Ghosts at the Merchants House Museum, SEPTA Somerton Train Station

Did someone say ghosts? Ghosts at the Merchants House Museum? Check. Ghosts at the Somerton train station on Philadelphia’ SEPTA? Check!

Someone on Facebook today asked, “Have you ever seen a ghost or experienced a haunting?” What a delicious question.

Maybe I have.

I’ll let you be the judge.

The Mystery of the Merchant’s House Smoker

First, a story about the Merchant’s House Museum in New York, an exemplary antebellum house which has been on television for its alleged paranormal activity, most notably on “Ghost Hunters”. I adore this place.

Some years back, I attended docent training at the Merchant’s House Museum. Early on a Sunday morning we were having a docents’ meeting, in the hours before the museum was open to the public. For a few minutes before we gathered in the basement kitchen, some of us early-bird volunteers killed time roaming through the house. A couple of women wanted to look at a new exhibit that had been assembled in one of the bedrooms. I wandered into the master bedroom at the front of the house and looked out the windows and into the street below.

Sniff, sniff.

Who’s smoking?, I thought. There’s no smoking allowed in here.

No paying visitors were in the house yet, so it couldn’t be a guest’s careless faux pas. And the staff certainly knew better than to light up.

I moved my face closer to the window pane and peered down to the sidewalk, expecting to see a lone smoker, or perhaps a pair or huddle of them, standing directly below. There was no one.

It was a strange sort of smoky smell, too. Not quite like cigarettes. More like the sweetish pipe tobacco an elderly relative used to smoke when I was a little girl. I think he was my father’s uncle, a red-cheeked man with a model railroad running through a cardboard-and-plastic utopia in his basement. I hadn’t seen or smelled anyone smoking a pipe since.

The smell was crisp and sharp at first, like tobacco just lit and repeatedly puffed to its fullest aroma in a quick sequence of dove-gray clouds. Then it faded, gradually and so gently. It was infuriating. The harder I sniffed, the less of it I smelled. It couldn’t be traced, it couldn’t be followed.

I have no explanation for it.

It’s interesting to note, however, that I was standing in what had been the bedroom of Seabury Tredwell, owner of the house from 1835 until his death, after which his daughter Gertrude inhabited it until her death at ninety-something years of age. Might Mr. Tredwell have been a pipe smoker? Was this what they call evidence of a “residual haunting”, an olfactory recording of a moment in the distant past, in replay?

Phantom Girl of Somerton Train Station

It was a bitter cold Saturday night in the late ’80s. This time of year, if I’m not mistaken — January, February. My friend Kurt picked me up at my parents’ house to go see a movie.

In those days, we lived near the Somerton train station on the R3 West Trenton Line of SEPTA, Philadelphia’s commuter rail system. There’s a short stretch of road that runs parallel to the tracks at one point. Then the road veers off to the left and the tracks disappear into a short tunnel under an overpass.

Kurt’s car sailed around a curve in the road and we briefly rode alongside the tracks before they were out of sight. We came to a red light at Bustleton Avenue. We were silent for a moment when Kurt turned to me and said,

“Did you just see what I saw?”

I met his eyes.

“You mean the girl standing on the train tracks who totally doesn’t look like she belongs there?”

His eyes widened. “Uh-huh.”

“Kurt,” I whispered, urgently. “We need to go back around there. Right now. Hurry!”

The girl we’d both seen had hair hanging below her shoulders, and she was wearing one of those straw boater hats with a red-white-and-blue striped ribbon around it. The cheap kind you might see at a political rally. She was holding a balloon, and standing in the middle of the train tracks. Not on the platform, not on the side of the road. Just standing there, completely serene, with her feet planted firmly between the railroad ties. And despite what had to be temperatures in the teens or twenties at best, she was wearing 1970s-style short-shorts, a sleeveless shirt, and knee socks.

Kurt glanced quickly into the rear-view mirror and over his left shoulder, then put the car in reverse and turned around.

We drove past the station again, slowly. He rolled down his window. We craned our necks in every direction looking for her.

He inched the car alongside the tracks a little further, and we squinted through the darkness. We looked back through the tunnel opening, we studied the shadows around the little train station building that was still standing back then, but has since been demolished.

The girl, whose appearance didn’t make sense in the first place, had vanished.

Kurt rolled his window back up, sealing out the unforgiving winter air. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” My voice was the only sound above the whoosh of heated air blowing from the dashboard vents. Kurt’s eyes were open so wide, his dark brown irises were like two drops of ink at the center of white salad plates. He nodded slowly.

“Let’s get out of here,” he said simply, and we did.

I always said I would eventually do some digging; try to find out if a girl was killed on those tracks. Maybe you know a librarian or research guru who’ll find this mystery irresistible.

You’ll let me know if you learn anything, won’t you? Be sure to get in touch if you had a similar paranormal experience or ghost encounter at the Somerton train station or the Merchants House Museum!

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