In the Berkshires, ghosts mourn lost family, and ghosts walk the dark places where they died. Some say a ghost rescued a child from the ice on Windsor Lake and brought her to shore warm and dry. But the spirit Joyce Kilmer salutes is smoking a cigar as he fishes a trout stream on Mount Greylock.
“There’s a brook on the side of Greylock that used to be full of trout, / but there’s nothing there now but minnows; they say it is all fished out. I fished there many a summer day some 20 years ago, / and I never quit without getting a mess of a dozen or so . . .”
Kilmer is the man who wrote “a poem lovely as a tree,” probably the verse he is most known for — but he wrote one for the Berkshires, too.
As Halloween approaches, the North Adams Museum of Science and History has been known to collect a small but moving collection of Berkshire apparitions.
“And after I’d been there a minute, it seemed to me I could feel / the presence of someone near me, and I heard the hum of a reel, / and the water was churned and broken, and something was brought to land / by a twist and flirt of a shadowy rod in a deft and shadowy hand.”
One summer, between 1906 and 1914, Kilmer came to visit his mother, who had a house in Cheshire. He wrote “Dave Lilly” from the story of a ghostly local fisherman.
Justyna Carleson at the museum estimated his visit within a few years — because by 1918, Kilmer was scouting in no man’s land. He enlisted in an infantry regiment soon after America entered World War I.
And he died on the Marne, in the trenches, with a sniper’s bullet in his head. He was in military intelligence on the front lines.
He had children. He was 32.
Near his poem Carleson has hung the indistinct image of “Old Coot,” a local man who came back from a war alive.
He served in the Civil War, and his wife believed he had died. He came home to find her married to another man. The story Carleson said, is that he once had dinner with her and her new husband, and neither recognized him. He made no trouble for them, but he became a hermit, living wild on Mount Greylock. In time his bones were found on the mountain, and he became a legend.
Randy Trabold, a local legend and Transcript photographer, tried to photograph him twice and caught maybe the shadow of a man.
Not all of the local ghosts died peacefully, in their own time. Carleson and Robert Campanile, park supervisor at Western Gateway Heritage State Park across the way, also told stories of the Hoosac Tunnel and the men who blasted it through the mountain.
When a gas explosion blew apart a pump station and killed 13 miners in the tunnel, a miner named Thomas Mallory volunteered to look for survivors. He was lowered down in a bucket, according to the Hoosic Tunnel exhibit Campanile has set up in a blacklit tunnel, and hauled up nearly unconscious, saying no hope, no hope.
It took a year to recover the bodies from the flooded tunnel. And while they lay there, workers saw apparitions carrying picks and shovels.
The ghosts Carelson knows best, though, appear in the Houghton Mansion, where Albert Charles Houghton, the first mayor of North Adams, lived more than 100 years ago.
One sunny day the chauffeur took some of the family on a pleasure ride in Pownal, Vt. Trying to avoid an obstacle, he rolled the car into a ditch. One friend of one of the mayor’s daughters died instantly, and one of his daughters died in hospital that afternoon. The chauffeur killed himself. And the mayor died a week later, from the strain.
Carleson leads ghost tours of the mansion, now the Masonic Temple on Church Street. She also passes the building on her way home, and she has seen lights in a room that has no electricity, she said, and no lightbulbs to shine.
But the most terrible part of this story may not belong to those who died too soon. Houghton’s wife, Cordelia, and their daughter, Florence Louisa Houghton, lived. And they had to go on living.
This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle on Oct. 3, 2013, in my time as Berkshires Week editor. My thanks to Vice President of News Kevin Moran