A spirited night on the town in Havre de Grace

A ghost walk tour along city streets focuses on living - and dead - history

October 29, 2006|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun reporter

The river port that welcomed presidents, generals and occasional gangsters is offering 21st- century visitors a walk through its history.

Havre de Grace, which overlooks the confluence of the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay, has lined up guides well-versed in local lore for its first-ever Haunted History and Ghost Walk Tour.

"Don't take any spirits home with you," Mike Salmon cautioned a group of about 20 taking the mile walk through city streets on a brisk fall evening.

As they set off from a tavern on Washington Street, a ghoulish character whispered, "I hope everyone makes it back all right."

Brian and Toni Bell reside in Aberdeen but frequently visit Havre de Grace, where he lived for several years. "It's a quaint town and there is still a lot I don't know about it," he said.

Shanna Oldewurtel of Abingdon said the "haunted aspects" of the town drew her to the tour.

"I have done ghost tours in Scotland, Key West and Williamsburg," she said. "I didn't have to go too far for this one."

Formally named during the Revolutionary War by the Marquis de Lafayette, who camped there, the city traces its roots to the early 17th century. Explorer John Smith sailed up the river in 1608 but quickly returned to Virginia, after an unfriendly encounter with Susquehanna Indians, who were encamped on the site long before Lafayette pitched his tents.

It would be 60 more years before settlers established a permanent town that would eventually become a crossroads for travelers on the river, roads and rails.

The 1813 invasion by the British navy nearly razed the city and might have spawned the first ghost, a resident who lost his head to a rocket fired from the harbor and who occasionally reappears.

The British invaders burned most of the buildings, but reported sightings of that errant head have endured through the ensuing decades, Salmon said.

"The most recent was on a Halloween night at Water Street near the bridge," he said.

George Washington definitely slept in Havre de Grace. John Quincy Adams took part of his final rest in the city, when his funeral train, en route to Massachusetts, stalled on the tracks downtown for several days. Andrew Johnson and his wife were in the city when they received a telegram with news of Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

At about 20 stops, Salmon wove tales of hauntings, shadowy figures and otherworldly encounters with facts about the city's founding, its commerce and its citizenry.

"In its heyday -- the '20s, '30s and '40s -- Havre de Grace was known as `Little Chicago' because of its racetracks, gamblers, mobsters and houses of ill repute," Salmon said. "It was Al Capone's favorite vacation spot."

Bordellos whimsically dubbed the Red Onion or Pink Elephant shared downtown with taverns, inns and shops. Rumrunners stashed cargo in many basements, and an FBI stakeout in the VFW hall led to the capture of several gangsters.

A few of today's innkeepers meet with those on the tours and give accounts of eerie phenomena. One reported that several renowned psychics had attested to the presence of spirits at his bed-and-breakfast.

Brian Bell moved quickly away from the spot near what Ron Browning, owner of La Cle D'or inn on Union Avenue, called "the death door."

Browning detailed midnight events of unexplained origin: Doorknobs turn, skirts rustle and footsteps reverberate on the stairs. The spirit of one late mistress of the stately mansion keeps the place tidy, he said.

When someone asked why he would want to live in a haunted bed-and-breakfast, Browning answered, "I have ghosts guarding my house and one cleaning it. Why would I give that up?"

Down Union Avenue, lights flash in a cupola. Salmon told the story of a physician who collected suits of armor, shrunken heads and pet alligators in the home. The doctor met an untimely end at the hands of a guest in that same turret.

Several homes, like the Spencer Silver Mansion, were built of granite quarried in Port Deposit, just up the river. Now a bed-and-breakfast, the mansion claims a pacing ghost and an ephemeral poker game complete with clicking chips and cigar smoke, according to innkeeper Carol Nemeth.

"Come and visit," Nemeth said. "Maybe, when you leave, you will have a story to tell."

Salmon listed several characters whose reputations have been embellished with the passing years. Madeline Stone, a housewife, took a few years to poison her entire family, hoping to collect insurance, buy an automobile and escape small-town living.

The murderess served 18 years in prison before returning to a home in the city. Ensuing owners of the Stone house have experienced problems associated with testy supernatural guests, a few of whom dismantled and made off with all the outdoor Christmas decorations, Salmon said.

"Most of our ghosts are benign and playful, but Madeline's are vindictive," Salmon said. "Tenants in her house report really bad vibes."

"What was her address?" asked Amber Zecker. "I am looking for a house in the city and I don't want to buy that one."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

The last tours are scheduled for 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $13 and benefit Havre de Grace Main Street Inc. Information: 410-939-1811.

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