Sunday, November 1, 2015

Haunts and Hollows

     I was at the library rummaging for "Halloweeny" DVD's a few days ago. Rocky Horror was my first choice but Dr. Frankenfurter was "out". No "Time Warp" for me this year. So it went: Dracula - out, Frankenstein - out, The Blair Witch Project - out. The story of my life, too late for the good stuff. I eventually settled for one of those Great Courses college lecture series called How the Earth Works. I'ld have to get my frights from erupting volcanos, rattling earthquakes and the chilling phenomenon of glaciation.
     That's OK because I love geology and all the natural sciences, for that matter. The way meteorology can actually make sense out of what's falling from the sky at any moment, the vast (and expanding) strangeness of the universe that astronomy reveals and the amazing diversity and complexity of life as unraveled by biology.
     We're all seeking an explanation for the world around us and science works for me. Others turn to religion or Donald Trump for their answers. But we also crave a little of the mysterious, the inexplicable. Many of our great belief systems are imbued with mysticism and miracles. As long as people have huddled around campfires we've told stories about what lurks in the darkness just beyond. There's perverse pleasure in being scared and scaring others silly. But with work, carting the kids to and fro and keeping up with the Kardashians, there's only so much time. This results in cramming ghosts, ghouls and all manner of horror into one day at the end of October and calling it Halloween.
     Back at the library I had filled my bag with science-y books, magazines and DVD's. I was about to leave when a raspy voice whispered in my ear, "Come on down. Down to the Holden Room." Never one to resist temptation, I went on down. The Holden Room is in the basement of Glens Fall''s Crandall Library. It's filled with some great stuff, much of it of local interest. The books can't be taken out but it's a real resource for researchers and the just plain curious. It didn't take me long to find a whole shelf on haunted houses, monsters and the supernatural. That's when I went over to the dark side.

     One treasure was New York State Ghosts by David Pitkin. With limited time I just skimmed it looking for Washington County stories. There were many, including not one but two haunted houses that a woman named Carol lived in on Dunnigan and Riley Hill Roads near Salem. Also sightings of
"The Grey Man" in the schools at Salem, a report on the author's visit to a forbidden farmhouse in Hartford and tales of a specter in St. Paul's Rectory in Greenwich. Then there was little Isabel Daly, an eight year old girl who, in 1889, found herself on the wrong side of the Champlain Canal when a storm came up, flooding the area. By the time her frantic parents found her she had somehow gotten across the torrent and was happily skipping towards home. Her Dad, relieved but perplexed, asked Isabel how she made it to the safe side. She replied, "Grandpa carried me." A heartwarming explanation but for the fact that Grandpa had been dead for two years.

Champlain Canal from Towpath Road
     So it went, book after book, spook after spook. A woman named Lynda Lee Macken could fill a casket with her output of ghost/haunted genera volumes. Then there's the big lurking beast category with offerings on Bigfoot and Champ. Sasquatch has a place in his hairy heart for the Whitehall area with Monsters of the Northwoods documenting several sightings. Other authors eschew the supernatural for the simply weird and eccentric. All are fun and make you want to get out there and see for yourself, in broad daylight and from a safe distance, of course.

     Between books and websites I learned that Fort Edward's Jane McCrea house is haunted (no surprise) as is the Anvil Inn just down the street. Great place to eat but if you can see thru your waitress or she has a faint glow it might be a good idea to leave an extra large tip. And then there's the Skene Manor, Whitehall's gothic castle on the hill. Legend says that when Skene's wife died he kept her in a box under the bar. She's been seen looking out windows and roaming halls ever since.

Jane McCrea House
The Anvil Inn
Skene Manor
     With imaginations riled, Gwenne and I left the library and wandered north from Glens Falls thru Kingsbury and Fort Ann. We went out past the Goodman farm to see how Erica's hops were doing, driving slow just in case we came upon any ghosts crossing the road. Then it was up thru the valley towards South Bay until we reached the Welch Hollow Cemetery.

     Fred Tracy Stiles is one of my favorite Washington County authors and I'ld been rereading
From Then Till Now and Old Days - Old Ways. They are fond memoirs of times gone by in the hills between Lake George and Lake Champlain. While life was good here, he doesn't sugar-coat how tenuous and hard it could be. The natural beauty of the area is breathtaking but I've always sensed a shadow of danger here and that's echoed in Stile's tales.
     People are bitten by rattlesnakes, mauled by bears and swallowed by icy lakes. Or, in the case of two young brothers, they go exploring on a sunny, warm day in May nearly two hundred years ago. But up on East Mountain the wind shifts, the temperature drops, snow starts blowing sideways. The boys lose their way, it gets dark and by the time searchers find them the next day they've frozen to death, huddled in each others arms.

     Here, in this little country graveyard, our day becomes a pilgrimage of sorts. I find the little stone marking Fred's burial and spend a quiet moment reflecting on how his life enriched mine and others. Then, over towards the fence beyond a yellowing clump of wild asparagus, I come across a weathered marble slab with barely legible inscription. It faces to the east looking past a stand of
gold-leaved popples to the craggy rocks of the Pinnacle. It's the monument of the two brothers who died in a snowstorm up there in the spring of 1820. While I couldn't make out the faded words, page 101 of From Then Till Now tells us it reads:

In Memory of
Abraham and Samuel Rice
Sons of David and Mary Rice
Died in a snowstorm May 2, 1820
in 16th and 18th year
Hearty ages these brothers have lost
Its tender vines crop'd by the cruel frost
Two sprightly youth snatched to the silent tomb
Read how uncertain is life's pleasing bloom. 

     I've been up on the Pinnacle a few times and it was always lovely, a real treat. This place has been good to me and I'm grateful, but there are no guarantees. Life can hand out bitter tricks, it's not always a holiday. But if every outcome was assured it wouldn't be much of an adventure and what fun would that be?


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