"They call me Ace 'The Dead Gambler.' I'm going to be your host tonight as we go out and search for ghosts."
Dressed in 18th-century garb, Ace "The Dead Gambler" - a ghost host, perhaps? - welcomed unsuspecting passengers aboard his gravestone carriage for a look into San Diego's darker side.
"Does anyone on this trolley believe in ghosts?" Ace asked with a big smile on a recent September night. "Put your hands up high if you're a believer. Lots of hands going up, huh?
"Does anyone not believe in ghosts? Put your hands up high if you're a non-believer. All right, three of you. Got my work cut out for me tonight. Gotta make believers out of you tonight."
With Halloween looming, what better time to take a spirited tour of some of San Diego's most iconic haunted places. And with their flair for the theatrical as opposed to the strictly historical, the Ghosts and Gravestones Trolley Tours in Old Town is one way to get into the spirit of the season.
Ghosts and Gravestones Trolley Tours live and die by their tour guides, and Rodney Foster - aka "Ace" - led our foray into the dark side in supernatural style. In addition to a hair-raising scary-movie scream - so horrific it would drive you mad ... MAD, I tell you - Ace was impressively invested in the many ghost stories he told along the way.
The nearly two-hour round-trip experience begins at the Old Town Market courtyard on Twiggs Street. The eerily decorated black trolley bus travels about a mile and a half north of Old Town to Pioneer Park in Mission Hills . The tour resumes its trip back to Old Town, traveling almost two miles west to El Campo Santo Cemetery on San Diego Avenue, finishing the tour at the Whaley House at the corner of Harney Street and San Diego Avenue.
As we embarked on our first stop, a spot-on imitation of Alfred Hitchcock's voice was played to explain the rules of the trolley tour. Standing may cause vertigo - don't do it. Keep your arms and legs inside so you don't fall out the window, especially the rear window. Smoking and alcoholic beverages are strictly for the birds.
The Beginning (... or the end?)
1521 Washington Place, Mission Hills
Before we got off the trolley, Ace told us to take it all in - take in the people, take in the trees, take in the laundry (just kidding), take in every single thing that we see at Pioneer Park next to Grant Elementary School. It's a park during the day but at nighttime, it's something totally different.
"They know we're here," he said.
But before he got a chance to tell us that secret, one of the passengers whispered: "It's over a cemetery," said Marilyn Bilbo, visiting from Utah with her husband, Chuck. "The park is over a cemetery."
"Shhh! Don't give it away," Ace said.
"I'm sorry. I came here the other day," Bilbo said.
"That's my big secret," Ace said, smiling and laughing.
"I looked up the secret places in San Diego," Bilbo replied.
Buried beyond the grassy slopes at Pioneer Park? 4,000 bodies.
"They moved the gravestones, but they didn't move the bodies," Ace said.
Instead, they built a park.
Through the years, the cemetery fell into disrepair and burials became rare. California law allows the conversion of unused cemeteries for the public benefit. In 1930, the cemetery was no longer being maintained. In 1960, the park fell under the jurisdiction of the city's parks and recreation department. It brought in children's recreation equipment, picnic tables and landscaping, turning Calvary Cemetery into a park.
Today, tombstones lined up on the southeast corner of the park serve as stark reminders of what it used to be. The gravestones that were a little more salvageable are stored in a ravine at Mount Hope Cemetery three miles south of downtown San Diego.
The tour took a poignant turn when Ace shared a personal "ghost story" that he said "is near and dear to his heart" - the passing of his daughter eight years ago. He used to be a nonbeliever, Ace said, but supernatural encounters (hearing her voice and feeling her presence) turned him into a believer.
"I don't believe in ghosts," said KC Clifford, a San Diego real estate agent. "But I think I've since changed my mind to 'not sure.' "
Second stop: Chilling tales
El Campo Santo Cemetery
2410 San Diego Ave., Old Town
Before entering, Ace said to look down on the sidewalk. He pointed to small grave markers in the cement - a reminder that we're walking on graves. Stories of ghosts, angered by the disturbances, have been reported - alarms set off on vehicles parked next to the cemetery and cars that won't start.
As we walked the grounds of the cemetery - two blocks south of the infamous Whaley House - we're told we may feel an icy cold presence in spots or see paranormal beings dressed in 18th-century attire, spot orbs floating through the grounds or happen upon a woman in Victorian garb who disappears upon approach. We're introduced to some of the residents: James "Yankee Jim" Robinson, who was caught stealing. Juan Mendoza, a rancher who was shot in the back by Col. Cave Couts. And Anita Gillis, who died of scarlet fever at age 9.
"It's been said that she'll watch over you for the rest of your life," Ace remarked.
Last rites (you never know ...)
The Whaley House
2476 San Diego Ave., Old Town
Our tour was on the anniversary of Lillian Whaley's death: Sept. 14, 1953. She was the last of the Whaleys to live in the house. Whaley House docent Robin Weaver said we may encounter Lillian and other family members during the tour.
"Ghosts like to play tricks on visitors, especially those with cameras," Weaver said. They don't like to have their pictures taken, apparently.
"My camera turned off again ... three times," Marilyn Bilbo said. "I put in new batteries and even made sure it was fully charged."
Bilbo said she felt cold chills in the house.
"It's because you're sensitive to spirits," Weaver responded.