Walking with ghosts along the Blackstone Canal.
The wind is sharp as I scurry across busy Branch Avenue, sending the clouds scudding and keeping the rain at bay. The tops of the trees have been stripped bare, limbs black bony against the sky. I’m entering theNorth Burial Ground and I’m looking for the place where the Moshassuck River emerges from it’s subterranean crossing of Interstate 95. I walk for ways with the highway to my left and rows of stones and statuary to my right. There’s much room to grow on this side of the burial grounds and I cross large lawns of brown grass. A concrete retaining wall announces it’s arrival. A pair of rectangular openings angling back toward the highway. Two echoing chambers cast free of any date or ornament, bearing only a modest “716”. These are entrance and exit to fields set aside for the collection of dates, names and bones.
The river immediately finds it’s Blackstone Canal days maintained, the bed running as straight as ever between walls of cut stone. The tow path is clogged with Catalpa and Oak and masses of twisting vines. That’s no problem as I have only myself in tow and I happily clamber around, glad to be free of the droning interstate.
Some trees have succumbed to the pull of the water and have laid down for a rest, momentarily holding and releasing the stream. It’s a reasonable approximation of a babbling brook and I stop to consider an earlier traveller on an earlier journey.
The canal bounds a potter’s field, and likey displaced some remains when it was dug. That certainly was the case much later when the highway claimed a portion of the burial grounds, nipping a piece of the potter’s field. No matter. Despite the appearance of order among the numbered plots above ground it is chaos down below. Decades of poor record keeping has made this area a de facto mass grave. If someone has to move for the convenience of the traveling living they can just move in with someone else, the more the merrier. Perhaps then, this accounts for the observations of my distant voyager, a passenger on a Providence bound canal boat who reported seeing (while passing through the burial grounds) ”a strange blue tinged orb that seemed to hover just at the level of the trees, then dart quickly forth and back…”.
Current employees of the cemetery have described a what they called a "spirit in the trees”, a human shape moving around and above the trees which sometimes "seems dark and sometimes glows with light”. A number of people who have seen this phenomenon say they have seen it not only in the trees here along the canal but around the pond and on the ridge of the esker, which lies just east of the river.
At the north end of the potter’s field the river once again takes cover below a busy off ramp. A little further to the north, on the rail line that put the canal out of business there once was a terrible accident. Two trains collided at the Valley Falls station. Thirteen people were killed. One of the victims is buried in this cemetery under a headstone adored with the image of locomotive. This accident is notable beyond the loss of life for another reason. It is considered to be the first train wreck ever photographed. A Pawtucket man (not unlike myself) made a daguerreotype at the scene, from which an engraving was made that was reproduced in newspapers only weeks later.
Are there ghosts here beyond the ghosts of engravings in old newspapers? As it is nearly Halloween it seems fair to think perhaps. I consider then the lost thirteen, never to arrive at Worcester. There they are for eternity, some staring out a coach window anticipating a less eventful departure, the others rattling along aboard the second train oblivious to the oblivion so soon before them. Or perhaps I prefer to imagine a fourteenth ghost, the ghost of the proto-photographer from Pawtucket preparing his plate and hefting his kit down to the station, focusing his brass lens upon the same horrific pile of splintered wood and twisted iron, year after year, trapped by the shade of the plate he is continually making. I snap my own picture. The rain arrives at last and I squeeze my way past a fence and on to the road home.