There are certain places in this world that have become known as your archetypal haunted locale. Decrepit old houses? Check. Spooky forests full of gnarled trees spreading their twisted branches like skeletal fingers? Check. Abandoned, dust choked insane asylums, hospitals, or anywhere else where tragedy has occurred? Check. Alcohol distilleries… wait what? A distillery and restaurant that has for years served as a jovial eating establishment might not be the first place that one would consider to be a haunted place, but perched high on a cliff, overlooking the coast of Half Moon Bay in San Mateo, California, just a 30 minute drive outside of San Francisco, is the Moss Beach Distillery, a place perhaps even more well known for its haunting than its beer and food.
The history of the distillery is rather colorful, going back to 1927, in the days of prohibition, when alcohol bootleggers and covert speakeasies where people could indulge in private were the order of the day. One of these speakeasies was a place opened by a Portuguese immigrant named Frank Torres, who chose this particular location for its remote seaside locale and the frequent fogs that rolled in, all the better to smuggle in Canadian rum for his establishment. The bootleggers would just pull their ships up to the cliffs or land on the beach and the contraband alcohol would be hoisted up to Frank’s speakeasy under the cover of darkness and fog, with much of these shipments being shipped all up and down the coast to other similar establishments.
Originally called “Frank’s Roadhouse,” the speakeasy became a popular hangout for a wide variety of people, from influential people like politicians, movie stars, and authors such as Maltese Falcon author Dashiel Hammett, to more nefarious elements such as gangsters and bootleggers, and Frank’s deep connections made sure that everything ran relatively smoothly. He had the cops in his pocket, protection rackets running for speakeasies from there to San Francisco and beyond, and he was known for holding elaborate wild parties that attracted many of society’s elite at the time. However, while it was a haunt for many varied people from all over, it would in later years become a haunt for some very literal ghosts as well.
During the heyday of Frank’s Roadhouse, which would of course later become the Moss Beach Distillery, there was one customer who came in by the name of Mary Ellen, and when she was around everyone surely noticed, as she was supposedly very beautiful and always wore a fancy blue dress. One of the reasons Mary started showing up at Frank’s Roadhouse all of the time was because she had fallen in love with a handsome piano player at the establishment by the name of John Contina, even though she was married to a bootlegger. She would sneak off at night to sit at the bar and stare wistfully at her love as he played the piano and she became a regular feature of the place, that is, until her husband found out what was going on.
According to the tale, Mary’s husband came into the bar one night in a fury, upon which the piano player pulled a knife. Unfortunately he had brought a knife to a gunfight, as the husband was packing heat, and somehow in the middle of the fracas Mary was accidentally either shot or stabbed depending on the version of events. In some versions of the events John was also apparently also shot to death in the melee, although others say that he escaped with his life. Yet another version says that Mary actually died in a car crash on the way to the bar to meet John. Nevertheless, in every story she dies, and adding to all of the tragic drama is the alleged fact that John had been seeing yet another woman by the name of Anna Philbrick, who then climbed to the top of the nearby cliffs and tossed herself onto the rocks below when she learned he had been involved with Mary. All in all, it was a very grim and dark night for Frank’s Roadhouse, and in the years since this tragedy, the historical building, which is now the Moss Beach Distillery, has become known as an intensely haunted place.
The most well known of the establishment’s ghosts is that of Mary Ellen herself, who seems to be just as much of a customer here as she ever was before. Most often called “The Blue Lady,” she is notorious for suddenly appearing at the bar out of thin air, or engaging in other activities such as pinching necks, tapping shoulders, poking people’s sides, and sometimes whispering in people’s ears, as well as moving or levitating objects, opening doors, turning lights on or off, tossing books off of shelves, or knocking over glasses, and customers frequently say that she moves their wine glasses or tableware right before their eyes. Another commonly reported phenomenon is that female customers complain that the ghost steals their earrings, which then turn up in unexpected places along with other missing jewelry.
The ghost also has the unsettling habit of appearing behind patrons in the mirror or the women’s restroom, and on one occasion the computer system inexplicably changed all of its dates to 1927, and all receipts printed showed that year, which is the year when the roadhouse was first opened. The ghost apparently also likes to lock doors, and several employees have said they have been locked out of rooms by the entity, and customers have the habit of getting cell phone calls with no one on the other end. One report from a former employee named Susan Broderick describes being up late at night going through the restaurant’s books in the accounting office when suddenly the computer’s printer turned on and began printing out a paper with nothing on it but a small image of a heart. She would say:
I did not click on any ‘print’ commands, and there was no reason for the printer at my desk to turn on and print anything. It was a very spooky moment for me. I had no idea what was gong on. It surprised me so much that I cut that little heart out of that piece of paper and taped it to my computer monitor. I left it there for many years. I often wonder if it was our Blue Lady keeping me company late that night.
All of this seems to be mischievous more than anything, and The Blue Lady is described by employees as a mostly friendly and playful ghost, and more of a practical joker than anything else. She is seen throughout the premises, as well as on the nearby beach, but disturbingly her dress can appear on some nights as clean and pressed, while on others it appears as if ragged, filthy, and bloody, perhaps depending on the ghost’s mood. Mostly, she seems to be rather harmless, and staff have actually become sort of used to her presence, although despite her good nature there are some rather spooky accounts to be had.
On Christmas Eve of 2001 an employee named Melissa Vega was with some co-workers closing down the restaurant for the evening and at one point she had to go down into the store room, which was a small, dim room downstairs in the basement. As she pulled out wine bottles to restock the bar she claims that she was suddenly overcome by a sudden palpable sense of dread that cam from nowhere, after which she felt an unseen hand stroke her back and head, which caused her to scream out in terror and run from the room as fast as she could. Looking back on it later, she would say that she realized that it was the Blue Lady, and that she had probably meant no harm. Vaga would say:
I had been working at the Distillery for about four years at that time, and the Blue Lady had left me alone up until then, probably because she was respecting the fact that I am pretty scared of ghosts and the afterlife in general. It was as if the Blue Lady was trying to comfort me because I was so scared to be down there by myself. Nevertheless, it scared me even more. She has always been very respectful as far as backing down and letting me be for a long stretch of time after that.
Vaga has said that many of the employees have experienced such things, and that the Blue Lady seems to be rather touchy-feely, always tapping, nudging, or stroking people, usually late at night. Although this can be scary for those not expecting it, Vaga has said it is not malevolent, saying “It is a very weird feeling because you’re like, ‘I know I felt a tap, but why is there no one there?’ It can be very unnerving, but not malicious at all.” And that seems to be the general consensus on the Blue Lady, that she is a harmless, if a bit of a troublemaking, spirit. Interestingly, the Blue Lady is not the only ghost to be seen in the distillery and the surrounding area. There is a ghostly man sometimes seen sitting around the dining area, and spookier still is the ghost of Anna Philbrick, said to roam the nearby beach and who is said to appear as a water logged corpse covered in seaweed. Some psychics who have visited the premises have claimed that there are up to five presences there, although who these all could be remains unknown.
The Moss Beach Distillery has become so well-known for its hauntings that many of its customers show up just as much for the chance to perhaps see paranormal phenomena as they do for the food and drink, and ghost hunters from all over the world have shown up here to investigate the claims. The Distillery has also been featured on several TV programs, including a October 28, 1992 episode of the hit show Unsolved Mysteries, as well as the show Ghost Hunters in 2008. It all certainly adds a certain mysterious allure to the place and gives one something to keep an eye out for if you ever decide to pay the place a visit. Whether it really has ghosts or not, the Moss Beach Distillery is certainly not the sort of place that one would typically think would be haunted, and with its colorful history it is quite the interesting oddity indeed.