Tilford George Berry: The Ghost of the Gambling Hermit in Big Basin’s Berry Creek Falls
By Ryan Masters, Sempervirens Fund
It is said if you stare long enough into the 70-foot curtain of water tumbling down Berry Creek Falls in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, you will see the forlorn ghost of the gambling hermit Tilford George Berry.
Originally from Indiana, Berry was a sawmill worker who had fled west, allegedly to avoid the consequences of a crippling addiction to strong drink. In the mid-1860s, Berry built his cabin on the most westerly branch of Waddell Creek near the base of the waterfall, becoming one of the region’s first homesteaders.
Berry was a tall, stout man who would carry his supplies back into the bush from Boulder Creek on his back. He was also a crack rifle shot who took all manner of game, including grizzly bear. A total hermit, Berry kept neither horse nor dog, let alone a family.
Yet after many years in the primeval forest alone, Berry longed to return home to his sister in Indiana. Having homesteaded more than the required five years, the land was his to sell. Berry found a tanner in Santa Clara named Jacob Eberhardt who was willing to buy the property for $1,600.
To close the deal, Berry trudged into Boulder Creek and booked passage on a four-horse stage to Santa Clara by way of Saratoga Summit. He left his rifle with a friend and told him he’d return for it in two or three days’ time.
Two weeks later, Berry reappeared on foot in Boulder Creek; exhausted, disheveled, beaten down by cruel fate. The old demons had resurfaced. After accepting payment for his land, Berry had returned to the drink and gambled away his entire grubstake. There would be no returning to Indiana with his dignity restored. He was baffled, demoralized…ruined. Berry collected his rifle in Boulder Creek and without a word, disappeared in the direction of Big Basin; never to be seen again.
25 years later, Boulder Creek resident William H. Booth was exploring the ridge to the northwest of town when he made a chilling discovery.
“Breaking his way through low chaparral brush, he came upon an open rocky slope and there before him lay the perfect skeleton and beside it lay the old Berry rifle, metal corroded and stock decayed. Through the skull was the path of a bullet.” – Santa Cruz Sentinel, May 3, 1938.
The disgrace and desolation of financial ruin had been too much to bear. Poor Berry had committed suicide just 15 minutes from where he had collected his rifle. For two and a half decades his mortal coil lay exposed to the sky, picked clean by woodland creatures and insects.
And yet the world was still not done with Berry. After his immaculate remains were discovered in the wild, Dr. Woodson Allen of Boulder Creek wired up the hermit’s bones and created a perfect anatomical specimen for his private practice.
Alas, the grim irony! The man for whom Berry Creek Falls and Berry Creek are named; a man who went to such extraordinary lengths for solitude; was placed on display for all to see.
So next time you hike to Berry Falls in Big Basin Redwoods State Park and gaze into its translucent, rushing waters, take heed…you may find the forlorn ghost of the gambling hermit Tilford George Berry gazing morosely back at you.