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Walking the Talk

A seasoned storyteller leads the Legends and Ghosts foot tour of Ventura.

March 23, 2000|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Downtown Ventura is full of legends and stories of the good ol' days, and local historian Richard Senate knows all of them. He'll share several of those tales during a Saturday afternoon Legends and Ghosts walking tour of downtown Ventura.

There's not more than a few blocks of walking involved in this nearly two-hour stroll, which begins at the Albinger Archeological Museum near Mission San Buenaventura. Tour topics predate any thought of downtown redevelopment or visioning, even the Top Hat Burger Palace. And Senate is a most accomplished storyteller.

"I always told stories," Senate said. "As a kid, we didn't have much money, so we listened to the radio a lot, and I'd always end up telling stories to my brothers and sisters."

"When I was in college, I needed one more class to make 15 units to keep me from getting drafted and sent to Vietnam. Since one of my friends came home in a body bag, I took the extra class. Storytelling is about the only class that I ever made use of--I loved it, learned a lot of techniques and I aced the class."

Clearly never intending to get a real job, Senate was studying Byzantine culture at Long Beach State when he happened to take a tour of Mission San Buenaventura during a weekend visit to his hometown. He ended up getting a part-time job rebuilding a model of the mission, which led to a lot of reading, which led to leading tours of the mission. Next he worked at the Albinger museum and became the docent coordinator for the Olivas Adobe.

More historical research led Senate to begin leading tours of the city. Now an 18-year city employee, Senate leads a different tour each weekend with various themes, including ghosts and legends, Chinatown, Erle Stanley Gardner and mysteries of Main Street. The Chinatown tour in particular entails a lot of adjectives, since none of the Figueroa Street structures still exists. And no two tours are quite the same.

Much of the Legends and Ghosts tour focuses on Valdez Alley between the mission and Ventura Avenue. Far more than just a stairway shortcut from Main Street to Poli, Valdez Alley also has a number of picnic areas, shade trees and shrubs. Of the latter, the echiums are in spring bloom, sporting truly spectacular purple flowers.

About halfway up the hill on the third level sits a brick building choked with sycamore leaves and saddled with a decidedly unromantic name--the Water Filtration Building. This is not only the oldest building in the county but also one of the oldest structures in the entire Golden State.

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The building was the end of the line of a 15-year aqueduct construction project begun in 1782. The aqueduct originated at San Antonio Creek near the present-day Rancho Arnaz near Oak View and ran all the way to the building in question, bringing fresh water to the coast and thus enabling Ventura to grow.

The Water Filtration Building was also used as a jail--the bars are still there--costing considerably less than the current facility on Victoria Avenue, all of which brings us to the story of Lucas Garcia. Apparently, this man made a bad career move in 1869 by murdering a stranger who had been buying drinks for the locals the night before. As Senate put it, "This guy was either guilty or really stupid."

They found the murdered man's belongings at Garcia's house--and his body buried there as well. Garcia was thrown in the slammer, but the enraged locals dragged the accused from his cell and lynched him, hanging him from a pear tree that grew where the Burger King now stands. The ghost of Lucas Garcia is said to haunt the jailhouse site, proclaiming his innocence.

Another spirit is the White Lady of Valdez Alley, said to be the ghost of a Chumash woman abused by the Spanish. She wears a long white dress and has empty eye sockets. Other ghosts include that of Dr. DePoli, the man for whom the street is named.

Another legend involves the Wishing Chair of San Buenaventura, which if found would negate the need for all those advice columns and radio talk shows. The chair was said to have magic powers in the realm of love. Young women who would sit in the chair were said to be married within a year.

Then there was the Battle of Ventura.

In 1838, two rival factions--the north against the south--fought it out for political control of California. After an aborted attempt to capture Santa Barbara, the southern forces holed up in the mission, a decidedly poor defensive position. After some skirmishing, cannonballs scarred the walls of the mission, and one man was killed. The campaign ended soon after in Saticoy with total casualties being one man and two mules.

On Dec. 12, 1812, the Pacific Ocean created and administered its own redevelopment plan: According to several accounts, an earthquake caused a 50-foot tidal wave that made it all the way to the steps of the mission. Kowabunga, dude!

These stories and others await those who would like to find out more about the Poinsettia City's past. For those current Venturans blowing a gasket stuck in traffic on Main Street, it could always be worse. Consider Lucas Garcia or the Lady in White.

DETAILS

Legends and Ghosts walking tour of downtown Ventura, Saturday, 1 p.m.; $7; 658-4726.

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