We climb into the stage for a ride of 12 miles to Lompoc. It takes six horses to pull the vehicle up through the sandhills and up the grade to the mesa. We go at a walk for several miles; the darkness deepens; the fog blots out the stars. Congenial spirits begin to exchange stories - wild and weird....After awhile the driver lights the sidelamps. The road, long winding around the desolate chapparal heath, begins to swing down the gulches toward the Lompoc River. The lights gleam fitfully on the horses, changing them to ghostly black and white monsters; it flashes into the pale treetops; it reveals unimaginable deeps beyond the crumbling verge....
~ The San Francisco Call, May 24, 1896
Located about 60 miles north of Santa Barbara, the City of Lompoc, founded in 1888, is home thousands of acres of agricultural land, much of it planted in vineyards. This is also where the now-famous Santa Rita Hills are located, rising above a wide, fertile valley. For more than 100 years, farmers have grown mustard, walnuts, flowers, beans, and now grapes - in the valley, and ranchers have raised cattle and sheep on these rolling hills. Aside from the city streets, the surrounding area is wild, full of chapparal and sage, manzanita, and miles of elfin forests - small, twisted oaks among dark shadows.
The area was originally home to the Chumash, Santa Barbara County's indigenous people. Once the Spanish arrived, they commandeered the land, and divided it - with the rest of California - into huge ranchos. Here, in Lompoc, a grant of tens of thousands of acres was given to Don Jose Carrillo, one of the descendants of the original military families of Santa Barbara. He named his land, Rancho Mission Vieja.
In the 1860s, the Carrillo family decided to divide the rancho, and sell the land. Part of the ranchland was purchased by Lewis Burton. Mr. Burton, a recent arrival to Santa Barbara County, came here in pursuit of the plentiful sea otter, whose luxurious pelts were prized the world over. His land became known as Burton Ranch.
Today, much of the original ranch is untouched wilderness, and it is still called Burton's Mesa. The land is also home to one of the most deadly, dangerous roads in Santa Barbara County: Harris Grade.
Travel through this countryside was isolated and often trecherous. Roads were little more than rustic paths. Deep, sandy soil made a trip slow and arduous. Broken wheels, or axles were not uncommon. Travelers were sometimes stranded for many hours, until help arrived. Accidents were numerous - stagecoaches, wagons, and riders on horses were often victims of the unsafe condition of the roads that laced along the top of grades and passes. These accidents resulted in grevious injuries - and often, death.
The roads were uneven, winding, wickedly curved, and narrow, often bordered by sheer drops to "unimaginable deeps". The trechery was increased when the dense, damp fog crept in from the sea, slithering up canyons and hillsides.
Although modern highways and streets are improved compared to those earlier roads, these byways remain dangerous. Accidents happen frequently. Roads still curve high around the hilltops, with no guardrails, no streetlamps, no safety measures to aid the traveler.
Adding to the peril, locals say that some of these roads are haunted by a woman named Agnes, who met her death nearby. Although her body was laid to rest - her spirit has not found its home.....
According to the Lompoc Record (May 13, 2004),
"Many local residents think Harris Grade Road is haunted. They say "Agnes," died on the road nearly a century ago, and has put a hex on the twisting ribbon of highway, causing an unusually high number of accidents."
Those who have seen Agnes claim that she will suddenly materialize with a spectral glow, appearing out of the white fog that blankets the dark road at night. Others have seen her when storm clouds obscure even the light of the moon, and her ghostly image will appear at the side of the road. Sometimes, even on clear, cold nights, when the road is deserted and the headlights of only one car pierce the blackness - Agnes will alight, suddenly, in the center of the road....
The story of Agnes is a tragic one - it seems that in the earliest days of the 20th century, she was traveling alone, along one of the winding roads near Burton Ranch, in her horse-drawn wagon.
Perhaps the fog obscured her view - perhaps the side of the road gave way, or a wheel inadvertantly left the path....for whatever reason, the story is that Agnes plunged over the side, to her death. Since her demise, she has continued to roam along the country roads, frightening travelers with her her presence and her "hex".
So, I issue a word to the wise traveler - if you find yourself on one of Lompoc's country roads, or the winding path of Highway 1 - keep vigilant, especially after dark. If you seem to hear a cry outside in the night, or see an eerie light by the side of the road - remain guarded.
These roads may never be safe for travelers, as long as Agnes continues to roam....