The William Heath Davis House
The William Heath Davis House, now known as the Davis-Horton House, was built in 1850 and is the oldest standing structure in Downtown San Diego. It currently holds the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation and the Gaslamp Museum.
Initially, the home was one of several ‘saltbox’ structures shipped all the way from Portland, Maine, to San Diego. The structures used little wood for their construction, as there was a lack of solid trees along the coast. A saltbox structure gets its name from its similarity to wooden boxes where salt was once kept. Usually, a saltbox home has one story in the back and two levels upfront. They’re known for their long, pitched roofs. The houses were shipped with the intent to start one of the first settlements in San Diego, known as ‘New Town.’ The structures were built near Market and State streets near Pantoja Park, San Diego’s oldest public park.
William’s ‘New Town’
William Heath Davis was born in 1822 in Honolulu to a Boston ship captain and pioneer of the Hawaiian sandalwood trade. Davis first visited California as a child in 1831 and then again in 1838. His last time there, he joined his uncle as a store clerk in Monterey Yerba Buena (now San Francisco.) He eventually started a business there and became a prominent merchant and trader in Alta, California. He also helped to establish the little colony of ‘New Town’ in San Diego back in 1850. He purchased 160 acres of the land there and was able to build a warehouse, a wharf, and even some of the first of San Diego’s city streets. He imported the saltboxes intended for use by colonists.
His dreams were slashed when his vision was met with hostility from surrounding settlements. Davis eventually abandoned future attempts to expand the town. However, his efforts weren’t in vain – a man named Alonzo Horton soon followed the footsteps of Mr. Davis and started to develop the town successfully in 1867.
From there, New Town grew into what is San Diego today. All of the rapid growth and transformation the city has seen hasn’t been able to touch one of the first structures of the area – the William Heath Davis House. A small saltbox-style home truly paused in the past; locals believe the home to be extremely haunted. Why is this? Is the history of the William Heath Davis House to blame? Could it just be superstition and folklore? Read on to find out!
New Town, Old Spirits
Shortly after the town started to boom, a lady by the name of Anna Scheper decided that the now bustling settlement would benefit from a hospital. In 1873, she worked out a deal with San Diego County and started to use the William Davis House as a makeshift hospital. She earned a dollar for every patient she saw at the house.
The home itself has a colorful past, with a long list of owners, each with its own unique backstory. With all of the history, one might be surprised to find out that William Davis did not actually live in his namesake house. It was named for him only due to the style of the structures he brought into the area when first settling the land. Among the house’s residents were Alonzo Horton, the man who finished what Davis started, and his wife, Sarah. Even an unnamed German spy called the Davis house home. The home has switched hands a few times over the years, but some of the former residents have never left.
Since the home was also used as a hospital, the abundance of unexplained paranormal activity in the structure can be attributed to that. Numerous deaths occurred over the decade that it served the public as a hospital, treating a tetanus outbreak in the area.
One of the home’s most famous spirits is an unknown Victorian woman. She appears as a full-body apparition right in front of visitors. Apparently, she isn’t timid. The woman has been rumored to be Alonzo’s wife or one of the patients who passed away here during the home’s time as a hospital.
A couple wearing period clothing has also been reported standing together at the top of the home’s narrow staircase, the woman in a long white gown and the man in a crisp suit.
Lights are known to turn off and on again, even when the home is not wired for electricity. Interestingly enough, the house was solely lit by gas all the way up until 1984, when it was finally outfitted with modern electrical systems. The interior lights are switched off each evening, but somehow, one light in the backroom comes on each night, bringing about questions when employees return in the morning.
Sightings of a spirit dressed in WWII-period clothes have been reported on multiple occasions. He is said to be an angry and violent spirit, that of a man who was captured in the home and put to death for his betrayal during the war. People who enter the home feel an unsettling presence inside, experiencing cold spots throughout their visit. Some say this is the ‘Lady In Black,’ who is thought to haunt the grounds around the home. Her identity is unknown, but she could be yet another victim of the tetanus outbreak.
Other visitors swear that they hear a cat yowling in the museum, even though no known (living) feline resides here. Some believe that the ghost cat belonged to one of the former owners and haunts the building alongside his owner. The cat is playful, and small items are found on the floor when they are left on tables or counters – what else could you expect from a ghost cat?
With so many paranormal experiences reported here, it’s no wonder that the William Heath Davis house has become such a popular attraction for paranormal investigators and visitors alike. The property has even been featured on the Biography Channel’s ‘My Ghost Story.’
The episode aired back in May of 2012 and showcased the home. It’s even said that they encountered the spirit of Lillian Davis, William’s daughter, in the home. Other paranormal investigation groups have also left the home with spooky evidence, including disembodied voices and the ghost cat’s meow. Children’s voices have been recorded in the kitchen as well, and when toys or stuffed animals are brought into the home, they are reported to move on their own.
William Heath Davis House Museum
The museum and historical society now offer tours of the home itself, giving visitors a glimpse into what daily life was like in the first years of San Diego and New Town. The house has seen so many eras over the years, so each room is creatively staged to depict each unique period in time. Visitors get the chance to see the home as a hospital, a private home, and even as an officer’s barracks during the Civil War.
When you truly take into account the house’s history, it’s easy to see why locals consider it one of the area’s most haunted homes. Even the fact that it has survived the sea breeze this long is a miracle. The Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation has done a fantastic job of preserving the home, allowing future generations to learn of its past – as well as the countless paranormal experiences that provide proof that the supernatural is alive and well in San Diego. Have you visited the William Heath Davis House? If you’d like to catch a glimpse of San Diego before it was San Diego, head over to 410 Island Ave if you dare.