"The Ghost of Benson Mines"

By Richard F. Palmer

It was a typical North Country February night. The wind howled straight down from the Arctic Circle, roared across the broad St. Lawrence valley and drove its load of fine snow into the ridges of the Western Adirondack with all its force. Outside the dingy little station at Benson Mines, the mercury in the rusty thermometer huddled in upon itself as if in a last futile effort to keep from disappearing entirely.

Up the line, the blinding, powdery snow piled onto the right-of-way and scudded, wrath like, around the two-stall engine house and through the gondolas spotted on the mine spurs. The up-train from Carthage labored in with a steamer on the head end through the forming drifts, its headlight hardly more than a feeble yellow glow through the swirling maelstrom that churned the darkness. The bone-chilled crew lost no time in cutting the drag and rolling the motive power down into the engine house for the night layover. In the caboose, the little stove glowed cherry-red as the rear-end crew huddled around it. It was plain to see that nothing would move this night on the "C&A"

No one in the little mining town ventured out. No one, that is except those hardy souls who had liberally fortified themselves to the point of bravado with copious libations of the peculiar brand of home-made Adirondack spirits which, as one old hand had expressed it, "would give a man the courage to spit in a panther's eye". This potent potion had been flowing freely in one of the de-mounted boxcars, which were set out near the engine house to serve as housing for the track gang charged with this isolated end of the mountain pike.

It was an extremely well fortified Italian who stepped out of the bunkhouse and into the bitter night. He stumbled his uncertain way over the snow clogged switches and weaved down the track, swaying with ever widening tangents at each onslaught of the buffeting wind. But he was entirely oblivious of the screaming storm in his roseate stupor, intent only on the hazy purpose of his half-forgotten errand.

A dim light showed briefly through the driving snow, and the befuddled fellow set a wavering course toward its promise of shelter. He plunged down the slight embankment off the main and clawed his way up the huge pile of loose coal that barred his way on the line he had sighted to the security of the engine house. In spite of his sweating efforts, the insidious cold was penetrating the layers of garments he wore.

Near the top of the pile he paused to rest, mumbling to himself, and panting hoarsely from the exertion, then he pitched forward on the coal pile and closed his fogged eyes in his last long sleep.

They found his body in the morning, frozen stiff as the proverbial mackerel, but still exhuming the decidedly unfishlike aromas of garlic and raw whiskey. Like so many of his countrymen who had only recently come to the land of golden opportunity, he had no relatives nearer than sunny Italy. As soon as a shallow grave could be thawed from the frozen ground, the track gang buried him on a little rise above the tracks. Another name was crossed off the pay list, and the gang went back to the endless job of cleaning switches and shoveling drifts. Excitable by nature, the Italians laid their companion's death to the demons that were said to inhabit this raw wilderness.

Pop O'Flatherly, hostler at Benson Mines engine house was famed over the length of the line as an accomplished practical joker, and the situation surrounding the gandy dancer's death was ripe for his talents. He gave it much thought on how to capitalize on this unfortunate chain of events. Then he waited for the propitious moment. It was not long in coming. A few days after the Italian's death another blizzard came howling down the Adirondacks and once again the trackmen had their work cut out for them. They worked mightily on the switches, shoveling them out and sweeping them clear. They worked their way down through the yard and finally, as the early dusk closed in, they stopped for a breather in the lee of the engine house coal pile.

The gigantic heap of coal loomed whitely in the half-light. The wind had died, and now the big flakes drifted slowly and silently down out of the sullen sky. It seemed that there was no sound, no movement in the entire dead, white world. Then suddenly it came, hardly a whisper in the still air. The bundled figures of the men stirred uneasily then drew into a close huddle. They stopped their muted chatter and glanced around them. It came again, a little louder this time, faded and swelled once more-the deep snoring of a sleeping man. Finally the sound faded into a gasping, agonizing death rattle. One of the nervous group glanced up at the coal pile and literally rose up from the ground with a terrified screech. The snoring had begun again, and on the spot where their comrade had died rose a nebulous wraith that faded into the still, cold air only to rise again with each stentorian snore.

The terrified group galvanized into action as one man. Shovels and brooms went flying helter-skelter as the demoralized group tore up the track toward the safety of their bunkhouses. They floundered wildly through the snow and sprawled on the right-of-way only to scuttle along on hand and knees until they could gain their balance and resume their wild flight. They burst into the bunkhouses to bar the doors and huddle in misery until morning

It was only with the arrival of full daylight that they could be prevailed upon to come out and finish opening up the yard, and then they refused to come near the engine house and its attendant coal pile. When the afternoon accommodation pulled out for Carthage they were aboard it to the man. 

The story spread like wild fire up and down the fifty-mile length of the C&A and out into the world beyond. The ghost of Benson Mines became the leading topic of conversation in barbershops and general stores all over northern NY. Railroad employees rode the plush up the line on their days off to hear the ghost snore, and returned home to spread the word even further about this marvelously accommodating shade who would stage this somnolent exhibition almost on order for any visitor.

The daily accommodation train was crowded with curious pilgrims to the now famous coal pile. The proprietor of the newly built Ellsworth hotel near Benson Mines station did a land-office business in supplying the credulous with spirits of one kind to prepare them for a meeting with the sprits of another. As a climax the enterprising management of the C&A, never aversed to earning an extra dollar, promoted a heavily patronized excursion special up to the Mines, assuring all who could push a dollar through the ticket window an opportunity to communicate with this somnolent wonder of the North Country.

The secret was well guarded for several lucrative months but like most hoaxes the joke was too good to keep and finally the truth came out. The "Ghost" was the end result of some inspired and highly ingenious work with some valves on the steam line that extended from the engine house boiler room out under the pile of coal, a purely utilitarian expedient to keep the coal from freezing in the frigid winters. The ghostly wraith that rose from its black bed on dark, cold nights was only escaping steam.

The revelation only served to touch off a storm of argument along the C&A. Those who had not been able to scrape up the fare to ride the "Ghost Special" took unmerciful glee in ribbing the gullible who had made the trip. The latter, either sincerely or to save face, solemnly and heatedly declared that the ghost of Benson Mines was the real McCoy beyond a shadow of a doubt. The arguments raged for years until finally became lost in the reaches of time.

Pop O'Flatherty lived out his few remaining years secure in the knowledge that he had gained immortality in the ranks of practical jokers with a truly colossal hoax that deserves a niche with the Cardiff Giant.
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