Witches Castle (Haunted Hike Part One)

This is part one of a two-part series about a haunted hike I put together a couple of years ago! The first stop was the Witches Castle…

History

Located on the Lower Macleay Trail in Portland, Oregon is the “Witches Castle”. The actual history of this structure is not very exciting, but an event that happened close-by is what gave this structure its fame.

Danford Balch purchased this portion of land in 1850 while the town of Portland was still being developed. He hired a man named Mortimer Stump, who lived on their property, to help clear some of this new land. Mortimer began to develop quite the relationship with Danford’s 15 year old daughter, Anna, and they soon fell in love. Mortimer asked Danford for permission to wed his daughter, but Danford declined and did not give his blessing. Mortimer and Anna said they would just elope, but Danford threatened to murder Mortimer if this occurred. The two lovers ignored this threat, and they eloped in 1858 in Vancouver where marriage laws were lax.

Upon returning, the newlyweds found that Danford had grown depressed, wasn’t sleeping, and began to drink heavily. Many locals claimed that Danford would frequent bars and rant about how he wanted his new son-in-law dead. Danford upheld his statement that he would murder Mortimer, and on November 8th, 1858 Danford shot him in the face with a double-barrel shotgun after they boarded the Stark Street Ferry. Regarding the situation, Danford stated: “The night I came home and found the girl gone, it struck a pain to my heart, like a knife cutting me,” Danford later wrote. “I ate a little supper and went to bed, but did not sleep a wink all night. In the morning, at once after getting up, I started for town, and it seemed as if my stomach would burst from anxiety and grief, which were more than I can express.”

Pedestrians who just witnessed the murder quickly tackled Danford who was soon arrested, but he managed to escape from the jail that he was being held in. Danford hid somewhere near his farm, but was captured again and went on to blame his wife Mary for the murder, claiming that she had bewitched him to kill Mortimer. This accusation did not work, and on October 18, 1859 Danford was executed via public hanging, with Anna watching from the crowd with dry eyes. (This was the first legal execution in the state of Oregon.)

Something I would like to point out is that this was odd behavior on Danfords part. This was a time period where it was not uncommon to marry that young, and Danford had 8 other children and his wife still at home. It is believed that Anna may have actually been his step-daughter, and that his reaction to Anna marrying Mortimer was more like a man losing a lover, as opposed to a father “losing” a daughter. The historian Diane Goeres-Gardner wrote in her book Necktie Parties: “The description he gave of his emotional, physical and psychological state sounded more like a man describing the loss of a lover than a daughter.”

The Balch property was bought and sold a handful of times, and was eventually obtained by the city of Portland. During the 1930’s the small stone structure that is shown in the photo above was built near the site of the Balch families homestead.

1930-1-12 Oregonian Shelter Built in Park
A newspaper clipping from the Oregonian announcing the new stone building to be used for hikers, published in 1930. Source for this clipping: https://pdxccentric.wordpress.com/c5-witches-castle/

This location was not picked because of the Balch family, but instead it was likely picked for its easier access for novice hikers. Portland Parks and Recreation used this building as a park ranger station and as restrooms for hikers. Some sources say that in 1962 the structure was heavily damaged by a storm and it was essentially abandoned, while others say it was the Columbus Day storm in 1964 that damaged the water supply to the toilets, leaving the building to be stripped and abandoned. At some point the roof caved in and moss began to grow over the heavily graffitied walls, and the building was entirely forgotten.

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Photo of the Witches Castle, taken by Ivy in 2018.

Sometime in the 1980’s, local high-schoolers re-discovered this structure, and it soon became a popular spot to hang out and hold parties. This is when it picked up the name “Witches Castle” most likely because it fit the eerie, overgrown appearance of the structure. There were also rumors that occult activity, such as satanic worship, sometimes occurred there as well. The accusation of bewitchment on Danford might have also played a role in this new nickname, seeing as it was close to where the Balch family home once stood.

A sticker someone left on a railing in the Witches Castle, marked with the word “witch”. Photo taken by Ivy in 2018.

HAUNTED HISTORY

Many visitors claim to feel an overwhelming feeling of unease or fear, likely from the angry spirit of Danford who might still be lingering on his property. It could also be the spirit of Mortimer who was taken from his new wife too soon…

There are also claims that when this building functioned as public restrooms, the toilets would flush on their own, scaring hikers and preventing them from using this particular building. Some rumors state that this paranormal activity is what led to the stone building being abandoned, but we know that it was really because of structural damage from storms.

MY FINDINGS AND FINAL THOUGHTS

The only discrepancy that I uncovered with the tale of murder was that the dates did not historically match up. According to the legend as it is typically told (which is how I told it above) Danford shot Mortimer with a double-barrel shotgun after they eloped and returned back to Portland in 1858. This does not match up with the fact that the first double-barrel shotgun was not invented until 1875, nearly two decades later. That being said, it is of course possible that it may have been some other type of gun, and this story is still based in some truth with historical records and newspaper clippings that still back it up.

Upon walking up to the Witches Castle, I was immediately mesmerized by its very eerie appearance, and it was easy to see how people would assume it was possibly related to witches or the occult. I did not pick up on any heavy, negative feelings like so many visitors do, which might have been because of how busy and crowded it got that day. (Also knowing that it used to be public restrooms is a bit of a party pooper…pun intended!) I am sure that spending time there alone would be a very different experience, but this seems to be difficult to achieve with how popular it is for hikers and tourists to stop and hang out at. Regardless of how crowded it may be when you visit, it is still a very fun and historic location to check out, and I highly recommend making the hike to it if you can!

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Ghost caught on camera! (Photo taken by me inside of the Witches Castle in 2018.)

MY TIPS FOR VISITING

Can is be investigated? Yes, but on your own terms, which might be difficult with how many people tend to visit.

It is free to visit, which is always great.

There is a fair amount of hiking that must be done to get to this location (about half of a mile) so wear comfortable shoes and clothing, and bring water and a snack. We parked near the Lower Macleay Trail and took off on foot from there heading next to the Pittock Mansion.

Other visitors and hikers are usually present, making any sort of thorough investigation difficult. For a public outdoor location like this, my advice is to admire and appreciate the surroundings, take photos, and simply see what kind of feelings or “vibes” you might pick up on. The busyness probably fluctuates depending on the time of year, so you can try bringing smaller pieces of equipment in case you are lucky and get the location to yourself!

The current hours online state that it is only open until 10 p.m. so a late-night investigation is also not possible at this time.

I have become aware that due to Covid-19, maintenance was not up-to-date on the stone ruins and graffiti is not being removed as swiftly as it used to be. This means that the appearance may be quite different now than what you see in the photos I took from my visit.

A photo I took in 2018 on the trail of my Haunted Hike from the Witches Castle to the next location! The woods can definitely be spooky enough as is…

Frighteningly yours,

Ivy!

Works cited:

https://forestparkconservancy.org/from-the-archives-history-of-the-stone-house/

https://www.thetravel.com/how-to-get-to-witchs-castle-oregon/

http://www.offbeatoregon.com/1302b-balch-murders-stump-on-stark-street-ferry.html

https://www.newspapers.com/clip/29770725/danford-balch/

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