Hiking with the Ghosts of the Blackhead Range

Hiking with the Ghosts of the Blackhead Range

By Erica Obey and George Baird

SONY DSCLast weekend, we took our annual fall foliage hike up Blackhead Mountain. There are several ways to access this view, ranging from about a 10 mile round trip that begins at Elmer Barnum Road and traverses all thee peaks (Thomas Cole, Black Dome, and Blackhead, the 4th, 3rd, and 5th highest mountains in the Catskills respectively), to the far more popular 5 mile round trip that begins at the Big Hollow Road parking area. The foliage was far from at its best this year, but the view was nonetheless spectacular.

That view explains the enduring popularity of this hike, despite the severe scramble at its end, which even nineteenth century ladies in bustles and hoop skirtsSONY DSC were prepared to endure in order to enjoy the view.

Indeed, as Halloween approaches, you can almost imagine these ladies scrambling beside you as you walk, along with such less beneficial spirits as Hank, the Tannersville Brakeman. Hank was a railroad brakeman, which meant his job was to climb out of the train and reset the switches ahead of the engine, but he suddenly found himself trapped when his arm caught in the switch he was supposed to be resetting. Raising his lantern, he tried to find a way to extricate himself, but the engineer took the light as a signal to proceed and ran Hank over, severing his arm. According to the more benign versions of the legend, Hank still wanders the surrounding wilderness – often accompanied by a large white dog – in search of his missing arm.  But according to other, more frightening versions of the story, he punctuates his quest by attacking groups of children in summer camps, tearing off their left arms.The only warning of his coming is a barely glimpsed flickering lantern, which natives of Tannersville have learned to fear.

Non-Catskill Log Flume - but you get the idea!

Non-Catskill Log Flume – but you get the idea!

Equally eerie are the legends of the loggers that made their living on Blackhead, whose log chute along the Batavia Kill (the inspiration for that amusement park staple, the log flume) was documented by hikers as late at 1927.

The inherent danger of working with a rickety wooden structure, powered by the fickle local creeks and loaded with logs weighing several hundred pounds, was the stuff of many loggers’ ghost stories, including that of “The Wraith.” According to that tale, the eponymous evil creature lived in the creek that powered the local log chute, waiting to wrap its long arms around humans or animals and pull them down into the water to drown. A half-Native American lumberman named Cloudy was the wraith’s first victim – and was found mangled in the log chute, his body sliced to ribbons and his head almost completely severed. A week after Cloudy’s death, his good friend Ethan was awakened by a strange blue light that announced the ghost of Cloudy, who had appeared to warn him that the wraith had chosen him as its next victim. Ethan fled the camp at daybreak, after telling the rest of the lumbermen his tale, and by sundown, the camp was completely deserted.

One last local ghost is that of “a man sporting a military uniform and smoking a pipe up on Black Dome mountain.”

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The Devil’s Path from Blackhead

Most people believe that this ghost is the survivor of the crash of a B25 plane that originated at Stewart airport, which conducted B25 training during WWII.The Catskills – and the Escarpment in particular – are riddled with similar crashes, blamed largely on either mechanical failures or inexperienced pilots losing their bearings. Nonetheless, there are many who would prefer to blame these crashes on the Hudson Valley’s notorious history with UFOs. And then there are those who would prefer to blame them on the time/space portals through which druids colonized the Catskills long before Columbus, or ancient ley lines discovered and protected by native peoples. But when Halloween looms, there is perhaps no better place to be haunted than the Catskills, and so why not welcome the ghosts that scramble beside you along the cliffs of the Escarpment? If nothing else, you can console yourself with the fact that at least you’re not hiking the Devil’s Path.

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