Friday, October 19, 2012

Garrison Ghost Walk at Fort Meigs



"Garrison Ghost Walk", the primary fund-raising event for Fort Meigs Historic Site, begins tonight. Ghost tours will run from 7 to 9pm through the shadowy interior of the old fort after dark, this Friday and Saturday as well as Friday and Saturday next weekend. Reservations are required: you can call 419-874-4121 to get a spot.You can find more information at http://www.fortmeigs.org/ghostwalk/

The ghost walk is similar to Halloween tours at many other historical sites. A tour guide leads each group along a path through the fort, stopping at several stations along the way to hear stories of the macabre or supernatural tied to the events that took place there 200 years ago. This writer is going to be one of the storytellers starting tomorrow night, though I can't lay claim to the gravitas  of an Orson Welles or Vincent Price.

Many visitors come to the fort curious as to whether there have been real hauntings. In recent years, with the crop of ghost hunting reality TV shows, even more people are bringing along recording devices and cameras to catch ghostly images or electronic voice phenomena.  The stories we tell are mostly made up, though many are based loosely on real stories with an added supernatural twist. There are real ghost stories at the fort, but unfortunately they don't really conform to the length of a good story. Many of them were dealt with in one of the Chris Woodyard Haunted Ohio books several years ago. I can enumerate the (possibly) true ghost stories and hauntings that the fort volunteers know about here:

1. The girl in blockhouse 3: There are seven blockhouses built at intervals along the fort's perimeter. Each is double-timbered, with ports for a cannon on the ground floor and a ladder or staircase leading up to a second story with loopholes for muskets. Blockhouse 3 is the nearest one to the British batteries on the far side of the river, and thus the most exposed to enemy fire during the siege. Most of the blockhouses had their roofs blasted off during the bombardments. After the war, they remained standing when the war department abandoned the post. When the first wave of settlers arrived, they squatted in the old blockhouses. Appearantly, at some point there was a dispute over the shelter or else an ember caught the dry old wood--one way or another, the remaining wooden structures in the fort were burned down sometime after the war.

The current structures are all reproductions dating to the 1970s, but aligned almost to the inch of the post holes of the originals. People have claimed to see a small child looking out the windows on the top stories of Blockhouse 3. Not only is the entire blockhouse closed to the public, but staff and volunteers only rarely climb up to the second story which is used for storage. Since (we think) there were no children in the fort during the combat of 1813, this child may have belonged to one of the early settlers. In the 2000s an ODOT road crew working on nearby Indian Hill uncovered the family gravesite of the Spaffords, an early settler family in the area--so it's not impossible that other lost graves from the early settlement could still lie undisturbed near the fort.

2. Big Battery-- The Big or Grand Battery was the strongest gun emplacement of Fort Meigs. It pointed slightly upstream along the Maumee River, covering the important fords at the end of the river rapids. Late one night during an encampment years ago, a woman reenactor was walking to a porta-potty along the nearby path. She was surprised to notice that the battery's wooden deck was crowded with gun crews standing at attention. They seemed to be silently awaiting the orders to open fire with the massive 18-pounder cannons mounted at the battery. Groggy with sleep, she was startled to find the next day that nobody in camp knew about the early morning gun drill.

Of any place at the fort, the Big Battery has good reason to be haunted. It was here that on May 1, 1813 the American gunners engaged in a fierce duel with their counterparts across the river. During the bombardment, a British shell burst overhead, wounding several men including Major Amos Stoddard, artillery commander at the fort. At first Stoddard's wound looked slight, but within a few days he developed a tetanus infection--the dreaded lockjaw-- and died after a week of intense suffering. Lockjaw occurs when the tetanus baterium secretes a toxin that causes muscles to spasm and lock up. The sufferer cannot open his mouth, arches his entire body with painful spasms, and often dies of thirst or asphyxiation as even the throat muscles rebel. Stoddard, who had accepted the Missouri Territory from France and  written the artillery manual that we still use at the fort today, died on May 11. If the story about the phantom gunners is true, than perhaps they were in some way honoring the artillery officer who gave his life at that spot.

3. Click!-- The metallic clatter of a fintlock musket failing to fire is one many reenactors have come to know intimately, to our sorrow. When the hammer drops onto the frizzen pan, it is supposed to shower a few sparks down on the powder priming in the pan of the flintlock. When the sparks don't fly, or the priming won't catch, all you get is a click noise instead of a satisfying bang. One woman volunteer at the fort was walking along a path in the late afternoon one day when she heard footsteps behind her and then the distinct "CLICK" of a musket. When she turned around she was startled to find no one there.

4. Footsteps Above-- During one evening the fort staff was closing up, which at Fort Meigs involves locking all the blockhouses one by one. Before they lock up, the staff are careful not to trap anyone inadvertantly. This time, the staff member heard the distinctive staccato noise of footsteps on the second floor of Blockhouse 2. He went upstairs, only to find the second story vacant.

5. Blockhouse 2, again-- More recently, during our First Siege event when the British reenactors camp on the east end of the fort, several redcoat reenactors were staying in Blockhouse 2. Since the blockhouse is set up as the originals would have been, without museum displays or partitions, its a popular place for Brit officers to crash. The staircase leading up to the second floor is a bonus-- all the other blockhouses have ladders. One night, the British reenactors sleeping on the second floor were chased out by what I heard was a glowing ball or orb-- perhaps they were evicted by an indignant soul from the sieges. All of the blockhouses were used as makeshift hospitals after the first siege to treat nearly 200 wounded men. It's small wonder they are somewhat spooky places to spend the night these days. Years ago I myself tried to spend the night on the second story of Blockhouse 2, but the gloom of the place--there are almost no windows-- drove me out before I could get any sleep.

That's most of the stories I've heard myself. In more than ten years of reenacting at the fort, I've been there after dark many times. Sometimes I leave my car in the parking lot during an encampment, and decide not to spend the night. Stumbling through the south gate and over the unmarked graves of the Pennsylvania soldiers on the lawn of the site around midnight is a chilling experience. I usually tip my hat and try to pass through as respectfully but quickly as I can.

Its better that we leave these fallen heroes to their rest than scramble around with electronic devices and spirit mediums, trying to win ephemeral reality TV fame for ourselves rather than honoring the dead and educating the public.