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Friday, March 12, 2010

Spirit of the Thunderbolt

"The Old Coot Continues to Captivate"
by Joe Durwin
Originally in the North Adams Transcript, Nov. 3, 2009


He wanders the lower reaches of Greylock, this shadowy vestige of a grizzled man from another era. He comes out in the winter months to haunt the Bellows Pipe trail, and he has even been photographed... not once, but twice.

Or so the story goes.

This is the so-called “Old Coot,” the legendary ghost sometimes referred to as “the Enoch Arden of the Berkshires,” after Tennyson’s beloved poem. According to local lore, the Old Coot is the shade of a man named William Saunders.

Saunders was a North Adams farmer who left the Berkshires in 1861 to serve in the Civil War. A year or so after the war began, his wife, Belle, received word he had been badly wounded. No further word came, and eventually she assumed him dead. Belle remarried, to a man named Milton Cliffords. Some time after the war ended, Saunders returned, a bedraggled stranger recognized by none. When he reached his home, he saw his wife and two children happily re-settled, and was heartbroken.

He retreated to the woods, where he built his small ramshackle cabin, off to the side of where the final bend of the Thunderbolt trail passes. There he lived for many years, occasionally taking work on nearby farms. It was said that on occasion he even worked for Cliffords, going unrecognized by his former family. William Saunders had become the Old Coot.

One day, as the story goes, a group of hunters stopped at his shabby cabin, finding him dead inside. It was only then, looking through his papers, that his identity was established. Suddenly, they saw a moving shadow in the door, which then darted into the woods.

Ever since, his ghost was said to have been seen wandering near the base of the trail, near his old abode. This is especially common around late January, legend has it, the time of year he died.

Perhaps more interesting than the tale itself is the story of its telling.

The first mention of the Old Coot was in 1939, in a mid-January Transcript story headlined “Ghost on the Thunderbolt.” It outlined the legend above, specifically in reference to the upcoming Massachusetts Downhill championship ski competition. Jokingly, it was suggested that the skiers just might catch a glimpse of Saunders’ ghost.

A little closer to the championship, this paper ran another item on the Coot… this time, with a purported photo of the somber spook. The story had struck a chord, apparently, with long-time Transcript photographer Randy Trabold. Leading a small group of ghost seekers, Trabold allegedly camped out for three nights by the place the cabin was supposed to have been. Finally, when their food had run out and they were getting ready to depart, they saw a toothless, bearded ghost of a man. Trabold snapped a shot as it faded into a shadow. The photo appeared the following day, along with an editor’s note in which it was claimed that Trabold stopped on his way back in Richmond Cave, where he quickly developed the image.

Decades passed, the Old Coot saga winding its way into local oral tradition. 31 years later, the story was resurrected in the Transcript, again by Trabold. The Old Coot had been seen out and about around Bellows Pipe again, this time a little late, in March. Trabold said he’d been up looking for the ghost, which “wouldn’t stand still for his camera.”

A few years later, on Halloween, 1979, Transcript photographer Richard Lodge ventured out that way, following an “overwhelming feeling” calling him to the mountain. Camera at the ready, he waited throughout the afternoon. As it grew dark, he suddenly saw it, a slumped, shadowy outline of a man moving through the trees. He snapped a shot, and on November 1, the Transcript ran its second photograph of Saunders’ ghost. Like the Trabold photo, it showed a half-transparent blur in the shape of a hunched man.

This too was accompanied with a tongue-in-cheek editorial note, pointing out that Lodge was “a bit of a legend himself for his darkroom legerdemain.”

Thirty years later, the legend of the Old Coot has spread far beyond northern Berkshire county, appearing in books and internet sites and growing ever spookier in the transmission. Going back to these original sources, though, it becomes clear that the whole story was intended to be a bit of fun. It seems to have started out as a kind of early viral marketing for the 1939 ski championship, and kept in circulation by various Transcript veterans with a good sense of humor.

As for the photos, they are both pretty clearly doctored, with another negative laid over shots of woodland background. In this age of digital imaging, it is hard to see them as anything other than quaintly amusing bits of primitive photo alteration.

The story of Saunders himself, however, is open to debate. While there seems to be no record of a William Saunders in North Adams just prior to the Civil War, there is one around the right age appearing in the 1860 Williamstown census. The name of his wife given there is Helen, though, not Belle as in the later Transcript stories.

It may be that there is some kernel of real life drama forming the background of the tale, later moved for dramatic effect. Perhaps there really was a man they called the Old Coot, a true “Enoch Arden of the Berkshires.”

Then again, perhaps I’m wrong about the whole thing, and soon, over thirty years since the last known “sighting,” some intrepid local photographer will capture for us yet another proof of Greylock’s shadowy wanderer.

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