There's Nothing in Black Star Canyon

There's Nothing in Black Star Canyon

“Black Star Canyon” is the go- to answer when someone on a message board like Reddit asks, “Haunted places in Orange County??” or “We're a group of 10+ teenagers. How can we look super brave and impress the girls??” It's always Black Star. Steeped in history, mystery and outright lies, I'm here to dispense the known truths and discuss the spoopy.

Ghosts of massacred Indians, ghosts of shadowy hooded conquistadors, Ku Klux Klan meetings, Satanic cult bonfires, and crazy locals. Black Star Canyon is a downright doozy, so let's start with what we know.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Black Star Canyon Indian Village Site, Historical Landmark 217, was more a migratory camp with a centralized kitchen than a permanent settlement. This site is about a 5-mile walk from the gate and is not marked. There isn't much left to see here aside from metates. The only recount we have of the massacre that occurred is what Terry E. Stephenson wrote down of what Joseph E. Pleasants says is what William Wolfskill told him. Our Indian Massacre Story is biased third-hand chismoso info. It might not have even happened. That said, here's the story:

William Wolfskill, who we can credit for the Valencia orange and expanding the California wine industry, was a furtrapper from New Mexico. Beaver-hunting William Wolfskill heads west for the Los Angeles pueblo in 1831 and finds out Native Americans stole some horses. To get in the good graces of the Angelenos, Wolfskill gathers a posse and offers to track down the missing horses. Wolfskill ends up 50 miles south in La Canada de Los Indios (Spanish for Indian Canyon), part of Rancho Lomas de Santiago, and finds a “roving band or Paiute Indians” eating horseflesh. The odd thing about this is that this is not Paiute territory, it's Tongva territory. The Paiutes lived more in the desert along the river and in the Sierras. That's not to say it can't be Paiute people, but why would they go all the way into Los Angeles and run south 50 miles with horses? Regardless of the actual tribe, it may also be sensationalized that they were eating the horses to justify what happens next.

So Wolfskill finds this small band of alleged horse-eating thieves. The Native Americans are armed with bows and blunderbusses, which are these old muskets that take forever to reload. Short tangent: blunderbuss in Spanish is “trabuco” which lends itself to another legend about a Portola soldier losing his trabuco in what is now called Trabuco Canyon. William Wolfskill and his well-armed posse annihilate them and take the horses back to Los Angeles. There is no definitive death toll to be found because, as I said, this is the only telling of a story that might not have even happened. 

Thirty years later, in 1860, Wolfskill bought Rancho Lomas de Santiago from Teodosio Yorba and attempted to run a cattle ranch with the help of Joseph E. Pleasants. Wolfskill was in a habit of land buying because he also owned Rancho Rio de los Putos which is not a typo. The Spanish named the tribe of that area the Putos because the Spanish weren't down with all that Native free love. After six years, Wolfskill sells the cattle ranch to a group of men and it became the Irvine Ranch. So, could Black Star Canyon be haunted by Spaniards and murdered Indians? If you believe in ghosts, maybe, but it's more likely the ghosts of other tragedies. 

In 1879, August Witte discovered coal and started pulling literal tons of coal with his Black Star Coal Mining Company. Witte inaccurately believed his mine was on government property, and a property survey showed that the land actually belonged to the Irvines. James Irvine wasn't really interested in coal and he sold it to Witte. Overshadowed by more profitable mines nearby, Black Star Coal Mine operated on and off until the early 1900's, but the Black Star name stuck. Will you pass the old coal mine on your hike? Only if you leave the trail and start wandering around where you're not supposed to be.

Perhaps the most historically significant event is the Hidden Ranch Murder. Further up the road from the Indian Village Site was Hidden Ranch, owned by Henry Hungerford and George M. Howard. On June 9, 1899, James M. Gregg, his brother-in-law and a young boy arrived at Hidden Ranch to drive Gregg's cattle. Gregg owed Hungerford $17.50 (about $500 in today's dollars) for a cattle pasturage bill, but was only willing to pay $7.50. They argued and decided to “cool off” for the evening. This failed. Gregg returned the next day and met with Henry and his brother Thomas Luther Hungerford. After more arguing, there was a gun battle. Gregg had been armed only with a revolver, but the Hungerford brothers had “two twelve bore muzzle loading shotguns, an old fashioned .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver, a pocket knife and a razor.”

After the fight, the brothers rode into town to surrender to Sheriff Theo Lacy. James Gregg was put in a wagon and taken to a doctor's home where he died. On his death bed, Gregg claimed that Thomas shot him first, then Henry Hungerford, neglecting to include how one of the brothers had been shot twice in the head. Gregg's brother-in-law and the young boy backed up his story in a court case that took over four and a half months with Judge John Ballard presiding. The wildly unpopular Hungerford brothers denied the claim, but people still chanted “Hang the Hungerfords!” The jury eventually found Luther guilty of murder, but couldn't agree on first- or second-degree. The defense asked for the case to be dismissed and the request was denied. The defense then asked for a new trial and, for some reason, Judge Ballard agreed. Unfortunately, the district attorney had already presented all the evidence in the first trial and the case had to be dismissed. The public was rightfully outraged and turned out in droves to replace both the judge and district attorney at the next election. In the 1970's Southern California Edison purchased the Hidden Ranch Property to turn it into a power plant that never materialized. The 897-acre area is now owned by The Wildlands Conservancy

Over the next 100 years, the Black Star Canyon Road served as a corridor between eastern Orange County and Corona. Several motorist deaths occurred and even more hiking injuries and wildfires. There were a couple Marine helicopter crashes, one of which killed two. Another helicopter incident involved a local ranch hand who shot at a military helicopter and then threatened to shoot the sheriff's deputy who came to investigate. Although the road itself has been a publicly accessible easement since the 1920's, the property on both sides is private and the owners of said properties have tried to make it as unwelcoming as possible, including erecting threatening signs and pulling a gun on an undercover officer. The issue of who pays to maintain the roads had also been a contentious issue, as taxpayers who no longer have vehicle access don't want to pay for it and residents who don't own the road don't want to pay for it.

In 1939, two bankrupt Los Angeles businessmen on the run for grand theft made a suicide pact in their vehicle. In addition to drinking rat-poison whiskey cocktails, Herman Waldman and Sam Fishstrom ran an eight-foot garden hose from their exhaust into the car to ease into a sweet carbon-monoxide death. Upon the discovery of their bodies, the officers had to pry apart the men holding hands. In their personal history notes, the coroner wrote “Friends to the death.”

The most horrific event in recent history was the 2001 gang-rape of two teen girls and the brutal beating of their boyfriends. The two girls, 13 and 15, and their boyfriends, 16 and 17, lied about going to the mall and drove to the canyon. They were confronted by five men who beat the boys, severely fracturing the skull of one. The men then dragged the girls to a desolate area to rape and dump them. The girls, walked through the darkness and eventually found a payphone to call for help. The boys dragged their injured bodies half a mile to Santiago Canyon Road to flag down help. Three of the men were charged with 39 felony counts, two were found guilty and handed life sentences. The third was found guilty of some counts and given 16 years with a mistrial declared on the remaining counts. The other two men were juveniles handed to the Youth Authority until they turned 25.

These days, the canyon serves as a popular hiking and mountain biking trail filled with older women in lululemon spandex walking tiny dogs. My friends and I recently ventured into the darkness for a light painting photoshoot and were met by a gaggle of scared teens. They've certainly heard the unverifiable stories of Ku Klux Klan meetings, of Satanic cult rituals, of ghostly howls of conquistadors and indigenous peoples. Tragedy certainly made its mark on Black Star Canyon, but it's no riskier than any other wilderness.

And that bus that was in the ditch forever? I couldn't find any verifiable sources on that story. If someone has credible info, I'd be happy to take a look. People loved making stuff up about that bus.

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