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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Chautauqua Haunted

Area Is Rich With Legends Of The Paranormal

A photo montage depicting Gurnsey Hollow Cemetery on Gurnsey Hollow Road in the town of South Valley — one of the region’s most notorious places for the alleged paranormal.

P-J image by Elisha Whitmore

10/31/2006 - It’s almost midnight at Gurnsey Hollow Cemetery.

It’s chilly, barely 45 degrees. The cemetery is hidden from the road by thick woods, but a clearing opens after a 200-foot walk up a narrow, muddy path. A few feet in front of me lies a tree that has fallen across the clearing. The moon is bright, illuminating the gravestones that are scattered haphazardly beyond the fallen tree.

There are no signs of the glowing orbs people claim to witness in this place, but I could have sworn I saw a glowing red pinpoint far off into the woods to my left as I walked up the path leading to the cemetery.

I can hear the whisper of a nearby stream, and the leaves falling to the ground all around me sound almost like footsteps. Suddenly, there’s a loud noise in the woods behind me. It sounded like something heavy falling to the ground.


Every once in a while, Gilbert Hayward of Mayville helps maintain the Poor House Cemetery off Meadows Road outside Dewittville. Adjacent to Landmark Acres, a dairy farm owned by Gerald Perry and his son Bob, the cemetery dates back to the days of some of Chautauqua Lake’s earliest settlers.

It also boasts a notorious reputation.

‘‘I don’t know how much stock I’d put into it. The imagination sort of plays tricks on you,’’ Hayward said. ‘‘It’s just sort of a feeling that I can’t put into words.’’

Though Hayward said he has never witnessed anything out of the ordinary there, the cemetery has an unfavorable reputation and is sometimes cited as one of the most haunted places in Chautauqua County.

‘‘The cemetery was where anybody who died at the Poor Farm was buried, or they’d sometimes find vagrant bodies by the train tracks. It served as kind of like a pauper’s cemetery,’’ said County Historian Michelle Henry, who works with Hayward on what he described as the ‘‘on-again, off-again’’ effort to restore the historic site.

Ms. Henry said the Poor Farm was essentially the only social welfare program in existence in those days — a place for orphans, the physically and mentally handicapped, the elderly and the impoverished.

‘‘Obviously, there are some tragic stories associated with it. I think people thought of the Poor Farm as a very sad place,’’ she said. ‘‘I don’t know that it was.’’

A Benevolent Presence

Some might say the City of Jamestown — a victim of Western New York’s industrial exodus still seeking its second wind — is well-suited for lingering spirits.

Helen Merill of the Lucille Ball Little Theatre believes a handful of such spirits abide in the theater building on East Second Street, once the run-down remnants of Allen’s Opera House from Jamestown’s earlier days.

‘‘I myself have been working in the library when I’d hear my name called in the lobby, and there was nobody in the building at that time except me,’’ Mrs. Merill said. ‘‘And I have had many times while directing when I can feel a hand on my shoulder, but I turn around and no one’s there.’’

Misplaced objects, sudden chills and — most commonly — white spots appearing in photographs of certain productions are all reported manifestations of the spirits who haunt the Lucille Ball Little Theater.

Across town, similar benevolent spirits reportedly inhabit WCA Hospital’s Jones Hill Campus. In his book, New York State Ghosts, author David Pitkin recounts tales of a spectre at the hospital that nursed a sick patient back to health.

Even the Fenton History Center is reportedly haunted by the ghost of Reuben Fenton, the 19th century politician after whom the center is named.

‘‘Somebody thought they heard a creaking door, and thought something might have been moved, and that’s about it,’’ said Norman Carlson, collections manager and self-proclaimed skeptic. ‘‘We try to discourage that because we’re an educational institution.’’

‘Nothing To It’

Steve Carlson, who manages the Village Casino in Bemus Point, was surprised to hear the popular lakefront night club is reportedly haunted by a young chef who died there when the oven exploded.

It’s a tale repeated on Internet listings of supposed New York state hauntings. As the story goes, food mysteriously vanishes and patrons trip and fall when nothing was in their path. Some might argue that’s a characteristic of any such establishment where liquor is served, but the legend pins the blame on the unfortunate chef’s restless spirit.

‘‘I never heard that story,’’ said Carlson, who noted his thorough knowledge of the Village Casino’s history. ‘‘Anything that would have exploded would have had to have been gas-driven, and that wouldn’t have been until the 1960s.’’

Mary Jane Stahley, Bemus Point village historian, has at least heard the legend, but said there’s nothing to it.

The story of the Igoe Hall dormitory at SUNY Fredonia is a little more well-known, but bears a similarly questionable foundation. The dormitory gets its name from Jimmy Igoe, a student who drowned in Lake Erie — and he reportedly haunts the building by slamming doors, channel-surfing and toying with light switches.

But Jennifer Ruhland, Igoe Hall residence director, says there is nothing to the rumors.

‘‘I know the urban legends of Igoe Hall, but there are no hauntings,’’ Ms. Ruhland said. ‘‘I’ve lived here a total of five years, either as a student or as an RD, and I’ve never heard of anything happening.’’

Jimmy Igoe didn’t die in Igoe Hall, nor did he ever live there, she noted. The building wasn’t completed until after his untimely death, and some friends he left behind petitioned to have the building named in his memory.

‘Cultural Artifacts’

A few miles outside Frewsburg is Gurnsey Hollow Road, a long, unpaved, sparsely populated stretch that leads right into the heart of South Valley in Cattaraugus County. Right before the road comes to an end is Gurnsey Hollow Cemetery, likely the most notorious spot in the area for the alleged paranormal.

Animals hung on the large wooden cross that overlooks the cemetery; glowing orbs floating over the ground; strange noises; white spots in photographs; a woman in white who supposedly chases children away — all those have a place in countless stories and rumors that circulate about Gurnsey Hollow Cemetery.

Area resident Lawrence Paulson blames vandalism at the site on the tales and legends that continue to draw people to that isolated place.

‘‘They were hard-working Irish immigrant farmers and their descendants who settled that area in the early- to mid-1800s,’’ Paulson wrote to The Post-Journal referring to those buried at Gurnsey Hollow Cemetery.

‘‘You may have a problem reading a lot of the grave markers because time has worn away a lot of the inscriptions, and vandals have repeatedly knocked them over,’’ he wrote. ‘‘I believe the reason vandals keep doing this is because the ‘ghost stories’ perpetuate.’’

Norman Carlson has his own explanation of why such stories linger, whether they take place there or Hollenbeck Cemetery on Moon Road in Ellicott, with its similar reputation; at the Poor House Cemetery or the Lucille Ball Little Theater; at WCA Hospital or the Fenton History Center itself.

‘‘Ghosts always reflect the time and the culture they’re in and the person relating the story,’’ Carlson said. ‘‘They’re cultural artifacts of their time and place ... The human mind is overly good at seeing patterns. In fact, it’s too good. It sees patterns when they’re not there.’’


A couple minutes pass before I climb over the fallen tree and begin exploring Gurnsey Hollow Cemetery. A tall wooden cross stands at the back of the clearing bathed in moonlight against the ominously dark forest wall behind it. This must be the same cross from which animal carcasses are hung, or so the stories go.

I find garbage and empty beer cans at the foot of the cross, and the ground beneath is blackened — the obvious mark of a camp fire. I move on to the back-left corner of the cemetery where the moonlight is blocked by tree branches, and my flashlight discovers more empty aluminum cans and a gravestone that has been knocked over.

This alien imprint left by less respectful visitors suddenly shatters the eerie ambiance of Gurnsey Hollow Cemetery. As I walk back to my car, I conclude the red pinpoint I saw was probably just the light of a far-off tower briefly glimpsed through the foliage.

But I’ll probably leave that out later when I tell my friends about my visit.
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Dave said...

Hello! Don't know if you folks are still out there, but if you ever want to hear of my first hand experiences at the County Farm, circa 1975 I'd be more than happy to share it with you. They are memories that still haunt me today. Long before I ever knew what it was, and before I knew it's history. I was but 15 when I went out "exploring" on my bike one later autumn afternoon from our house on Wright Road. That's when I stumbled across a long and tree lined driveway that seemed to go on forever. I HAD to see what lie ahead...

Anonymous said...

I really hate reading stories that perpetuate the Gurnsey Hollow stories.
Shadowlurker (aka..Lawrence Paulson )

Anonymous said...

Dave, I personally would love to hear your story of the old Poor Farm, I even have one of my own. e-mail me at

Dave said...

Glad I found the link back to this site. I intend to pass along the story of my experience at the old County Farm, in time for Halloween 2010.

Anyone still out there?

Clymers marine said...

In Clymer,people always talk about the legend of george, the bus driver who killed himself on the third bridge on pond road in tamarack swamp. To make things worse a young man by the name of Tyler schwab committed suicide on pond road on mothers day 2010. If you dont believe this is true look on facebook.

Anonymous said...

I've been to Gurnsey Hollow Cemetery and I thought it was a very beautiful and peaceful cemetery. My friend and I took a ton of pictures and we never saw anything out of the ordinary. I can see how your mind could play tricks on you way out there. But thats all it is, your mind playing tricks. I wish the people that go out there would stop vandalizing the place, it is after all someone's final resting place!

Anonymous said...

Dave still waiting to hear your story on the old poorfarm, its been too long and I'm dying to hear it. My email is still on here. Please share!zedingsn

Anonymous said...

I have been to gurnsey hollow on many occasions in the past year. whether you believe in the stories or not that is totally up to you. my account of gurnsey Hollow is, Yes it is haunted. I have EVPs plus I have photos. myself and three to four other friends usually go up and do a ghost hunt. beforehand, as we get there the first thing I do is walk to the back of the cemetery and kiss the huge stone cross.( heard it was good luck) we then pick up any falling headstones and clean the area a little bit. then it's down to business. Our recordings have had a man with kind of a hillbilly accent asking for a light. and children running around us giggling and laughing. We have had much more. If interested, contact me.
I would be happy to talk about it.

Dave said...

I intend on typing it out tomorrow and Thursday and posting it Thursday (Halloween) night. Be sure to look for it

Dave said...

Sorry for the long delay. Promise to get it done this time.

Dave said...

Finally got my County Farm story down. It wasn't easy but here it is at any rate. Hope the link works.