in Coloma.

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