The Earthquake That Nearly Destroyed The Winchester Mystery House

From supposed hauntings to its tragic past, the Winchester Mystery House is every bit as mysterious as the name it has come to take would suggest. How tragic, then, that it was almost lost to the most spectacular-yet-deadly of natural disasters: an earthquake.

The Winchester Mystery House is named after Sarah Winchester, who had the elaborate and sizable home renovated in San Jose, California. She moved there after the death of her husband, William Wirt Winchester, who had made his fortune in a high-ranking role in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. He died from tuberculosis at the age of just 43, just one of the misfortunes that plagued the Winchester family.

Sarah left the family home in New Haven, Connecticut, and settled in San Jose. Haunted by the loss of her husband, their daughter Annie (who passed away as an infant in 1866), and purportedly, the deaths of those who met their end from a bullet from a Winchester gun, she wanted a fresh start and set about feverishly working to make that happen.

Shaken to its famous foundations

As the Winchester Mystery House’s official website reports, Sarah bought a large farmhouse with eight rooms and had workers tirelessly renovating it, around the clock, until her own death in 1922. Her plans and motivations were never revealed, and the luxurious building (construction went on from 1886 until 1922 to the tune of $71 million in today’s money) became the focus of rumors, whispers, and over the years, enthralling mysteries.

Whether the cavernous mansion is indeed haunted by the furious souls of Winchester rifle victims and Sarah Winchester planned the befuddling architecture of the home to trick them (as the 2018 movie, Winchester, suggests), it’s impossible to say. It is certain, however, that this fascinating building and eternally popular tourist attraction was almost destroyed two decades before Sarah’s death, by the San Francisco earthquake of 1902.

Britannica reports that the quake’s impact was followed by a devastating fire, which caused damage totaling approximately $350 million and destroyed around 28,000 buildings. Sarah Winchester’s iconic property could have been one of them, but its flexible foundations saved it from such a fate. Its impressive focal point, a vast central tower, collapsed and is lost today, but ghost hunters and fans of the macabre can be thankful that much of this historical building survived the natural disaster.

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