The Five most HAUNTED places in the Berkshire HillsBy Anthony Fyden
12:00AM / Thursday, October 30, 2003
This article first appeared in the October issue of The Family Beat magazine
|Does the ghost of 'Chauffer John' Widders still haunt the Houghton Mansion in North Adams?|
Ghost stories are part of our heritage, part of our belief that the human spirit can survive anything. Every region of the country has its own "haunted" places, and Berkshire County is no exception. Here are five well-known haunted locales, as documented in books and legend.
Enjoy the stories, but a word of caution: Some of these spots, such as the Hoosac Tunnel, are private property and trespassers will be prosecuted.
Hoosac Tunnel - The Bloody Pit
The Hoosac Tunnel is an enduring engineering marvel, a railroad line that plows nearly five miles through a mountain. But engineering feats come with a price, often in terms of human life. Oddly, it's not clear just how many men died constructing the Hoosac Tunnel, though it's certain that many did and most estimates say close to 200 were killed. Soon after construction began, the crew nicknamed the tunnel project "The Bloody Pit."
In 1865, two miners were killed in an explosion at the site. A third worker, Kelly Ringo, the man who had accidentally detonated the blast, walked away unhurt. One year later, Ringo's body was found in the hole; he had been strangled to death. No living person was apprehended for the crime, if there was one. Some locals believe it was the ghosts of the two miners exacting revenge.
There are countless tales of spooky happenings in the Hoosac, where the ghosts of the many men who died there may still haunt the tunnel, lurking in the dim cold and dampness. One thing is clear, grown men have been known to blanch after spending just a few minutes inside the tunnel after dark. Some report seeing swaying lanterns and hearing wails.
Ghost hunter David J. Pitkin reports that he's interviewed several men who maintain the tunnel for the railroad today. They tend to scoff at the ghost stories, he reports, but they admit that they don't like to linger in the tunnel if they can help it.
Mt. Greylock's Bellows Pipe Trail - The Old Coot
As the Civil War began, a North Adams farmer named William Saunders left home in 1861 to fight for the Union. About a year later, his wife, Belle, received a report that her husband had been gravely wounded and was in a military hospital. That was the last she heard of him. Alone and in need of help, she hired a local man to work the farm with her; later she married the man and he adopted her children. In 1865, a bearded, ragged man, wearing a Union blue uniform, stepped off the train in North Adams. You can guess who had finally returned home. Saunders walked to his farm, and while standing outside he saw his wife and happy family, his children calling another man "daddy."
Crushed, he turned on his heels and walked away, heading toward Mt. Greylock, where he built a shack in the remote Bellows Pipe. He lived the rest of his days there, almost a hermit, hiring himself out occasionally to farms, known to locals only as the "Old Coot." War and time had ravaged his appearance and no one recognized him. It's said that he even worked his old spread on occasion, perhaps sitting down to meals with his family, only he knowing the truth. Folks say the Old Coot was insane, but whether it was caused by the horrors of war or grief at losing his family, no one knows. One winter's day, hunters came upon the shack to find the Old Coot cold dead. But they were startled to see his spirit fly from his body and head up the mountain. That was the first sighting of the Ghost of the Old Coot, but certainly not the last.
To this day, his bedraggled spirit is sometimes seen on Mt. Greylock, always heading up the mountain, but never coming down. You might say you don't believe it, but are you brave enough to walk the Bellows Pipe Trail after dark?
The Mount - Edith Wharton Estate
One of the great writers of her time, Edith Wharton penned a number of ghost stories - and gave us a number of haunting characters as well. Can't you just envision a phantom Ethan Frome careening down a snow-covered hill with Mattie Silver clasped to his back on a collision course with a massive Elm?
It's said, though, that the spirit of Wharton herself lingers on at The Mount, the author's beloved Lenox estate, built in 1902. Visitors report hearing Wharton laugh; overnight guests are awakened by strange noises; some say that a hooded figure presses down on them while they sleep.
Founders of Shakespeare & Company, the theatre troupe that called The Mount home for many years, reported strange occurrences - footsteps, laughter and sounds - almost from the start of their tenancy. Some claim that fellow author Henry James joins his friend Wharton in haunting the site (just a couple of ghost writers hanging out?). The pair look imposing, but never harm anyone.
It's hard to imagine the genteel Edith Wharton haunting anyone - or rattling anything but teacups. And pressing down on guests while they sleep? That does not sound quite like the age of innocenceâ€¦Still, one never knows.
Houghton Mansion/Masonic Lodge, North Adams - Chauffer John Widders
"Chauffer John" Widders was a happy man living in North Adams during the early 1900s. He worked for a well-known family, headed by wealthy patriarch Albert C. Houghton - who had served as the city's mayor. Apparently, Widders was treated like a member of the family, doting on the Houghton children, especially the youngest daughter, Mary, whom he had watched grow to womanhood. Through careful investment, Widders had saved a nest egg himself and looked forward to a peaceful old age.
Everything changed, however, on August 1, 1911, when a family motor outing turned deadly. Widders was at the wheel of the big Pierce-Arrow as it slowly climbed the daunting Pownal Center Hill. Workmen in the road forced him to take a wider path and another vehicle provided another obstacle. Suddenly, the gravel shoulder gave out, sending the auto and its passengers plunging down the slope. Sybil Houghton was crushed by the car's roof and killed. Mary Houghton was pronounced dead a few hours later. The other passengers were shaken but not seriously hurt.
As the shocked town grieved, Chauffer John took the blame on himself. Rejecting attempts of comfort from friends, he walked, alone, into a barn behind the mansion. He never walked out. Friends found him later with a bullet in his head. Family patriarch A.C. Houghton never fully recovered, emotionally, from the tragedy. He later had a stroke and was dead within three years after the accident
Folks say that Chauffer John still hasn't forgiven himself. In 1920, the mansion was sold to the Masonic Lodge, which still uses the building as a headquarters. Many times over the years, ghostly footsteps have been heard in the building, but no spirit has been seen.
Reports of unexplained footsteps are most common on the stairs leading to the third floor, where John Widders once slept. People have reported feeling an icy blast of air on the stairs as the unforgiven spirit of Chauffer John Widders passes by, heading up the stairs as he once headed up the fateful hill.
The Eunice Williams Covered Bridge
On February 29, 1704, a band of Mohawk Indians and French savagely attacked the village of Deerfield, killing many citizens and taking more than 100 captive, including the town's minister, Reverend John Williams. The Indians then drove the captives in a death march toward a camp in Canada.
The attackers were brutal, striking down any who could not keep up. Others starved to death. Eunice Williams, wife of the reverend, had given birth just a few hours before the attack. She felt her strength failing and knew she would soon be killed. She said goodbye to her husband, with the wish that he and at least some of their children would survive.
While crossing a river in Greenfield, not far from today's Mohawk Trail, Eunice fell and was instantly struck and killed by a tomahawk blow. Her body, soaked with water and blood, was left behind while the march continued. The surviving captives were held in Canada for nearly two years, until they were finally set free or "redeemed." John Williams and two of the Williams children returned home, but a third, also named Eunice, chose to stay with the Indians. The notorious "Unredeemed Captive" later married one of the tribe, and, despite repeated attempts, mostly rejected the English ways for the rest of her life.
Taken from her home, her newborn child ripped from her arms, driven on a forced march, hacked to death in a cold river and finally scorned by her namesake and daughter, some believe the spirit of Eunice Williams is still not at rest. Legend has it that her ghost can be seen at night in the water or inside the covered bridge that now bears her name. It is said that Eunice can be summoned to appear, perhaps believing that her family has finally returned to her...