Okay, as far as I know, Princeton, New Jersey isn’t really accursed. But after reading The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates, I had to assume that it was—at least in 1905-1906. Also, I’m pretty sure that the entire state of Connecticut isn’t really damned. But Ray Bendici’s website, Damned Connecticut, had a slew of fascinating-sounding places that I had to track down. Thus began another road trip in my 2013 BMW 335i convertible, which is, itself, neither accursed nor damned. So far…
I set off from my home in Catonsville, Maryland, and reached Princeton in no time at all. (The BMW’s 300 horsepower can devour 155 miles without breaking a sweat, although they do seem to take a toll on rear wheel bearings.) Accursed or not, Princeton is a beautiful place.
The Battle of Princeton
Ms. Oates is an acclaimed novelist and five-time Pulitzer Finalist, often writing in a gothic or otherwise-disturbing style, and she wasn’t pulling any punches with The Accursed. It featured the Devil himself, the occasional vampire, and various shape-shifters, not to mention such historical characters as Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, and Mark Twain. Although I didn’t see any such beings during my trip, I did manage to find Morven, which served as the New Jersey Governor’s residence from 1945-1981. It was originally built by Richard Stockton in about 1750. He had graduated in the first class of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and later became a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His wife was poet Annis Boudinot Stockton, whom George Washington called “the elegant muse of Morven.” Today, the mansion is a museum.
Nearby is Westland mansion, built by Richard Stockton’s grandson, Robert, in 1856. Forty years later, it was purchased by Grover Cleveland, who had just finished his second term as U.S. President.
By early 1777, the American Revolution wasn’t going very well. George Washington and the Continental Army had been forced to retreat from New York and New Jersey. While the Continentals had had some success defeating Loyalist militias, they had never won a battle against regular British forces. A week after Washington’s famous (and successful) crossing of the Delaware River to attack Hessian mercenary forces in New Jersey, he directed his men toward the British garrison at Princeton.
The attack proved successful, and the British withdrew from almost all of New Jersey. Much of the battle was fought on this field, just outside of Princeton. The small tree in the center of the field marks the spot where American General Hugh Mercer was bayoneted by the British, who believed they had captured George Washington. General Washington himself rallied the retreating Americans shortly thereafter, leading them to victory.
This colonnade at the end of the battlefield marks the common grave of 36 unknown soldiers from the Battle of Princeton (15 Americans and 21 British).
A group of 194 British soldiers had taken refuge in Nassau Hall on the campus of the College of New Jersey. A young Alexander Hamilton, whose application to the College was turned down a few years earlier, ordered his Continental artillery unit to shell the structure, prompting the surrender of the remaining British and bringing the Battle of Princeton to an end. A memorial to the battle stands in a park in town.
The park also has this bust of Albert Einstein, who lived in Princeton and was a scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study from 1933 until his death in 1955.
Einstein and his wife Elsa lived in this modest house on Mercer Street. He had renounced his German citizenship in 1933 in response to Adolph Hitler’s treatment of Jews and became a U.S. citizen in 1940. Sadly, Elsa passed away here in 1936.
Before leaving the park, I admired the statue of the “Little Vintner of Colmar.” It’s a copy of the original by Auguste Bartholdi (who, in his spare time, created the Statue of Liberty) and was given to Princeton by its sister city of Colmar, France.
Meanwhile, the 335i had been waiting impatiently in the parking lot, anxious to get back on the road. The car is amazingly good at virtually any automotive endeavor, whether it’s going insanely fast from one location to another or just puttering around town.
Nassau Hall still exists and is the oldest building at Princeton University. Constructed in 1756, it served for several months in 1783 as the Capitol Building for the Continental Congress. The stately bronze tigers outside of the main entrance were the gift of Woodrow Wilson and other members of the Class of 1879.
Princeton University sprawls across 500 well-tended acres. At East Pyne Hall there is a statue of John Witherspoon, who served as the sixth President of the College of New Jersey (from 1768 to 1798). He was instrumental in rebuilding the school after the damage inflicted by the British during the American Revolution and in broadening the college’s focus from teaching religion to covering all disciplines. His students included a future U.S. President, Vice-President, and numerous Senators, Representatives, Supreme Court justices, and state governors. (And yes, Reese Witherspoon is a descendant.)
Prospect House was the home of Woodrow Wilson and his family while he served as President of Princeton in 1902-1910. Despite health issues, Wilson went on the become Governor of New Jersey and then President of the United States. (In addition to the League of Nations, President Wilson presided over the introduction of the federal income tax and estate tax. His Republican successor, President Warren G. Harding, lowered the income tax and raised tariffs. It all sounds sort of familiar…)
In addition to its sterling academic reputation, Princeton is famous for its “eating clubs.” The oldest of these, the University Cottage Club, had its roots in 1884 when a group of freshmen calling themselves “The Seven Wise Men of Grease” decided to share meals together. The club’s current building was constructed in 1906.
The dignified BMW seemed to look right at home among the elite eating clubs on Prospect Avenue.
Before leaving for Connecticut, I wanted to visit Princeton Cemetery. In particular, I was looking for “Presidents’ Row,” where many of the University’s past leaders are buried.
While I was wandering about the cemetery, I stumbled across (not literally) the grave of the third U.S. Vice-President, Aaron Burr, Jr. (of dueling fame; he’s buried near his father, Aaron Burr Sr., who was the second President of Princeton).
I also found the grave of former U.S. President Grover Cleveland…
…the oddly pie-shaped tomb of one Yota Switzgable…
…and the grave of John Tukey (1915-2000), one of my statistical heroes. In addition to more notable accomplishments, such as inventing Fast Fourier Transforms, Tukey coined the terms “bit” (for “binary digit”) and “software.”
42,088 Musket Balls and the First Law School
Leaving Princeton on U.S. 1, I encountered the 1812 Penns Neck Baptist Church. Somewhat incongruously, the property started out as the Red Lion Tavern—the tavern building was purchased and repurposed as a parsonage for the new church.
Before long, northwest Connecticut appeared in the windshield, initially in the form the Old Boardman Bridge. It has crossed the Housatonic River since 1888 but is now unused. Unusable, actually, since it’s not even safe for foot travel. The bridge looked old—but not necessarily “damned.”
The Housatonic looked calm and lovely. Mohican Native Americans and their predecessors had lived here for at least 6,000 years before European settlement started in about 1725.
Litchfield, CT appeared soon after. In the summer of 1776, a gilded lead statue of Britain’s King George III was torn down in New York City and transported to Litchfield (minus the head, which Loyalists managed to rescue). There, the statue was chopped up and melted down, and the resourceful “Ladies of Litchfield” repurposed the lead into 42,088 musket balls for the Continental Army to use against the British. (Painting courtesy of the Journal of the American Revolution.)
In 1763, a 19-year-old named Tapping Reeve graduated from the College of New Jersey. Continuing on in graduate school, he tutored two of the children of the College’s President, Aaron Burr, Sr.—namely Aaron Burr, Jr. and Sally Burr. At age 27, he married Sally (then 17), and the two moved to Litchfield. There, Reeve started the first law school in the country, with his first student being his brother-in-law Aaron Burr, Jr. The Litchfield Law School moved to this one-room building in 1784.
Between Prospect Avenue in Princeton and now historic South Street in Litchfield, the ol’ BMW was living it up. (The Greek Revival home in the background was built in 1832.)
In Search of Ethan Allen—and Pineapple Cheese
There was one place in Litchfield that I particularly wanted to find. My wife was born Nancy Allen, and her family often referred to “Cousin Ethan,” namely Ethan Allen, the leader of the Green Mountain Boys. (Ethan Allen and the GMB were instrumental in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga from the British, early in the American Revolution.) Ethan Allen was born in Litchfield, and the house where he was born still stands. Based on a description of the location, I found this house.
Back home, however, I learned that the above house is not Ethan Allen’s birthplace. Here is a Bing Maps view of the correct house, together with an old postcard showing its original configuration. And I drove right by it—dang!
Adding insult to injury, I determined that my wife’s family is not even related to Ethan Allen, except possibly back in the Middle Ages in England. Wrong house, wrong family—what’s next? Wrong wife?? (Okay, I’m fairly confident that she is, in fact, my wife…)
After all that, it was time to find a tavern. Two of them, actually. The Sheldon Tavern was built by Elisha Sheldon in 1760 and operated as a tavern in the late 1790s. And yes, George Washington slept here—in the northeast bedroom, if you must know.
Outside of Litchfield, back in the woods, I managed to track down the Captain Bull Tavern. It was built in about 1745 and has served as a tavern off and on ever since, currently as part of the Tollgate Hill Inn & Restaurant.
Back on the open road, the 335i reveled in some full-throttle redline activity as it gobbled the miles northward to the small town of Goshen, CT. Like Litchfield, Goshen is known as one of the best-preserved classic old New England towns in the state. Lewis Norton invented “Pineapple Cheese” here in 1808, a form of cheddar named for its molded, pineapple-like appearance. His partner in cheese making, Myron Norton, built this unusual Greek Revival house in 1840—the only stone dwelling in the town.
The Goshen Academy was originally known as “Eagle Hall,” based on the carved wooden eagle above the entrance. Starting in 1824, boys and girls could enroll in the academy for general education and preparation for college. Tuition for English Grammar, Geography, and Arithmetic was $5.00 per quarter.
The Goshen General Store opened its doors in 1825. I couldn’t tell if it was still open or not. I thought I spotted some dusty pineapple cheese in its window, but I was afraid to inquire further.
As with most New England towns, even small ones, an impressive church dominates the view. This is the Goshen Congregational Church, built in 1832. Its original spire has been replaced by a 3-part tower, belfry, and lantern.
Missing Steps, an Ill-Fated Missionary, and the Trail of Tears
Leaving Goshen and climbing the hills toward Cornwall, I happened to notice something interesting in the rear-view mirror: A Ferrari 550 Barchetta from about 2000, one of only 448 ever produced. It was good company for several miles, but the Ferrari continued on when I turned off into the Mohawk State Forest. Viva Ferrari!
I was hoping to find the abandoned Cunningham Tower in the forest. I had a decent idea of where it was, but no idea how to get there. I stopped to marvel at these trees growing out of several mammoth boulders.
Eventually I found a closed stone gate along the road, not far from where I thought the tower was located. There weren’t any signs or other indications, but I decided to give it a try. A faint trail behind the gate led off into the distance and, before long, I entered a small clearing and found the ruins of the tower.
The tower was built in about 1915 by Seymour Cunningham (who lived just down the street from the Litchfield Law School). It replaced a wooden viewing tower that had been set up for tourists in 1882. I didn’t see anyone else while I was here, but apparently it used to be a popular spot for hikers. (Photos from 1921 courtesy of the Cornwall Historical Society.
The old tower was still in fair condition, although the roof and windows had long since disappeared.
There used to be stone stairs embedded in the walls, leading to the second floor and the top of the tower. Only stubs remain—but an enterprising explorer could still use them to climb up the tower. For the record, I am not quite that enterprising… The upper set of stubs seemed like a really bad idea.
Leaving the tower behind, I headed on to Cornwall, CT, named for the coastal area of England (which was the birthplace of King Arthur—to the extent that there was a King Arthur). Cornwall is actually made up of at least five separate districts but still manages to be one of the smallest towns in Connecticut, with a population of less than 1,500. During 1817 to 1826, Cornwall Village was home to the Foreign Mission School, which trained people to be Christian missionaries to their home regions. Many students were American Indians, while others were from Africa, India, China, and Polynesia. The Foreign Mission School was housed in this building (which is no longer standing):
The only surviving building from the school is the former Steward’s House. It remains in excellent condition.
The first student at the Foreign Mission School was an 18-year-old Hawaiian named Heneri `Ōpūkaha`ia.After his parents and little brother were killed in a tribal civil war, and with his own life in danger, Heneri joined a merchant vessel bound for the U.S. He ended up in New Haven, living with the ship’s captain and family, where he quickly learned English and soon converted to Christianity. He studied further with Dr. Edwin W. Dwight, emphasizing that he would like to learn more about his new religion and return to Hawaii as a missionary. Heneri’s educational wishes led Dr. Dwight and others to form the mission school.
Heneri traveled widely in the U.S., preaching and promoting mission work. Sadly, his goal of returning to Hawaii was never met: at age 26, he contracted typhus and died. He was buried at the Cornwall Village Cemetery. The cemetery was easy to find, but his grave much less so—the graveyard was far larger than I anticipated.
I first drove all through the cemetery—and became a little concerned when the tire ruts disappeared altogether at the top of a hill. (It’s bound to be the worst sort of bad luck, for car and driver alike, if one drives across a grave.) Fortunately, the tracks soon resumed on the other side. But no sign so far of Heneri’s grave.
Next, I looked on foot, scanning the worn and faded names on the tombstones but still failing to locate his resting place.
With aching feet, I eventually had to give up and return to the patient 335i.
Heneri’s tomb is shown in this photo from Andrew Stehlik’s travel blog. The Rev. Lyman Beecher presided over the funeral, and it’s possible that his then-6-year-old daughter, Harriet, was in attendance. (In later life, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote of the mistreatment of enslaved African Americans in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, contributing to the abolitionist movement and the onset of the Civil War.) In 1993, relatives of Heneri `Ōpūkaha had his remains exhumed and reburied in Hawaii.
The Foreign Mission School closed after only 10 years when the townspeople of Cornwall became distressed at the interracial courtship and marriages between some of the school’s students and the town’s young ladies. A Cherokee student named John Ridge had been in poor health and lived in the Steward’s home for 2 years, nursed by the Steward’s family, including daughter Sarah Northrup. Eventually, with the approval of both sets of parents, John and Sarah married. John’s cousin, Elias Boudinot, married Harriet Gold from Cornwall, and both couples settled in their family lands in Georgia.
Both men became bitterly disenchanted with the overtly hostile reaction from the townspeople. They were harassed, threatened, and burned in effigy. When a proposed relocation of the Cherokee Nation from their lands east of the Mississippi was under discussion, John and Elias were representatives of the Cherokee Nation Council. Despairing of ever being treated fairly in their homelands, both men became reluctantly in favor of relocation to what is now Oklahoma, and they helped negotiate a $5 million payment for the old lands and statutory assurances that their new land would be inviolate.
Another faction of the Cherokees, led by Principal Chief John Ross, opposed relocation and was infuriated with the treaty—and before long, both John and Elias had been assassinated, leading to the Cherokee Civil War. Over the objections of a sizable portion of the Cherokee Nation, the relocation was forcibly carried out (along with similar relocations for the Choctaw, Seminole, Creek, and Chickasaw Indians). The relocation march, widely referred to as the Trail of Tears, resulted in the deaths of roughly one-fourth of the entire Cherokee Nation from disease, exposure, and starvation.
With thoughts of the Ridges and Boudinots in mind, I stopped to admire the scenic beauty of Connecticut. That’s Coltsfoot Mountain in the background, part of the Wyantenock State Forest. The Appalachian Trail used to run through this field and over Coltsfoot Mountain, but it was rerouted in 1985; the current Mohawk Trail follows the same route. In this area, many “wannabe ghostbusters” attempt to visit Dark Entry Forest, Dudleytown, and/or the long lost Baldwin Caves. Many of them end up arrested for trespassing, just sayin’…
In Cornwall Bridge, the tiny St. Bridget Church has been a house of worship for Catholics since 1883. It cost $5,000 to build—with 10 percent of that amount donated by one P.T. Barnum of circus fame.
Sometime between 1865 and 1875, the Housatonic Railroad built the Cornwall Bridge Railroad Station. By the early 1970s, it was no longer used and was deteriorating. A local artist attempted to have the station moved by rail to a nearby museum—but the railroad went bankrupt before the plan could be carried out. A young couple from Amherst, Massachusetts bought the property, restored it, and used it for a summer home for many years. In the background is the 1930 Cornwall Bridge, which is itself listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (An earlier covered bridge, shown in the etching below by Bernhardt Wall, washed away in a 1936 flood.)
As I was finding my way toward the town of Cornwall Bridge, I ran across this abandoned building. I have no idea what it used to be, although it appears railroad-related. I hope it is not anyone’s summer home.
Continuing on, I found myself in West Cornwall. Its handsome covered bridge was built in 1864 and survived the 1936 flood (among many others). After a 20-ton oil truck fell through the decking in 1945, the bridge was repaired and reinforced—and it still carries traffic to this day.
The Housatonic was a reminder of just how beautiful Connecticut can be.
I guess if you’re going to live on Railroad Street in West Cornwall, then you become accustomed to trains passing by within just feet of your front door! And playing soccer in tight quarters.
This is the Stephen Foster house, also known as the Pink House although it is no longer pink. It’s for sale for $239,900 in case anyone is interested. The price seems pretty reasonable—until you learn that the place was partially destroyed by fire in 2008. It’s been somewhat rehabilitated but still needs a full renovation.
By now it was 6:45 pm, I hadn’t had any lunch or dinner, and I was still 60 miles of back roads away from my overnight stop near the Hartford airport. But sundown wasn’t for another couple of hours, so I ate some cookies and pressed on. This was the Beebe Hill School in Falls Village, last used in June 1918, almost exactly 101 years before my visit.
The Housatonic River was dammed here and a hydroelectric generator installed in 1914. It’s been generating ever since.
But my real goal was to find the 60-foot Great Falls below the dam. Getting there involved hiking along the Appalachian Trail for a while, often on “limestone flow” rocks as seen here.
Eventually I was able to clamber down a steep grade to the top of the waterfall. It was quite pretty but not as dramatic as when the dam’s spillways are opened up.
Returning to the BMW involved clambering back up the steep grade. Fortunately, there were plenty of tree roots to cling to. (Having turned 70 this year, I’m not quite as spry as I used to be, sigh…)
Back by the dam, I enjoyed the view of the Housatonic and talked with several kayakers and canoeists who had been paddling upstream.
One of the canoeists (who incidentally had a beautiful, classic Oldtown 17-foot wooden canoe) told me about a large pond further upstream. I managed to find it and was quite surprised to learn that this used to be the site of a railway turntable and roundhouse! It was hard to imagine that this remote wooded area had been covered by Housatonic Railroad repair shops in the 1870s.
The Country’s First Copper Mine and First State Prison—In the Same Place
By 8:40 pm, I reached Granby, CT. There I spotted this Georgian mansion that is apparently undergoing renovation. Later research showed that Ozias Pettibone built it for his son in 1804. The house features a fireplace in every room, and the interior walls on the second floor are hinged and can be swung up to the ceiling to form a ballroom. There’s even a hidden passageway next one of the chimneys. Definitely my kind of place!
A few minutes later, I arrived at my last goal for the day—the Old New-Gate Prison and Copper Mine in East Granby (formerly Simsbury). The sun had completely set, but thanks to the magic of digital cameras I was able to take some pictures. I believe that prisoners used this building for making iron nails and wooden barrels.
Back in 1705, settlers discovered copper in this area. The Simsbury Copper Mine was formed in 1707, becoming the first such mine in Colonial America. A portion of the proceeds were used to hire “an able schoolmaster” for the town and for support of “the collegiate school”—now known as Yale University. The mine was a reasonable success, but by 1773 almost all of the ore was depleted.
During this time, the theory of crime and punishment was changing. The usual practices of branding criminals, cutting off their ears, and/or whipping them were now considered too cruel and unusual. In 1773, local officials decided it would be much more humane to incarcerate criminals in the played-out copper mine—in the stone tunnels, 20 to 60 feet underground. An iron gate was affixed over the main opening, and thus began the New-Gate Prison, the first state prison in America. (Aerial photo courtesy of Visit Connecticut. LIDAR mapping image courtesy of The GeoNAV Group.)
The first prisoner was a thief named John Hinson. He escaped just 18 days later when his girlfriend lowered a rope down one of the mine’s large ventilation shafts. British Loyalists and prisoners of war were held here during the American Revolution. Escapes remained fairly common, although not all were successful. Abel Starkey tried climbing up the well shaft rope in 1827. He was doing, uh, well—until the rope broke when he was near the surface, and he fell over 40 feet to his death. Many others died here, and visitors frequently report ghostly sightings and sounds in the mine tunnels.
The New-Gate cells were cold and damp, food was scarce, and the prisoners slept on straw in the mine after laboring for long hours under harsh conditions. The prison closed in 1827, and by Civil War times it was already well on its way to becoming a ruin. The State of Connecticut purchased New-Gate in 1968, and it is now open for tours—if you arrive before 5:00 pm, rather than at almost 9:00 like I did. (Historical photo courtesy of Starving Felons and Other Lessons from Prison Archaeology.
After a really long day of touring, I finally managed to find some dinner and to check into a friendly Holiday Inn Express for the night. I fell asleep halfway through reviewing my route for the following day.
Another Day, Another Façade
The next morning found me fighting the rush-hour traffic driving into downtown Hartford. I was headed for Scarborough Street and one of the most fashionable neighborhoods in the city. There, every house was, at the minimum, a “modest mansion.” Many were major mansions, with dozens of rooms, beautifully manicured lawns, and probably a history of full staffs of servants back in the day. This modest mansion was across the street from my destination. The same house is shown in the Google Maps satellite view, along with its impressive neighbors.
What I was actually looking for was the A. Everett Austin Home, shown here about 100 yards in the distance. It is nearly 90 feet in length although, strangely, it has only 14 rooms and 3,000 square feet of living space.
The reality of the place is that it is a “façade house,” only 18 feet (or one room deep, with a flat wooden exterior that is painted to model the 1608 Villa Ferreti in Italy. “Chick” Austin and his wife Helen Goodwin Austin built the house in 1930, having seen the original on their honeymoon.
Chick was the avant-garde director of Hartford’s famous Wadsworth Atheneum art museum. He was breathtakingly innovative, and under his direction the museum achieved many “firsts” in its exhibits and performances, attracting jet-set types from around the world. The Austins entertained frequently and lavishly, and their home was visited by George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Martha Graham, Salvador Dali, Alexander Calder, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Buckminster Fuller, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Le Corbusier, and many other luminaries.
Inside, the first floor of the house was decorated in classic 18th–century style, with ornate furniture, silk wall coverings, and many paintings. Upstairs, the furnishings were cutting-edge modern for the time, with black floors, multi-colored walls, and lots of stainless steel. (Interior photographs courtesy of John Foreman and his excellent blog Big Old Houses.)
By 1945, the museum trustees had tired of Chick’s theatrical brilliance, and he was forced to resign. He passed away in 1957, and ultimately Helen left the house to the Wadsworth Atheneum, where it is now “the largest exhibit in the museum.” Tours can be arranged on a limited basis—and I’m signing up the next time I’m in the area!
The Case of the Missing Dinosaur Tracks
Leaving Hartford, I soon reached Dinosaur State Park near Rocky Hill. The park has one of the largest collections of Jurassic-era dinosaur tracks in the U.S. These footprints were discovered in 1966 and are roughly 200 million years old. A fourth of them are protected within an exhibition hall—which was not open on the Monday I visited, dang it. The other three-fourths are protected by tons of dirt, having been reburied after their discovery. The only ones I was able to see were these faint imprints on the right side of a piece of sandstone. The footprints range from 10 to 16 inches in length
Dinosaur State Park also features 60 miles of hiking trails, with some pretty sights. But like any red-blooded American kid, I was after dinosaur tracks! Next time, for sure… Until then, I’ll use this Wikipedia photo by Daderot.
A Connecticut Ghost Town
I was hustling from Hartford to meet my wife and our dear friend Martha at the Providence, Rhode Island airport by 12:30, so my sightseeing time was limited. But there were places I just had to find, including the remarkable ghost town of Johnsonville, CT on the Moodus River. That river was used to power a dozen twine mills in East Haddam, including two in Johnsonville that made the town quite prosperous. The earliest mills in this area began operations in 1815.
Over time, the two Johnsonville mills declined. Triton burned to the ground in 1924, and the population began to diminish. The building seen at the far end of the millpond was the office for the Neptune Mill and also served as the town’s post office. (Historical photos courtesy of Greetings from Johnsonville.)
The Neptune Mill closed in 1965. Seven years later it was struck by lightning and burned down. There are other indications of this once-major industry, such as the town’s sawmill, but not many.
This beautiful old Italianate mansion was the home of Emory Johnson, who owned both the Triton and Neptune Mills. It was built in 1842 but has been vacant now for over 50 years.
An eccentric industrialist bought the entire town in 1966 and brought in a number of old buildings from other areas, including the Gilead Chapel and the Hyde one-room schoolhouse. He opened Johnsonville as a tourist attraction and even added a large sternwheeler riverboat to the millpond.
After the industrialist’s death, the town sat vacant and deteriorating for 20 years while various individuals considered buying it. During this time, the deceased former owner was often seen wandering around Johnsonville, which did not help sales. None of the deals worked out until 2017, when the entire property was purchased by Iglesia ni Cristo, a Philippine church organization, for $1.9 million. I’d call that a bargain, although what to do with Johnsonville remains an open question.
What Plays Beneath
I’d like to have explored further, but the open road (and the Providence airport) were calling to me. It was time to launch the tireless BMW in the direction of Gardner Lake (and another ghost story).
All the views of Gardiner Lake look pretty much like this one: scenic enough, but hardly enthralling. It’s a large, natural lake, expanded by a hydroelectric dam in the late 1800s.
In 1895, Thomas LeCount was living happily with his family in a 2½-story house on the southern side of the lake. He decided that living on the eastern side would be even better, and he hatched a plan to move his house there. Rather than taking the long way around the lake, he waited until winter, when the ice froze more than 16 inches thick. He put the house on wooden runners, and began pulling it across the half mile of lake with 12 strong horses. It was a good plan—but not a greatplan…
Unaware of Mr. LeCount’s activities, the hydroelectric plant operators had begun drawing more water from the lake, creating an air pocket between the ice and underlying water. The house got 250 feet along the surface before the ice began to crack, pitching the house corner-wise into the lake. It could not be budged at all, in either direction. For convenience, ol’ Thomas had left all the family’s possessions in the house. Despite the precarious state of the house, he and his neighbors were able to retrieve most of the furniture and possessions, forgoing only the heaviest of items. One of those left behind was the family’s upright piano.
Accounts vary: some say the house sank to the bottom, with the top few feet remaining above water for many years. Others say the entire house sank out of sight once the ice thawed. A few say that after the ice melted, the house floated about the lake for a few years.
Scuba divers report that most of the house is still down there, rotting but largely intact, and that the piano is still there as well. Fishermen and women report that they often hear faint piano music on the lake, seemingly coming from beneath the surface. I stood on a dock for 20 minutes, listening carefully—but all I heard was a loquacious fisherman, grumbling to me that he couldn’t sell his boat, there was too much trash in the state park, and that the porta-potties were ghastly… (I could confirm the latter.)
So, is someone or something down there, occasionally playing the old piano? Perhaps the ghost of Thomas LeCount (or a curious fish)? I’d like to think so, since it makes a really great story!
As I walked back up the hillside from Gardner Lake, I began my own grumbling about the difficulty of spotting one’s vehicle in a crowded parking lot.
Sights Along the Road
With that, it was off to Rhode Island, where I arrived just in time to meet Nancy and Martha. Following our stay in Cape Cod, however, I couldn’t help hitting a few more sites on my drive back home. They included the 1825 Tobey Homestead in Wareham, Massachusetts…
…the nearby Wareham River…
…the 1816 Third Meetinghouse in Mattapoisett, MA (now a four-unit condominium)…
…the 1797 Nauskatucket Cemetery in Fairhaven, MA (complete with modern intruders)…
…the 1775 Fort Phoenix at Buzzards Bay (manned by U.S. forces in the American Revolution, War of 1812, Civil War, and World War II)…
…the 1872 Fall River, MA waterworks and tower…
…the 1906 St. Anne Catholic Church (which took 15 years to build and closed in 2018 due to declining attendance and failing interior plaster)…
…the 1891 South Swansea Baptist Church in Massachusetts…
…and the 1916 Ladd Observatory in downtown Providence. In addition to the celestial observations carried out here, the Ladd staff calculated precise time measurements from star positions and used them to calibrate a special clock, which in turn sent time signals by telegraph to users throughout the Providence area. This service operated from 1893 until 1973, when the staff determined that no one was actually using the signals anymore.
A Forgone Burial at Sea
By now it was about 3:00 in the afternoon, and I’d managed to cover only 91 miles of my 520-mile trip back home. I debated skipping some other waypoints but immediately dropped that option; after all, the days are plenty long in June! The next challenge was to find the tomb of Captain Sluman Gray in a remote Connecticut cemetery. The cemetery was not at all easy to find, but I did spot this old house that appears to have been under renovation when a fire broke out inside. When things go wrong…
I finally managed to locate the cemetery on the third try. Fortunately, Captain Sluman Gray’s grave was easy to find.
In 1864, Captain Gray, his wife, their three surviving children, and a full crew sailed out of New Bedford, MA for the South Pacific, in search of whales. (In those pre-petroleum days, whales were in great demand for their blubber, which could be rendered into oil for use in various residential and industrial purposes.) After 9 months, their ship James Maury was about 400 miles from Guam when Capt. Gray became seriously ill and died 2 days later. Rather than the customary burial at sea, Sarah Gray wanted to return her husband’s body to Connecticut, to be interred with their 5 children who had died in infancy. There was no straightforward way to preserve the body for such a long return trip, so, as a matter of expediency, Capt. Gray was placed into a barrel of rum… The ship continued its whale hunting in the Pacific.
Meanwhile, Lt. Commander James Waddell was piloting the CSS Shenandoah in the Pacific—with “CSS” designating the Confederate States of America. He was looking in particular for Yankee whaling ships and was very successful in finding and capturing them. Their crews were taken as prisoners, and the ships were generally burned. Although the Civil War had ended in April 1865, Commander Waddell had not received this news and continued to “take prizes,” ultimately capturing 38 Union merchant vessels.
As (bad) luck would have it, Commander Waddell captured the James Maury in the Bering Sea. Upon finding Sarah Gray and her children, however, he spared the ship, declaring “men of the South do not make war on women and children.” Instead, the James Maury was loaded with 222 Union prisoners and sent to Honolulu, where it was sold. Sarah and her children, together with Capt. Gray in his barrel, eventually made it back to New Bedford a year later. Sarah paid $11 to have the barrel carted to their home in Lebanon, CT, where the Captain was buried in the Liberty Hill Cemetery—barrel and all. You might say that it adds a new twist to the word “casket.”
With the day wearing on at a rapid pace, I hurried back to the BMW—but had to stop for another photo. These are handsome automobiles of the first order.
A Little Village on a Hill
Just over an hour later, I encountered this sight at the top of a hill in Waterbury, CT. It looked like a scene from the ancient Middle East.
It turns out that this place used to be a roadside attraction called Holy Land U.S.A.—a miniature version of Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
John Baptist Greco, a local attorney, created Holy Land and opened it to the public in 1958. It was filled with little buildings, life-size statues, paintings, huge crosses, and a very large fiberglass version of the Ten Commandments. Greco’s religious theme park attracted tens of thousands of visitors every year until his death in 1986. He willed Holy Land to the nuns at Religious Teachers Fillipini.
The park remained closed and sustained much damage at the hands of vandals for 30 years. Statues were decapitated, buildings smashed, and an entire flock of plaster sheep was reduced to rubble. Weeds, bushes, and entire trees grew and obscured the hilltop. In 2010, the property violence escalated into human violence when a 16-year-old girl was murdered here.
In 2013, the nuns sold Holy Land to the city mayor and an automobile dealer, who intended to fix it up and reopen it to the public. The road and parking area were repaved, the underbrush and litter cleared away, and many of the little buildings received a new coat of whitewash. But Holy Land never reopened. The gates are closed, but there are no signs prohibiting entry. If you want to visit, go soon before a new crop of vandals finishes the place off for good.
Leaving Waterbury, I happened across Saint Patrick’s Church. It was built in 1903 and has, so far, survived the massive restructuring of parishes by the Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford. The reorganization has resulted in the closing of 26 such churches.
The Bridgeport Poltergeist
I had one final stop to make before turning my attention to actually getting home. A house in Bridgeport, CT was once the center of spectral attention in the U.S. and much of the wider world. I found the house in question at 966 Lindley Street. It was small and ordinary looking, other than a number of “Keep Out” and “Beware of Dog” signs. The house was built in 1922, and actor Bob Crane, of Hogan’s Heroes fame, lived here in the early 1950s while he worked for WICC Radio. (He was murdered in Arizona in 1978.)
Jerry and Laura Goodin were living in the house when their 6-year-old son died from cerebral palsy. In 1968, they adopted a Native American orphan named Marcia from Canada. She was 4 years old. When Marcia began school, she was bullied as a result of her dark skin tone. By the time she was 7, strange knocking noises were heard inside the house at nighttime.
Over the next couple of years, stranger things began to occur at the house. Pictures would spring off of walls, untouched. Furniture would move by itself. Knives would rise up from counters and fly into the wall. The family was understandably freaked out, and they asked a neighbor, who was a policeman, to investigate. Other police joined in, along with the fire department and structural engineers. And two priests. By the fall of 1974, the goings-on at 966 Lindley Street had become the most thoroughly investigated and well-documented case of apparent poltergeist activity ever.
As police watched in amazement, the family’s 300-pound refrigerator levitated from the floor, turned around in mid-air, and resettled itself. A large reclining chair flew backward, somersaulting, into the wall—with 10-year-old Marcia sitting in it. It took two officers to right the heavy chair. The large console TV flung itself at a wall, breaking into pieces. On another occasion, Marcia levitated into the air several feet and then flew across the room backward into a wall.
One of the witnesses, Officer Joe Tomek, expressed frustration when so many expressed disbelief at his report of the refrigerator, stating “What do they think, that I’m stupid? We saw the refrigerator move. It didn’t waddle or jump or any of those kinds of things that a malfunctioning refrigerator did. It floated! We tipped it over, we looked underneath, we looked on top, we went in the basement—we’re not idiots!”
Strangest of all, Sam the family cat walked up to one of the police officers and spoke, asking “How is your brother?” The astonished officer stammered “He’s dead!” and Sam replied “I know,” muttered an ethnic slur, and then promptly ran off. It all sounds preposterous, and it’s all documented in the police reports.
As word of the paranormal activities spread, crowds of onlookers began to form at 966 Lindley Street, sometimes numbering as many as 2,000 people. Police had to block access to the street, and traffic backed up for more than a mile. At one point, neighbors attempted to set fire to the house. In large part to address the crowd problems, the police chief declared that the events were a hoax, perpetrated by 10-year-old Marcia—even though many of them happened when she wasn’t even home. The case was officially closed and the crowds went away, but the strange happenings continued. The Goodins bought a German Shepherd for protection; the dog mostly cowered under their bed.
In December 1974 and January 1975, the “Bridgeport Poltergeist” case was investigated by scientists from the Duke University Psychical Research Foundation. They performed psychological tests on the Goodin family members, interviewed the police officers, firemen, and other witnesses, and mapped and cataloged the various incidents that had occurred. The researchers concluded that Marcia could not have caused all the unusual occurrences. But they also noted that a majority of the events occurred within 10 feet of her, even while clear that she had not caused them. They concluded that the incidents were not a hoax and represented a legitimate case of “recurring spontaneous psychokinesis,” with Marcia serving as the catalyst. Beyond that, they could not explain how the events happened.
Based on their observations, the researchers urged the parents to re-enroll Marcia in school, to help her form friendships, and for the entire family to focus positively on the future. The family did so, their anxieties and anger subsided—and the strange activities stopped. The Goodins, unable to sell their little house, continued to live there until their deaths. At about age 18, Marcia left home and traveled to Canada in search of her birth parents. She remained out of public view until her death from natural causes in February 2015 at age 51.
So, that’s the remarkable story. Are you doubtful? Yeah, me too. But read the police and other reports in William Hall’s book The World’s Most Haunted House and then decide!
With my tour of the Accursed and the Damned over, all that remained was a long, dark, rainy drive back to Maryland. If offered plenty of time to reflect on the places I’d seen and the stories I’d heard, all of which just whetted my appetite for more. Thankfully, the 335i exhibited exactly zero strange moments during the trip, running solidly with excellent HID lighting, effective rain-sensing windshield wipers, plenty of traction, and enough horsepower to outrun even memories of Sam the cat!