THE LEGEND OF BOOT HILL
Once upon a nightmare, many memories ago, there lived – and died – the town of Bridgewood. It existed here, on this hallowed ground.
As legend has it, a mining supply train was making its way late on night from Nevada to the coast of Southern California. The train was crossing an old wooden trestle in the tolling hills of what is now southern Orange County, when the structure gave out under the tremendous weight of the locomotive. The mighty engine fell nose-first into a dry riverbed below, and the rest of the cars followed. The gunpowder and dynamite the train was hauling ignited, and the entire area went up in a series of explosions that could be seen and heard for miles. None of the train’s crew survived the blast.
Several months later, a group of settlers came across the remainder of the wreck site, and bit by bit, hauled away the pieces of the trestle that had not been burned in the accident. With that material, they built a small but cozy saloon not too far from the riverbed, near a popular coach trail. The town of Bridgewood was born, and like the rest of California, it wasn’t long before more buildings went up, and the community was booming.
The local hills were mined for the next few years and the little town became one of the most coveted pieces of real estate in all of California. It was home to many of the most wealthy and powerful people in the West.
In 1890, Bridgewood was purchased by an individual named Jedediah Smith. While his origin is still unclear, many historians believe he came from Louisiana, where his family thrived on old slave plantation money. Jedediah lived alone, and rarely mingled with the good people of Bridgewood. While scarcely seen in public, his presence was felt throughout the town as taxes began to rise and the local lawmen were retired and/or run out of town by gun slinging outlaws. No one opposed the laws of Jedediah Smith, as he proclaimed that the higher taxes would help Bridgewood grow and prosper with the coming turn of the Century. This was not the case, and while the truth was never found out, many believe that Smith sank a great deal of that tax revenue into Nevada, buying up saloons, gambling halls and land.
By 1900, the community of Bridgewood was but a pale ghost of what it once had been. Most of the shops in town had closed their doors. The school was grossly neglected, and the children deprived of any formal education. The hotels that once played host to the most successful businessmen in America were now mere flophouses and places of ill repute. Gambling halls sprung up, and honest citizens were slowly replaced with hustlers and scoundrels. Bridgewood was dying, and the citizen’s spirits followed.
In 1901, a man by the name of Richard Foley publicly confronted Jedediah Smith, as the town’s owner made a rare public appearance at Bridgewood’s General Store. The legend says that Foley began following Smith around the store, asking him repeatedly why he had destroyed the good community. He demanded to know – in the name of the citizens – where their money and good will had gone. Narrow-eyed and visibly irritated, Smith continued examining the aisles of goods as Foley continued his barrage of questions. Smith finally left the store and Foley followed, continuing his verbal assault on the old miser.
Without warning, Jedediah Smith turned on his heels and came face-to-face with Richard Foley. In one, sleek movement, Smith pulled a sliver revolver from inside his coat and placed the end of the barrel against Foley’s forehead.
“Are you done yet?” hissed Smith. The breeze blew his stringy dark gray hair across his face like tiny serpents.
Foley was too surprised to answer; he blinked stupidly, and choked on his words.
By now a good-sized crowd had gathered around Smith and Foley. An eerie silence fell over the group.
“When I bought this miserable land, I bought your soul,” Smith snarled. “You are nothing to me. None of you. You follow me around like a bunch of dogs and scatter for the scraps I toss your way! I am your master.”
As Foley opened his mouth to speak, Jedediah Smith suddenly pulled the trigger. The report from his revolver rang out loudly in the afternoon as Foley dropped to the ground. Smith gazed down at him, disgusted.
“You’re not even worth the cost of my slug,” he whispered, and spat on Richard Foley as the blood poured from his head into the dirt road.
For another year, anyone – resident or traveler – that opposed Smith was publicly executed by a group of outlaws that Smith had surrounded himself with. History tells that Jedediah Smith quickly went mad, and drowned out any feeling of remorse with alcohol. On October 30th, 1902, in a drunken rage, Smith ordered all of the town’s women to be executed; some say it was a mad revelation of ending Bridgewood’s population cycle. One by one, all women from young children to the elderly were dragged out of their homes and slaughtered in the streets. The men of Bridgewood were held at bay – or shot to death – as they watched in horror.
On October 31st, a group of twenty or so men from neighboring communities rode into town at dusk. It was a lynch mob, coming to rid the world of Jedediah Smith.
Smith’s men met the group head-on, and an incredible gunfight began in the streets of Bridgewood. Overhead, thunder rolled and boomed heavily as tongues of lightning lashed out at the hills. For nearly an hour, gunshots rang out into the night and men fell one-by-one to the cold earth. The mob grew as more men arrived on horseback and joined in the fight. The men slowly made their way to the home of Jedediah Smith, where they found him waiting inside, sitting in the darkness.
They dragged him by his hair through the blood-soaked streets of Bridgewood toward the church and Boot Hill, the cemetery on the edge of town. There, a shallow grave had been dug, and a large tombstone had been placed, bearing his name. Smith was brought to his feet at the foot of the grave. As the men gathered near, Smith’s breath became short and they could see panic growing in his eyes as they darted from face to face, looking for a reprieve.
As the thunder rolled and the lightning flickered, the flames in several lanterns blew out as a gust of wind came up around the men. A ghostly, deep voice seemed to speak from all sides, rising and falling with the breeze.
“Too many lives lost…Too many families destroyed…Too many promises broken,” the voice charged.
The group parted, and a lone figure dressed in a black cloak stepped toward Smith. The hat that he wore cast a shadow across his face, concealing his identity. He slowly raised his revolver at Jedediah.
“G…D… you!” Smith suddenly wailed in the darkness. Lightning flashed, illuminating his face, which was twisted and pale with terror.
“No,” replied the gunman. “Damn you, Jedediah Smith. Damn you to Hell, where you belong.”
A single gunshot rang out, and Smith fell backward into the open grave. As he lay there, gasping for breath, the gunslinger stepped forward, looking down at Smith. Thunder clapped its approval as the mysterious figure stood there, watching Smith slowly die.
“Shoot me,” Jedediah gasped. Part of his mouth had been blown away, and thick dark blood ran in streams down the side of his head and into the sacred soil of the grave. “Shoot me,” he begged.
As thunder rolled above and lightning flickered in the heavens, the gunman’s voiced filled the night again.
“You’re not worth the cost of my slug.”
Jedediah’s eyes widened in horror just as Death claimed his evil soul. The gunman turned and walked through the crowd into the darkness of the cemetery. As he disappeared, his voice one final time filled the night.
“It is done.”
It took many years to heal the wounds that Smith had inflicted on Bridgewood. After many decades of sorrow, The Irvine Company purchased the land, leveled the remaining buildings and started fresh with the planned community of Woodbridge. Legend has it, that each Halloween, the church and cemetery where Jedediah Smith met his fate on October 31st, 1902, reappears for just a short while so that the spirits of the past may mourn.
Of course, this is all quite simply a tale, A Halloween ghost story written to spook the faint of heart. Isn’t it?
Dates: Oct. 13th/14th; 20th-22nd; 27th-29th
Boot Hill is located at 16 Goldenrod in Irvine. Just off of E. Yale Loop and Springbrook.