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Fort Drum Barracks in Wilmington, built during the Civil War. 
Photos courtesy Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

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Ghost stories from LA’s old Civil War barracks

The barracks—once an important stronghold for the Union in Confederate-leaning Southern California—are open today for tours

It was the late 1980s or early ’90s (who can be sure when it comes to the supernatural?). Fred Duran, a city exterminator, was setting mouse traps in the Drum Barracks Civil War Museum in Wilmington, near the Port of Los Angeles. Busy at his work, he didn’t even look up when a man entered the room.

“I am getting water,” the man said.

“Okay,” Fred replied.

“Have you seen Maria?” the man asked. Duran said he had not, but something about the man’s unfamiliar voice made him finally look up.

A gentleman with thick yet greasy dark hair, parted down the middle, stared back at him. Curiously, he wore old-timey blue pants and suspenders. “I thought it was kind of odd because he was in a Civil War outfit,” Duran told the legendary Unsolved Mysteries in a 1992 episode.

“As I was going out, I saw the caretaker there and the workmen also, and I just asked him, I said, ‘Hey, the guy that lives here takes his job seriously.’ And they said, ‘You saw the Captain’s ghost.’”

This was not the first sighting of spirits at the dusty old museum. And it would certainly not be the last.

The Drum Barracks Civil War Museum, once a stately duplex quartering junior Army officers, is all that is left of the once sprawling, almost 60-acre Drum Barracks.

Uniformed men and women at a Fort Drum Barracks encampment that lasted from August 10 to 19, 1889.

Originally known as Camp Drum, it served as a training and processing center for almost half of the 17,000 Union volunteers from the state of California. Most of these volunteers came from Northern California, from mining country and San Francisco.

Drum was also an important strategic stronghold for America in Southern California, a place where sympathies were decidedly more Confederate leaning than in Northern California.

Many settlers to SoCal had come from agrarian slave states, and the city of Los Angeles had voted against Lincoln. Soon after the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter in 1861, Confederate militias sprang up in Los Angeles, and there were pro-secession rallies in the streets.

In an April 28, 1861 letter, Brig. General E.V. Sumner, commander of the Department of the Pacific, explained to his colleagues:

There is a strong Union feeling with the majority of the people of this state, but Secessionists are much more the most active and zealous party which gives them more influence than they ought to have from their numbers.

Seizing on this vocal minority, Confederates began to look to California.

“As one state after another seceded from the Union, the eyes of certain southerners, particularly Texans, turned toward California, with its strategic harbors and mineral wealth,” Don McDowell writes in the definitive The Beat of the Drum: The History, Events and People of Drum Barracks, Wilmington, California.

By July 1861, the Confederate invasion of New Mexico and Arizona was well underway. The American Army realized it needed to shore up its positions in Southern California, and in late 1861, a rudimentary Army base was constructed near Banning’s Wharf to both amass supplies and house volunteer troops.

Around New Years Day, the camp was named Camp Drum in honor of Lt. Col. Richard Coulter Drum, assistant adjutant general of the Department of the Pacific, who helped found the camp.

Life was hard at Camp Drum. In October 1862, Lt. Col. Harvey Lee, commanding officer at Camp Drum, wrote to his superiors:

On arrival at this encampment I found the encampment, both officers and men, very uncomfortably situated. The encampment is stationed on a low, flat plain about a half a mile from New San Pedro…there is nothing to shelter it from the sea winds, which at times are very severe. Tents are often blown down and the atmosphere filled with sand… the tents are old… If it is the intention of the department to keep troops at the present locality, temporary quarters should, in my judgement, be at once constructed.

To the rescue came the staunch-patriot and “Father of the Port of Los Angeles” Phineas Banning and his business partner B.D. Wilson. On a handshake deal, the two men sold 59.4 acres of land to the U.S. government for the nominal sum of one dollar.

The land—situated 1 mile from the port and 20 miles from Los Angeles—was ideal. To supply the base with water, and to give many of the idle volunteers something to do as they waited to be shipped out, an aqueduct was constructed from the San Gabriel River 8 miles away.

“Construction began immediately upon arrival of the first shipload of materials,” McDowell writes. “A large crew of civilian workmen, many of them Banning employees, undertook a project similar to present day housing developments.”

Barracks for five companies (typically 80 to 150 soldiers) were built, as were stables, a stone magazine, a bakery, hospital, guard house, and housing for junior and commanding officers. So quickly was the camp filling up, people moved into the new facilities as soon as they were finished.

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James F. Curtis. The colonel, and his wife, Maria, are said to haunt the former barracks.
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Drum’s stately white wood buildings were centered around a large parade ground, where volunteers were trained for the brutal war they faced once they marched East. As the camp filled with young recruits, the base became a hub of commercial activity, as businesses sprung up around Drum to support its inhabitants.

The camp was also home for a time to 36 of the legendary U.S. Army camels, who had been imported from Arabia in the 1850s to serve as beasts of burden in the West.

In July 1863, the base (renamed Drum Barracks that year) was put under the command of Lt. Col. James F. Curtis, who had gained fame fighting native Californians.

Curtis and his young wife, Maria, who he had married only three years before, stayed in the Junior Officer’s quarters—now the museum—before the commanding officer’s grand home was finished.

Throughout the war, Drum Barracks, now the official headquarters of the U.S. Army in Southern California, enjoyed an excellent reputation.

“We were astonished to find Drum Barracks one of the finest we had ever seen,” one California recruit remembered. “Some of the men in our company who had seen service in the East said that they had never seen anything like it.”

With the end of the Civil War came the end of Drum Barracks’ usefulness to the Army. Curtis left, and the base emptied out, as soldiers returned to civilian life. In 1870, Army Surgeon W.F. Edgar described the camp’s condition: It was virtually deserted and falling apart, except for the hospital which was kept in better condition since sick soldiers were often left there to recuperate.

Black and white photo of the entrance of a clapboard building fronted by a wooden porch. Two small American flags are affixed to the facade.
Entrance to the Fort Drum Barracks in 1937.

The base was officially abandoned in November of 1871. “Barracks stood empty for almost two years,” McDowell writes. “Its once teeming buildings falling further into disrepair and the unattended parade ground taken over by weeds. Serious damage to the buildings by looters and vandals was minimized by frequent patrols by Banning and his men.”

In 1873, an auction of all the buildings on the site had unsurprising bidders, with Banning and Wilson buying all the structures. The Wilson’s moved into one of the grander buildings, and donated 10-acres of the land to the Methodist Church, which opened the co-ed Wilson College on the site. It eventually closed and moved to Los Angeles, becoming what we now know as the University of Southern California.

Over the years the remaining Drum Barracks buildings were torn down or repurposed. In the 1890s, the building that is now the museum was converted into the Wilmington Township High School. It then became the private home of Mary Keaveney.

The Keaveney family owned the building until the 1960s, when it was bought by the state after an extended campaign by boosters and volunteers. With the passing of the building into state hands, long whispered neighborhood tales of ghosts and spirits become more widely spread.

“When I took over guard duty at Drum Barracks, I was warned that the house was occupied by ghosts. My neighbor to the south told me that they had been pestered for years by the late occupants of the Barracks,” Vincent Manchester, custodian of Drum Barracks from 1964 to 1976, remembered in article he wrote for a Drum Barracks historical journal.

Manchester lived in a small apartment behind the building. His most important duty was to inspect each room in the main house every night to make sure everything was safe. Strange occurrences started gradually: doors that closed on their own, random noises, and the like.

Then one day, Manchester was sitting in the Drum Barracks’ office going over some historic papers. He recalled:

I had all the lights out and was engrossed in my work when I heard a noise coming from the front room. It was a sort of tuneless humming, not a loud noise but very clear…I realized it was coming toward the open door between the rooms. Then it stopped seemingly at the doorway. I felt someone staring at me, but I was frozen and couldn’t raise my eyes from the records I had been working on. After seconds of this tension, I heard a sound, a very clear “huh,” and then I felt I was alone again and relaxed…I concluded that my humming friend was just curious about what I was doing.

Except for a malevolent spirit who once sat on his bed in the middle of the night, Manchester believed the spirits of Drum Barracks were friendly.

Only once did Manchester ever see a spirit: “The Lady of the House,” a young woman in 1860s dress who has been sighted on the porch since at least the early 1900s. She also appears on the stairs in the museum and is said to wear lilac perfume.

“I could make out the shape of a young woman in a long, full dress,” Manchester remembered years later. “We remained motionless, calmly looking at each other as if waiting for someone to speak, for perhaps half a minute. Then I remembered my flashlight, unfortunately as it turned out, because when I shone it up the stairs, my young lady disappeared.”

In 1986, Marge O’Brien was named the new director of the Drum Barracks. Her first impression of the dusty old duplex was not positive.

“It was a very dark, very sad feeling as you walked through,” she told Unsolved Mysteries. “And it was just the kind of a building that was saying, ‘Help me.’”

O’Brien revitalized and renovated the building, adding new exhibits and opening it for public tours. She soon experienced the strange sensation others who spent time in the building had felt, including the smell of pipe tobacco. She recounted her experiences in 1992:

I’m sitting in my office and something will take my attention…something attracts me to the fact that I should be checking something. I will walk over to the parlor. Nine chances out of ten when I have this feeling and I open the door, more likely than not, the lights on the table are on. Most times, I will walk up the stairs and check the gun room. Very often, that too has the lights on and the window blinds open even though they have been closed and down. Because, the rule here is that after every tour, you pull the shades down, turn off the light and lock the door.

With O’Brien’s encouragement, tales of ghostly occurrences mounted. Visitors, caretakers, even an actress performing in an interactive play saw spirits, lights turn on and off at will, or heard the repeating thud that often occurred at the top of the stairs. On January 29, 1991, O’Brien invited psychic Barbara Conner to the museum.

During her visit (gloriously reenacted on Unsolved Mysteries in 1992), Conner identified four main ghostly inhabitants in the museum. The first was the oft seen “Lady of the House,” who many believe is Maria Curtis.

“She was happy and would not leave unless the building burned down. She said she was cleaning house, although she had a pain in her right side. She wanted to stay to take care of everybody,” Conner said.

The annoying thud at the top of the stairs? That was a little boy in period costume, throwing a ball against the wall over and over. She also claimed to have spoken with a happy Irish Civil War soldier named Patrick.

But the most forceful spirit was that of Col. Curtis, who she encountered twice, both times with a group of his men. “He looked at me and he said, ‘I want this chair closer to the fireplace, because I’m cold.’ He also said his boot is too tight for him.”

“It was a very dark, very sad feeling as you walked through... And it was just the kind of a building that was saying, ‘Help me.’”

It has been surmised that Duran’s (the city exterminator) sighting was probably also the spirt of Curtis looking for his wife, Maria. Like Manchester, many who worked at the museum felt the spirits were friendly and meant no harm. When the thumping at the top of the stairs would start, one assistant director would simply yell up at the ghost boy: “I don’t want to hear that ball again!”

The child would always comply.

The ghostly reputation of the museum may even serve as a sort of protection for the building. According to McDowell, a group of neighborhood toughs once stood around the museum at night, plotting to vandalize it. When caretaker Forest Neal opened the door to confront them, they scattered like the wind. Neal looked uncannily like Col. Curtis.

O’Brien also seemed to understand that publicizing the ghost stories was a way to increase visibility and notoriety. As she once told the Los Angeles Times, the museum was “owned by the state, run by the city and funded by no one.”

Over the decades, it seems opinions about how to best publicize the dusty, quaint museum have changed. The $5 guided tour is excellent—but there is not a breath of spirit talk.

A conversation with the current director yielded little otherworldly gossip, with her explaining they now wanted to focus on the barracks’ Civil War past and not its ghostly present. Only once a year, on October 20, the museum dusts out the old ghost stories and invites visitors to join guides on a candlelight tour of the building.

However, if indeed spirits do reside in the Drum Barracks Civil War Museum, one cannot imagine that a lack of attention would cause them to leave.

“I’m pleased that they’re here, if indeed they are here,” O’Brien told Unsolved Mysteries. “Because it means someone with a longer span is going to take care of this place.”

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