by Margaret Mendel
When I lived in the Bronx, every once in a while in the hour before the morning light leaked across the horizon of the midnight blue sky, I’d be awoken by a train whistle. I used to think it was a dream or perhaps simply my sleepy mind confusing the raggedy sound of a car horn for a Pullman. But there were no trains in that area. There hadn’t been any trains in more than a hundred years. You see I lived on the edge of Van Cortlandt Park, a haunted section of 1,000 acres that spreads out across the most northerly section of New York City in the Borough of the Bronx.
It’s a lovely area with ball fields and a well-kept public golf course. There are many ponds providing refuge for geese and swans. Sometimes a huge lumbering snapping turtle will float to the surface of the water and sleep on the muddy bank or atop a fallen tree. There is an unspoiled feel to this park. Walk and bike routes cut through the wildness with tree limbs and tangled vines shrouding the pathways with dappled light. It is a perfect place for a cross country run or a slow meditative walk, but if the bushes tremble as you pass, if the air spills forth a chilly breeze in mid summer, if the trees sound as though they might have whispered your name, then I suppose it’s best to move on quickly, perhaps not taking a look back over you shoulder.
There is a museum in this park. It is a 262-year old establishment called the Van Cortlandt House. As I approach the house from the back where a swamp grows thick with cattails and marsh grass, a shiver trickles across the top of my shoulders. I wonder if one of the spirits that resides in this house is watching, waiting for a visitor.
The house stands much as it did when it was first constructed. It is quite a prestigious house now, registered as both a National Historic Landmark and a New York City Landmark. This house has seen and experienced plenty, and over the years this old place has not only collected a few cobwebs, it has also gathered an assortment of ghosts.
I have visited this museum on many occasions, but it’s in the autumn that I feel the strongest sense of unease. The shadows on the walls, frequently muted by the lack of sunlight, appear to be smeared across the interior. There is a chill in the air when I first enter the house. Because the house is built with thick stonewalls, stepping through the visitor’s entrance there is an immediate feeling of dampness in the air. It is as though the dank history of this old house is attempting to claw through the many layers of paint on the walls.
At first the house feels empty, nearly hollow, because every movement I make becomes audible. My footsteps and the movements of my arms brushing against my sides as I walk through the narrow hallway are the only sounds I hear. The outside world is gone, and I immediately sense that I am in another world.
Each room is cordoned off with gates. The beds, chairs and dining tables are arranged as though waiting for someone to enter, to go to bed, to eat an elegant meal, to shuffle through papers on a desk searching for a valued document. Looking into these rooms there is a sense that something is about to happen. A slight breeze rustles a curtain, a cold breath brushes against my neck. Of course I realize it must be my imagination, but then I wonder did I see a slight movement of the doll in the child’s room. There are stories of toys gone missing for days, dolls mysteriously moving from one side of the children’s bedroom to the other.
The broad wood floors softly creak and groan with each step I take, and there is always a sense that I’m a trespasser. As I ascend the stairs, a hush comes over the second floor. Have I interrupted something? The bedrooms are assembled as if awaiting a sleepy guest. Apparitions have been seen on the second floor: a woman in a long skirt, a ruffled cloth bonnet, skittering about, appearing to be looking for something. She quickly vanishes. The vision is so unbelievably magical that the incident is mistaken for a momentary blurring of one’s eyesight. This apparition has been reported on more than one occasion. A scullery maid alleged to have stolen silver from the house is said to be the cause of these sightings. Could this be her spirit, remorseful for what she had done, returning again and again seeking forgiveness?
The spinning wheel in the attic, though unattended and catalogued as a museum piece, has been seen turning, thread stretched out as though it was producing yarn. Is this possible? Do inanimate objects perform at the will of a spirit, a ghost? Or are there other explanations such as a slight breeze from a drafty windowsill, the shrinking of a floorboard. Could a nail slowly lifting from years of being embedded in a dry wood plank cause the momentary movement of an object?
This parkland was once the sight of many bloody battles during the Revolutionary War. The Van Cortlandt House was well established by the time the war officially broke out after the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Throughout the war the house was occupied in turn by both the Colonial and British armies with General George Washington and British General Sir William Howe each having stayed in the house at least twice.
One female spirit is thought to be a Van Cortlandt family member who had hidden gold somewhere on the property as the British marched toward the house. In her harried, nervous state she later forgot where the gold was hidden. Now as a spirit she rushes around the house and through the vegetable garden, looking for where the money lay forgotten.
The Stockbridge Indian Massacre occurred on the Van Cortlandt property in 1778. The Stockbridge militia was made up of mostly Mohican, Wappinger and Munsee Native American tribes. They were good trackers and proud warriors. Most of the northeastern tribes had aligned themselves with the British. However, the tribes that had settled in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, fought with the colonies and were the first American Indians to fight against the British during the Revolutionary War.
In the early summer months of 1778, the Stockbridge militia had traveled into the Van Cortlandt area. They had outwitted and ambushed a regiment of the Queen’s Rangers, led by John Graves Simcoe. Many British soldiers were killed. Simcoe was enraged. He vowed to take his revenge. His opportunity came in August of that same year when his regiment of British soldiers along with Hessian mercenaries encircled and killed nearly all of the Stockbridge militia. The wounded and dead Stockbridge militiamen were left in the field to rot, while the wounded British soldiers were carried away and their dead buried. It wasn’t until some days later, when the dogs of the local farmers brought home arms, hands, and bones of the dead that the true carnage of the battle was discovered. The bodies of the Stockbridge militia were quickly buried in the northern edge of the park that is now bordered by busy city streets.
There is a sense of disquiet sometimes in the park. Even on a majestic sunny day, the water in a pond can lay flat as though it is a thin sheet of blue paper, while on the edge of your vision a lone bush will tremble furiously. Wind frequently blows mournfully through the branches of gnarly tortured looking trees that appear old enough to have seen the horror of war. Not many people know the history of this parkland, and certainly in this modern age, there is so much noise, so many troubling incidents in the world that stepping into a haunted forest or visiting an old house filled with history is merely an afternoon’s activity. An old train trestle still stands in the park where passengers used to wait for their ride on a locomotive. The tracks have long been taken away. But why do some people still hear the mournful sound of a train whistle deep in the early morning hours? For that I have no answer.
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