The Winchester Ark in Burlingame

Photo courtesy of the San Mateo County History Museum The Winchester Mystery House.

Oliver Winchester made his mark in America by producing "The gun that won the West.”

Oliver Winchester had formed the New Haven Arms Company in April 1857 out of a bankrupt arms company of which he was part owner. His new company produced the most advanced and soon-to-be-famous Henry rifle that was used by units of the Union Army. After the Civil War, the New Haven Arms Company was renamed the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Modifications of the Henry rifle were made and, in 1866, the first Winchester rifle was produced. The steel frame was produced and there was an improved magazine and wooden forearm with rim firing cartridges. The improved center firing cartridges, steel frame and 20-inch barrel of a carbine (Model 1873) began being produced in 1873 and became very successful with a production of 720,000 rifles. It gained so much popularity that it became called "The gun that won the West.”

Oliver Winchester’s only son, William Wirt Winchester, assisted his father at the business of rifle making. He married Sarah Lockwood Pardee and, in 1866, a daughter, Annie Pardee Winchester was born. Possibly due to her short stature, Sarah was rarely photographed. I’ve seen only one photo of her sitting in a carriage and she needed a stool to help her get into the carriage. The daughter died a few weeks later. This event greatly changed Sarah and she began seeking spiritual guidance as she developed guilt about life and her husband’s contribution to the death of many people due to the rifle he was manufacturing. Oliver Winchester died in 1880 and, a year later, her husband died of tuberculosis. She inherited the stock her husband had in the company and, in 1884, she and her sister Isabella Pardee Merriman (and family) moved to Santa Clara, Calif. where she purchased, for $12,570, a 162-acre farm on the Santa Cruz-Santa Clara Road (today’s Winchester Boulevard). The farm had an eight- or nine-room house, still under construction.

Sarah purchased a house in Los Altos for her younger sister Isabella. Isabella was a great philanthropic person — and interesting in her own right. On the property Sarah bought for her, she provided space for homeless and abandoned children as well as having interest in the NAACP. She became known as "a friend of the helpless.”

In the 1890s, Sarah had a boat built for her and it was anchored in the mud flats of Burlingame. She dug a moat around it. She had developed a fear that a second flood as described in the Bible would occur and she wanted a refuge to go to. The boat was fully furnished and supplied with food and sat approximately at 601 Park Ave. It became called "The Winchester Ark.” On June 21, 1929, a fire destroyed much of the ark. Four days later, another fire burned the remaining part of the ark.

In 1904, Sarah inherited $20 million from the Winchester shares in the rifle company. Now that she had a lot of money, Sarah began construction on her residence in Santa Clara. Twenty-four hour-a-day construction, 365 days a year, continued until she had a structure with 160 rooms. There were 40 bedrooms, 13 bathrooms, 6 kitchens and 47 fireplaces built into the structure. In addition, there two ballrooms, 40 staircases (many leading to nowhere or blank walls) all with 13 steps, 450 doorways, 10,000 windows, many with 13 panes in them, and rooms within rooms. The number 13 continually repeats itself in the home — 13 steps, 13 windows, 13 bathrooms, etc.

After the 1906 earthquake, she was pinned down by falling debris in a caved-in room but was rescued in less than a day. The help needed maps to get around the complex house. Also the help continually reported paranormal activity in the house consisting of ghosts, organ music, book turning, etc. It became a weird house.

Sarah Winchester died in 1922 and the house in Santa Clara was inherited by her sister. It took weeks to sell and clear out the furnishings. The property was then sold and it has been converted into a tourist attraction in Santa Clara.

Rediscovering the Peninsula by Darold Fredricks appears in the Monday edition of the Daily Journal.

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