The Hudson River Valley is home to more than its share of formidable ruins, but few match the spooky appeal of Rhinebeck’s Wyndclyffe Mansion. Its beetle-browed exterior is blessed with that beguiling combination of gloom, ornamentation, and extreme old age that only the best haunted houses claim, and there’s no better time to witness them than late October, when autumn breezes send yellow leaves eddying through the hills and hollows of the old estate. It seems that the only thing this “haunted house” is missing is a good ghost story…
Murder, mayhem, and the supernatural don’t factor at all into the history of Wyndclyffe, but its past is compelling enough as it is. The manor was constructed in 1853 as the private country house of Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones, who was a prominent member of an exceptionally wealthy New York family. Though palatial Hudson Valley estates were already in vogue among New York City’s ruling class, the magnificence of Wyndclyffe prompted neighboring aristocrats to throw even more money into their vacation homes so as not to be overshadowed by Elizabeth’s Rhinebeck abode. The house and the fury of construction it inspired is said to be the origin of the phrase, “keeping up with the Joneses.”
Elizabeth was the aunt of the great American author Edith Wharton, who is known for her keen, first-hand insight into the lives of America’s most privileged, which she brought to bear in classics like Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, and The Age of Innocence, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. (She’s also known for her ghost stories.) In her early youth, Edith would spend summers in the house, which was known by her as “Rhinecliff.” She portrayed it in less than laudatory terms in her late-career autobiography “A Backward Glance” (1934):
“The effect of terror produced by the house at Rhinecliff was no doubt due to what seemed to me its intolerable ugliness… I can still remember hating everything at Rhinecliff, which, as I saw, on rediscovering it some years later, was an expensive but dour specimen of Hudson River Gothic: and from the first I was obscurely conscious of a queer resemblance between the granitic exterior of Aunt Elizabeth and her grimly comfortable home, between her battlemented caps and the turrets of Rhinecliff.”
Her words bring to mind this passage from Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” which describes the titular (fictional) structure:
“No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice. Almost any house…can catch up a beholder with a sense of fellowship; but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil.”
The modern eye is likely to be much more merciful to the embattled Wyndclyffe, evil or no. Its beauty is readily apparent, and arguably enhanced, by the extent of decay it has suffered through 50 years of neglect. But how does a house as expensive, distinctive, and historically relevant as Wyndclyffe end up in such a state?
When Elizabeth passed away in 1876, Wyndclyffe was sold to a family who maintained the house into the 1920s, but the succession of owners that occupied the mansion through the Great Depression struggled to keep up with the costly repairs it required. In the 1970s, the house had already been abandoned for decades as the Hudson Valley’s status as a playground for the wealthy declined. At this point, the property was purchased and subdivided, which pared down the grounds of the estate from 80 acres to a paltry two and half. This action more than any other spelled doom for Wyndcliffe—notwithstanding the astronomical expense required to renovate a partially collapsed 160 year old mansion, the lack of land surrounding the structure has made it an extremely difficult sell to potential buyers. While many nearby estates have been renovated into thriving historic sites after a period of neglect, Wyndclyffe has struggled even to remain standing.
A glimmer of hope appeared in 2003 when a new owner cleared most of the trees and overgrowth from the grounds, erected a fence, and announced plans to save the mansion. But as is often the case, good intentions fade in the face of financial realities. Eleven years have come and gone and the meager improvements are difficult to discern—thick saplings, tangled thorns, and shrubbery completely envelop the structure once again, and the progress of decay marches on.
Since Halloween is just around the corner, I’ll leave you with another eerie passage from Jackson’s “Haunting,” which is said by Stephen King (who should know) to be the best opening paragraph of any modern horror story. It deftly captures the uncanny appeal of empty buildings, and the persistent, however illogical, impression that a house continues to think, feel, and ruminate over its past long after it’s left behind by man.
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut: silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
Imagine a picture-perfect October afternoon—white steeples set against a crisp blue sky, apples to be picked, pumpkins to be carved, colonial headstones moldering beneath a gaudy display of fall foliage…
Only in New England is the essence of autumn so vividly arrayed, no more so than the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. The pastoral region was revered among literary luminaries of the 19th century—it’s rumored that Melville first envisioned his white whale in the wintry outline of Mount Greylock—but it’s also a wellspring of inspiration for local storytellers. The Berkshire hills are laced with legends and more than their fair share of ghost stories, so I got out of town to explore this mysterious region and hopefully encounter a few ghosts, just in time for Halloween.
My first stop was the Bellows Pipe Trail on Mount Greylock, known to be haunted by a ghost called the “Old Coot.” This unfortunate soul went by the name of William Saunders in life and earned his living as a farmer before being called away to fight for the Union in 1861. His wife Belle assumed the worst when the letters stopped coming after receiving word that her husband had been injured in battle. But Bill Saunders had survived, only to return home and find Belle remarried. He retreated to a ramshackle cabin on Mount Greylock, where he lived out the rest of his days as a hermit, occasionally working on nearby farms. One day, a group of hunters entered his shack and came across his lifeless body. They were the first to describe a sighting of the Old Coot’s spirit fleeing up the mountain, but he’s haunted the trail ever since.
On the outskirts of Brattleboro, rumors about one eccentric local are still raising eyebrows more than fifty years after her death. Madame Sherri was a well-known costume designer in jazz-age New York City whose designs were featured in some of the most successful theatrical productions of the day. After her husband died of “general paralysis due to insanity,” Madame Sherri retreated to an elaborate summer home in the Berkshires, where she was known to throw lavish and unsavory parties for her well-heeled guests, often gallivanting about town in nothing but a fur coat. Gradually, her fortune was depleted and the dwelling was abandoned in 1946. Late in life, she became a ward of the state and died penniless in a home for the aged. Her “castle” burned to the ground on October 18, 1962, but its dramatic granite staircase remains to this day. Sounds of revelry have been heard emanating from the ruins of the old estate, where the apparition of an extravagantly dressed woman has often been spotted ascending the staircase.
If Madame Sherri’s Forest and the Old Coot’s trail don’t give you goosebumps, this next one might. To get there, you have to go down—way down—into the Hoosic River Valley to the bedrock of the Hoosac Mountains in North Adams, MA. Turn off on an unnamed dirt road, park at the train tracks, take a short hike, and you’ll come face to face with one of the most haunted places in New England. How far would you be willing to venture into the “Bloody Pit?”
In 1819, a route was proposed to transfer goods from Boston to the west, and the Hoosac Range was quickly identified as the project’s biggest obstacle. Construction began in 1855 on the 5-mile Hoosac Tunnel, but the dig was plagued with problems from the beginning. When steam-driven boring machines, hand drills, and gunpowder proved too slow, builders turned to new, untried methods, namely nitroglycerine, an extremely powerful and unstable explosive. The tunnel claimed close to 200 human lives over the course of its 20-year construction, earning the nickname “The Bloody Pit.” The work was merciless, but precise—when the two ends met in the middle, the alignment was off by only one half inch.
On March 20, 1865, Ned Brinkman and Kelly Nash were buried alive when a foreman named Ringo Kelly accidentally set off a blast of dynamite. Fearing retaliation, Ringo disappeared, but one year later, he was found strangled at the site of the accident, two miles into the tunnel. No one witnessed the crime, but most men agreed—the ghosts of Ned and Kelly had slaked their revenge.
The most costly accident in the tunnel’s history occurred the following year on October 17th, halfway through the digging of a 1,000-foot vertical aperture called the Central Shaft which was designed to relieve the buildup of exhaust in the tunnel. Thirteen men were working 538 feet deep when a naphtha lamp ignited the hoist building above them, sending flaming debris and sharpened drill bits raining down. The explosion destroyed the shaft’s pumping system and the pit soon started filling up with water. When workers recovered the bodies several months later, they discovered that several of the men had survived long enough to construct a raft in a desperate attempt to escape the rising waters. The accident halted construction for the better part of a year.
When work resumed, laborers reported hearing a man’s voice cry out in agony, and many walked off the job, claiming the tunnel was cursed. Through the 19th century, local newspapers reported headless blue apparitions, ghostly workmen that left no footprints in the snow, and disappearing hunters in and around the Bloody Pit. As recently as 1974, a man who set out to walk the length of the tunnel was never heard from again.
In spite of these tales, I found myself standing at the entrance to the West Portal, where a single bat sprung out of the darkness, setting the tone for what would prove to be a rather unsettling experience. The tunnel is undeniably creepy, lined with old crumbling bricks, half flooded with gray water, and coated with almost two centuries of soot and grime. It didn’t help that I was visiting on October 17th, the anniversary of its grisliest accident…
Sure enough, the moment I stepped across the threshold, my camera started taking pictures by itself. (Granted, it’s been having issues lately, but the timing and severity was uncanny.) The whole time I was in the tunnel, I was unable to gain control of the shutter, and had to resort to setting up a shot and waiting for the “unseen forces” to take each picture. It beats me why a ghost would choose to fiddle with my camera rather than, say, making the walls bleed, but the entire encounter left this skeptic scratching his head. Were these the spirits of the Hoosac Tunnel?
* * *
Back at the campsite, with the fire extinguished, I settled in for a fitful sleep on the hard ground, unable to shake that uneasy feeling. That night, the falling leaves outside the tent sounded just like footsteps. When the wind blew, the whole forest sounded like a crowd of ghosts walking. It was exactly the kind of night I had hoped to pass in the Berkshire hills, a chance to experience the other side of the season, beyond the spiced cider and the pumpkin lattes, far older than the covered bridges that cross the languid Hoosic River, that ancient date that marks the beginning of the dark half of the year, when the boundary between the living and the dead is at its thinnest point.