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From gold rush to ghost town: A trip to Port Costa

Devin Earthman
The Burlington Hotel in Port Costa.

This story orginally aired on October 30, 2018 and most recently in the October 23, 2023 episode of Crosscurrents.

Thirty miles northeast of Oakland, just across the Carquinez Strait from Benicia sits the town of Port Costa. It was built just after the Gold Rush as a ferry landing for the busy Central Pacific Railroad. But trucking made both ferries and railroads unnecessary, and things slowed down in Port Costa.

Today, only 200 people live there, and its whole downtown could fit in one San Francisco city block. But Port Costa’s become a destination for motorcycle riders, antiquers, and adventurous types, who visit the infamous Burlington Hotel. Some people say the hotel used to be a brothel, and that it’s haunted. But in Port Costa, it can be hard to find the line between fact and fantasy.

It’s late on Sunday morning. Port Costa is full of people shopping for antiques and getting brunch. I’m here for a tour of the Burlington Hotel.

“I know the hotel was built in 1883,” says the manager, Hillary Kantmann. “I don’t really know what happened to it between [then] and the early sixties, but in that time, a man named Bill Rich bought all the buildings in Port Costa and downtown for something like twenty thousand dollars.”

Bill Rich was a Coors beer truck driver from San Francisco. Hillary calls him “the nouveau patriarch of the town.”
There’s a plaque on the outside of the building, claiming it was once a brothel, which Hillary dismisses as a lie. She dismisses the plaque on the building that says it was once a brothel. And when she leads me up a long, old staircase to the second floor, she kind of bristles when I ask why each room has a hand-painted sign with a different woman’s name on it.

“I think [Bill Rich] was playing off the rumors that it was a brothel, so he named the rooms after women he knew, friends and family and people in the town,” she says.

Hazel, for example? That room is named for an antiques-store owner.

“Peggy and Victoria were women who lived in town,” Hillary continues. “But everyone thinks it’s ‘women of the night.’”

Hillary also disputes the rumor that the Burlington is haunted.

“I’m here all the time, by myself,” she says. “And either I’m extremely unpopular with ghosts, or there just aren’t any.”

She says the only spirits she knows about are across the street in the bar called the Warehouse.

“I think people who like Port Costa, tend to be imaginative, fanciful people,” she tells me. “So if you combine that with the fact that the Warehouse makes all their cocktails double by default, you could come up with some ghost stories really fast that way.”

I decide to head over to the bar.

By now it’s afternoon, and the street out front is starting to fill up with motorcycles. It’s a warm day, and there are just a few people inside, sitting at the bar or playing pool.

The bartender on duty is Barbara Williams. She says in the decade she’s worked here, plenty of customers have told her spooky stories about the hotel. But more importantly, she tells me that she’s seen ghosts. Right here in the bar.

One night, she says, “I felt a breeze come across my face, and I seen this brunette lady, hair pinned up in a bun, in a long blue dress. She turned around and she looked at me, and she went through the door.”

Like, she passed right through the closed door. “Scared me to death,” Barbara says.

She’s also seen another ghost in the bar--one who’s much more well known.

“It was about, eleven o’clock at night,” she recalls. “I had about ten customers, but they were all behind me playing pool. And I seen a man walk through the restaurant side, and I’m like ‘Sir, we’re closed, the restaurant’s closed.’ And he ignored me.”

Barbara was annoyed and went to kick him out.

However, “he was nowhere to be found,” she says. She says she blamed the experience on being tired. But then she told another bartender about it, a few days later. “She said, ‘That sounds like it was Bill Rich.’”

Bill Rich: the guy who bought the whole town in the sixties. The man Barbara saw was wearing a plaid shirt and cowboy hat--known to be Bill Rich’s signature look. But by that night, Bill Rich had been dead for seven years.

I heard another story from Port Costa resident Aerielle Taylor. She told me about an experience she had at a friend’s house, just up the street.

“It was a really, really warm day,” she recalls. “And there isn’t a lot of air conditioning in Port Costa, as you can imagine. Most people in these old houses just kind of open their windows and so, every window in the house was open to get a cross breeze.”

Everyone was outside, hanging out. At one point, someone noticed that the toddler who lived in the upstairs apartment was getting close to one of the open windows. They called up to the mother, “Watch out, Gabriella’s very close to the window, be careful!”

And then, Aerielle says, “all of a sudden, without warning, every single window in the entire house slammed closed. The top windows, the bottom windows, the entire house. The kitchen windows, the dining room, all the way to the back bedroom, every window in the entire house closed simultaneously at the same time, keeping the baby inside.”

Aerielle works at the cafe on the first floor of the Burlington. She says people sometimes come in and ask about ghosts in the hotel.

“I say, I’ve never felt one here, but you can go up [to] the corner, and you might find her.”

Just don’t go looking in the hotel itself, says manager Hillary Kantmann. She tells me she kicks ghost hunters out of the hotel. They’re just too disruptive.

“People have come and looked around in the evening when there’s guests in the room, and they get themselves all freaked out,” she says. “There’s like, squealing, in the hallways. Like, you know, high key…lady screams.”

Hillary even cancels people’s reservations if she finds out they’re seriously investigating paranormal activity.

She says she gets it. The building is old, and parts of it are a little spooky, like the peeling wallpaper or the tarnished mirror on the third floor. But Hillary wants people to remember that the building’s age also makes it special.

“People think for the most part that any building of a certain age has to be haunted because so many people have gone through it, that, 'why wouldn’t it be?' And I don’t really feel that as something paranormal or ghosty. But I do think it’s something that commands respect. Just like being older than anyone that’s alive today commands respect.”

She wants people to be realistic about the hotel and its history. But that doesn’t mean she wants Port Costa to lose its edge.

“One of the people who lives in town calls Port Costa the Land of Misfit Toys,” she says.

In other words, even if you don’t fit in, you can still fit in in Port Costa. Whether you believe in its ghosts, or not.