It was the last day of his term that Sunday, Oct. 17, 1920, and a seemingly relaxed Percival had decided not to run again after his one-term stint.
That morning, he strolled across the relatively new Interstate 5 Bridge, then called the Interstate Bridge, which opened on Feb. 14, 1917. Prior to becoming mayor in 1918, he supported the bridge project as a city councilor, something that caused the same controversies back then as the modern CRC project has caused over the past decade.
Later on the cold, rainy morning, Percival was seen wandering back over the bridge to Vancouver, then over to Seventh Street at around 11 a.m.
He wasn’t seen again until 3 p.m., when he briefly appeared on 26th Street, still ambling along at a leisurely pace.
After that, nobody saw him at all.
Not the next day, when a victorious John P. Kiggins celebrated the start of his second of four non-consecutive terms as mayor. Not a week later. Not even a month later.
“That was the great mystery of the day,” said Pat Jollota, a Vancouver author, history buff and former city council member. “He was seen downtown tipping his hat, and then he just disappeared.”
On Monday, Oct. 18, all the downtown stores closed at 1 p.m. A group of 285 Vancouver businessmen, divided into 18 search parties, hit the streets searching for the missing mayor.
They searched the district between 26th Street and Vancouver Lake. They searched Felida. And they searched the Columbia River for a body.
They found nothing but a handful of false leads.
“It would be just like we finished building the CRC and then the mayor disappeared,” Jollota said.
A dark discovery
It wasn’t until Nov. 22, long after the trail had gone cold, that Portlander O.F. Williams decided to take a shortcut through the wilderness on his way home from the Kenton neighborhood. There, “in a clump of trees about 100 yards from the Oregon approach to the Northbank railroad bridge,” Williams found Percival’s body hanging from a tree, said a report in The Evening Columbian.
“According to those who saw the body, there is every reason to believe that Mr. Percival took his own life. His personal papers and some jewelry and some money were still on his body,” the story said.
But that conclusion has never sat quite right with Jollota, she said.
“What if he didn’t kill himself,” she said. “I’ve wondered for some time if he was, indeed, murdered.”
The night before he vanished, Percival attended a port commission meeting “and seemed somewhat nervous,” an Oct. 17 story in The Evening Columbian said.
But his finances were in order, he wasn’t depressed about the election because he wasn’t a candidate, and he seemed to be looking forward to returning to his successful insurance business, Jollota said.
“He was seen in a good mood on the day he vanished,” Jollota said.
Still, after the grisly discovery, “no inquest was held over the body as it was obvious that Mr. Percival had taken his own life,” a Nov. 23 story in The Evening Columbian said.
“On some autumn evenings, a tall slender man wearing a black overcoat and felt hat has been seen walking south along the Interstate Bridge — and disappearing,” he wrote. “His death was declared a suicide. However there was no known reason for him to take his own life. Although there were rumors of foul play for political purposes, nothing was ever proven.”
A city of stories
Percival’s story may seem like the ultimate tale for the city of Vancouver, but it’s far from the only one the downtown area has to tell.
Rumor has it the Clark County Historical Museum has a ghost of its own roaming the basement. The building that houses the museum was constructed as a Carnegie library in 1909 and once had a children’s section on the lower level, Richardson said.
“It seems like when it gets to this time of year, and we start talking about these things, it gets kind of strange around here,” Richardson said, standing near the twisting stairs in what is now the basement archive.
He first started the Haunted Walking Tours last year, and after one of the 8 p.m. excursions down Main Street, one customer asked if she could go to the basement to use the bathroom.
“She came pretty much running up the stairs,” Richardson said. “She said ‘I walked into the bathroom and I heard all kinds of people down there.’ I went to look and we heard the pipes banging like crazy.”
That said, the pipes could have been noisy because of the heating system, and the eerie feel could have been amplified by the subject matter of the tour, he said.
That’s not the only story about the basement. Another time, a volunteer was working down there, felt a chill and felt compelled to look up, Richardson said.
“All of a sudden his eyes just locked with a little boy, dressed in turn-of-the-century clothing,” Richardson said. “He looked away and looked back and the boy was gone.”
For his part, Richardson said he’s also heard his share of footsteps and banging when nobody was around. He leans toward believing in ghosts, although he’d like more proof, he said.
Behind the tales
The most fun part of ghost stories and tours is learning about the history behind what people say they sense, Richardson said.
“The tours are really fun, and for me it becomes more like a social history, because there are a lot of things we can’t prove,” Richardson said. “But sometimes I start digging in the archives and I find the most amazing, weird things.”
One story he came across began with strange tales of footsteps in what is now Mint Tea, 2014 Main St. The building was once the home of J.J. Beauregard and his wife.
That is, until she killed him.
“One night (in August, 1919), his wife and he got into an argument, and she shot him” at the jewelry store the couple owned down the road at Main and Seventh streets, Richardson said. “But her husband didn’t blame her. At St. Joseph’s Hospital, on his deathbed, he said ‘please don’t convict my wife.’ And she was questioned, but they didn’t convict her. She lived at that house on Main Street until 1931.”
The quarrel had been about him planning a hunting trip and not telling her about it, one story in The Oregonian said.
“When that was still a residence (after she died), people would hear footsteps upstairs,” Richardson said. “Who knows if he’s maybe still up there, or she is.”
Then there’s the story of mysterious singing at the Hidden House at 100 W. 13th St. That may be the ghost of Lowell Hidden’s daughter, Julie Hidden, who once liked to go door to door singing around town, Richardson said.
Tales also revolve around Niche Wine Bar, Family Consignment, Brewed and other businesses along the Main Street corridor. That includes a few ghosts at Kiggins Theatre, built by the same Mayor John P. Kiggins who served terms before and after Percival’s tenure.
“People in the lobby, they’ll be standing there, and all of a sudden they see a woman standing right next to them,” Richardson said. “But then they look back and she’s gone.”
They also have reported seeing two people in the front row, looking up at the screen, but when approached, the figures vanish, Richardson said.
• What: An exploration of ghosts, dark tales and history in downtown Vancouver, mostly along Main Street.
• Where: Tours, usually about an hour, begin at the Clark County Historical Museum, 1511 Main St. and continue to East Fifth Street.
• When: 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays in October.
• Cost: $10, $8 for current Clark County Historical Society members. Tours are limited to 15 people, reservation required.
• Information: Visit <a href="http://www.cchmuseum.org/">www.cchmuseum.org</a>, call 360-993-5679 or email <a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com</a>.
Could it be the ghosts of Percival and Beauregard catching a silent flick? Probably not, since the theater was built in 1936.
Richardson hasn’t found any tales in history to suggest who they might be, he added.
“A lot of the time people just have these feelings and impressions, and I provide the history when I can,” Richardson said. “But the Percival story? That’s one of my favorites. There’s so much to it. It’s hard to top.”