Election Day 2012 was a clear and crisp one on the Niagara. That afternoon I went for a roller ski workout on the Ellicott Creek Trailway in Amherst. Its western stretch is in frequent sight of the stream’s northern channel.
New ski poles always take a break-in period, and the left strap of this set was making blister-music with my glove. About the halfway point of my course I stopped to adjust the device and catch a welcome breath. I looked into the broad flume ten feet south of me as if I knew some kind of inspiration was there. I hit the pause button on the stopwatch.
Even six weeks back, kayaks and canoes had been routine sights just off the bank below me. Human calls and voices from the water were common. The sunny stillness of the present moment, with no punctuation, no sound track, but that of the breeze, seemed one more signature on the contract sealing the seasons’ change. In the water, a grand, merry splash of sunlight seemed to reach to me like a glistening being. The impression–that look of light on water, echoes of a word–haunted me, and I searched myself for the reason. I remembered something I had written years before, and the inspiration to run this piece came to me.
You will see in the passage below from Supernatural Saratoga (2008) that the word yaddo–the name of Saratoga Springs’ fabled estate/rose gardens/writers’ retreat–could mean something suggestive in Old English, something like the glimmer of that sheeny splotch I was looking at in Ellicott's Creek. If you scoot over to my Facebook page, you can see an album of images from the Yaddo.
Judging by the legends and vision tales associated with the site of today’s Yaddo, it was power ground long before Spencer and Katrina Trask set up their estate at the foot of Union Avenue at the backstretch of today’s famed Saratoga Race Course.
Easy to reach by canoe in the old days, this wet, wooded, four-hundred-acre tract at the edge of Bear Swamp was treasured camping, fishing and hunting ground to the Native Americans. It may even have been a holy ground and battlefield. (The European mind has trouble sometimes with things being strongly one quality and also another that seems divergent. The Native American mind does not.) There could have been many turf fights at Yaddo between Algonquin-speaking nations like the Mahicans and the warlike Iroquoian Mohawks. Out of one of these fights comes an old tale of a miraculous ghost—a woman’s apparition rising from one of the small lakes.
By 1784, the site of today’s Yaddo on the ancient route to Saratoga Lake (now Union Avenue) was most likely the land of Jacob Barhyte. His two mills working grain and lumber were the motor that drove the enterprise, though he had a farm and an inn that served the region’s best trout dinner. The trick was to catch the main course yourself, sort of a “You hook ’em, we cook ’em,” arrangement. The Barhytes’ guests included Baron Von Steuben, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and a moody young man who signed in as Edgar Allan Poe. There is even a rumor that Poe may have written his gloomy raven verse about the pre-Yaddo grounds and that he sometimes surfaces as a ghost. This would certainly have been a good place to write, even without today’s art and engineering. Only a strip mall could take the atmosphere out of those ponds, creeks and pines.
By 1840, Edward Childs and his doctor son, Richard, set their impressive Italian villa right where today’s mansion stands. By 1871, it was unoccupied and remained so for ten years. Surely, psychic folklore developed during this period.
Financier and philanthropist Spencer Trask (1844–1909) started rehabbing Childs’s mansion in 1881. His wife, Katrina Nichols Trask (1853–1922), was illustrious herself as a poet, author and peace activist. In 1889, while walking the visionary grounds, Katrina had the inspiration she considered psychic—that of turning the estate into a perpetual conference of writers, artists and composers. When fire struck the Trask/Childs manse in 1891, the Yaddo of Katrina’s vision started to take form.
Though William Halsey Wood is credited as Yaddo’s architect, it seems that the Trasks designed it themselves, inspired by Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, England. The Yaddo grounds feature stately gardens and paths of the European style. Statues of goddesses embody the seasons and display four-quarters symbolism. The Classical rose garden may represent Apollonian reason; a fountain formed in rough, megalithic-style rocks symbolizes Dionysian intuition. The statue of a ringleted hero in the pines at today’s Yaddo stands for Katrina Trask’s most memorable character, the hero of Christalan, a fairly long, antique poem published in 1903. Her hero’s name is made from that of two Trask children, Christina and Alanson.
There was also reconfiguration of the natural land that could have been influenced by the Native American system Katrina Trask so admired. A new causeway cut Barhyte’s lake into two, and two other small ponds were made. The four were named for the Trask children, as if a family etched itself onto the landscape. I concur with architectural historian James Kettlewell: there is much more to be read here than has been interpreted so far.
On New Year’s Eve 1909, Spencer Trask was killed when his homeward-bound train was rear ended. In 1919, Katrina Trask married again, at Yaddo, and lived just another year. Through her bequest, Yaddo was a gift to the world. Today, the Trask Mansion at Yaddo is an artist’s retreat graced with the visits of many prominent people. Since its inception in 1900, Yaddo has hosted sixty Pulitzer Prize–winning authors and one winner of the Nobel Prize. Sylvia Plath, Truman Capote and David Sedaris are among the artists in residence.
With all of that history and legacy—and the hotbed any human community is for gossip—it figures that there are ghost stories at Yaddo. Circumstances do not disappoint. Upstate journalist/folklorist Carl Carmer (1893–1976) noted that some of his Yaddo fellows were aware of ghosts. One of them seemed shocked by the sight of the colonial-era ghosts of a dark-haired woman and a red-coated man arguing by one of Yaddo’s lakes. We must not forget the sighting of what was considered Poe’s ghost, mentioned earlier. More recent Yaddo residents visit the village during their stays and tell many Saratogians their tales. A late 1990s Yaddo guest told a clerk at Lyrical Ballads bookstore about a Victorian woman ghost he saw once in his own room.
The books of Saratoga ghost-specialist David Pitkin recount tales of strange and potentially psychic physical phenomena, as well as a longstanding tradition among the Saratoga Springs police that the place could be spooked. Other traditions at Yaddo include the rumor that the Victorian-style “Woman in White” that so many encounter may be the ghost of Katrina Trask. Some longtime Yaddoans conjecture, however, that just as likely a spook is Elizabeth Ames (1885–1977), a steel-backboned caretaker and manager once accused of communist leanings.
Today, most of Yaddo’s glorious gardens and grounds are open to the public year-round. If you arrive after September but before mid-May, you shouldn’t expect to see the statues uncovered, the roses blooming or the fountains beaming, but at those “off” times of year it could be, like Lily Dale, even more sublime. For all those in the world who capture orbs and EVPs at haunted buildings—surely many who take pictures here catch something. Photographer Michael Noonan was one of them. His beloved late dog Tudd took one of those hard stares into the dusky air, and Michael snapped a shot in that direction. When it was developed, a curious, indistinct form appeared, one that had been invisible to the human eye at the time.
Ink has been spilled and words have circulated over the source of the name Yaddo. One common explanation is that young Christina Trask came in from her play talking about this or that “Yaddo.” While this has been interpreted as a four-year-old’s way of saying “shadow,” other speculation abounds. Imaginary friends and inaudible dialogues are so common among young children, particularly at haunted sites, that one’s feelers perk up at the suggestion. Her acquaintance-about-the-grounds’ name was “like shadow,” she said. But “shadow” wouldn’t do, since whatever it was was “bright and not dark.” There’s some talk that, unbeknownst to any of them at the time, there was an Old English word that would have sounded quite like “yaddo,” one that meant “to shimmer,” as light would upon the surface of the ponds. Maybe this accounts for the phantom children’s laughter that some people I know have reported hearing as twilight settles on Yaddo.
Speaking of the Trask children reminds one that wealth and success protect no one from tragedy—none of the four lived into their teens. The causes of their deaths were not mysterious. It was an age in which child mortality was lamentably high, and few epidemics were controllable. Two Trask children were permitted to give a last kiss to their mother, thought to be dying of diphtheria. Instead, it was she who lived on. They caught her ailment and were gone within days. Still, this hasn’t stopped talk of some ominous bogie at the grounds, possibly some kind of child-killing karma, that wouldn’t stop until it ran its course. It would be interesting to know what the sounds of the word Yaddo meant in the native tongues, Mohawk or Mahican, or who or what the doomed Christina met in the trees that spoke to her in a dead language.
© 2012, Mason Winfield