Gary Noy: Ghoulies, ghosties and Tommyknockers |

Gary Noy: Ghoulies, ghosties and Tommyknockers

Tommyknockers at work.
Original artwork by Joe Medeiros |

Belief is a powerful force. It makes you see things that aren’t there, hear things in the silence, and feel things that do not exist.

In Nevada County, we have plenty of examples of ghostly apparitions, mysterious episodes, and a company of unusual underground inhabitants, some of whom may have saved my grandfather’s life.

My Cornish ancestors are credited with this bedtime prayer: “From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggety beasties/And things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us!”

Deliver us, perhaps, but it is more fun to embrace the inexplicable. Two of our historic hotels and many of our mines have seen more than their share of things that go bump in the night, adding a unique and shadowy flair to our Gold Country heritage.

Tommyknockers were said to be direct descendants of ancient elves known as Piskies (also known as Pixies in other parts of the world). After hitching a ride to the Gold Country with the Cornish, the elves became an important element of mining life.

The National Hotel in Nevada City was originally built in 1856 and has reported spectral tenants almost from the beginning. The hotel has suffered fires, massive renovations, and the inevitable structural consequences of time and through it all the ghosties have endured.

In Room 48, a woman was murdered, and subsequent guests have at times noted an unearthly presence, an air of heaviness.

In Room 78, a young girl passed from medical complications, and, in the years since, some have sensed a palpable feeling of sadness pervading the space.

Visitors have reported a woman in the saloon who appears suddenly and then vanishes into the vapor — sometimes she is accompanied by a man in a black frock coat. Tenants and employees have noticed unnerving banging noises in the walls — plumbing problems have been ruled out.

Occasionally, occupants recount being serenaded by strange tunes emanating from an unoccupied piano on the empty second floor.

Grass Valley’s Holbrooke Hotel hosts a continuous convention of ghoulies and ghosties within its historic walls. Constructed during the Gold Rush, it is one of the oldest hotels in California and is peppered with a retinue of ethereal residents.

Among the many spirits observed, visitors have reported the sudden arrival of a man sitting in the saloon, wearing a top hat, and reading the newspaper. Seconds later, he is gone.

A ghostlike woman with long blonde hair and dressed in an elegant silk gown has been spotted roaming the halls.

Customers in the downstairs bar occasionally observe the brief, vaporous appearance of Charlie the Cowboy.

The purported laughter of invisible children has been heard in the hallways — one child may be the ghost of Elizabeth, a girl who died in the hotel in the early 20th century.

A few guests have commented on the Victorian-era maid whom is seen folding clothes one moment and disappears the next.

Some claim to have confronted the phantom of Black Bart, the famed highwayman of the Gold Country.

There have been frequent sightings of the apparition of Edgar, a former Holbrooke manager and desk clerk from over a century ago.

Poor Edgar is often blamed for unusual thuds and thumps, weird unearthly sounds, technical glitches or telephone snafus.

Room 9 is believed to have been the final residence of down-on-his-luck gambler John Henry Martin, who committed suicide in the room by slashing his throat with a straight razor in 1927.

He left a note that is now housed in the Doris Foley Library for Historical Research in Nevada City.

Some have reported spying the ghost of John Henry Martin standing at the window of Room 9.

But there were also the furtive denizens of the gold mines — the underground elves known as Tommyknockers.

Tommyknockers were imported to Gold Country by Cornish miners.

The dangerous and often mysterious nature of mining led the Cornish to develop their belief in the Tommyknockers — folklore that helped explain the unexplainable.

Originating in legend, Tommyknockers were said to be direct descendants of ancient elves known as Piskies (also known as Pixies in other parts of the world).

After hitching a ride to the Gold Country with the Cornish, the elves became an important element of mining life.

In fact, many Cornish miners refused to enter a mine until assured that the Tommyknockers were on duty, providing warnings and helpful directions.

According to stories handed down from one generation of miners to the next, two kinds of Tommyknockers inhabited the mines — the friendly, helpful elf and the mischievous nuisance elf.

Both are described as “little men about two feet high” dressed in miniature mining attire complete with tiny picks, hard hats, and lunch buckets.

The elves who befriended the miners were said to work alongside the miners deep below the surface, leading them to rich ore veins, testing shaft conditions, prying down loose rocks, and issuing life-saving warnings of cave-ins, water leaks, and runaway carts by tapping on air pipes or timber supports.

Many miners could recount how and when Tommyknockers saved their lives. In an incident at Grass Valley’s Empire Mine a massive cave-in collapsed hundreds of feet of tunnel and caused extensive flooding — all during a shift change.

The miners firmly believed that Tommyknockers had held up the rock until the crew got out, and then released it, and as was their common practice, the thankful miners expressed this conviction to the mine management.

I am the descendant of Cornish miners.

My grandfather (who worked underground most of his adult life, including many years in Grass Valley) was insistent that Tommyknockers saved his life.

After cleaning out and shoring up a stope (or an open space left by mining) in a Montana mine, he and his companions heard eerie creaking and rumbling where there should not have been such noises. Convinced this was a warning from the Tommyknockers, they quickly left the area.

Within minutes, the hanging wall (or roof of the shaft) fell.

If they had remained in that spot, my grandfather and the other miners would have been crushed to death.

In a 1957 interview, retired miner Fred Nettell, a member of a pioneer Grass Valley Cornish family, described the miners’ attitude toward Tommyknockers: “When a Cornish miner of the old school tells you how his life was saved by a Tommyknocker’s warning, he is not being facetious.

His respect and feeling toward these underground elves is almost religious.”

As a token of gratitude to the helpful Tommyknockers, the miners often left behind a portion of their traditional lunch of Cornish pasties.

But the activities of the nuisance Tommyknockers, it was noted, were meant to bedevil.

Stories abound of blown out candles, upset lunch buckets, hidden tools, or even of miners reaching around rock ledges for tools and encountering instead the handshake of a Tommyknocker.

Some unromantic engineers and geologists explained these alleged manifestations as natural phenomena.

Sounds in the tunnel depths, they said, can be greatly magnified, and what could be interpreted as the distant tapping of an elf was simply a groaning timber or the metallic drip of water onto ore.

These literal-minded souls found, however,

that trying to persuade Cornish miners to their view was like trying to shovel smoke.

The fate of the Tommyknockers is closely tied to the fortunes of hardrock mining in the Gold Country.

With the decline and virtual extinction of underground mining in California, the Tommyknockers’ activities ceased.

But the little men live on as legend, and if the mines ever reopen, who knows where they will turn up, tapping on timbers or snitching tools.

Happy Halloween!

Gary Noy is a Grass Valley native, Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the Sierra College Press, history lecturer, and the author of several books including “Sierra Stories: Tales of Dreamers, Schemers, Bigots and Rogues.” For more information, visit

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