Strange occurrences at Historic Rittenhouse Town. A true story by Al Cassidy…
Great grandson of German papermaker William—who emigrated in the late 1600s to build the first paper mill in America—Jacob Rittenhouse’s home still exists on the Historic Rittenhouse Town (HRT) property today. It’s one of the few original buildings still standing in the quaint historic village that today offers tours, handmade paper workshops, and domestics arts programs for adults and children.
So the story goes that Jacob, who died in 1811, still hangs out at HRT. Several staff and visitors claim to have seen him hurrying down the village road looking for his mill . . . then *poof* he’s gone. Those who know the story suggest he is trying to go to work and can’t find the mill. And for good reason—it was demolished in the early 1800s along with all the other mills along the Wissahickon, as a way to promote open space in Fairmount Park.
Now I’ve been known to enjoy ghost stories, and have even written a couple at length (see the Q&A about my new book “Freeing Linhurst Into the Tunnels”). Much as I want to believe in these exhilarating hauntings, I’ve learned I’m still on the fence about the existence of the paranormal to the naked eye.
I’ve also come to learn that kids can tell us a whole lot about what we adults don’t see. We get to a point in life where making ends meet and having a sense of security become such priorities that we live with blinders on.
Such was the case on the day I was volunteering at HRT late spring. A small group of camp children were picnicking in a grove near the Homestead (birthplace of David Rittenhouse) when one of the camp leaders approached. She had a little girl in tow, insipid with her bouncing brunette pigtails, who badly needed to use the facilities. “Is there a restroom nearby?” the woman asked me.
I let them know that ordinarily the restroom wouldn’t be open, but in this case there was a meeting happening and the folks inside might make an exception for this innocent spirit desperate for relief. Off they went toward the Homestead.
When I returned to trimming trees and raking leaves (volunteers are needed in the village) I heard a bit of commotion behind me. I turned to see the little girl frantically holding on to the camp leader’s hand, pulling her away. Stopped dead at the start of the bridge that crosses over Paper Mill Run, the little girl refused to cross. Concerned, I wandered over and asked if there was something wrong.
The little girl said, “The man on the bridge is scaring me—I don’t want to go that way.”
The camp leader asked indignantly, “What man are you referring to?”
“Why don’t you see him?” the little one said, voice trembling as she glared toward the far end of the bridge. “He is staring right at us.”
We could tell by her firm stance she had no intention of crossing that bridge where the paper mill once stood for over two centuries.
The camp leader turned to me, “I think we will use the green room today.” (I later learned that was code for peeing in the woods).
That moment stayed with me for the rest of the day. What did she see that we adults could not?
It wasn’t until we were breaking down our August 18th “Drink History” beer garden event that I recalled that encounter. As Bob Rittenhouse (you got it, a living descendant) and I were carrying chairs from his truck to the Homestead in the rain, I hesitate to say that for a fleeting moment I saw a dark figure standing at the end of the bridge looking lost and forlorn. Perhaps it was the heat or fatigue from a long day that caused that apparition to appear in my line of sight—but who can really be certain?
While the ghost of Jacob Rittenhouse won’t be attending HRT’s November 8th fundraiser at Material Culture (he’d have to get over that bridge first and put himself into a more festive mood), there will be plenty of historical artifacts on display from the “real” world. But don’t be fooled by my whimsical farce, for spirits really do linger at Historic Rittenhouse Town today—if only we could catch one on the security cameras!
About the Al
Al Cassidy has been interested in characters and stories from a very young age. Growing up, his father’s work took the family of six all over the US—from Florida to California, Minnesota to Utah, and everywhere in between. Having to adapt to new places and relationships on the fly made him a talented observer, and he learned to quickly hone in on the defining characteristics that make each person, place, and situation unique.