By Emily P. Cary © 1990
Issue: July, 1990
I never think of my Grandmother Stuart without remembering snippets of the ghostly tales she loved to spin. They were all the more impressive because these were not mere fabrication; Grandmother actually knew many of the protagonists. In at least one instance, she was at the center of the events: the house on Pike Street in Clarksburg, West Virginia.
Born Uda Bietta Bell in Washington County, Pennsylvania, Grandmother was descended from Scotch-Irish pioneers who - long before the Revolutionary War - claimed land in the Pennsylvania wilderness by nicking the trees with tomahawks, as did their neighbors, the Indians.
From her close relatives, she amassed a storehouse of spooky stories, many told around fireplaces on frigid nights. Some of the stories had logical explanations, but most were more supernatural than scientific in nature. Running through all of them was the theme that we all are surrounded by spirits eager to guide us, but most of us are unaware of their presence unless they manifest themselves deliberately or we have the gift of seeing beyond reality.
One of Grandmother's favorite stories revolved around Whitaker Mountain, a hill overlooking Burgettstown, Pennsylvania, where her mother's forefathers are buried in the family cemetery. As a young girl, she espied mysterious lights darting about the hilltop on deep, dark nights. Some of the townsfolk attributed the lights to candles carried by young lovers trysting on the hillside, but most agreed with Grandmother's explanation: the lights were the Whitaker spirits actively manifesting themselves in order to oversee their kinfolk and make certain that the family traditions were properly respected and upheld. So convincing was she that, as an adult, I was inspired to write a suspense novel based on our eerie family history ( The Ghost of Whitaker Mountain, New York: Thomas Bouregy Publishers, Inc., 1979).
Along with the Whitaker ghosts, Grandmother enjoyed compatible relationships with a benign assortment of specters from the Bell side of the family and some local characters, including a beggerman, an Italian immigrant ice cream maker, and an errant clergyman. It was not until she married my grandfather, Albert Edward Stuart, that Grandmother met a ghost she didn't like.
In 1908, Grandfather Stuart owned a flourishing plumbing and heating business in Washington, Pennsylvania. He was as prosperous as a young businessman could be during that era, and their three children (including my mother, Adelaide, then eight years old), were healthy and happy. From Grandmother's point of view, life was idyllic.
Trouble in the family exploded as the natural gas boom hit West Virginia. This was an opportunity Grandfather Stuart could not ignore, but Grandmother did not share his zest for adventure. Her family (according to her) had virtually built up western Pennsylvania and she loved to recount (with or without request) the feats of her more illustrious ancestors who established Allegheny College in Meadville, founded and published The Crawford Messenger (the first newspaper west of the mountains), and crafted Perry's "Don't Give Up The Ship" flag. She had no desire to move, even though Clarksburg, then a boom town, was less than one hundred miles distant.
In the end, Grandfather established his Stuart Plumbing and Heating Company in Clarksburg and convinced Grandmother that she would benefit both materially and spiritually from the change. A major selling point was the new home he proposed to have built for her in the very latest architectural fashion. To sweeten the deal, he found an appealing site right on Pike Street, the main avenue in the bustling city, not far from the business center which - he optimistically anticipated - would soon lure fine shops to satisfy Grandmother's fashion whims.
The home Grandfather Stuart built for his family was a showplace for its day, bright with high-ceilinged rooms and regal with multiple turrets sprouting from the upper floors. He knew that Grandmother would put aside her objections to leaving her native state once she moved into that gracious, modern home.
Grandmother did marvel at the home, but her joy was brief. From the first day the family moved in, their small fox terrier barked constantly. At first, they blamed his uncharacteristic behavior on the new surroundings and predicted that he would calm down in a few days when he felt more at home.
Alas, that never happened. All day long, the barking, snapping dog raced up and down the staircase to one of the turrets - always the same one. It became obvious to the family, Grandmother recalled, that the dog was chasing an elusive something that always managed to stay attuned to the sound of muffled footsteps that intensified whenever the dog approached and faded away as he hurried out of the room, still in pursuit of the invisible prey.
The dog ran until he was exhausted. Try as he may to curl up for a nap, his sleep was invariably shattered by the sound of those footsteps. Picking up his ears, he staggered to his feet unwillingly and began tracking once more.
Night and day the footsteps persisted. Grandfather tried to excuse them as noises of the new house settling, but Grandmother could not be comforted. The combination of unearthly footsteps and the yapping fox terrier swiftly drove her to hysteria. Had divorce been acceptable in her day, she quite likely would have filed a suit on the grounds of mental cruelty.
Instead, she did what any respectable Clarksburg matron would have done under the circumstances: she manipulated her feminine wiles, crying and pleading, in the end convincing Grandfather that they must vacate the Pike Street house.
Beaten, Grandfather had to admit that Grandmother's fears were warranted. While she and the children had waited in their Washington home for the Clarksburg house to be completed, Grandfather had busied himself with the company move, establishing new customer accounts and keeping a watchful eye on the construction progress. He confessed that the contractor had advised him of a tragedy that occurred when a carpenter on the job had the misfortune of falling to his death - hurtling the entire distance from the turret in question to the basement.
Now Grandmother understood!
This accounted for the footsteps traveling the stairs ceaselessly from basement to attic. In addition, it unraveled the mystery of doors along the route that were regularly found ajar, even though family members swore they had closed them securely. Grandmother concluded that the carpenter's spirit was refusing to accept his fate and, by traveling the stairs, was attempting to undo his last trip on earth, the sudden fall to his death.
Until her own death in 1951, Grandmother always prefaced this story with, "I never lived with a ghost until..."
Together with many other family members, Grandmother Stuart rests today in Clarksburg's Elk View Masonic Cemetery, close by the house on Pike Street where - for all we know - the ghost still walks.