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Paranormal team searches for the ghost of Modesta Avila in allegedly haunted restaurant

Moments in Time By Jan Siegel
Moments in Time By Jan Siegel

By Jan Siegel

O-o-o-o … Did you feel that bump in the night?

Ghost stories abound in San Juan Capistrano. The newest addition to our ghost lore comes from The Vintage Steakhouse. The fact that the restaurant sits in what was once a train compartment is a significant part of this tale. Some of the employees and guests of The Vintage say they have been “haunted” by the ghost of Modesta Avila.

Modesta Avila lived in the Combs House—next to the railroad tracks and now the Hummingbird Café—from 1880 to 1890. According to local legend, she was upset when the railroad came to town because the noise of the trains kept her chickens from laying eggs. To let the railroad know that she was upset, she hung her laundry over the tracks as a sign of protest. Modesta, a young Mexican girl, did not know that it was a federal offense to put anything over the railroad tracks. According to the facts, the station master advised her to take down the laundry before a train came—which she did—so there really was no crime.

The Vintage Steakhouse. Photo: Allison Jarrell
The Vintage Steakhouse. Photo: Allison Jarrell

However, this was 1889, the start of Orange County, and there was a new district attorney for the new county. He lost his first case, which he should have won, and was anxious to prove his power. So he filed charges against Modesta. The first case ended in a hung jury, but he was not content, so he filed against her again. This time, he indicated that this young, unmarried Mexican girl was pregnant—a definite no-no in 1890. The second time around, he got his conviction. Modesta Avila was sent to San Quentin prison, and after two years she died in jail. There never was a baby.

And history stopped being concerned with Modesta … until now.

Recently, the patrons and employees of The Vintage have had several eerie episodes attributed to the ghost of Modesta Avila. Two women were in the restroom when one felt a startling bump; she was so frightened she fainted. The other woman felt the bump so strongly, that she went back to her table and told her husband she would wait for him outside—she was never going inside the restaurant again.

Employees have seen flickering lights, a vision of a young girl in the wine cabinet, creaking floors and light images on the walls. An area in the dining car section of the restaurant has experienced cold drafts for no apparent reason.

The Vintage Steakhouse. Photo: Allison Jarrell
The Vintage Steakhouse. Photo: Allison Jarrell

With the above incidents in mind, Orange County Ghosts and Legends, a group that explores the possibility of apparitions, decided to check out the potential existence of Modesta Avila’s ghost in the restaurant. Before visiting a site, the team first does research to determine whether the occurrence of a ghost is likely. In this case, the story of Modesta Avila definitely raised the level of possibility.

Ghosts and Legends came to the restaurant equipped with an array of ghost hunting gear—an Ovilus, Ksticks and electromagnetic equipment. Late at night, members of the group sat in the dark asking questions in both English and Spanish, hoping to get a response. I sat in with them and during the hour that I was there, we heard and saw nothing.

However, after I left, they experienced a chair falling over. The chair in question had arms and was moved close to the table so that the arms were underneath the table. The only way for the chair to fall backward was for “someone” to have moved it away from the table. All sounds were recorded and then analyzed.

The Vintage Steakhouse. Photo: Allison Jarrell
The Vintage Steakhouse. Photo: Allison Jarrell

When the members of Ghosts and Legends reviewed the recording of their evening at The Vintage, they heard a voice respond to their question, “What is your name?” with “I don’t like trains.” At the time, a freight train was going by. Remember, it was the train that got Modesta in trouble in the first place.

I confess, I heard the statement “I don’t like trains” very clearly on their tape.

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, you can spend a “Moment in Time” on Friday, Oct. 23, and Saturday, Oct. 24, by taking the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society’s Ghost Walk and learning more about our folklore, our legends and things that go bump in the night.

Reservations are a must and can be made online by visiting or calling the historical society at 949.843.8444.

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