the ohio house that is haunted by history
My “discovery” of Prospect Place near the small town of Dresden, Ohio occurred in April 2003, when I was on my way to Pennsylvania to speak at a ghost conference. I was rather lazily searching for some places of interest to see along the way. By chance, I ran across an article in the Coshocton Tribune about an old mansion near Dresden that was now under renovation. Not only had it once been a location “station” on the Underground Railroad but it was reportedly haunted as well!
Even though the house was only open to the public on weekends, I took a chance and contacted the owner about possibly visiting the place. He readily agreed and so, I headed off in search of Prospect Place -- and ended up taking a haunting journey back in time.
GEORGE W. ADAMS & PROSPECT PLACE
George Adams came to Ohio from Virginia in 1808. His father had been a prosperous plantation owner with more than 500 acres of land in Faquier and Loudon Counties, a large number of slaves and a tremendous fortune. With the death of his father, when George was a young man, he inherited the entire estate and proceeded to do something that few Virginia gentlemen of the time would have done -- he sold the plantation and freed his slaves. Adams was a devout Christian and abolitionist and believed that for one man to own another was a sin against God. He took the money from the sale of the plantation and purchased a large tract of land in Ohio, as well as wagons and provisions to move west to this new land. Ohio had been entered into the Union as a “free state” in 1803 and offered great promise in the eyes of the young man.
The family, which consisted of his wife and daughter (whose names have been lost to history) and his two sons, Samuel and Edward and his youngest son, George Willison, arrived in Ohio almost nine months after departing Virginia. This region was still a frontier at that time and aside from the famed Cumberland Road, there were few good trails. Harsh weather conditions forced them to find shelter for the winter and continue their journey in the spring. They eventually settled on the eastern side of the Muskingum River near the tiny village of Dresden in central Ohio.
At that time, Dresden was little more than a collection of homes and a few businesses but as the century progressed, it became a wealthy community of merchants along what was then one of the most important trade routes of the time, the Ohio & Erie Canal. The canal was constructed just north of Dresden in the 1830’s and opened the town to business from all over the world. It would play an important part in the life and business interest of the Adams’ family.
Not long after the canal was completed, George Adams died and the 150 acres that he had purchased in Ohio were passed on to his sons, Edward and George Willison. (I have found no record of what became of Samuel) Unfortunately, the land was nearly all there was left to give though. The money from the Virginia plantation had been exhausted by the purchase of the Ohio property and the expense of the trip west. The two younger Adams’ did not let this deter them however and they saw an opportunity to capitalize on the new canal. For many years, local farmers had been taking their grain to Zanesville (about 20 miles away) to be milled into flour. George W. and Edward decided that by selling the land their father had left them, they could raise the money to build a mill on the Muskingum and Coshocton County lines.
The mill would be directly on the canal and would provide power for the water wheel and would also allow the flour from the mill to be directly transported directly to faraway ports like New Orleans. The location of the mill turned out to be even more beneficial when a side cut canal was dug that allowed the Muskingum River to be linked to the canal. Not surprisingly, the mill became a great success.
Both men married and began to raise families. They also built identical homes that cost over $40,000 each, a tremendous sum in those days. Edward built his mansion just behind the mill in a little community that became known as “Adams Mills”. This house still stands today and is known as the Prescott Gray House, in honor of a later owner. George’s house was identical in every way to the home of his brother but it as constructed in a field near the canal and just north of the small town of Trinway. During the time that he resided in this house, he and his wife raised five children and he became a member of the Ohio General Assembly at age 32.
He formed a stock company in order to build a suspension bridge across the Muskingum River in the early 1850’s and later sold it to the county commissioners. The bridge was designed by the famous John Augustus Roebling, who later, along with his son, designed the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. The bridge was later destroyed in 1913 during a horrific flood. A barn was pulled from its foundations by the flood waters and was washed downstream, where it collided with the bridge. The current metal link suspension bridge in Dresden replaced it in 1914.
George and his family were happy in the house and prospered until tragedy struck in the winter of 1850. His wife, Clarissa, suddenly fell ill and died. Adams was heartbroken and mourned for several years, struggling to recover from his loss. Not long after his depression finally lifted, he became engaged to a young woman named Mary. The two of them were deeply in love, despite the fact that Mary was some 20 years younger than her prospective husband. After the wedding, she came to live with George and his children in the mansion near the canal. But happiness was not to be found for them in this house…
There are several stories about what may have occurred in the house during the early days of Mary’s residency there. Whatever the cause for the strange events, the end result is that the family moved out and George began construction on a new, much grander home. Stories and rumors persist as to why Adams would have moved out of the house that he once loved so much. Some say that it was merely a “house of bad memories” for him as his first wife was not long passed on but others insist that it was Mary who prompted the move. These stories have it that the ghost of Clarissa Adams began making appearances in the house not long after her husband’s marriage to the pretty, much younger woman. Unable to deal with the literal “specter” of George’s late wife, Mary insisted that a new house be built -- and one that had never belonged to another woman. Adams, eager to please his new wife, quickly agreed. He would build a “fairy tale castle” for her, he said, and the ground was soon broken for the house that would come be called Prospect Place.
As the laborers were being hired and ground was being cleared for the mansion, Adams built a small, two-story frame house near the Adams Warehouse in Dresden where he and his family could live until the new house was completed. From here, he and his family often journeyed out toward Trinway to watch as the great brick structure rose a towering three stories with a cupola as a crown. Another wing was added, which rose two stories, and another wing was added to the north (almost an entirely separate house) for the servants. The roof was covered in copper panels and ornate woodwork was added to the roofline and then painted with bright colors. By the summer of 1856, the house was nearly completed.
Then, on the night before the family was due to move in, the amazing house caught fire and burned to the ground. A bucket brigade of neighbors and volunteers from the surrounding community hurried to the house but they arrived too late and were unable to get close to the inferno. There was no immediate explanation for what had happened but local rumor had it that the house had been set on fire by an elderly Native American woman who lived nearby. She had a fearsome reputation in the community and most referred to her simply as “Satan”. She had been angry with George Adams when he purchased the land to build the house because it contained a number of burial grounds. She had reportedly threatened that terrible things would happen if the land was disturbed and many saw the fire as the result of her warnings.
However, there is a more likely explanation for the fire. According to most stories, the fire was actually set by a brick layer who had been hired for the project named George Blackburn. He was a drunkard and thief who also worked as a brick layer around Dresden. Allegedly, while drunk one night, he bragged to someone that he had set the Adams’ house on fire so that he could generate more work for himself. Since Adams was so well-liked in the community, word of this quickly reached him and he had Blackburn arrested. The brick layer was tried and found guilty and sent to the penitentiary in Columbus as punishment. Ironically though, Blackburn had been hired to help build the prison and knew his way around the place. He promptly escaped. His days were numbered though when he returned to Muskingum County. One night while attempting to rob the house of a local farmer, his head was split open by the homeowner’s ax.
Meanwhile, Prospect Place, which had been named by George Adams because he wanted to the house to be a prospect for a better future, was immediately rebuilt. The second version stood on the same foundation as the first and was almost identical. Likely, Adams even made a number of small changes that made the new version of the house even more to his liking. The house was massive and offered sitting rooms for the ladies and parlors for the men, a number of bedrooms, a wing for the servants, elaborate plaster work, marble fireplace mantels, a grand staircase and even a unique feature that was simply not found in homes of the day -- indoor plumbing. George was so enamored of his young wife that he had built for her and bathroom with a tub and flushing toilets. A hand-operated piston pump in the basement was used to pump water upstairs to a copper holding tank that worked by way of gravity. One of the strangest features of the place though -- and one that would not be rediscovered until recent times -- was a cistern that was located below the house in the basement. It had a secret purpose and one that would remain the greatest mystery of the house for many years to come.
THE “RAILROAD” COMES TO PROSPECT PLACE
The Adams’ family lived in the house for many years and were, by all reports, very happy. George and Mary had two children of their own, John Jay and Elizabeth “Lizzie” Adams, while living at Prospect Place and on the surface, they appeared to be simply a pleasant, respected family with a thriving business and bright outlook for the future. And while they were all of these things, George Adams was also secretly involved in a highly and dangerous illegal activity that threatened not only his family but his wonderful home as well.
Like his father before him, Adams was an ardent abolitionist and he became involved with the Underground Railroad movement in Ohio. The Underground Railroad was as secret system of homes, barns, businesses and other buildings that were used to assist slaves as they escaped from bondage in the southern states and came north to freedom. Those who helped the slaves were referred to as “conductors” and buildings where the refugees hid during the daylight hours and waited for darkness before moving on were called “stations”. George Adams first a part of the Underground Railroad in the 1840’s, often going himself or funding men who retrieved escaped slaves and helped them to make it to the north. Originally, his mill was used as a “station” but by the middle 1850’s, when it seemed that a Civil War was eminent, Adams moved the operation to his home. In this way, his business would not be endangered and the operation would be even more secure.
No matter well hidden it was though, the operation was still a dangerous one. It was illegal in the northern states to harbor or assist escaped slaves and Adams risked arrest and imprisonment by continuing to do so. He did take many precautions however and some believe that a few of the more unique and elaborate additions to Prospect Place were created in order to further the abolitionist cause. There are stories that say that the cupola that was built high atop the house was often used as a signal post for other conductors. Whenever a lighted lantern was placed in the window, they knew that it was safe for the fugitives to be brought to the house. It is also generally believed that the cistern that was located in the home’s basement was dug to provide an inside water supply so that residents could fetch water without being seen. In those days, slave catchers and bounty hunters would stake out the wells of homes that were suspected of being Underground Railroad stations. They could monitor how much water was being used and see if there were extra people in the house.
One popular story that has been perpetuated over the years is that of a tunnel that allegedly once ran from the basement of Prospect Place to the nearby river. Restoration of the house has revealed no such tunnel though. When I visited the house, I was shown what may be the source of the story -- an eight-foot long tunnel that leads to a window in the outside wall. It is believed that this was once a root cellar and that it did offer access to and from the subterranean sub-basements of the house, which may have been used by the escaped slaves. Unfortunately though, as with many other similar houses from the time period, there is no way that we can know for sure. Because of the clandestine nature of the operation, and because it was illegal, no real records were kept to deny or confirm much of anything. It is generally accepted that Adams and Prospect Place were involved in the Underground Railroad, thanks to the clues that do remain behind, and never questioned that Adams was a staunch supporter of the Union during the Civil War.
In the early 1860’s, Adams donated large sums of money for the war effort and he maintained an “open door” policy for any Federal soldier or officer who passed through the area and needed a place to stay. At various times, when Ohio seemed threatened by Confederate forces, Prospect Place was designated to become the Union headquarters in the region. Luckily though, Ohio was never seriously in danger although many men from the area did serve in the military during this period.
When the war ended, Adams financed a huge celebration in Dresden that reportedly lasted for two weeks and only came to an end when word reached the community of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
The years following the Civil War continued to be prosperous and happy ones for the Adams’ family. Anna, George’s oldest daughter, married William Cox Jr., a young man who lived in the nearly home, River Dale. The house had been built by Jonathan Cass, a Revolutionary War veteran from New Hampshire, who sold the house to the Cox family in the early 1800’s. The elder William Cox had been an Irish-born officer in the British Army, who had given up his commission to come to America. The families were close friends and reportedly approved of the match between their children.
In the last years of his life, Adams involved himself in the railroad industry and became the director of the Steubenville & Indiana Railroad. He was also the owner and director of the Cincinnati & Muskingum Valley Railroad until his death on August 31, 1879.
At the time of his passing, George W. Adams had an estate worth an estimated $14 million. It was divided among his family members in his will, with his wife Mary receiving $7 million of it. She and her youngest son, John, moved back to Zanesville, where she was originally from. The remaining estate was split equally among all of the children, giving them $1 million each. Prospect Place was inherited by Anna and her husband, William Cox. It was shortly after this that one of the great mysteries of the family came about.
THE VANISHING OF WILLIAM COX
In the years that followed his inheriting of Prospect Place, William Cox spent huge amounts of money renovating the mansion and throwing huge parties and galas on the grounds and in the grand ballroom on the top floor. In 1886 alone, he installed a new floor in the main hall and replaced the tin barn roof with one of copper. The parties hosted at Prospect Place became known far and wide and at one reception, held for a new Episcopal bishop and with over 200 people in attendance, ice cream was served for the very first time in Muskingum County. Cox had commissioned a special refrigerated train car to deliver it to the party. There were whispers and rumors about the amounts of money that Cox was spending but none of them were taken seriously until one day shortly after the turn of the last century. On a Friday afternoon in November, he informed his family that he was going to Zanesville on business --- and vanished without a trace.
For days afterward, Cox’s family, and the local authorities, attempted to unravel the mystery of his disappearance. By all indications, he disappeared under his own power and left several strange and contradictory clues behind. Anna even hired a detective to try and track him down but he found nothing. Cox had left home on Friday, November 15, explaining that he was going to Zanesville and would not be home for dinner. When he arrived in Trinway though, he spoke to a man named Henry Park and told him that he needed someone to do an errand for him in Zanesville because Cox had business in Columbus that he urgently needed to attend to. Park replied this his wife was leaving on the train for Zanesville and would gladly take care of Cox’s errand. Cox then have him $255 and asked that his wife pay it on Cox’s account at the A.E. Starr & Co. office. Cox then boarded a train for Columbus and this was the last time that he was seen near Dresden.
The detective that Anna hired was able to trace Cox to Schrader’s Hotel in Columbus. According to witnesses that he interviewed, Cox had checked into the hotel in the company of a man that he refused to register. He and the clerk argued over the matter, which is why the man remembered the incident at all. He gave a good description of the strange man but the clue led nowhere -- until a letter arrived for Anna one day a few months later.
The letter that arrived came from a young woman named Jennie Adams, who had grown up in Dresden but who had moved to San Francisco several years before. She wrote that she had been walking a few days before and that William Cox had passed her on the street. Not knowing anything about his disappearance and happy to see an old acquaintance from home, he hurried up to him, calling his name and asking for news from home. The man glared at her and according to her letter to Anna, seemed annoyed and quickly pushed past her, refusing to speak and refusing to acknowledge her at all. She started after him and when he looked back over his shoulder and saw her following him, he ducked into a cigar store. Jennie, thinking still that Cox did not recognize her, followed him inside, only to have the man hide from her and then hurry out another entrance. Obviously, she thought his actions were very strange and so she wrote to her friend, Anna, and inquired as to his behavior. She was sure that the man she had seen had been William and she asked Anna the reason why he acted in such a bizarre way. Anna, who had no idea of her husband’s whereabouts, was surprised by the letter.
In the letter, she also referred to another man who was with Cox that day on the street. Her description of the man exactly matched that of the strange man described by the clerk at Schrader’s Hotel. Who this man could have been is unknown -- as is the reason for Cox’s disappearance in the first place.
There have been those who have suggested that he managed to spend most of Anna’s fortune and then vanished in shame but this seems unlikely for Anna lived comfortably in Prospect Place for years afterward. Could he have been involved in some illegal activity, forcing him to leave Ohio? Or could the reason have been a sordid one, at least by the standards of the time? Some have suggested that perhaps William was a homosexual, in a time less open than our own, and that perhaps the mysterious man was his lover? The two of them may have left Ohio, thinking they would never be seen again. Jennie Adams’ chance sighting of them on the streets of San Francisco was a piece of ill luck for them but Anna never chose to pursue it.
Officially, William Cox was never seen again.
THE STORY CONTINUES ….
The story of the Cox family and Prospect Place continued. George Cox, Anna’s son and the grandson of George W. Adams, grew up in the house and later was educated as an engineer. He worked on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority dam projects all over the south and lived most of his life in Georgia and Florida. He maintained two consuming passions in his life and spent a great deal of money on both. The first was the first was the unsuccessful search for any trace of his missing father and the second was Prospect Place. He owned the house through the 1960’s but never lived there. He attempted to keep up with the march of time at the house but eventually, he gave up on it -- just as he gave up on ever finding out what happened to William.
In the late 1960’s, George sold the house to the Cox Gravel Company, which was owned by Gene Cox (no relation to George and his family). The gravel company opened the house for tours in 1976, during the American Bicentennial celebration, but paid little attention to it other than that. By the 1970’s, time had started to take its toll on the house.
Nearly a century and a half after its construction, the once beautiful home was now empty and abandoned in a field of weeds. The leaking roof had caused the floors to become unsafe and to collapse. Wind blew in through the broken windows and during the 1980’s, frequent forays into the house by vandals resulted in graffiti being spray-painted on the walls, the marble fireplace mantels to be broken into pieces and even the curving three-story staircase had been stolen. By 1988, the house was in ruins and Prospect Place was scheduled to be demolished.
But then in stepped Dave Longaberger, the founder of the basket-making empire, history buff and preservationist. Dave had been raised near the mansion and he couldn’t stand to see the old place torn down. He had already purchased and renovated a number of other local, historic buildings and did the same for Prospect Place. He bought the house and the Longaberger company soon started repairs. A new roof was installed, windows repaired and some demolition was completed to make way for new construction. Unfortunately though, Dave became ill and died before he could see the restoration completed. It seemed that the mansion was doomed once more.
One again though, Prospect Place was rescued -- this time by George Adams. And the name was no coincidence as this new Adams is the great, great grandson of the original owner. He was able to purchase the house from Longaberger, who was still providing security for the place, thanks to the company’s assistance. Adams explained that no one else would finance the place for him but Longaberger just wanted to see Dave’s vision of restoration fulfilled. Adams has since moved into the house, becoming the first occupant since 1969, and has begun a slow restoration process that is sometimes more archaeological dig than home renovation. Relics recovered inside of the house have included old shoes, melted glass from the fire that burned the original house and of course, the secret cistern in the basement.
The first year of renovations included repairing the unsafe floors, fixing much of the damaged masonry, restoring water and electrical service to the house, installing new furnaces and an alarm system, repairing the windows and a number of new locks and safety equipment. A welcome center and a gift shop were also added so that the house could be opened for tours. Earlier this year. Adams established the G.W. Adams Education Center at Prospect Place to teach adults and youth groups about the Underground Railroad and related subjects.
He also offers regular tours of the house on weekends -- as well as overnight stays for those in search of ghosts. For Prospect Place, along with a rich history, can also boast a variety of resident spirits.
THE HAUNTING OF PROSPECT PLACE
My visit to Prospect Place occurred in April 2003 after I contacted George Adams and asked about seeing the place. He graciously agreed but unable to be there himself, he left me in the capable hands of one of the home’s guides, Jerry Taylor, who met me at the house and took me on an extensive tour of the property. Jerry is a wealth of information on the old place and never hesitated to answer any of my questions -- including those about the alleged haunts.
Like the stories of the Underground Railroad and Prospect Place, there have been many stories told locally about the ghosts here over the years. But as many of the tales of escaped slaves have shown to be true, the stories of the ghosts who haunt the place may eventually move beyond legends and lore and enter the world of reality. This can be an eerie place and not surprisingly, the reported encounters with ghosts here reflect this. Many visitors who have come to the house claim to have had paranormal encounters here and these experiences run the gamut of sights and sounds that include voices in empty rooms, the laughter of a child, hair-raising whispers, shadowy apparitions and even the ghost of a man in formal attire who has been seen standing near the main staircase on an upper floor. Could this be the echo of a servant from time’s past -- or perhaps, as some have suggested, the ghost of George W. Adams himself? Some stories say that he loved the place so much that his spirit simply refuses to leave it.
It has been a long held tradition in Dresden and Trinway that the halls of Prospect Place still play host to the spirits of the former owners -- and to those who connection with the place is fleeting at best. It will likely come as no surprise to most readers to learn that the basement here is believed to be especially haunted. Most feel that the ghosts who linger here are those of slaves who sought refuge here during the period when it was a station on the Underground Railroad. There have been reported sightings here of a black woman who seems to have some sort of injury to her head. She is often seen in the basement rooms, usually only for a moment, before she disappears. My guide, Jerry Taylor, took me down to the area where the ghost is most frequently seen and while he maintains a “middle ground” opinion on the existence of ghosts, he did admit to a disconcerting feeling in one of the basement rooms. It was nothing that he could put his finger on, but there was something a little disturbing about it.
There is also another story that might explain the hauntings in the basement, especially those reports of cold chills being felt and the anguished cries that have sometimes been heard. According to this story, there was apparently a train wreck that occurred near Dresden one hot summer day in the late 1800’s. A passenger train had been stopped on the tracks because of a problem with the locomotive and another train came along and collided with it from behind. The engine of the second trail barreled into the passenger cars and its boiler exploded. Many of the passengers died instantly, while others were badly burned. There were also many other injuries but no hospital nearby. As it happened, Prospect Place was the closest house to the accident site and so the cool basement of the house was turned into a temporary hospital for the injured passengers. A number of them succumbed to their wounds while waiting for assistance however and it is said that many of their ghosts still haunt the dark subterranean rooms.
The most widely-known story about the house in the area involving ghosts tells of a young girl (possibly a servant girl) who died after falling from a portico on the house during one harsh winter the 1860’s. The stories vary as to what happened next but in the most common version of the tale, her body could not be buried because the ground was too frozen to dig her grave. Because of this, her body was kept on ice in the basement of the house until spring. She was the daughter of a local family and so her mother came each day to visit her until her corpse was finally laid to rest.
Since that time, visitors have often reported seeing her ghost in the hallways and especially around one of the fireplaces in the former servant’s quarters. Childish laughter has also been heard in the house, as well as the sobs of the grieving mother. There have been many instances of people encountering the ghost, or hearing her voice and identifying it as that of a little girl, who have no idea that the spirit of a little girl allegedly haunts the place -- or even that the house is regarded as haunted at all!
Another ghost that has been seen is that of a man in period clothing who has been reported near a staircase on an upper floor. The man has often been described as having a large mustache and he has been identified as either a servant who once worked in the house or even a party-goer from the days when Anna and William Cox hosted numerous lavish events and receptions in the ballroom of the house. Some believe that he might even be George W. Adams himself. As Adams was never known for having a mustache (but rather a large beard instead) it seems unlikely that it might be him. If it is a former owner though, could this phantom be that of William Cox -- inexorably drawn back to the house and the family that he abandoned? Could he be doomed to wander the corridors of this place after the betrayal of it so many years ago?
As you can see, there are many mysteries that still remain at Prospect Place and thankfully, it seems that the house will still be here as these riddles continue to be pursued. The restoration of the house goes on, under the watchful eyes of the new owner -- and perhaps some past ones as well. Should you have the chance to visit central Ohio, I recommend a side trip in search of the history of Prospect Place.
And you just might get the chance to meet some of its ghosts as well.