The remote highways of the Central Coast lend themselves to Halloween stories of ghosts from disappearances long ago.
In February 1871, the grisly remains of two horses, both shot in the head, were found next to a broken wagon in a canyon up from Morro Creek. This was the only clue to the earthly departure of Cambria’s O.K. Smith.
Smith was an important figure in our history. Before moving to the North Coast, he served in the California legislature as an assemblyman from Tulare County and was regarded as a rising figure in the Republican Party in our region.
Annie L. Morrison, longtime reporter for the San Luis Obispo Telegram during the early 1900s, thought that she knew what happened to Smith.
Morrison noted that it was a common practice among rural farmers to send their county taxes into the courthouse with highly trusted men. Morrison’s investigations showed that following Smith’s disappearance, certain “unnamed” Cambria-area ranchers had provided receipts from Smith for tax payments totaling more than $600.
Morrison had heard rumors that a well-respected North Coast rancher had made a deathbed confession in the late 1890s. The rancher said that he and another prominent citizen had been hard up for money in 1871. They had killed Smith and taken the money.
But Morrison, always an intrepid reporter, tracked down a secondhand “eyewitness” story:
“A man living near the mouth of Morro Creek came down to dig clams on the evening of Smith’s disappearance. At the crest of the bluff overlooking the beach, he observed a fire burning. He saw two men digging a large, deep hole in the sand. Then he watched as they filled the hole with driftwood and dry branches. The men set fire to the pyre. Then he witnessed a third man drive up with Smith’s carriage. Smith was in the wagon. He appeared to be very drunk.
“Smith was clubbed on the head by one of the men. The men removed all of Smith’s clothes and rolled him into another deep hole. They covered the body with sand. All Smith’s clothes and personal possessions, including a gold watch, were burnt in the fire pit. One wheel from the wagon, along with the harnesses, was consumed by the grisly fire. They then covered the ashes with a great deal of sand. The horses were led up the creek to a rock-strewn canyon, where they were shot and left exposed for the buzzards.”
The canyon was near a quicksand bed where other unwary travelers had disappeared.
Morrison says that this story was told to her by a man named Kilpatrick, who lived near the entrance to Green Valley. The clam digger who had witnessed the murder told the whole story to Kilpatrick shortly after the event had occurred.
By 1900, drink had taken its toll on Kilpatrick. He said that he had kept silent out of fear for his life. Only after the deaths of the murderers did he feel safe.
An apparition finally compelled him to speak of what he knew. On a moonlit night, he was trying to get home after a long day’s carousing in the hamlet of Morro. He lay down near a patch of willow trees just north of Morro Creek.
A ghostly figure emerged from the willows. Kilpatrick swore it was Smith’s ghost. The apparition exclaimed, “Where the devil have you been all this time?”
It was clearly time for Kilpatrick to help solve the mystery of the disappearance of O.K. Smith.
My Halloween tour of the historic Old Mission Cemetery in San Luis Obispo is on Oct. 31, meeting at the Bridge Street entrance at 4:30 p.m.
This is a “nonscary,” respectful and historic approach to understand the role of burial places in interpreting times past.
It’s free and open to the public.