The Hauntings Of Van Cortlandt Park

Oct 8, 2016 | 2016 Articles, Hometown History, Margaret Mendel

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.

treesIt’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.


View of the mansion from the swamp

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.chair

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.


Children’s bedroom

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?spinning wheel

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.


George Washington slept here

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.

old treeThere 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.

Check out other food articles in our food section.

Margaret Mendel was born in San Jose but now lives in NYC. She is an award-winning author with stories published in many journals and anthologies. Her debut novel was Fish Kicker with another novel Pushing Water scheduled to be published this fall. Most of her work life has been in the mental health field, though for the last eighteen years she has devoted herself to writing full time. She is an avid photographer, contributing many photos to the mystery stories in Kings River Life. Not only does she drag her laptop with her wherever she goes, but takes her Nikon as well. To learn more about Margaret go to her website.


  1. Love this article! True that sometimes we are so occupied with the current trials in present day that we don’t remember or know the tragedies that lay in the history under our very own feet. Is this why we have ghosts, to remind us of what was, to not repeat history? Thank you for this ghostly history lesson! Well done!

    • Thanks Tricia! Ghosts have a special place on this planet, but whether they are imagined, or real, it does feel like so little is learned from our history. But it is something to ponder. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  2. I enjoy the history that you share. You have a way with words that makes me feel like I am right there walking through this history!

    • Hi Sharon. It’s always a pleasure to hear that you enjoyed my virtual romps though time and place.

  3. Always loving your stories, Margaret.

    • And it’s always lovely to hear from you! Glad you enjoyed my romp through the local haunted forrest!!

  4. Margaret,

    Wonderful article. Since I grew up in the Bronx, I especially enjoyed it. In my HARO ( mail, there was an anonymous request for info about Bronx tourism. I sent along to the reporter the link to your article.

    • Hi Gail, Sorry to respond so lat to your comment. I was out of town. Yes, I know you are from this area and have been following your publishing career for a while. Thanks for sending the line to my article to the reporter.

  5. Beautiful, haunting story. I can hear the train (on second thought, maybe it’s the Long Island Railroad) and “see” the ghosts moving through the house. It elevates Halloween to a new level!

    • What a great comment Jeri. Thanks so much and don’t you think it is a wonderfully haunting sound, a train whistle in the middle of the night.

  6. Hi Margaret
    This is a totally delightful article – really enjoyed it.
    Both your wonderful prose “shadows smeared across the walls” and your evocative pictures lend the whole place a slightly creepy feel. I must go there.
    Well done

    • Yes, Eric, take a slow trip to the park and to that old house. A quick walk-through is no way to get a feel about this place. It is lovely any time of the year and getting off at the last stop on the # 1 train could not be easier. Perhaps on your next trip to NYC?

      • Thank you Lord! Somebody is with me on this! I also live on the edge of the woods. Only thing separating me from the woods is a black gate. I might as well just say I live in the woods. I just moved to Yonkers and I used to frequently walk those woods alone unbeknown to me that it was basically an Indian burial ground (my goodness). I don’t do it anymore because of the story Im about to tell you. Im 23 years old and this happened two years ago. I went in there at night with my cousin. Just a normal night. Before I begin, I want to start out by saying I would always get bad vibes in those woods. All the trees look like they have seen horror like you said. I took a shortcut into the woods coming home from the city. Its a thirty minute walk from the open field on 242nd st where you get off the train station and walk inside the park pass the landmark, pass the tennis courts into the woods. I would then take a right pass the bridge (if you know which bridge im talking about in the woods near a lake or a pond that would freeze over in winter) and continue where most jog or ride bikes. Before this, I used to take walks at night back home with a flash light. I’m happy Im alive! But I take this walk tonight with my cousin. At the end of our walk just at the end of the gulf course is where I live. Its pitch black and all I hear is our footsteps. Out of no where. A large bark that sounds nine feet tall and inches away from us sends me and my cousin running the other direction. We run as far as we can from whatever it was. At this point we have tears in our eyes and shaking uncontrollably. I never believed anything like that would ever happen to me. We gain the courage to go back the same direction after 10 min or so in pitch black with just our cellphones light low on battery. Just before we reach my house my friend jumps out and tries to scare us. That should’ve scared us but we were relieved to see another face. Crazy thing is. When we asked him if he heard the bark that easily echoed the entire woods he said he didn’t hear a thing. We couldn’t believe it. My cousin and I haven’t spoken much about it since then and he doesn’t come by my house anymore. Cause I too find the circumference around my house to have this bad energy that creeps up on you.

        A few months back I decide to go back in there with a friend. We’re sitting by a very creepy water tower that doesn’t run anymore but used to when I first moved in. A strange rastafarian man came up to us and started to tell us amazing wildlife stories he had throughout his life. But nothing would beat what he heard in these woods in BROAD DAYLIGHT a year after my experience. It was the same bark that I heard him describing but this time it came from behind him. But when he turned around there was nothing there. He was also terrified. He also brought up a great point. The water stream next to the water tower used to run beautifully. He suggested someone had stopped the water from running so that whatever it was wouldn’t go feeding at that stream due to families coming by and things like that. He also came across some white older man chanting something crazy nakedly through the woods. Theirs also detectives on horses that come by early in the morning. I don’t know what they patrol but they also look very suspicious like something out of the 1800s. Its not until I finally took to the internet to find out why so many weird things was happening to me in those woods. Now I know. It was a massacre. Who knows whats lurks in there. I urge anyone who goes in there to NOT GO IN ALONE! Or after dark! Its dangerous to go into any woods alone. Especially the one I live by known as Van Cortlandt Park Woods.

        • To Amaury Reyes – the bark you heard may have been from a coyote. There had been sightings of some coyotes in that park. The Indian massacre happened east of the major Deegan expressway or Thruway. It was in the park where Oneida Lane or Ave goes west past Van Cortlandt Park east in Woodlawn. There is a memorial to the Indians along that road. That is not where they were buried.

  7. I grew up in the Wakefield section of the East Bronx and every winter we would go ice skating on Van Cortlandt Lake when It Froze over. Also went horse back riding at the stables. My cousins and future husband played ball at Indian Field and we Have seen the Stockbridge Indian monument but never walked far enough into the park to find the massacre site.
    I am sorry to say that I never experienced anything supernatural even in the Van Cortlandt House which I have visited about 3 times.
    *** I do caution those walking about in the woods alone that there have been sightings of coyotes living in the park. Coyotes tend to hunt as a pack, and are wild.

  8. I too have visited the museum on several occasions. I have also experienced an eerie heavy presence throughout the entire edifice. Ive always loved visiting old mansions with a colorful history. This house however is pretty intense. There is something, almost palpable in its rooms, a haunted feeling if you will, that permeates the entire place. Like someones watching or listening….starring at you almost Beautiful house though. Full of history..I highly recommend a visit to this lovely, historic and haunting place.

  9. To the author: I neglected to say previously that I enjoyed the descriptive language of this writing piece and the photos that accompany it.
    Do you happen to recall where in the last photo that venerable old tree with its gnarled shape is located? That alone would cause shivers up and down my spine!
    BTW in the winter my family and I would go ice skating when the lake froze over. It required a lot of warm clothes and about two pairs of socks in the skates. Back then the boat house would be open so you could change from shoes to skates and be out of the wind and cold. Yearly There is a large crack in the ice that runs parallel to the shore and once your skate blade gets caught, you remember where it painfully is. If you do go for ice skating with your own skates , only in daylight, be advised you need several very cold days and nights of temperatures below 32 degrees F for the lake to form a safe thick crust of ice.

    • Hi I grew up in Kingsbridge. I have many happy memories of ice skating for hours o. Frigid days. The ice was so thick. Yes I remember deep marks. We always bought hot chocolate to warm up before walking up the big hill to Sedgwick ave. I grew up on Giles place. As a child we often went for pony rides. And as a brownie scout. We went on picnics on nice fall days. We hiked to top of that big hill. It seemed ominous to me then . We were told stories about Indians george washingon etc. The van cortlandt mansion was lovely but had a feeling that ghosts were indeed present



  1. THE HAUNTINGS OF VAN CORTLANDT PARK | Pushing Time - […] I have written an article for the Kings River Life Magazine, THE HAUNTING OF VAN CORTLANDT PARK. Check it…

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