The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose is famous, but it was not the only mysterious home of Sarah Winchester, the reclusive heiress to the Winchester gun fortune. She also had a home in Burlingame, a houseboat many dubbed “the ark.”
The boat built in the early 1890s was berthed in mudflats and protected with a moat that was crossed on a small bridge. Some Burlingame residents of the time said Winchester feared a flood of biblical proportions would inundate the area, a fear not so farfetched when one considers today’s warnings about the impacts of global warming. More mundane reports concluded Sarah bought the boat in Marin County and had it towed to Burlingame so she could have a place to call home between San Francisco and her San Jose mansion. A floating residence was not unusual at a time when many wealthy people owned yachts or houseboats. Some had both. The Winchester houseboat was moored in a slough near the end of what is now Winchester Drive.
According to “The Winchester Mystery Ark” written by Martha Rosman of the Burlingame Historical Society, in the early 1920s a woman thought to be a relative of Winchester lived in the ark. The article quoted Richard Epting who recalled visits to the houseboat and meeting its occupant.
The children in the area called the woman a “mercy lady,” Epting said. The nickname stemmed from the fact that she “tried to convert us from eating meat to vegetarian food by giving us sermons on the subject.” He said the neighborhood kids were always willing to listen because the lady gave them each a little button. “We didn’t read it,” he said. “We just wanted to have it.” The lady of the house was “violently against duck hunting,” Epting continued. “When the hunters would pull their boats up on the shore, she’d take an ax to their boats and hack away to a point where they wouldn’t float anymore.”
On June 21, 1929, a fire nearly destroyed the ark. By that time the “mercy lady” was long gone. Four days later, firefighters burned the entire boat to get rid of a fire hazard. In 2012, someone named “Joe” posted online that a 1925 map of Burlingame showed the Winchester property formed the bulk of all the land east of California Drive from Oak Grove to Broadway.
Following the death of her husband, William Wirt Winchester, Sarah Winchester inherited $20 million from shares in the gun company so she had plenty of money to buy houses. A recent article in The Gate Post, published by the Menlo Park Historical Association, reported that the widow Winchester, who died in 1922, had a home in Atherton “as a resting place for her travel by carriage” to the ark. “She later bought two adjacent Atherton properties.” Winchester Drive in Atherton was originally her driveway. Some have speculated that Menlo Park’s Belle Haven neighborhood is connected to Sarah who was born in New Haven, Connecticut and was known as “the Belle of New Haven.”
The main residence in San Jose, which is a tourist attraction today, dwarfed all Mrs. Winchester’s other homes. The seven-story mansion boasted 160 rooms, including 40 bedrooms, 13 bathrooms and 47 fireplaces as well as 10,000 windows. The number 13 continually repeats itself in the building’s stairs that often lead nowhere.
Many people are fascinated by Mrs. Winchester’s life story with some speculating she kept adding to the mansion in an attempt to escape the ghosts of people killed by Winchester guns. Just last year, the movie “Winchester” was released that featured Helen Mirren in the title role. Some people bristle at the idea of Mrs. Winchester depicted as a superstitious eccentric. They include one defender who wrote in the online Burlingame Voice that Sarah was an educated and compassionate philanthropist whose “quiet donations benefited our community.” Among other things, her fortune endowed the William Wirt Winchester Hospital in New Haven, Connecticut.
The Rear View Mirror by history columnist Jim Clifford appears in the Daily Journal every other Monday. Objects in The Mirror are closer than they appear.