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Monday, December 21, 2009

Greylock Was His Barometer: Levi Beebe and the Great Blizzard of ‘88

This is a story about a prophet; a Mohammed who went to the Mountain, and delivered down a dire warning about the future. It’s also a story about the calamity that followed, for you cannot have a prophet without some calamity.

The mountain happens to be Beartown Mountain, in Lee, and the prophet’s name was Levi Beebe. Some say his ghost still haunts the mountain, but that’s just the side note that brought the story to my attention.

Beebe was born in Richmond, in 1817. In his youth, he studied the paper business at the Platner & Smith mill in Lee. Due to poor health, he had to give up that vocation, and subsequently bought 2000 acres on Beartown (so named for a bear shot on his property). There he ran a small sawmill, and in his spare time studied the weather.

Over many years, he went from being something of an eccentric mountain hobbyist to a legendary figure, locally referred to as the “Weather Prophet” or “Prophet of Beartown Mountain.” Locals eagerly awaited his pronouncements, and farmers throughout the region came to plan their planting around them.

Eschewing “fancy” equipment, Beebe used only rigorous observation and note-taking.
“Greylock is my barometer!” he wrote, and from observing it, 38 miles to the north, he would gauge the content of gases in the atmosphere according to his own theories. Most unique was his assertion that the overall weather for a season could be measured by observing that of the last twenty days of the previous season. For instance, if in the last twenty days of December, snow accumulated and cold hardened it, he predicted a cold winter. If it came and went during those days, he predicted a broken winter.

His most famous success was in accurately predicting the Great Blizzard of 1888, one of the most severe storms in U.S. History. The previous fall, Beebe forecast that a terrible storm would strike on March 12 of the coming year.

By early March, the weather was unseasonably warm, and many had forgotten or shrugged off the Beartown hermit’s prediction. A decent number of locals who had come to swear by Beebe’s proclamations, however, had stocked up considerable fuel and food.

It came to pass that Sunday, March 11, began with a cold rain, gradually becoming a steady downpour. Temperatures dropped throughout the day, and rain mixed with sleet, then steady snow beginning in earnest just after midnight March 12.

It came to be called the Great White Hurricane, two days of freezing winds and heavy snowfall that paralyzed much of the Northeast. Upward of 50 inches fell in Massachusetts and Connecticut, with only slightly less in New York. Sustained winds buried everything in towering snowdrifts, making train and even road travel virtually impossible. Telegraph infrastructure was knocked out, cutting off major cities from Montreal to Washington, D.C. for days. More than 400 died in total, 200 in New York City alone.

In Pittsfield, the thermometer was at two below by Monday morning, with heavy drifts already impeding even sleigh traffic. Nonetheless, businesses opened, and most actually stayed open until the customary 6pm. The gas lamps were lit along North Street in the late afternoon, but all except two blew out immediately. By evening, the streets were completely deserted.

On Tuesday, almost no travel was possible. Average snowdrifts ranged from waist to shoulder deep; in places snow went higher than a person’s head, eclipsing the first floor level of some buildings. Nothing opened. The few mill employees who attempted to go on working became trapped inside their factories.

An even grimmer situation was developing on Washington Mountain, where Monday a passenger train had become stuck on the tracks and gradually became buried in the drifts. A short-range train, it had no dining car and the only food aboard consisted of a crate of 300 eggs. Four intrepid passengers managed to climb out of the car, then trek through blinding and sub-zero temperatures to get some bread from a nearby house. The seventy two passengers aboard got by on that and raw eggs, until Tuesday night, when the fuel ran out.

Finally, three Boston & Albany engines coupled together pushed through late that night, in time to rescue them from certain death by exposure.

When the snow stopped on Wednesday, drifts in Pittsfield ranged from 10 to 30 feet high. Overall, though, Berkshirites had stood up well. Some of that should no doubt be credited to the Prophet of Beartown Mountain.

Accordingly, his fame grew, and later predictions were published in papers throughout the country as he made them. In 1892, he published a booklet summarizing his contributions, the boldly titled Meteorology: How to Foretell the Weather for All Time in All Parts of the World. He also wrote weather reports for National Geographic and various New York papers.

As for his ghost haunting the mountain where his house once stood, I’ve never really heard anything but the vaguest mentions of it. I’m not sure anyone’s actually ever claimed to have personally seen anything odd there. More likely, this is a vague remembrance of a 1946 story by the Eagle’s Richard Happel, in which he uses the character of a ghost of Beebe to write a cute, educational piece about the changes in weather science since his day.

Even without haunting anything, his influence continues to this day. For though his name has largely been forgotten, there are still some farmers all over the country who continue to use his 20-day seasonal prediction method, never realizing that it originated with the Berkshires’ own Weather Prophet.

Joe Durwin is a Pittsfield native who is much more afraid of snow than of ghosts.
Please feel free to send stories of extraordinary local individuals and your own weather predictions (positive only please) to

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Savoy's murdered traveler: Another historical 'X-File'

Right on the side of Route 116 as it winds through the town of Savoy, there is a tiny cemetery rising up around a tomb built into the hillside. The plot itself is actually called Tomb Cemetery, and it holds a couple of dozen stones marking burials from the mid 1800s into the early 20th century.

The tomb itself is empty. It was built by a prominent early settler of the town, but he is not interred there. Unbeknownst even to many Savoy residents, the mystery surrounding this empty tomb is closely tied to the town's favorite legend.

It's a story that's been around since the 19th century, in print since at least the 1930s and still very much in circulation. In fact, I heard a version of it within a couple of minutes of asking about town history on a recent visit to the general store.

Recorded many times, the basic legend goes as follows: One dark and stormy night, a wealthy traveler arrived on horseback to put up at the old tavern. When morning came, he was nowhere to be seen, and his bed had not been slept in. His horse was found the next day in a nearby field with a terrible gash in its neck.

Townspeople suspected the innkeeper of foul play. Without a

body or any other proof, though, no charges were brought. Soon after, bloodstains began to appear on the stairs leading to the second floor, and they could not be removed. Strange lights were seen in the window of the room the stranger was said to be slain in, and sometimes even a gory apparition with hollow eyes was spotted.

The tale is most often attributed to the 1830s and set in the original Bowker Tavern, also known as the Bowker Hotel. Liberty Bowker began leasing a tavern along what is now Main Street in 1823, and it grew increasingly prosperous until he sold it to his son Calvin in 1841. The original structure burned down sometime after that, and it was rebuilt bigger and grander, with many rooms and famous trout dinners drawing crowds from North

Adams and Williamstown nightly. This second Bowker Hotel burned down in 1894. Savoy's current general store is built over the foundation, and charred stone can still be seen in the cellar, according to Gail Carlow, who runs the store with her husband.

In recent decades, some versions of the tale place it next door to the store, in what was once the Mason Hotel. The Mason Hotel ran on and off from 1833 until the 1920s; it is now a private residence.

A closer examination of Savoy history is illuminating. The first town history, written by H.E. Miller in 1879, makes a brief reference to the "ruins of the famous haunted house." Neither the Bowker nor Mason buildings would have been in ruins at the time his history was written, but an earlier establishment, called the Williams Tavern, fits the legend perfectly. In fact, the history surrounding this, Savoy's first inn facility, suggests that the long-running town legend may have a basis in very real events.

The story of the tavern begins with Joseph Williams, who arrived from Taunton with his three sons in 1780. One of those sons, William, built the inn on his father's property and opened for business around 1794. Four years later, he relinquished the business to his father.

Joseph Williams, along with his partner Jacob Blake, was involved in a wide variety of business dealings, including half the real estate sales in town. Not all of these transactions appear to have been legitimate; at least one unhappy associate had to set the authorities on Williams for money owed him.

Around 1815, Jacob Blake died, but Williams remained close with his widow, Olive. Three years later, Joseph inexplicably began selling off his many land holdings, all except the lot where he had built the tomb in question. This he reserved for himself and the widow Blake, according to a notation in the deed. Virtually everything else he sold, sometimes at an apparent loss, up until 1823, after which there is no more mention of him in records.

Olive Blake, meanwhile, was swept up in the Shaker missionary zeal that gripped the town during those years. She eventually relocated, along with her daughter Rhoda, to the Shaker community in Mount Lebanon, along with dozens of other Savoy residents. Her daughter Rhoda became a prominent Shaker sister, holding many important offices in the community and eventually penning an autobiography profiling her life and experiences. It is in this document that we find an account of Joseph Williams that may shed a great deal of light on the oft-told haunted tavern tale.

Rhoda refers to a man arriving on horseback to the tavern one evening. He checked in, but before going to his room demanded to see Williams and was taken to his nearby home. Soon, angry voices could be heard coming from the house. Then there was silence. In the morning, Rhoda says, it was found that the man's room had not been slept in, and no sign of him could be found save his horse, which remained in the stable for days unclaimed.

After this, many people noticed a decline in Williams' health, and he seemed always distracted, even depressed. It was during this period that he sold off nearly all of his land. Finally, according to Blake's account, he was standing by his fire one night, when he fell and was "consumed by the flames." He ran from his house to the nearby river, extinguishing himself, but died shortly after.

Curiously, no one seems to know where his body is buried. The tomb, if it was ever used, is currently empty, and inscriptions from Savoy's 21 small cemeteries show no sign of Joseph Williams. Olive Blake moved to Mount Lebanon and is no doubt interred in the Shaker burial ground there.

What really happened to the unnamed traveler that came to Savoy that fateful night? Where is Joseph Williams, and why does his elaborate tomb remain empty to this day? We may never know more about these questions than we do now. As for Williams Tavern, the property was bought in 1824 by Liberty Bowker, whose grave can be found there in Tomb Cemetery. Today, Route 116 passes right through where the building stood. Only the empty tomb remains to tantalize us with its enigmas.

That and the legend of the murdered traveler, which is as alive today as it ever was.

Joe Durwin is a longtime local mystery monger. Send tips on haunted places, unexplained occurrences, rumors and other accounts of the strange to

Related Anecdotes:

-The same sort of “lights” that legend describes being seen in the Williams Tavern after the suspected murder were also reported by Shakers in their documents, in particular at the nearby widow Olive Blake’s house. The tavern incident took place at the peak of Shaker revivalism in Savoy, and the lights were seen by them as a sign of faith and devotion.

-In 1878, Tomb Cemetery was desecrated by a very eloquent vandal. Thirty nine headstones were broken or tipped, and across the ground, a very large sheet of brown paper had been laid. On it was an original nine stanza poem entitled “The Red Dragon,” which predicted a second Civil War, to which the one just passed was “only a sample.” It was signed The Tramp. Text of the poem has not survived, but it was described as being written in excellent penmanship and grammar, written by someone "well educated in history." The mystery was never solved.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hauntings at the Red Lion Inn?

By Joe Durwin

Photos by Autumn Doyle
Advocate Weekly
Thursday, September 24

Arguably the most prominent historic landmark in Stockbridge, the Red Lion Inn has been in existence since 1773 when Silas Pepoon first established a tavern there.

Over the course of more than two centuries, it has gone from being a smoky saloon for fomenting revolution to one of the most famous and well-regarded historic lodgings in the region. It has been through 20 proprietors and three name changes, and it even has burned to the ground and been rebuilt. It has accommodated presidents, dignitaries and many celebrities.

Turns out, it may accommodate even stranger denizens.

I first encountered rumors of a haunting at the inn a couple of years ago, through some reviews on the popular site that referred to unusual activity in room 301. The first, in August 2004, was from a man who said he felt something touching his head and tugging the bed sheet. Almost one year to the day later, a second reviewer reported several times waking up to the feeling of having their toes being pulled on, as well as the sound of footsteps and the sensation of an unseen force fluffing up the comforter.

A month later, a third review described the guest being woken all night by cover-pulling from the foot of the bed. When the man turned to look, he saw a man in a top hat and "olden day attire," who then vanished in a white mist.

This, it seems, is not the only part of the inn said to be haunted. Guests have told staff of unusual sightings in other rooms, and one former housekeeper stated there had been rumors among some of the cleaning staff going back at least a decade about the whole fourth floor being haunted. In addition to the man in the top hat, there are vague rumors about a ghostly young girl carrying flowers.

One intriguing story can be found in the current edition of the inn's "Stories," a courtesy booklet of anecdotes penned by former guests recalling their experiences staying there. In it, one Sheryl Ciccarelli recounts an incident taking place in Room 424. One night in April 2003, she awoke quite suddenly to an overwhelming feeling that someone - or something - stood over her bed. Looking at the clock as she woke her husband, she noted the time: 1:35 a.m. In the morning, they discovered that their daughter had left them a message to tell them that a rainstorm had knocked the power lines out to their house, causing a shower of sparks and a great commotion in the neighborhood. The time of her call? 1:35 a.m.

Other miscellaneous incidents have been mentioned in various other parts of the complex. The most significant involves a gentleman who asked to be relocated from his room, he said, because of the sheer number of "spirited" guests he encountered. The gentleman turned out to be celebrity medium James van Praagh.

Last year, Joseph Flammer and Diane Hill, a pair of ghost-hunters from Long Island, spent the night in room 301, bringing with them a variety of sophisticated equipment. In addition to a pervasive cold spot at the foot of the bed, they reported knocks coming from within the armoire adjacent to it. They also claim to have captured video recording an amorphous "something" sweeping across the room to bang into the camera tripod.

Intrigued, I wanted to see for myself what oddities room 301 might hold and made arrangements to rent the room. I arrived on a beautiful Sunday afternoon and quickly checked in. Room 301 is a bright, cozy little room at the southernmost end of the main building, with nothing overtly spooky about its appearance.

I immediately turned on a digital recorder and started snapping photos. I didn't expect anything terribly dramatic. Over the years I've visited more allegedly haunted places than I can count, and only a handful of times have things gotten very weird. It may be ghosts just don't like to deal with the press.

The only particularly curious thing observed during my stay involved certain electrical fluctuations. I'm not a professional "ghost-hunter" by any means, but I did happen to have an EMF detector on loan from a friend. In a nutshell, what this does is measure electromagnetic field fluctuations. Typically, these are emitted by electrical appliances, wiring and other such equipment. However, in one area of the floor between the foot of the bed and armoire, I got persistently high spikes, much higher than those closer to the TV and other electronics.

It would be difficult to completely rule out wiring or other mechanical emissions coming from under that area of the floor as a cause of these readings, but given the fact that most reports of odd phenomenon in 301 seem to involve that part of the room, it seems worth consideration.

So who or what might haunt the inn? My first thought was to look into the fire that leveled the building in 1896, but this is said to have resulted in no loss of lives. In 236 years of history, though, the inn has had many thousands of visitors and staff, and there's no real agreement on what era the alleged ghosts of the inn might hail from.

Could be there's just something in the name. In the process of scouring for data on the Stockbridge haunt, I was intrigued to find a profusion of haunted Red Lions. The 17th century Red Lion Inn of Avebury, Wiltshire, is widely held to be haunted by a former innkeeper, and the Red Lion in Gloucestershire has been said to feature the ghost of Anne Boleyn. Then there's London's Red Lion Square, where the shade of Oliver Cromwell is said to hang about, and the be-spooked Red Lion Hotel of Pontefract, Yorkshire. Back on this side of the pond, Chicago's Red Lion Pub is said to be frequented by half a dozen former patrons from various eras.

Is our Red Lion really haunted? According to Carol Cosco Baumann, director of marketing and communications, "Every now and then, we hear about a guest that has had an experience that they attribute to a ghostly presence. In the past four years, I can count the number of such instances on one hand. That said, we keep our minds open to the possibilities!"

Perhaps the best way to assuage your curiosity is to go see for yourself. I recommend room 301... just keep an eye on that strange spot at the foot of the bed.

Joe Durwin is a longtime local mystery monger. Send tips on haunted places, macabre sightings, curious artifacts, crackpot theories, pernicious rumors and other accounts of the strange to