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Feature

The Spooktacular Finger Lakes

Fall 2001
by Laurel C. Wemett
Ghost stories abound up and down the hills and along the pathways and waterways of the Finger Lakes. Where the vapor clings to the valley on cold fall mornings and stars wink in the darkened windowpanes of both the stately and humble old homes, there are many tales to tell. Based on hearsay or eyewitness accounts, they range from merely curious to spine-tingling stories of haunted buildings, spectral sightings, bizarre behavior, and spooky happenings. Here are a few to share.

Bertha Jane and Rose, A Pair of ‘Delightful’ Ghosts in Branchport

When Vera Van Atta and her husband first saw a derelict 19th century house on a steep hill two and a half miles south of Branchport, NY in 1979, her husband said, “That’s straight out of Psycho!” He was, of course, referring to the eerie Bates Hotel in Hitchcock’s famed movie. But to Vera, the mansion overlooking Keuka Lake was “calling” to her to restore it as a bed and breakfast – which is exactly what the couple did over the next ten years. Sadly, Bruce Van Atta died shortly before it opened in 1989. Vera christened the inn 10,000 Delights, a fitting name for a variety of themed rooms, filled with art and antiques, which whimsically spill over onto the surrounding grounds. In addition to the spectacular view of the lake, however, visitors may get a glimpse of something a bit more otherworldly.

During the renovation, unusual happenings began to occur inside the 1850 Greek Revival mansion. The Van Attas evicted the 13 raccoons that lived there but they couldn’t evict the resident ghosts quite so easily. Vera believes the ghost of Bertha Jane Von Kamecke, who ran a hotel there called “Be-Ja-Vo-Ka” beginning in 1913, is still on the premises. A striking mural, painted by Bertha of the road along Keuka Lake as it looked in August 1913, still hangs over the fireplace.

Vera says people have seen a woman in white in the hall upstairs, although she herself never sees her. “I just sort of get messages from her,” explains Vera, who describes Bertha Jane almost with affection, as a kindred spirit. “She was an intrepid lady for that particular time. She was an artist, who in the winter would go off to her studio in New York City or take a tramp steamer around the world. This was in the teens. Women didn’t really do that sort of thing then,” says Vera, herself an artist.

“She did all kinds of things, made dolls, tapestries, and decorated places – everything that I have done, so I think that’s why she decided I was the one who was going to fix this place up,” says Vera.

While Vera says she hasn’t actually seen her, Bertha Jane catches Vera’s attention in other ways. Vera would totally clean out a room and upon her return the next day, she would find either one of Bertha Jane’s framed paintings hanging on the wall, or an unframed painting behind the door. When that happened three times she decided Bertha Jane was responsible and was trying to let Vera know that she was still there. When Vera started putting up other original art, it would be found thrown off the walls. Mirrors were found removed from their hanging spots, lying mysteriously unbroken in the middle of a room. Ultimately, Vera decided to perform a ceremony by lighting candles and addressing the ghostly intruder, saying “Bertha Jane, you’re the first artist in our hearts, but we have to have other art here to show how good you really are.” Bertha Jane left Vera to carry out the decorating.

Another resident ghost is known simply as Rose. She appears to be about 18 years old and was seen in the bed and breakfast’s Yellow Rose Room by Twila Nitsch, Vera’s Native American friend. “She’s a sweet young girl and I like her very much,” says Vera quoting Twila, who is the Wolf Clan Mother of the Senecas. Rose impresses Vera’s guests by making sure the door of the Yellow Rose Room stays open. She likes the dolls there and has played a music box in the room.

“I don’t think I’m psychic. I don’t see things, but I hear them,” says Vera. But recently Vera did see new evidence of her resident spirits. This past June guests from Syracuse who described themselves as ghost hunters stayed at her bed and breakfast seeking evidence of “paranormal occurrences.” They made a video in the darkened Yellow Rose Room. On the videotape Vera says she could actually see a white light “dancing” through the dolls and around the carriage wheels of the doll carriage. Vera says the light moved around the door – the door that Rose always opens. The Syracuse ghost hunters decided to mention their visit to “the haunted bed and breakfast” on their website. One wonders what Bertha Jane thinks about that?

The Lady in Granite at Lakeview Cemetery in Penn Yan

On a sunny day the winding roads and well-maintained green lawns of the Lakeview Cemetery in Penn Yan appear serene and welcoming. There, shaded by the tall trees on the gently sloping hillsides, are the peaceful final resting spots of members of many local families. But are they really all peaceful?

One particular tombstone has been considered by several generations of Penn Yanians to be haunted. Local librarian John Creamer says there are many variations of a story he heard as a young boy about a married couple, Matilda and Francis Gillette, who didn’t get along. When Matilda lay on her deathbed, her husband expressed to her his relief that he would soon be free of her influence. Matilda warned her spouse she would return to haunt him after her death.

Did she carry through with her threat? The large dark gray Gillette family tombstone over Matilda’s grave has long been the focus of scrutiny. On its smooth highly polished surface, appears a large white irregular shape thought to resemble the woman’s profile on her deathbed, or in her coffin. The legend says the stone was replaced several times, but each time, the image returned. John Creamer says he found no evidence of the stone’s replacement and was told the image was likely to be a flaw in the granite. The tale of a wife’s revenge is also hard to fathom if one considers that Matilda Gillette (1859-1936) actually outlived her husband, Francis Gillette (1850-1929) by seven years.

Despite the contradictions and uncertainties, “The Lady in Granite,” as the tombstone has come to be known, will continue to gain notoriety with new generations of cemetery visitors, particularly around Halloween. Matilda Gillette is now featured on “A Walk Through Yates County History,” offered in October by the Penn Yan Library and the Yates County Historical Society and Genealogical Society. Costumed interpreters invite the public to visit the cemetery focusing on people buried there who “left a mark on the county.” It would seem that Matilda Gillette has indeed left her mark and certainly achieved fame in death that she may never have realized in life.

The Wandering Woman in Hoop Skirts in Fishers

Linked with the railroad era of the 19th century is a colorful story of romance, betrayal, heartbreak, derangement, and a ghost who walked the tracks. It is based on the lives of people around the hamlet of Fishers in the town of Victor and was related by Sheldon Fisher in his book of stories of country folk life titled The Fish Horn Alarm.

The Auburn and Rochester Railroad was constructed through the hamlet of Fishers in 1838 as part of a cross-state railroad. At the turn of the century as many as 24 passenger trains and eight freight trains stopped each day at Fishers. Its tracks are now gone and few buildings remain that recall that busy railroad era.

A woman named Eliza, whose maiden name is unknown, was born to modest wealth and grew up before the Civil War in the vicinity of the railroad. She fell in love and married a dashing man named O’Brien. Not long afterwards, however, he left Eliza, taking a good deal of her money. This treachery enraged Eliza and she set out to find her errant spouse, travelling from place to place but found no trace of him.

Eliza’s anger so intensified that she even refused to ride trains because they were run by engineers who were men. She became knows as the “Wandering Woman in Hoop Skirts,” walking along the tracks between the cities of Rochester and Syracuse. Maggie Murphy Ransom, a Fishers resident, who related the story to Sheldon Fisher, remembered that when she was a school girl, Eliza would be waiting outside the school at recess to tell Maggie and other girls not to trust men.

There were some families along the Auburn Road who would befriend the wandering woman, offering her lodging and food which she accepted, provided there were no men in the residence. Over time, railroaders began to fear her and where there was a train wreck they became suspicious that she had somehow caused it. Once a terrible head-on collision occurred after someone opened a main switch. Maggie said it happened just east of the station in Fishers. Was it Eliza who was seen on the tracks before it happened? There was no proof and she was never charged.

Even after her death in 1893, railroaders said they continued to see her along the tracks, often at the time of near disasters. One incident at the turn of the century involved a train full of Irish immigrants headed west through Fishers. The headlight of the locomotive picked up the figure of a woman in hoopskirts who wouldn’t move even when the whistle was sounded. The engineer had no choice but to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting her. When he searched the track for the woman she was nowhere in sight, and to his horror the locomotive was perilously close to a washout at the first culvert on the Irondequoit Creek. The apparition of Eliza may have saved the train and its passengers from a sure catastrophe.

That was not the last sighting of Eliza O’Brien. Until the railroad line from Rochester to Canandaigua was closed permanently in about 1960, there were numerous times an old woman was seen on the tracks, often at times of the most bizarre mishaps. Author Fisher likes to speculate that she may be still walking, in the area of the trackbed, now used only by hikers.

Black Jenny and other tales from along the Erie Canal in Port Byron

North of Auburn, in the village of Port Byron on the Owasco Lake Outlet, Mary Ann Johnson, a native daughter and longtime resident, has gathered numerous ghosts stories. Happenings along the Erie Canal, which closed in 1917 in Port Byron, are a fertile source of local myths, legends and folktales. Mary Ann says there was a tradition of storytellers who would travel and stop along the way at the canal towns, to provide an evening of entertainment for the local folk.

At her father’s urging, Mary Ann began to write down these legends. A reporter at the Syracuse Herald, a family friend, came to Port Byron every year before Halloween and she would write a story for him. Today she has two books of eerie tales to her credit and she’s working on a third. The proceeds from their sales helped with the purchase of the house at Lock 52 for the local historical society and its restoration.

“I believe that most of the ghosts reported in our area can be connected with some person who died there,” says Mary Ann. Her story of “The Last Indian: Black Jenny,” is based on the recollections of a local schoolteacher whose family knew Black Jenny. She was an Indian who hid out for a long time, perhaps during a conflict with white soldiers, and became separated from her people. For most of her life Black Jenny lived in a hut on Towpath Road not far from the double locks of the Erie Canal. She supported herself by doing laundry for people in Port Byron. Her Native customs and rituals, however, seemed mysterious and may have been misunderstood for witchcraft. She was very knowledgeable about the medicinal value of plants. On her door hung her “skull-medicine bundle” containing skeletal remains- the head and shoulders of a hawk, a human skull, an eagle’s claw and a deer’s tail, considered a symbol of bravery.

Jenny also had a doll which she used as a sacred effigy. One night she was heard dancing around a blazing bon-fire while gazing at the doll’s face. The next morning when a boatman was found dead under the canal bridge his death was linked to the old woman’s spell.

The circumstances of Black Jenny’s own death are unknown. Mary Ann thinks that she may have drowned in the Erie Canal but she has no proof. Often at dusk or dawn people thought they saw her in a canoe gliding along the Owasco Outlet in Port Byron. After Black Jenny’s death there were also sightings of her ghost on the Towpath Road and outside her hut. This continued even after the hut was demolished, and just recently Mary Ann reports there have been inexplicable disturbances in the vicinity.

The town of Port Byron has a number of haunted buildings, according to its resident ghost chronicler. In the 1940s Mary Ann used to baby sit for Dr. Rabourn’s family, who lived in a stately red brick mansion on one of the main streets. Pictures fell off walls, knockings and even music were heard all through the house, but she says she never actually saw anything. When the Doctor went into the service during World War II, his wife invited her sister to stay with her. One night quite late, as the sister came upstairs, she saw a black derby hat flying airborne past her. A spectral figure dressed in black was seen on the stairway. Mary Ann believes it was one of the home’s owners who reportedly killed himself there in the 19th century.

“The thing that’s really scary,” says Mary Ann, “is after he was seen years ago by Dr. Rabourn’s sister-in-law, in the 1970s the daughter of the home’s new owners and her girlfriend saw the same fellow upstairs in the hallway.” He was dressed in black and wearing a derby, just like the one seen a generation before in the hallway.

In October 1984 Mary Ann went with teachers and students from the Port Byron Elementary School to the mansion to film a ghost story. Inexplicably, their battery-operated camera stopped working and although replacement equipment operated, it captured some strange results. Voices on the tape were muffled and a strange noise was heard. Did something or someone not want certain rooms filmed?

Among Port Byron’s ghost stories is one about a haunting in the local cemetery. When children were playing there they heard a voice coming from inside a vault. An old woman dressed all in black nearby said it was her late husband with whom she regularly conversed. The children were so frightened they ran home and when they returned brought their grandfather, who wanted to dispel their fears. Hiding together behind the vault they watched while the woman called out her husband’s name. Suddenly a voice from within answered, “yes” and the woman began to relate her daily problems. Again the children beat a hasty retreat from the cemetery while their grandfather, by now terror-stricken, was left alone as the old woman carried on her conversation with the afterlife.

Supernatural or Optical Illusion in Middlesex?

Spook Hill is a dirt road east of Canandaigua Lake, located in Middlesex, an area noted for its spectacular hills and views. The legend that gave rise to the naming of Spook Hill (actually named Newell Road) is that cars and bicycles seem to be rolling up hill backwards. To see if a supernatural force is at work, many drivers put their cars in neutral on Spook Hill to experience their vehicle rolling backwards.

About 25 years ago, a research scientist from the University of Rochester brought his measuring instruments to disprove the legend of Spook Hill and show that it was only and optical illusion. The illusion apparently is created by the contrast of the near level Spook Hill after a very steep climb.

Local resident, Nick Mendola remembers when he took his five young children there many years ago in the family station wagon. The kids got out to watch the effect and all of a sudden a horse that had gotten loose with a chain dangling from around its neck charged the kids. The youngsters jumped quickly into the car, remembers Nick, without the usual arguing about who sat where. Their experience had nothing to do with the phenomena, except that his family was “spooked by the horse.”

Laurel Wemett is a correspondent for the Daily Messenger newspaper in Canandaigua. She owns a gift shop named Cat’s in the Kitchen and lives in Canandaigua.

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