Things to do in Portland this Weekend – Take a hike through the forest to see the Witch’s Castle
The Witch’s Castle, also known as the Stone House, was built by City of Portland architect Ernest Tucker as a public pavilion and shelter for hikers. It was completed during 1935–1936 and it continued to function as a shelter with an operational rest room up until October 12th 1962, when the Columbus Day Storm that devastated so much of Oregon, struck Portland’s Forest Park.
During the storm, winds gusting at over 120 mph uprooted hundreds of the tallest trees around the building, and a number of them fell onto the walls and roof causing severe damage. The underground plumbing was severed by trees uprooting and pulling the copper pipes with them. Branches smashed through windows and doors, and part of the roof collapsed.
The city authority decided that repairs would be too expensive, and in the interests of safety removed all the fixtures, doors and the remaining part of the roof. All that’s left behind is the moss-covered stone walls.
Vandalised and sprayed over with graffiti, for decades the Stone House was forgotten about, until the 1990s. In the 90s, it became a place to hang out for teenage drinkers, who gave the building a new “magical” life as a “castle”. It didn’t take many bottles of Thunderbird or Night Train Express for them to imagine that this ex public toilet was not only a castle but the Witch’s Castle, following the Hollywood and Disney traditions of thinking witches lived in castles. Elsewhere, they’re more humble and live in cottages or caves.
This site receives a number of visitors who believe local urban legends, and think the building has some connection with witches. Unfortunately the building has no connection with witches, other than the fact that the teenage boozers who used the building, as a drinking den, watched a lot of movies about witches. Hocus Pocus, The Craft and The Witches might have been among their favourites.
However, the “castle” might not have any connection with witches but does have real connections with murder and sightings of ghostly apparitions.
The Balches versus the Stumps
The Stone house also attracts visitors because it was built on or near the old site of the Balch family farmstead, which was erected sometime between October and December 1850. This farmstead was the scene of a family conflict that resulted in one of Oregon’s most gruesome murders.
Danford Balch, over 80 years before the Witch’s Castle was built, ventured west over the Oregon trail with his wife and nine children. He had lived in Oregon for about three years before moving into the Macleay Park area, in 1850, to claim land. Also later in the same year the Stump family settled a nearby claim.
On the first meeting with the Stump family, Balch instantly disliked them. In the months and years that followed, numerous disputes between the Balches and Stumps over fences and boundaries broke out. This fuelled Balch’s hostility even more. By 1858, however, hostilities seemed to have died down, and Danford Balch, needing trees cleared for farmland, hired Mortimer Stump to help and gave him lodgings in his cabin. At the end of the year, Stump asked for the hand of Balch’s eldest daughter Anna. Balch refused the request and told Stump to get out of the property.
A few days later, the young couple eloped to Vancouver, in British Columbia, and were married by a Justice of the Peace. Upon their return to the Stump family home, they organised a trip over to Portland, across the Willamete River, to gather supplies and Balch intercepted the couple and shot Stump with his double-barreled shotgun while he stood on the riverboat ferry with his new wife. Balch was detained and found guilty of murder. He was hanged, in 1859, by public execution in front of a rowdy crowd of around 600. After his death both the Balch and Stump family sold up and moved out of the Portland area.
The Hooting Ghost of Danford Balch on Freaky Friday
It is said that Danford Balch’s ghost returns to the Witch’s Castle, the site of his old home, in the middle of October, on the anniversary of his death. For many decades, his ghost walked alone in the forest near the castle looking for his daughter and forgiveness for killing her new husband. Few locals ventured near feeling the presence of an entity that wasn’t entirely beneficent.
In the absence of humans, the ghost took to communicating its remorse by hooting, to a parliament of owls that were perched in the fir trees that surrounded its old home.
One night in October, as the young drinkers of Portland started to gather for their usual Friday night shindig, in the ruins of the “castle”, owls closeby began wailing. These young boozers, when completely sozzled, would often mimic the sound of the barred owls that were roosting in the trees all around. They did this to summon up courage. Inwardly they were frozen with fear upon hearing the Barred Owl’s wailing death call. Anyone who has ever heard a Barred Owl will tell you, that it’s the eeriest sound in the forest, possibly even the eeriest sound they’ve ever heard.
As the owls wailed, the young boozers responded, mimicking the owls, the owl’s wailing response to the mimicked calls appeared to have reached deep inside the fear centres of their brains. Spooked out, they fled with their bottles of Thunderbird and Night Train Express into the night.
Later, they claimed a ghostly figure, dressed in 19th century clothing, appeared amongst them, first hooting like an owl, then looking around and asking for “Anna”.
Getting to the Witch’s Castle
The Witch’s Castle, in Portland’s Forest Park, is about a seven minute drive from the centre of the city. There are two paths that’ll take you there.
The High Road
The first path is a not too strenuous half mile hike from the Upper Macleay Park at parking lot close to the Portland’s Audubon Society building.
The Low Road
The low path is a slightly longer walk, three quarters of a mile, from the Lower Macleay Park at the parking lot located at NW 30th and Upshur. Both trails are easy enough walks, but you must be prepared for wet and slippy terrain by wearing proper boots or shoes.
On your way there, through the Forest Park, you’ll see verdant green forest, maybe even with flying squirrels in the branches, and might catch a glimpse of trout in the gurgling streams.