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The Legends And Lore Of Pittsfield

Park Square in Pittsfield, Mass. circa 1855

It’s not yet Halloween, but the scary movies and ghostly decorations are creeping closer and closer. And for those drawn to the paranormal, the unexplainable isn’t restricted to October 31st. WAMC’s Berkshire Bureau Chief Jim Levulis went along on a nighttime tour of Pittsfield to brush up on the ghosts and legends of the western Massachusetts city.It’s a hot, humid night, the type of evening where you would definitely notice a chill across the back of your neck if you felt one.

“There are aspects of what it’s really been like to live in the Berkshires for the last 350 or more years that are revealed in things like ghost stories, legends and folktales that have been passed around,” said Durwin.

Local author, historian and writer Joe Durwin welcomes about 40 people for the tour, which gets going 30 minutes before sundown. The group starts at the Pittsfield Common, a recently renovated downtown park with blacktop walking paths, a basketball court, performance pavilion and a grave reality.

“Much of this Morningside and upstreet cultural district area was originally the Pittsfield Cantonment, which was the largest prisoner of war camp in the country during the War of 1812,” Durwin said. “So British prisoners from all the different battles would be sent to Pittsfield. That was under the command of Thomas Melville, who later bought property here and led to Herman Melville later buying property here and writing Moby Dick, as a side note. It was the POWs that were first buried in an area around where the new performance stage is.”

Durwin says the land continued as a cemetery after the War of 1812 as did the city’s problem of grave-robbing even among society’s soon-to-be upper echelon.

“The early medical colleges had a crucial demand for cadavers and there was very little supply legally, they were only entitled to use bodies that were executed which in Massachusetts was really only about 30 people from 1810 to 1840,” Durwin said. “So during this period there was nowhere near enough supply of corpses to teach basic anatomy in all of the medical colleges that were cropping up.”

This next tidbit puts your grandfather’s claim of “walking to school uphill both ways” to shame.

“In areas like western Massachusetts and more rural places or places where doctors didn’t necessarily have those underworld connections there was still this need,” Durwin explained. “Since the physicians themselves didn’t want to be out at night digging up bodies it was kind of the student’s responsibility to supply them like they would their other school supplies.”

Still, Durwin says he doesn’t know of a ghost story about the Pittsfield Common but has heard of remains being found to this day…if that puts you at ease.

The tour continues to the Berkshire Athenaeum where Durwin says stories of a scantily clad young woman hysterically running around during the early morning hours have centered. Heard through second- or third-hand sources, Durwin says the tales revolve around the belief that a brothel was once located where the library now stands although he hasn’t been able to prove that.

“So if anyone ever happens to be walking around here and you do see a little young lady who runs around and screams or laughs and just suddenly disappears I would definitely appreciate it if you would let me know,” joked Durwin.

Durwin directs the group to South Street, the main thoroughfare in Pittsfield, gathering them outside the old Berkshire Place building, a nursing home since the 19th century.

“There’s been a story that’s gone around staff at this location for many, many years about a nurse who used to work and decided to never leave,” said Durwin.

Durwin says he’s heard from four former employees at the home — some even claiming to have seen the forever nurse dressed in an old-fashioned black uniform.

“Usually they’re sort of being reminded to do their job by being nudged toward something,” he explained. “There have been several incidents where a resident here was hurt or had fallen from bed having some kind of medical emergency and wasn’t able to hit their call button, but somehow or other a call button was pushed.”

On North St., Durwin pulls the group off to a pocket park by the railroad tracks that now carry CSX and Amtrak trains. He says a popular downtown eatery called the Bridge Lunch used to stand here. And one day in February 1958 thrust the spot into the city’s lore.

“There was a full diner of customers enjoying lunch and a big steam locomotive came barreling down the tracks going much, much faster than the trains that they were used to going by every single day,” Durwin said. “Everybody stopped to look. It didn’t look like any of the trains that they were used to coming by every single day either. So there was a lot of confusion and ‘What was that?’ Some of the people from the diner called the railroad and they said ‘Well we didn’t have a train going through that time of day and we don’t run steam locomotives anymore…it’s 1958.”

Durwin says people around town had a hard time discounting the word of so many witnesses when a month later another train came roaring down the tracks in time for breakfast.

“This time everybody stands up and is quite sure of what they see,” Durwin continues. “They call the railroad…’We saw the steam locomotive, this is the time and what’s going on.’ The railroad ended up sending a telegram politely saying ‘We’re not sure what you guys are up to in Pittsfield, but we don’t run steam locomotives on our line and we haven’t in quite a few years.’ So thus was born the idea that this must be a ghost train. This must be some sort of a remembrance of a maybe a train that derailed.”

Even with all these stories, many questions remain for Durwin, including a pretty significant one considering his field.

“When I figure out what a ghost is or is supposed to be, I’ll let you know,” Durwin said when asked if he’d ever seen one.

Click here for more information on Durwin’s tours and his new book titled These Mysterious Hills: An Unauthorized History of the Berkshires, which also delve into unique characters who’ve left a mark on the area.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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