Suchen und Finden
Pasadena is an old city—old by California standards. Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, the fourth of the California missions pushing northward like a spear, opened in 1771. The city arose a century later on nearby land that had been part of a Mexican rancho. Parallel developments—a vineyard, orange groves, and a colony founded by an Indiana doctor for tubercular Midwestern patients seeking a healthier climate—joined forces to form a town in 1874. The inhabitants needed a new name, and eventually settled on the Chippewa word for “of the valley.” No matter that the Chippewa were a Minnesota tribe with no connection to the local Tongva people or anything related to California. The name sounded euphonious, and like so much in the state’s amalgam of influences—the lure of riches and a superb climate pulling a cornucopia of peoples into its sphere like a magnet—it fit. Pasadena became the second incorporated municipality in the county, following the incorporation of Los Angeles. During its heyday, many considered Pasadena to be a twin city of its more populous, famous neighbor.
From the real estate boom of the late eighteen hundreds until the Depression, the city served as a winter resort destination for wealthy families from the East Coast. Grand hotels, most of them long gone, once catered to industrial barons and bankers of the Gilded Age. Queen Anne, Richardson Romanesque, and other Victorian styles hint of the grandeur of this past. The quirky, asymmetrical facades sprout cupolas, domes, peaked roofs, widow’s walks, balustrades, bay windows, belvederes, dentils, and other architectural finery. Palm trees mingle with cedar, maple, chestnut, gum, willow, and oak, transforming California chaparral into a verdant paradise.
The Victorian houses tended to cluster close to the city center, rising with the young city—smaller working class homes just to the north, grander houses several blocks to the south. After the Victorians came the California bungalows—cozy and sensible houses that resisted the ostentatious decoration of their predecessors—pushing the street grid to the northeast. By mid-century, paralleling the city’s continued expansion, came suburban tract homes with greater and greater square footage, spilling into the surrounding valley, knolls, and foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains with an apparently unquenchable thirst for space.
In the city center, faded signs from long disappeared businesses still ghost the sides of downtown buildings. Small remnants of the past mark vanished hotels, gardens, and estates. But the old houses stand like stalwart survivors. The hushed sound of secrets and concealed pasts often haunt such places, an accumulation that builds slowly over the decades, hidden behind the lovely facades.
The Colorado Street Bridge became one such place. Built in 1912, its concrete Beaux Arts arches dance over the Arroyo Seco like a ballerina in an old silent film. Historic light standards from another time—four pendulous white globes hanging beneath one larger central globe—line the gracefully curving, two-lane bridge. Despite its beauty, the bridge acquired an unfortunate reputation from the start when a worker fell to his death into wet concrete. Soon thereafter, depressed individuals began leaping to their deaths into the rocky arroyo. Deaths spiked during the Depression, but despite the eventual erection of a barrier to prevent such attempts, the suicides never completely stopped.
Legends multiplied in the years after the suicides started. Some people claimed the ghost of the worker called to those in distress, luring them to the bridge. One story recounted a young mother who took her life because her husband had left her, and jumped from the bridge with her baby girl. The baby landed in the branches of a tree and survived, but the mother did not. Another man murdered two family members before jumping from the bridge. Spirits reportedly haunt the structure, including a woman in a long flowing robe who stands atop one of the parapets, vanishing as she throws herself off. Strange sounds and cries echo through the river bed on dark nights. Misty forms appear and animals act strangely.
Ruth and Elaine grew up in one of the Victorians, hearing these stories. A rounded Queen Anne tower with a bishop’s hat dome anchored one corner of the house. On the other side, a gabled pediment with a small attic lunette capped two stories of bay windows. From the front door, a porch with thin white posts and Victorian gingerbread stretched around the tower to the building’s side. The house stood in slight disrepair. The porch sagged a bit at one end. Tiles had fallen from the dome roof. Some of the rail posts were missing. The house’s compartmentalized spaces and mysteries reflected a lifestyle from another century. Rooms could be closed off and isolated, trapping secrets.
The girls’ father, Mr. Harbison, owned a mom-and-pop grocery store in town. Each morning, dressed in his white shirt, tie, and black slacks, he would kiss his wife and the girls goodbye on the porch, then proceed down the three front steps to walk several blocks to the store. Where the front path met the sidewalk, he would always turn back and wave.
Mrs. Harbison served as the executive director of a theater company that performed marionette shows. She used the basement of their home to store the marionettes when they were not in use. A narrow wooden staircase with creaky steps led down to the subterranean space, the passageway illuminated by a bare bulb with a metal drawstring. Shadows hid in the hushed recesses of the dimly lit room. The marionettes hung in clumps from posts and beams, with heads and arms slumping: clowns, elaborately feathered birds, Commedia dell’arte characters in Renaissance costumes, witches, devils, skeletons, all the size of small children, each face frozen in a grim rictus, and legs that walked loosely with movements unlike anything human.
Ruth hated and feared the basement. Its coolness felt like the touch of death, even if it offered refuge during hot summer days. The marionettes stared at her, harboring secrets they refused to reveal, or so she imagined. But the washroom was also down there, and Mrs. Harbison would send her down for laundry chores. Elaine, older than Ruth by three years, teased her sister with tales of how the marionettes came alive at night while everyone slept, dancing and cavorting around the basement, their wooden feet clacking like bones.
Mrs. Harbison frequently brought the girls to the shows that were held in a small space downtown. The puppeteers would walk the marionettes around the stage and bring them close to interact with the audience. The shows frightened Ruth, and she refused to sit in the front row, so Mr. Harbison would sit with her several rows back, while Mrs. Harbison sat with Elaine in the front.
The girls had heard rumors of the bridge from an early age. Adults would bring it up each time the newspaper reported a new suicide. Kids would dare one another to walk along or under the bridge at night. Such tales did not trouble Elaine. But like the marionettes, they terrified Ruth.
One October evening when Ruth was ten, the two sisters were walking home from a birthday party. “Take your sister,” their mother had said to Elaine. “You’ve got to include her in things, she looks up to you.” Ruth always avoided taking the path beneath the bridge, but Elaine was fearless. As Ruth hesitated at the top of the steps that led down to the arroyo, her sister chided her. “Don’t be a chicken, Ruthie. Those tales of ghosts are just made-up stories.”
Ruth followed her down the old staircase, gripping both railings so hard that her knuckles became white like the hands of a ghost. The archways and pylons loomed ahead of them in the twilight. The globes on the light standards glowed ominously high above like spirit orbs. A dry Santa Ana wind was gusting, scattering dry leaves that skittered like mice along the path. The branches of trees would shake as if by an unseen hand, then grow eerily silent. A yellow gibbous moon had just risen above the San Gabriel Mountains.
They followed the roadway as it paralleled the riverbed and led beneath the bridge. Ruth worried that its massive shape looming ahead—the huge girders, arches and trusses—threatened to engulf the two of them. Her heart raced. As they approached the bridge, the streetlamp flickered with a brief buzz, then went out. The next streetlamp they passed also flickered and went out. Once they entered the space beneath the bridge, a third streetlamp did the same, leaving the girls entombed in the murkiness of the bridge’s skeletal undercarriage. They screamed and ran as fast as they could, not stopping until the roadway ascended out of the arroyo.
Yet an even more unfortunate event occurred that year, only a few weeks later. Mr. Harbison had struggled for some time to make a profit, and supermarket chains with cheaper prices began to siphon off his customers. He found it increasingly hard to compete, and the debts mounted. On November 2, the Day of the Dead—a day that would have been celebrated two centuries earlier by the valley’s Mexican residents—he kissed his wife and kids, and waved from the sidewalk for the last time. Instead of going to work, he walked to the Colorado Street Bridge, and jumped.
Ruth spent weeks wondering what she had done to cause him to take his life. Had she not done well enough in school? Was she a bad girl? In the basement, the marionettes watched her during her chores, and she imagined their judgmental whispers rustling about as soon as she climbed the stairs and shut the door.
One rainy afternoon in January, just over two months after her father’s death, Ruth navigated the old...