Ghosts in the Woods

by Kelly Gallagher | October 2019

Photograph by Katy Ells, Pretty Patina Photography

Discovering Tahawus

n the weeks prior to my son’s birth,
I would enter his nursery and gaze at the furnishings. It had taken me years to become pregnant, and spending time among the stuffed animals and fresh linens reinforced that my dream of motherhood was finally becoming real.

Two years later, as my toddler wailed and thrashed in the throes of a night terror, those Hallmark moments seemed far away. “Hudson, I’m here. Wake up!” I said, as we swayed in his rocking chair. “Hudson, it’s OK! What’s scaring you?”

I reached behind me and snapped on the light. His sheets were peeled off the mattress. Books and stuffed animals littered the floor. I stroked Hudson’s hair and threw my head back, fighting the dark emotions welling up. I’d had tough nights with him before, but trashing his room was a first. It felt like the start of a new phase—a tough one—for which I was ill prepared. I wasn’t prepared for any of this, and there didn’t seem to be any effective counsel. People with children would chuckle and spew platitudes if I told them about my struggles, while non-parents would express relief that they didn’t have children. Ten months later, Hudson would be diagnosed with mild autism; for now, there were just questions and self-doubts.

My husband, Alan, appeared in the doorway with a sippy cup of milk. “Let me take him,” he said. “You look like you could use a break.”

I agreed and slunk back to bed. Guilty thoughts plagued me until I fell into a shallow sleep. You wanted this, I told myself. Can you do it or not?

Not all the time, I realized. It felt good to admit it. Before Hudson came into our lives, I would take off without warning to hike. Now I was anchored to the house most of the time. I decided to take a solo trip to the Adirondacks.

I wanted to be a world apart from my gridded suburban neighborhood and the surrounding strings of chain stores. I used Google Maps to survey my options. Upper Works Road caught my eye. I loved the way the long, isolated passage wound into the wilderness until its abrupt end at a trailhead near Henderson Lake, the body of water from which the Hudson River—my son’s namesake—officially begins on the map. In satellite view, an area just east of the road looked like an old gray scab surrounded by lush greenery. What had happened to that patch of earth?

With further searching, I learned that the earth had been scarred by mining. Iron ore was discovered in the area in the 1820s. A mining operation began, and a village known as McIntyre was established. The mine closed in 1856, and a hunting and fishing club began to use the area near Henderson Lake. In 1901, Teddy Roosevelt was visiting the club when he learned that President McKinley had been shot. In 1940, National Lead Company began mining titanium a few miles away. Workers and their families repopulated the Upper Works buildings, which became known as Tahawus. In 1963, workers were transferred, and the village was abandoned again.

It would take me over two hours to reach Tahawus from my home near Schenectady, but photos of the village’s remaining homes enticed me. What better place to forget about my life than a ghost town on a lonely road?

When I arrived, I found the parking lot packed with hikers and cars. This was hardly a ghost town.

I headed off to photograph the ruins, which were set back from the road and shrouded by trees. Maybe here, I could catch the isolation I’d been craving. Most of the buildings were a strong wind away from collapse. One was missing an entire side, giving a cross-section view of the interior, like a dollhouse. There was still paint on the walls. There were bathtubs, cupboards and fireplaces. There were also lichen, rust, moss, buckled floors and shattered windows. Still, it was easy to imagine people walking around, gathering by the hearth, settling down to sleep.

One of the plaques by the parking lot had mentioned a nearby cemetery. I set out to find it. Only steps into my search, I stumbled upon a small group of white flowers growing on white, waxy stems. Ghost flowers—Monotropa uniflora. I had read about them years ago. I crouched down to get a better look. The flower heads nodded like mourners. Ghost flowers contain no chlorophyll, and they don’t rely on the sun. They instead siphon energy from underground fungi, pulling pulses of life from death.

Continuing on, after about 10 minutes I spotted an entryway fashioned from plain wood boughs. The small cemetery was overgrown with wind-licked ferns.

The name on one stone caught my attention—James. James died on February 15, 1851. The Adirondacks must have been gripped by ice. The stone said he was 11 years and two months old. I loved that his family counted the months, as if to honor James’s life in its entirety. I wondered if his former home was still standing, but doubted it was. All he had for sure was this soft spot of quiet earth.

I imagined my own home in shambles. The toddler-torn rooms, the sink of dirty dishes, mismatched furniture—I saw it all pummeled by years of rain, snow and wind. I imagined moss on the ceilings, holes in the walls and leaves scattering across buckled floors. The thoughts were hard to bear. Although my motherhood days were tinged with monotony, they were my days, all the same.

How many days had I even been alive at this point—11,000? Twelve thousand? It had never before occurred to me to count. I raised my camera to photograph James’s stone. I hoped that if he could somehow see me, he would be happy to have a visitor.

After a moment, I moved on to ex­­plore the other features near Upper Works Road. I saw the massive blast furnace and watched as water spilled from a small dam and tumbled toward the Hudson River. By late afternoon, I was ready to leave for home. I stopped one last time to look at the ruins, marveling at the way the weakening daylight cast a golden hue over the tiny details—a tilted flight of stairs, a worn fireplace, a roll of peeling pastel paint. The scents of pine and rainwater filled my nose, reminding me that despite the artifacts left by humans, this place belonged to nature. It always did. I felt my veins charge with fresh energy. I was ready to return to the rhythms of my household. I was ready to face another day.    

If you go

From Newcomb, turn left onto Tahawus Road from Blue Ridge Road, 1.2 miles west of the intersection with Route 28N. After 6.3 miles, turn left onto Upper Works Road. The Upper Works trailhead parking lot is 3.5 miles farther, at the end of Upper Works Road.

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