The Haunting of the Crystal Lake Campgrounds, a True Story
By Fredric L.Rice, March 2009
Copyright Fredric L. Rice, all rights reserved.
Before gold was discovered in California, the California Grizzly Bear used to roam the Angeles National Forest in large numbers. After European invaders flooded Westward to dig up that gold, the Grizzly Bears in these parts put up a fierce battle for survival that lasted for seventy five years.
Some fights between the huge bears and the gold miners and settlers that came in were truly epic in scope, and body counts on both sides were horrific. Though children were at first rare in the Western wilderness, settlements at times lost dozens of kids to the Grizzlies who ate them.
Gunfighters who were short of work were at times hired to hunt down and kill the most troublesome bears and, while Winchester and Colt proved virtually unbeatable (just ask any of the Native Americans around you) history records numerous gunfighters who had been tasked with killing specific “problem” bears disappearing into the wilderness never to be heard from again, perhaps meeting their demise at the end of very long, very sharp claws and teeth.
History also says that the last Grizzly was reportedly finally hunted down and slaughtered in Tulare County in August of 1922, an act that proved once again (provided anybody ever doubted it) that Humans remain the world’s worse killing animal, supreme among all others.
Many people at the time lamented the end of the species and, perhaps driven more by wishful thinking than actual fact, rumors and sightings of grizzlies continued despite any real evidence that some had managed to escape the war.
And so things continued, and over the next eleven years as the United States sank in to the Great Depression from 1929 until the start of the New Deal in 1933, the great California Grizzly was relegated to the history books, another sorry chapter detailing man’s inhumanity to everything, including himself.
It was then in 1933 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his administration developed and fielded the New Deal. Unemployment across the country was around twenty five percent and infrastructure restoration and development projects were created to put men and women to work, some of them leaving their families behind and sending home what little money they made, others taking their families to their jobs with them.
It was one such series of projects which built the Open Air Amphitheater and large dance studio within the Crystal Lake Recreation Area, located twenty five miles North of Azusa in the Angeles National Forest. Singing cowboys from Hollywood movies sang there and Big Band era performers such as Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman’s Band played there.
Over the years millions of people sat in the Amphitheater listening to lectures, singing camp fire songs, roasting dinners in the central fire place. Highly decorated men and women from High Society stepped across the river-bottom stones set in concrete that comprised the large dance studio floor, swaying to the brass, strings, and drums of Big Band jazz while children ran and yelled among the spotless Ford vehicles parked out in the dark beyond the reach of the studio’s fireplace light.
It was in 1953 that the State of California adopted the California Grizzly Bear as the State Animal, a fairly ironic act given the fact that the poor creature was extinct at the time.
Or was it? Something happened twenty years before the new State symbol was adopted that most historians refuse to believe happened but some say might not be entirely fictional after all.
In the rush of the New Deal’s creation of the jobs of 1933, an out-of-work farmer named Stephen Majors rode a cargo railroad flatbed in to Barstow, California, looking to obtain such work. Upon reaching Barstow Station he joined a long and seemingly endless line of dusty, ragged, and worried men who had all come to Barstow hoping for any work that could be had.
As a farmer, Stephen had work experiences that placed him ahead of many of the city-raised men standing in line and he was assigned to the work crew that would be dispatched to build the Crystal Lake Amphitheater and dance studio.
Upon signing the papers that identified him to the pay master, Stephen borrowed (some people say he stole it without permission) a brand new “Indian Custom Chief” motorcycle long enough to ride to the Barstow Postal Express office to send a letter to his wife and two children, instructing them to sell what they could and meet him at the Santa Ana Rail Station in California.
Heather Majors was by every account a strong, no nonsense woman who boasted a mildly disfiguring scar across the left side of her face, a scar given to her at the end of a broken bottle swung by the drunken man she had slapped in a notorious roadhouse where she worked setting down watered-down beer to men and women who had recently been freed from the depredations of Prohibition.
Witnesses (who weren’t busy setting down what few coins they had that weren’t earmarked for purchasing more beer in bets on who would win the fight) reported that Heather never faltered a step, immediately leaping in kneeing, scratching, clawing, biting, and punching the man until she managed to wrest the glass shards away from the man after which she turned the bottle around and drove it through the man’s windpipe, twisting as hard as she could — which was very hard indeed, coming from a farm-wife-turned-bar-maid.
Upon receiving the post from her husband in California, Heather sold off what meager possessions her family had left, gathered her two children — a boy of 10 named Markus and a daughter of 12 named Susan — and they bought passage one way on a bus operated by the Greyhound Corporation.
Santa Ana Station at the time was built and operated by Santa Fe Railway which eventually turned the Station in to a major transportation hub five years after the Majors family was reunited on the wood steps of the main passenger platform.
Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center today is nothing like what it was when Heather and her two children met Stephen back in 1933. Women traveling alone with young children weren’t entirely safe from the crowds of unemployed men drifting from rail station to rail station, but Heather’s scarred face and her strong demeanor — not to mention a strong vocabulary of which the saltiest of sailors can only appreciate fully — kept her and her children safe during the trip.
If anything, the trip from Santa Ana to the base of the foothills in Azusa was more difficult and lengthy than the family’s Greyhound trip to Santa Fe Railway’s Station. The distance of about thirty five miles was through cities, towns, orange groves, farms, and ranches, many of which had roads that were not paved.
It took the Majors three days to travel that distance, arriving at the stage-up point in Azusa only one day before the crews were scheduled to travel the remaining twenty five miles North to the Crystal Lake basin to perform the work they were being paid for.
Upon reaching the work site, the Majors were assigned a tent of their own placed somewhat apart from the men who had no families. They were assigned a small piece of carved wood with a number on it which placed the family in which of the meal schedules, shower schedules, toilet schedules, and laundry schedules being run by the Crew Chief and his administrators.
The work was extremely hard and even 10 year-old Markus and 12-year-old Sally were pressed in to service, doing what ever jobs any of the administrators of the projects required. The main jobs of collecting and hauling rock, concrete, sand, and water, slinging tons of dirt with shovels, surveying and all the other activities was left to the men.
The work was brutal, pay was low, but discipline problems were extremely rare. For every man who complained or fought or was caught with alcohol, the punishment was immediate termination of employment. Behind every man who worked, there was a dozen more who were willing and able to take his place and so problems among the men was very rare.
Heather herself took up working preparing food and, on “off days,” working doing laundry. She also sewed and knitted for some of the men who could afford to pay or trade for repairs to their clothes. (Many of the men knew how to sew but took ragging from the others for what most felt was doing women’s work so they took to repairing their own clothes in the dark out in the forest far from the eyes of others, else they asked Heather to do the work for them.)
But for all the hard work it was a good life for the Majors family. There was plenty of food and the regularly scheduled meals had variety. Oranges, grapes, and avocados were purchased from ranches and farms down below, and freshly slaughtered cows were brought up in pickup trucks once a week.
It was the night of September 19th in 1934 when most of the work for the project had been completed that tragedy struck. The day had been the family’s assigned wash day and after the day’s work and after a good scrubbing under heated water dripping from the communal showers, Stephen and his wife Heather had put their two children to bed and then had walked off in to the forest to be alone for a while.
Upon returning to camp and reaching their tent, they found their tent collapsed with their two screaming children trapped inside. Standing on the tent and digging with its claws was a grizzly bear trying to get at the children but not making much noise of its own.
Upon seeing what was happening, Stephen and his wife screamed for help and despite the danger ran the remaining distance to try to save their children. What happened next happened so fast that by the time the Crew Chief with his firearm could be rousted and before the men started to gather silently, all four family members had been horribly ripped to shreds, disemboweled and dismembered fragments from the children and their parents still steaming in the cold September night.
And the grizzly that did the deed? The bear vanished in to the forest and was never caught despite the extensive bear hunt that stopped work for the rest of that week and then also for the following week. While the men were sifting the woods, canyons, and ravines looking for the bear that slaughtered the family, the few women and children who also lived in the camps buried the family on the hillside below the dance studio, placing a small Christian cross made of wood over the four graves.
Normally that would be the end of the story but this is a tale of a haunting, and hauntings live on. In the past seventy five years since that horrible slaughter members of the Majors family have been spotted near the old ruined dance studio floor, usually only vague human-shaped shadows, two adults and two children. All such sightings have taken place on or around September 19th.
Now ghost stories have a way of growing in the telling, and this one is no different. Though it was almost certainly the last actual living grizzly bear in the Angeles National Forest that killed the family that night, as more and more people have seen the family wandering around Crystal Lake, some make the bear out to be something supernatural himself, not a flesh-and-blood bear that mysteriously survived the genocide of its species but a demon come back to exact revenge on the most innocent of families.
And what disastrous revenge it was if, indeed, the grizzly was the demon some say it was. The slaughter was so sudden and so brutal that the Majors family are still up there, still not having come to grips with their own deaths, appearing every September on the anniversary of their deaths looking for their fellow work crews, living forever undead in a shocked state of denial.
Every year on September 19th hundreds of people come to Crystal Lake to spend the night on the old dance studio and on the hillside upon which the studio was built. Though the grounds are in ruins, the crews who built the facility back in the 1930’s did a good job and the floor itself is still perfect for camping on — and dancing, if you’re a ghost or if you have come to see one.
In September of 1978 hundreds of ghost hunters came to Crystal Lake to spend the night with hopes of capturing the family on film, bringing with them their cameras, video recorders, and electronic machines they hoped would prove the existence of the ghosts.
Unfortunately they also brought with them their alcohol, fire starters, firearms, and their unruly human nature — not to mention mountains of garbage which threatened to overwhelm sanitation facilities. With hundreds of people camping on the hill and the dance floor and many of them drunk, arguments were plenty and the Forest Service and San Dimas Sheriff’s Office was kept busy.
That night the dead family was once again seen, and they were seen by at least one hundred people who stayed up that night to see them. Upon the first glimpse of the family that appeared above the spot of land where they had been buried, half the people who saw tried to flee, the other half tried to run toward the family.
Arguments and fighting ensued and many people were trampled. In all the dead were reportedly seen for about thirty seconds only, four dark shapes suddenly appearing under the large oak tree above the studio floor and to the East about thirty feet, working their way North across the hill only to disappear just as suddenly.
For the U. S. Forest Service that was the final straw. Multiple injuries, drunken fights, piles of garbage and human waste all over the area caused the Forest Service to adopt a policy for the next ten years that closed the campgrounds on and around September 19th of every year.
Despite the grounds being closed, individual hikers still came to the site on the night the family would walk again, coming in from Soldier Creek, Windy Gap, and other trails, and still reporting the occasional sighting of the family.
After ten years most people forgot the Majors or simply stopped believing. In 1988 the September closure rule was lifted and from then on until the Curve Fire of 2002, the few remaining ghost hunters who know of the tale return to the grounds on September 19th to catch a glimpse of the family.
Now it is 2009 and the Crystal Lake Recreation Area is scheduled to re-open in September or October depending upon when Caltrans finishes their work on the highway. You can bet real money that once again those of us who remember the story of Stephen, Heather, Markus and Sally will return every September 19th — if only to tell the family that it’s time for them to move on.