Berkshires Para-Tourism Continues to Grow Year-roundBy Joe Durwin
05:36PM / Wednesday, October 31, 2012
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — This time last year, I predicted that a burgeoning recreational niche, known as "para-tourism" would see increased growth in this area in the future.
The Mount is becoming as well known for its ghostly goings on as it is for its famous literary owner Edith Wharton.
So far, that forecast seems to have hold true, particularly over the current fall season, which boasted arguably more diverse spook-tinged recreational activities than any in recent memory.
One very heavy traffic venue for ghost-seeking visitation is the Masonic temple building known as the Houghton Mansion in North Adams. This former mayor's home has been the site of numerous investigations, television programs, tours, overnight events and paranormal conferences since a group of its Masons took an interest in some curious occurrences there more than eight years ago. In the past year, interest has reached an all-time high, with the encouragement of the mansion's resident ghost-hunters, the Berkshire Paranormal Group.
Around 500 visitors have frequented the house this year, according to Berkshire Paranormal's Nick Mantello, and a series of two-hour tours of the mansion held each Sunday throughout the month of October proved so popular that they had to split crowds into staggered groups and open up additional times to accommodate all the interest.
The lore of the Houghton house is tied to the circumstances surrounding a tragic accident in 1914, in which Albert Houghton's daughter, Mary, along with family friend Sybil Hutton, perished from injuries sustained in a crash on Oak Hill Road in Pownal, Vt. Extremely distraught, the family's trusted driver, John Widders, took his own life early the following morning. Though he sustained no known injuries aside from cuts and bruises, Albert Houghton himself died just nine days later.
"Nobody profits from this at all, it all goes back into the building," according to Mantello, who says that without the tours and sleepover events, the building would not have been able to be maintained over the past decade. "It's a very expensive building to run."
Mantello estimates that as many as half the attendees at the mansion's events hail from outside the Northern Berkshire area, with plenty of out of state tourists numbered among those who come to see for themselves.
Ghost-themed tours of The Mount in Lenox, an annual occurrence for several years now, have been equally crowded. Edith Wharton herself had a marked interest in the paranormal, and wrote much on the subject of ghosts, so it is fitting that her custom made mansion has been surrounded by accounts of unexplained phenomenon for most of its history.
Impressively well-versed tour guides show visitors a very different side of The Mount, weaving through parts of the property and parts of the history not usually included in the more standard tours. From Wharton's tortured marriage through its days as a girls' school, as the home of Shakespeare & Company and finally as a historic museum site, this nighttime trek offers a broadened look at the life of the estate that is deftly tied together with dozens of mysterious anecdotes.
Stories of unusual, and sometimes frightening incidents are attributed to areas on every floor of the house, with particularly dense concentrations in certain rooms, as well as throughout the adjacent stables and in Wharton's own little pet cemetery.
The Houghton Mansion, built by North Adams' first mayor, Albert Houghton (bottom left), has become a popular stop for ghost hunters, said Berkshire Paranormal's Nick Mantello, right. For some spirited evidence, plug 'Houghton Mansion' into YouTube.
The Mount's own interest in this aspect of its history has in turn helped grow the now sizable body of lore around it, as continued crops of ghost-seekers have added their own accounts, and sometimes even more tangible evidence.
"We've had a number of people take photographs and look at them after the tour and they see something interesting," said tour guide Rosie Taylor, adding that many tourists have sent their "interesting" images back to The Mount.
One in particular, taken from Wharton's drawing room, the estate found intriguing enough to have blown up extra-large and put on display during these special October tours. It depicts a shadowy sitting figure in a chair that was allegedly vacant at the time the photo was taken.
The Mount's ghost tours, priced at $25 per person, have grown from a seasonal extra to a more prominent role throughout the year, with 25 tour dates held over the past five months.
Ventfort Hall, another Berkshire site on the ever-growing list of those featured on the SyFy channel's "Ghost Hunters," has also embraced this kind of para-tourism with increasing enthusiasm. This Gilded Age mansion, of late thought to be haunted, offered two events this past month in conjunction with the Chicopee Paranormal Investigators. While I was not able to attend, I am told that the $50 a ticket events are quite extensive, during which the ghost-hunters present their accumulated research from 18 investigations they've conducted there and provide demonstrations of their various equipment as they tour the house. The second event, set for October 30, has been postponed due to the storm.
Elsewhere in Lenox, Whistler's Inn continues to see a trickle of guests annually who have a particular fascination for its reputedly haunted happenings. It's been six years since it was first featured on the Travel Channel's "Haunted Hotels," but the inn still gets three or four reservations a year from parties interested in this aspect of the picturesque Tudor estate's history.
"We're not pushing this too much," said owner Joan Mears. "It's kind of an amusing thing, but it's not something we're basing our publicity on."
Stockbridge's Red Lion Inn has been similarly measured in its discussion of paranormal possibilities in recent years, welcoming any curious parties to rent a room and engage in a little light ghosting in one of their purportedly haunted rooms, as I did in the fall of 2009. This piece of inn lore is not particularly promoted by the Red Lion, and they have been quick to remind me in the past that to date, they have only received a handful of reports from guests.
In Sandisfield, the New Boston Inn has also seen continued interest in its haunted history since being nationally televised. Legend has long held that a bride named Harriet was slain there by a jealous suitor just before her wedding, and this is said to be the cause of certain unsolved happenings at the 1737 B&B. For years owner Barbara Colorio has offered a free stay to anyone who can uncover historical evidence of this supposed tragedy in the town's spotty early records, a prize that no one has yet claimed despite several earnest attempts.
The Whartons kept a pet cemetery on the grounds of The Mount.
Additionally, free short excursions into local industrial history like the Historic Quarry at the Becket Land Trust and the Hoosac Tunnel museum at the Western Gateway Heritage Park see a marked upturn in visits this time of year because of the ghostly stories that surround them.
These sites represent just a slice of a growing list of venues that cater in one way or another to a different kind of cultural-historic tourism, a supply that seems to be growing annually with the demand for such thrills. Given the number of legends and sightings and unsolved mysteries which color the annals of local history, it is a supply that could potentially keep growing indefinitely.