On this All Hallow’s Eve, it seems only appropriate to share a story of murder and ghosts and haunted houses, right? The story begins in Portland, Oregon’s Forest Park, the largest natural urban forest in the United States. There, you can hike an easy trail up to the crumbling stone house known as Witch’s Castle.
According to the legend, back in 1850, a man named Danford Balch filed a claim for 345 acres overlooking the newly established town of Portland. He needed help clearing the property so he hired a guy named Mortimer Stump to help him out.
Mortimer fell in love with the Balch’s 15-year-old daughter, Anna. But when he asked permission to marry Anna, her parents said no. The young lovers ran off to Vancouver, Washington, and got married anyway. A few weeks later, the newlyweds ran into Danford Balch in Portland. Claiming that his wife “bewitched” him with her nagging and complaining about the unsanctioned marriage, Danford pulled a gun out and killed his son-in-law.
Danford Balch was hung for his crime, the first legal execution in the newly formed Oregon Territory. And while the stone house on his old homestead does not date back to the 1800s, people do claim to see fighting ghosts and floating orbs in this area. For a short time, a witches’ coven also reportedly used the crumbling structure.
The Stone House
So if the Witch’s Castle wasn’t built by Danford Balch, how the heck did it get there? Well, the answer to that question isn’t nearly as spooky or cool as the original story. In 1929, the City of Portland built a rest stop with bathrooms at the intersection of the Wildwood Trail and Lower Macleay Trail. A storm in 1962 damaged the plumbing and blew several trees into the roof. Since the building had been repeatedly vandalized, the city decided not to fix it. They ripped out the plumbing, doors and roof, leaving nothing behind except for the stone walls. And a tree trunk or two.
While ghosts may still roam the property, these days the stone house sees a lot more action from joggers, families out for a stroll, and the occasional late-night partiers. Which is just as well for those of us who prefer not to have paranormal encounters when we’re out for a hike.
The trail to the Witch’s Castle is relatively flat and easy, but if you’re in a wheelchair, there are a couple of steep inclines where you’ll probably need some help. The ruins are right on the Wildwood Trail, easily accessed from the Holman Lane Trailhead. (Park in the neighborhood where Aspen Avenue dead ends.) You can also get there from the Audubon Society parking lot. (This route was closed when I visited, though it’s supposed to open again before the end of the year.) You can also climb up from the Lower Macleay Trail (but I think this route has stairs).
Visiting Forest Park
Forest Park has more than 80 miles of trails within its 5,157 acres and you don’t even have to leave the city to get there. The park is open every day from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. Motorized vehicles are not allowed inside the park. Bikes and horses are permitted on specific trails. There is no charge to enter the park or hike the trails.
If you plan to visit, here are some useful links: Forest Park Conservancy | Forest Park Trailheads | Wildwood Trail and Lower Macleay Trail Loop | The Story Behind Witches Castle | Another Version of the Story of Danford Balch
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