Ghost trains and headless soldiers and suicidal brides…oh my!
Although I now consider myself an Atlantan at heart, after close to thirty years of residency here, I still feel strong attachments to my childhood in western New York (most of which are food-related). Born in Niagara Falls, I spent my first twelve years exploring the local neighborhoods and getting into the kind of mischief that kids get into on a regular basis. My friends and I spent most days locked out of our houses (and our mothers’ hair), finding any number of ways to entertain ourselves. It was the late 60s and early 70s, so we were very much on our own in terms of entertainment resources – no cable, no video games, no cell phone texting, no home theaters – so imagination was THE media for us.
Nothing stoked our imagination more than the local legends we heard from neighbors, friends and relatives (I was at least twenty years old before I realized that the dreaded tale of the murderous Little Lee Baker – who kidnapped children in the middle of the night and went wild on them with long, razor-like claws – was fabricated by my older brother in an effort to hold sway over our terrified minds…). To this day I am intrigued by ghost stories and the like (I have a few of my own that I simply cannot explain away logically), an interest no doubt sparked by the eerie legends surrounding some of western New York’s most notable landmarks. From suicidal brides flinging themselves over the powerful waterfalls of the mighty Niagara River to abandon train stations ripe with ghostly activity to spectral children swinging at night in the playground not far from our home, western New York offers up a bevy of tales to rattle even the biggest of sceptics.
My earliest recollection of paranormal curiosity comes from Old Fort Niagara. The fort stands on a bluff above Lake Ontario, not far from Niagara Falls, and acts as a centuries-old guard to the entrance of the Niagara River (dating back to 1726). It played a vital role in the struggles of France, Great Britain and the United States to assume control of the Great Lakes region. It also holds an important place in shaping the destinies of the Iriquois people. Now a national historic landmark, notable for its rich collection of 18th and 19th century military architecture, it became a popular destination for our summer weekends. We loved the opportunity to explore every darkened nook and cranny, imagining the many bloody battles that claimed the lives of soldiers for years and years. Visitors have spoken of many varied ghostly occurences, everything from shadow people to floating candles to spectral German Shepherds howling at the moon (perhaps explaining why police dogs will not enter the fort chapel, rumored to play host to unseen benches being dragged about). Often we led ourselves to believe we had discovered some chilling blood stain on the rough stone surfaces, concocting our own thrilling versions of what transpired upon that fatal spot…
Yet the thing that spurred us on the most was the local legend of the unfortunate French soldier who fell prey to jealous rage, losing his life – and head – in a tragic love triangle. It is said that two French officers stationed at Fort Niagara during peacable times both fell victim to the beauty and charms of a young Iriquois maiden. Each desired to win over the woman, and a rivalry was born. One August evening the two – drunk with anger and liquor – confronted each other outside the fort and dueled, challenging one another to a deadly swordfight. Ending quickly, the duel did little to quench the anger and frustration of the victor, and in a last attempt at vengeance he proceeded to decapitate the body and threw it into the Niagara River, where it was lost forever. His anger now subsiding, the surviving duelist soon realized that he must dispose of the body, lest his actions be discovered and he would have to face the consequences. He removed the heavy cover of the well at the entrance of the fort and dumped the body into the deep darkness, knowing this well was seldom used and it was unlikely the body would be discovered any time soon.
Soon he slipped away to unite with the Iriquois maiden and left his military station – and murderous deeds – behind, never to be seen or heard from again. Had he been arrested upon discovery of the headless body, there may have been some official record of the incidents, but circumstances and the time period prevented any such record from existing and we are left with nothing but legend. More than likely the events would have eventually been written off as nothing more than two restless young soldiers abandoning their posts and forgotten altogether, were it not for the numerous sightings of a headless apparition wandering around the grounds on dark nights. People still claim to spot this hapless soul searching in vain for the head that was taken from him, in an eternal effort to finally find some peace in the afterlife.
I admit I’ve never actually seen a ghost or experienced any unexplained activity at Old Fort Niagara, but I can say we always felt a chill when touring the grounds. Whether it was our own overactive young minds or actual paranormal presence causing that looming feeling of dread may never be known, but one thing is for sure – something about that fort and its tragic history sparked a flame inside me that to this day prevents me from completely writing off the existence of the unexplained.
Next up, we’ll take a spin through Central Terminal – Buffalo, New York’s infamous haunted train station…