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As told to a young boy by his grandfather in 1968.
In an area just outside of Schenectady, the work of Erie Canal mules lingers in the night-time air.
Horses and Mules were used to pull canal barges by way of a long tow
rope. They walked the towpath in
“tricks” of about 15 miles before being swapped off for another team. Early on they were kept on barges between
shifts, but as the canal traffic grew, stables were built along the
waterway. It wasn’t all that uncommon
for a mule to meet a terrible fate – in fact it was dangerous all along the
canal for animals and humans a like.
Accidents happened, disease happened…and sometimes, well, sometimes
there were evil creatures afoot.
Just after the American Civil War, the use of mules on the
Canalway really increased. So many horses had been used – and lost – during the
war that mules were seen as a better alternative. They ate less, only drank clean water, were
surer footed, and generally a better draft animal overall. They had an uncanny knack for
An incident that occurred along the canal proves that – as a
team of three ended up in the mucky water.
One of them survived, but only by climbing up atop his two companions,
thus drowning them in the process.
Fatigue and drowning was something seen just west of Albany
frequently. As mules pulled toward the
port after several tricks east, or those pulling west being on a long stretch
of hill out of the Hudson Valley into the Mohawk. An overzealous driver or captain could put
these animals out. But at times something far worse would happen.
Reports began by 1866 of unexplained fatigue and strange
behavior among mules near Schenectady.
Teamsters were only noticing it happened along the canal and not among
the streets, full of wagons and carriages.
An agent of the state was instructed to look into it. Asking about the
canal and of lock tenders – no one seemed to want to talk about it. Being suspicious, this agent widened the
search for answers. He sought
blacksmiths and other care takers for the mules, stable hands and veterinarian
doctors. A few admitted it wasn’t disease or overwork, but that dark forces
were at hand. Not a superstitious man,
the agent thought something was amiss – perhaps a criminal gang looking to make
money or a new disease no one recognized.
One evening as he walked back to his hotel near the canal,
this agent saw a transient lurking around a towing company stable. Approaching he asked the man what he was
doing. With a glance back, the hobo said
simply, “nuttin but for which God hadn’t intended.” The agent stepped toward
the man as he disappeared into the darkness.
On the ground lay a small piece of fabric.
Feeling overwhelmingly unnerved by this encounter and being
unsure just how the man simply vanished into the dark, the canal agent hurried
to his room. Unable to sleep, tossing
and turning he grew more and more uneasy.
Finally, as morning approached, he dozed off… just long enough to have a
fit of a dream…more like a nightmare.
He dreamt of being chased. By what he did not know. But
throughout the chase small shadows ran up the sides of buildings lining the
canal. A small, dark figure closing in
behind him. Awakening with a shout and
nearly out of breath, the agent hastily gathered his things, threw them into
his carpetbag and left the hotel.
Determined to return to his offices out near Syracuse, he boarded a
barge headed West.
Almost immediately the trip was interrupted. The mules towing the barge had collapsed on
the path. An oncoming barge had pulled to the side, its mules frightened by
what lay in front of them. As the agent
stepped out onto the deck and attempted to get the attention of the crew who
had gone to see what could be done with their team, he felt a tug at his pant
leg. Looking down there was a young boy
beside him whom he had not noticed aboard the boat before. In the child’s other hand was a raggedy old
doll. Missing an eye, straw and cotton
stuffing exposed at the leg and arm, with a torn dress that was missing a
piece. The boy just looked up at the
man, staring blankly into his eyes. The
creeping uneasiness swelled inside, weakening his knees and drying out his mouth. Trying to speak, the agent softly uttered and
spit, “Who… who… are you, young man?”
The boy said nothing but raised his hand palm up as if to
ask for something.
The man asked with great difficulty, “What is it that you
In a hoarse, gravely voice, the boy replied, “…for which God
hadn’t intended.” He raised his other
hand and showed the missing piece of dress.
It was then the man, gasping to comprehend how this could
be, realized the bit of fabric he picked up outside the stable the night before
matched the pattern on the dolls dress.
Pulling the fabric from his pocket, it slipped from between
his fingers and softly floated to the deck boards below. He watched it fall, so
slowly like time had nearly stopped. When it landed, he looked up and the boy
had vanished. So had the fabric. Dazed,
stunned, confused and bewildered… the agent staggered back into the cabin.
As the crew returned, having given up to the fate their
mules were dead, they saw his sweat covered pale face and asked what the matter
The agent could barely stammer, dry mouthed, “…only for
which God hadn’t intended.”
All along this section of the canal, mule hooves can still
be heard carried on the nighttime air, plod…plod…plodding along. On crisp Autumn evenings, when the canal of
today is closing, the old historic canal seems to come to life… well, an
afterlife, and hobos along the rails still speak of the small shadows cast
against the buildings.
In the late 1850’s a family by the name of Brown plied the
waters of the Erie Canal aboard the barge named Elizabeth. The father and
mother ran the boat and its crew, which consisted of two young sons and a red-haired
daughter by the name of Winnie.
After a tragic accident that occurred in '58, the family was never
quite the same. To cope with it, Winnie had developed a close bond with her doll,
whom she called Becky, and which seemed to have its own personality. Winnie would spend hours when not doing
chores playing with and talking with her doll.
After growing concerned about this, her parents set out to get ride of
the doll and force Winnie to “grow up!”
Early one morning Mrs. Brown quietly removed Becky from
under Winnie’s arm as she slept and tossed the doll overboard into the murky
canal water. Upon awaking a short time
later, the daughter was inconsolable at the loss of her beloved companion. Not even an awaiting hearty breakfast of
sausage, griddlecakes, and eggs could calm the child beyond hysterics. Her brothers event tried to distract and comfort
Winnie by trying to get her to play one of their favorite games, Pirates of the
High Seas! As they pulled her out on the
barge deck, and at the moment Alfred said, “Arr, ye has treasures hidden in th…”
the barge rocked violently in the water.
The horses had been walking and towing the barge all morning, but at
this moment they stopped and refused to move any further no matter what Mr.
Brown did to prod them along.
Mrs. Brown then shrieked from within the cabin. As the children and father rushed to her, Mr.
Brown entered the door and saw sitting in a chair at the small table, the soaking
wet doll Becky. Mrs. Brown had turned her
attention away from the stove when the boat rocked, and witnessed the doll had
returned, at least an hour and several miles from where it was left for a
Before he could think it over much, Mr. Brown grabbed the
doll and tossed it into the stove…just as Winnie and her brothers entered the tiny
room. Mortified, his daughter watched as
Becky had been tossed into cremation. The
brothers stood pale faced. It was then
that the darkness came.
Clouds seemed to block out the sun and the cabin was as dark
as night. The fire in the stove whistled and hissed… no one spoke or made a
sound. In moments the sun shown again,
and the fire crackled away. The family was quiet, quiet all of the day and into
the evening…doing their chores in silence, eating in silence, plying the canal between
Utica and Fultonville in silence.
To bed they went, in silence, moored to a snubbing post
until morning. Mrs. Brown was the first
to awaken, to stoke the woodstove and prepare breakfast as the sun was not
quiet above the edge of the valley walls.
Mr. Brown joined her for a cup of coffee, still in silence. They looked in on their darling Winnie,
pulling back the curtain that separated sleeping quarters from the
kitchen. Horrified, they saw in her arms…Becky.
Winnie’s face had seemed to harden, her young round features now more angular
and sullen. How could this doll be there
under her arm!?
Mrs. Brown fell to her knees, awaking the boys as Mr. Brown
ripped the doll from its place. He tore
the head from the body, and once again tossed it into the woodstove while stomping
his feet and crying out in the name of the Lord. Poof, like that they thought it would be over
for good. Winnie would muster up herself and go on…
Within a few short hours Mr. and Mrs. Brown had taken ill,
their boys had grown pale and bruises shown on their faces and arms. Winnie had aged well beyond her years, become
frail and unable to speak. The entire family drifted away onto a slow death there
aboard their barge. It wasn’t until the
next evening that another barge pulled up alongside and stopped, though many
had passed by during those two days. A
tall slender man with a high hat stepped aboard and called out for anyone to
reply. When he received none, he entered
the cabin. Confronted with the horrific
sight of the corpses and the overwhelming stench of their decay, he quickly
turned and ran out the door…tripping over a doll that lay on the floor.
Standing up, dusting himself off, he looked at the doll now
in his hand. Nodding slightly to himself, he grinned and stepped back on his
barge, calling out, “Amelia, come here, I have a new dolly for you!”
If you liked this Eerie Halloween Tale, check out some of our past series of spooktacular stories: Click Here!
The Erie Canal often proved a dangerous place. Workers and boatmen, horses, mules, and
transients could be injured, killed or disappear all together along the waterway. Some of the most unfortunate souls were
children. One of the deadliest sections
of canal was known as The Sixteens, for the 16 locks that brought the canal
around the might Cohoes Falls. This
stretch of water was lined with industry, commerce, and some of the seediest
parts of society.
In the bustling era of the late 19th century, as
textile miles and smokestacks rose into the sky around the confluence of the Mohawk
and Hudson Rivers – children fell victim to drowning in the putrid waters of
the canal. Hardly a week went by along
those 16 locks that the body of some poor young child wasn’t pulled from the depths.
Only a few harrowing escapes, as a crewman or passerby jumped in to rescue the flailing
It has been in the years since that these mostly forgotten
children have acted out their last screams.
As industry has given way to residential housing along the old canal route,
those last gasps of air and cries for help are heard in the wind on cool
nights. Their spirits walk the roads,
trying to find their way home.
Just east of the falls, there is a particular concentration
of ghastly apparitions. Some households
have awoken to unearthly sobbing, or had their doors swing open just to slam shut. Children report playing games along the backyards
and parks in town with other kids who disappear before their eyes in broad
daylight. They almost all recall hearing
a faint laughter ringing in their ears after.
Those businesses that intersperse with empty buildings nearby
have their share of unexplainable surveillance camera captures. Inventory moving
on its own, shadows and figures drifting in and out of frame. One owner, who doesn’t want to be identified,
has encountered several young boys standing in his basement stairway. When they notice him they fade into the walls…
These lost and forgotten children of The
Sixteens should be remembered lest they torment longer