Is California’s oldest B&B, Shaw House in Ferndale, haunted?

Louetta R. Clark


The owner of the Shaw House — California’s oldest bed-and-breakfast, and the first structure built in the historic town of Ferndale — would like you to know that the place is definitely not haunted.

OK, yes, it dates back to 1854, and served as the town’s first courthouse, post office, hotel and tavern — and also as a mortuary. It’s still filled with some of the original furnishings and art, along with a Gump’s marble fireplace and eerie photographs of the first occupants. There is one room that has never been rented out, and no one will say why.

But none of this has anything to do with any sort of lingering ghosts, wrathful apparitions or other non-human entities residing in or even occasionally visiting the premises.

“People always ask me, ‘Are there ghosts?’ No,” says owner Paula Bigley.

The Shaw House in Ferndale was constructed in the Carpenter Gothic style in 1854.

Ashley Harrell/SFGATE

Direct and bright-eyed, Bigley is leading a short tour of the house, a Carpenter Gothic treasure featuring eight guest rooms and sitting on a verdant acre alive with redwoods, cypress trees, fruit trees and roses. Birds and butterflies flit around the gardens and deer tend to visit in the mornings, showing no apprehension whatsoever about paranormal activity.

The first stop on Bigley’s tour, though, is the study, where the photographs of the initial residents adorn a cherrywood bookcase beside the fireplace. “So the Abraham Lincoln-looking guy, his name was Seth Shaw,” she says. “And he was part of the giant movement west.”

Originally from Vermont, Shaw was a daguerreotypist who traveled to San Francisco during the Gold Rush with his brother, artist Stephen Shaw. In 1852, the adventurers crossed the Eel River in a canoe and cruised up a tributary and through a creek. They found themselves in a thicket dense with alder, spruce, redwood and gargantuan ferns.  

They didn’t find it unsettling in the slightest, and obtained a pair of claims of about 160 acres each. They cleared some of the land and constructed a road from the river, along with a small cabin. “[Shaw] started building the house, and he primarily built it to please her,” Bigley says, pointing to a photograph of a woman who looks almost impossible to please.

Seth Shaw built the Shaw House in Ferndale in an attempt to please his fiancee, Isabella Armitage Shaw, who preferred city life in San Francisco.

Seth Shaw built the Shaw House in Ferndale in an attempt to please his fiancee, Isabella Armitage Shaw, who preferred city life in San Francisco.

Ashley Harrell/SFGATE

Isabella was his fiancee, Bigley continues, and she was perfectly happy living in San Francisco. To lure her to the remote northern stretches of the state, Shaw would need to build an absolute masterpiece, and he did. Once referred to as “a perfect Victorian Gothic Revial cottage,” the house is decidedly pointy-looking, with gables and dormers adorned in gingerbread trim.

Accounts differ on which building served as the model for Shaw House, which is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Some accounts say it was modeled after the same home that inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The House of Seven Gables” in Salem, Massachusetts. Others point closer to Ferndale and suggest Lachryma Montis in Sonoma, the estate of General Mariano Vallejo, provided architectural inspiration.

In its early years, Shaw House served as a hub for just about everything happening in the area: mail collecting, newlywed overnights, court proceedings, medical procedures.

“Children have been born in that room,” Bigley says, indicating the dining room, which today is defined by floral print linens, a lacy tablecloth and delicate china. Gesturing toward neighboring rooms, she says, “and quilt-making has gone on in that room. This room served as a mortuary.”

Shaw, a man of many talents, took on the duties of an undertaker, Bigley admits. But putting the dead to rest in a given building doesn’t necessarily mean said dead will go about haunting the place. It is, of course, difficult to keep the rumors at bay.

In the 1800s, people were born in this room in the Shaw House, which now serves as the dining room.

In the 1800s, people were born in this room in the Shaw House, which now serves as the dining room.

Ashley Harrell/SFGATE

In the 1800s, red glass was very expensive and often displayed prominently in the homes of the wealthy.

In the 1800s, red glass was very expensive and often displayed prominently in the homes of the wealthy.

Ashley Harrell/SFGATE

A chef who asked to remain anonymous recently took a job at Shaw House had heard whispers of hauntings from fellow Ferndale residents, and during an early shift in which she was alone in the kitchen, a curious thing happened.

“I just didn’t really know the routine yet, and I was in the pantry, which is where I do a lot of my baking,” the chef says. “I heard like, as loud as someone was right in my ear, ‘Helllllo!’”

She yelled “hello” back. Silence. It shook her up, and she found herself thinking: “OK, all right, it’s haunted.”

A few minutes later, she went to the laundry room and there was a cleaner in there. “Did you say ‘hello’ to me?” the chef asked, and the cleaner nodded. That cleared up one spooky incident, but questions lingered. “Being in such an old house, it’s hard not to be suspicious and wonder, and we do have one room that we don’t rent out,” the chef says, lowering her voice. “… It’s sort of mysterious. We don’t know why.”

To find out whether records of any hauntings at Shaw House exist, SFGATE called the Ferndale Museum. There’s a thick file over there on the property, and a museum employee went through much of it, including numerous articles referencing the house over the years. The employee found no references to any hauntings whatsoever. 

“I was raised here, and I never heard anything about the Shaw House being haunted,” the employee tells SFGATE. When asked for her name, though, she says she prefers to remain anonymous. “I could be wrong,” she says. “So I don’t want anybody to know that I’m wrong.”

This marble fireplace is an original, and came from Gump's in San Francisco.

This marble fireplace is an original, and came from Gump’s in San Francisco.

Ashley Harrell/SFGATE

The records do show that of Shaw’s three children, only one survived. That was Joseph, pictured on the bookshelf in glasses. He became a surveyor and had four children of his own, including a little girl pictured on that same shelf. She had a child, Betty, who still lives in Ferndale, and is 100 years old, Bigley says. In the 1960s, though, the family sold the house, Bigley says. The town had endured a couple of floods that decade, and the house was in rough shape, according to a 1968 news clipping.

“They sold it to a private family, with all the antiques and everything inside,” Bigley says. “For $10,000.”

The author's room at The Shaw House in Ferndale didn't show any signs of being haunted.

The author’s room at The Shaw House in Ferndale didn’t show any signs of being haunted.

Ashley Harrell/SFGATE

The clawfoot tub in the author's room at the Shaw House in Ferndale.

The clawfoot tub in the author’s room at the Shaw House in Ferndale.

Ashley Harrell/SFGATE

That family, the Fords, restored the old mansion to its former beauty and turned it into a bed-and-breakfast. Some 18 years ago, they put it up for sale, and Bigley was living in San Diego, thinking about a lifestyle change. She sold some property down there and was able to buy Shaw House. She never looked back. “The vibe is completely different,” she says of living in the far reaches of Northern California. “There’s something in you that just opens because there’s a space to open. In cities there’s not the space — you’re taking up as little space as you can.”

When asked about the room that isn’t rented out, Bigley simply offers that it’s very small, and that it had been the maid’s room, then changes the subject. As the tour is coming to a close, this reporter makes one last attempt to suss out whether the property might have any signs whatsoever of supernatural activity: creaking sounds at night, moans from behind the bookshelf, footsteps in unoccupied rooms?

A relaxing courtyard at the Shaw House in Ferndale, which is not haunted.

A relaxing courtyard at the Shaw House in Ferndale, which is not haunted.

Ashley Harrell/SFGATE

People like to hear a good ghost story, the reporter says, shrugging.

“I know,” Bigley says. “But I don’t have any.” 


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