Spirits of Hagerstown

October 31, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER

Old places with sad histories seem to be ripe for tales of restless souls, and this region, prominent in the development of a fledgling nation and stained by bitter conflict, is no exception.

There's the pre-Blair Witch legend of Spook Hill in Frederick County, Md., near Burkittsville, where legend has it that Civil War soldiers will push cars up a rise in the road - apparently mistaking the rides for 19th-century caissons.

And there's the infamous Wizard Clip in Jefferson County, W.Va. Nearly every building in the historic Lower Town of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., is said to be haunted by its eccentric former residents. And its tragic legacy has earned Gettysburg, Pa., the morbid distinction of being one of the most haunted places in the country.


But one needn't travel even that far to get chills. According to Kurt and Peggy Cushwa, there may be plenty of resident spirits right in downtown Hagerstown.

Kurt Cushwa, a local architect, has restored several vintage downtown buildings. Both he and his wife, Peggy, have taken turns leading the city's annual downtown Halloween ghost tours, regaling their audiences with yarns about disquieted shadows from the city's past.

Peggy Cushwa recalled a group of Cub Scouts who they said quickly got into the spirit of the tour. "They saw ghosts everywhere," she said.

There are times when the stories hit a little close to home - and become just a little bit more than "stories."

Kurt Cushwa grins when he recalls the night he was working in the Max Simon building on North Potomac Street, which now houses the Downtown Squad of Hagerstown City Police. The radio was on and the theme from "Ghostbusters" was playing, he remembers, and he was singing along.

As he crooned the tune's signature phrase, "I ain't afraid of no ghost," Cushwa said several things "fell off the wall - all at once."

He still doesn't know why, but said he didn't stick around that night to try to find out. "I turned off the lights and left," he said.

"We joke about the ghost of Max Simon," he said. "We call it the ghost of procrastination. He started the building in 1915 and never finished it."

His favorite story involves the building where his firm, Design/Build Architects, is located.

Several years ago he restored the former Independent Junior Fire Engine Co.'s firehouse on North Potomac Street, which was built in the early 1850s. In the process, he spoke with several seasoned firefighters about the building's past.

As a result, he reasons that the building ought to be haunted - "there were well over 100 funerals here," he said. When a firefighter passed on, he said, his comrades would take the coffin into the upstairs quarters for a wake. "They would stand the coffin up in the corner," and drink toasts to the departed friend, he said.

But it's the shades of horses, not people, that intrigue him the most.

At some point after its original construction, Cushwa said, the building was expanded to accommodate the horses used to pull the firefighting apparatus. They were kept behind the station, and when the alarm sounded, they were taken into the bays that housed the fire equipment. Harnesses that were suspended from the ceiling were pulled down to attach the horses to the fire carriage.

"The horses were well-trained," he said. "When the alarm went off, they would just come up."

Whenever there is a fatal fire in the city, some firefighters claim they still do, he said.

When the fire company still occupied the building, the volunteers slept in the basement, he said, while paid volunteers slept upstairs, where the Design/Build offices are now located. The bays where horses - and then firetrucks - were prepared to answer the alarms were on the main floor, between the sleeping quarters. Just before the alarm would sound for what would be a fatal fire, the sleeping firefighters would be awakened by the sound of the restless horses, waiting for their harnesses - "according to several firemen who claim to have heard it," Cushwa said.

One of the most recent incidents was in the mid-80s, when a fire on the south end of town claimed lives, Cushwa said.

"There were two or three other engines that were closer than the Independent Junior," Cushwa said, "but they were the first ones there. When the alarm came, the men were up and ready to go." They were ready, he said, because they heard the horses.

Cushwa said he's never heard them. But there's a good reason for that. "If you believe in such things, there hasn't been that kind of a fire since I've been here."

That doesn't mean nothing else goes on in the building, though. Peggy Cushwa operates her gift and frame shop, Maggie's Hang-ups, on the building's first floor. Another shop, Basket Full of Gifts, is next door.

"When I was first opened here, there was an employee at the basket shop who said she was 'sensitive' to spirits," Peggy Cushwa said. The woman told her that the spirits of two children inhabited the building's basement, along with other congenial specters.

While Cushwa hasn't actually seen them, she said she feels a little wary of the basement. When she climbs the stairs, "I feel like there's somebody ready to grab my ankles," she said. She admitted she got a little squeamish once when the power went out while she was working in the basement. "I keep lots of flashlights down there now," she said.

Even on the main floor, she sometimes feels as if she has company. "There are times when I can't find things," she said. "And I don't like to be here at night."

At Basketful of Gifts, proprietor Marge Davis said she's noticed items get moved around. "There are things I can't find all the time. It's not my age, it's a ghost," she quipped.

Not too long ago, the Cushwas went on a ghost tour at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Although the stories were well-researched, they said, Kurt Cushwa was unimpressed.

"We have better ghosts," he claimed.

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