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Preston Castle: A paranormal investigator's paradise

The Preston Castle has an ominous past that continues to haunt. Its Romanesque architecture and decades of abandonment lend to its mystery. While it certainly looks the part, the castle holds a reputation as one of the most haunted buildings on the West Coast.

The landmark sits atop a mountain in Ione where its history continues to unfold. The building’s dark past begins at the turn of the 20th century when it opened in 1894 as the Preston School of Industry, a reform school for California’s troubled youth. Boys of all ages and backgrounds, from orphans to criminals, where housed here as part of the state’s juvenile rehabilitation system. It was originally intended to rehabilitate boys, but violence, escape attempts, cruel punishments and murder gave it a horrific reputation.

Many deaths occurred within the castle’s walls and continue to inspire ghost stories. At one time the castle’s infirmary served as the hospital for the town of Ione. Illnesses such as tuberculosis and typhoid fever claimed several lives, including 8 year-old Grant Walker and 20 year-old Nicholas Hamilton. In addition to a staff member who was founded bludgeoned to death in 1950, a ward named Sam Goins was shot and killed during an escape attempt in 1922.

After nearly seven decades, the Preston School of Industry closed. The property, including the castle and several other structures were ripped of their insides and abandoned. The castle remained vacant and vandalized — another tragedy all on its own.

In 2001 the Preston Castle Foundation embarked on a mission to restore the landmark. The foundation has reclaimed some of the original furniture from the castle’s previous life, adding to its eccentricity and making the perfect backdrop for an eerie experience.

A trip into the castle reveals worn stairways, graffitied walls, bricks built in San Quentin and Folsom Prisons, antique hospital beds, and the remainder of a pool where boys bathed in lye that reminds of the harsh reality that once was.

A supernatural beacon

Locals aren’t the only ones drawn to the structure’s supernatural stories. The Castle has appeared on several paranormal themed TV shows including "Ghost Hunters," "The Great Escape," "My Ghost Story" and the Travel Channel’s "Ghost Adventures," among others.

The Castle Spirits Paranormal Team welcomes visitors to experience it for themselves. The team currently consists of 11 members who volunteer for overnight investigations with a mission to help restore and investigate.

Donna Jackson has volunteered with the Castle since 2012 as a docent. Her first trip involved an investigation, where she caught an EVP (electronic voice phenomenon.) “After my first visit I was hooked, I fell in love with the building. There was something that just drew me to the place,” she said.

Fellow team member Karen Goldman was also hooked after her first visit. She joined the paranormal team more than five years ago after experiencing supernatural activity during a visit.

“It brings comfort to know that there is more after our life here and that our loved ones are still with us. But being a believer and having proof are very different things,” Goldman said.

Her ultimate goal is to find scientific evidence that proves the paranormal exists, and the Preston Castle offers the perfect platform for research.
“In the words of Carl Sagan, ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,'” she said.

Paranormal activity experienced at the Castle runs the gamut; everything from footsteps and females feeling their hair pulled to disembodied voices, growls and shadow people are reported by guests and staff regularly.

After the castle opened for tours in 2008, skeptics couldn't resist its spooky draw.

“I think even skeptics are drawn to the building because they want to have that experience that will remove their doubt,” said Goldman.

She describes the castle’s reputation, both historical and paranormal, to be the place to provide them with that experience.

“I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people say ‘there is just something about this place.’ And many of the volunteers will tell you after they came the first time they knew they had to come back again,” said Jackson, adding that the building gives a glimpse of grandness.

The investigation

After my first visit to the Preston Castle in April, I was couldn’t wait to experience an overnight tour for myself. So, I joined Donna and Karen for an investigation. As the sun set, we grabbed our flashlights and a variety of equipment which included:

• K2 meter, a device that can detect electromagnetic fields (EMF)
• Parascope, or REM Pro, which uses static electricity to set off and lights
• Spirit box, which is a modified AM/FM radio that sweeps through up to seven channels per second. Theoretically, the spirit can use the white noise to communicate.
• MEL meter, which measures the strength of EMF as well as temperature
• Digital audio recorder, which can pick up things we may not hear ourselves (EVPs).

We explored three floors through dimly lit halls with EMF readers in hand, spending time in each of the castle’s most active areas — the infirmary and basement — with recorders, and the plethora of devices mentioned above. Both Goldman and Jackson used their expert knowledge to provide a detailed history of not only the building, but also each room. They dissected fact from fiction, welcoming questions and explanations.

The investigation fueled my fascination and sent chills down my spines. Several hours in the castle’s darkness certainly proved exciting, to say the least. Whether you’re a believer, a skeptic, or fall somewhere in between, I invite you to discover whether it lives up it its reputation for yourself.

When it comes to the paranormal, the Preston Castle appeals to our desire as humans to connect with people who have lived — or perhaps, still do. Take a trip through the Castle at night and you just may find the connection you are looking for!


Overnight ghost tours are offered to the public or private groups year-round and sell-out quickly. For more information, visit

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