First Encounter with Spirit
I thought it would be most appropriate to launch my new Haunted National Parks blog series with my first encounter with spirit, which also coincided with my first job in a unit of the National Park System (NPS). This haunt took place toward the end of December 1977. I was just 20 years old, working in my first "real" job (as a work study student) and was offered temporary housing in the Fort Hancock Officer’s Club. The Fort Hancock Officer’s Club was built in 1873 and is the oldest military building in the park (Gateway National Recreation Area-Sandy Hook Unit). In 1936, the building was converted into an officers’ club from officers’ living quarters. In 1977, it was still in fairly good condition, but not exactly a place to call home.
It is an imposing structure. There are three stories to the building - the first floor includes an industrial kitchen and large ballroom with a parquet floor. The second floor is divided into smaller rooms and bathrooms, most likely in the same configuration as when the building was officers’ quarters. The third floor, which I never visited, was at that time a separate apartment and the residence of a law enforcement ranger.
We entered the officers club then from the back entrance, which led into a large industrial kitchen. Turning to the right, we would enter the large ballroom - a large room with a parquet floor, very high moulded ceilings, wall sconces, and a large fireplace with a huge mirror over the mantlepiece. It was an impressive room...and at the same time, it was the first place I remember feeling uncomfortable. That would soon turn to fear, but I'll get to that shortly.
As we turned the corner from the ballroom, a massive staircase came into view, probably the first real glimpse I had of the previous grand style of this building. Just over the landing area was an enormous, gilded framed painting of General Winfield Scott Hancock. Just thinking about that painting brings back an uneasy feeling. It was not a painting of his early years, but of an older General Hancock, with white hair and a serious hard look in his eyes. When entering the building, I often rushed past this landing as quickly as possible - the feeling there of being watched was pretty intense. I even remember joking about the painting back then - something I would never do today having been on enough paranormal investigations to know better!
I wasn’t the only one the Officer’s Club gave the creeps, however. I know of at least one employee that refused to enter the Officers’ Club at all. It seems over the preceding few years, the staff had set up a conference table in the ballroom to hold weekly meetings. During one of the meetings, a very loud crash had been heard above that room. Employees tried to find an explanation for the sound, but there was no furniture upstairs to tip over and no broken windows or other structural damage was found. The interpretive ranger had already said she felt a “bad vibe” from the building, but that experience changed her mind about going in the building at all after that day.
The Fort Hancock Officer's Club Today (below)
Creepy, sure, but Cheap!
But I didn’t know all of this when I was assigned a room on the second floor. I was happy to have a place to stay and especially one that was inexpensive, matching my miniscule budget. Most of the rooms were empty. Floor tiles were coming off, bathrooms were quite old (see photo), windows rattled in the wind, paint was peeling here and there, and all rooms were drafty and unwelcoming. But it was functional...and cheap!
Old bathroom (below)
The Spirit (or Spirits) Get My Attention
I had just moved in with the help of my boyfriend and we settled in to our first dinner. The kitchen, as mentioned earlier, was on the first floor, so if I wanted a meal, I had to walk down to the ground floor to prepare it. Since there was no furniture on the first floor, we brought the plates upstairs and had our meal in my room. It was late, so we left the plates on the floor and went to bed. Just as I was falling asleep, I heard a loud, rhythmic banging in the room. I sat up and looked around. The banging stopped abruptly and I didn’t see anything, so I laid back down. Almost immediately, the banging started up again, slowly and rhythmically. I vaulted to the foot of the bed, hoping to see something or determine the source of the noise. Again, it stopped and again, I saw nothing. But I did realize the sound was that of a utensil banging on one of the dishes on the floor. I awakened my boyfriend and so that he could hear it, and help me find out the source. With both of us awake, the banging occurred twice more. Petrified, I got up and removed the dishes from the room. My boyfriend, as you might expect, had a “rational explanation” for the banging - the wind had blown down through the fireplace, catching the plate resting on the floor on its exact fulcrum point, causing the plate to tip back and forth and the fork to rattle. Problem solved! (Or so he thought - I was unconvinced.)
The following night, we made dinner in the kitchen and brought it up to my room again. Older and wiser, I placed a thick blanket under the plates on the floor. I was still not buying the “fulcrum point” explanation, probably because of how uneasy the staircase area and the building in general made me feel. We settled in later that night and just as I drifted off, the banging started again. I shook my boyfriend awake and vaulted to the foot of the bed. It had stopped. He asked me, “Is this really happening?” I was so frightened at this point, I can’t even describe it. We laid back down again and the banging started up several more times, only to stop whenever I jumped up to look. I moved the plates again to another room and I didn’t hear another noise in my room after that night. That’s not to say I didn’t hear anything else, though.
From that night on, I was so afraid I slept with my pillow over my head. Literally. At all hours of the night, I heard heavy footsteps walking up and down the stairs. Sometimes the footsteps would stop near my door. Most of the time, they continued up and down the staircase. During the time that I stayed there, I was almost always alone in the building and I was never able to find anyone else that had been in the building. Hearing those footsteps, knowing no one was there, and having nowhere else to go was terrifying.
“They would think I was crazy.”
About 2 weeks later, the law enforcement ranger returned from leave. I couldn’t wait to ask him about the ghost. Did he know anything? See anything? As it turned out, he was able to confirm that there was a lot of spirit activity there. He had heard the footsteps, but also told me that they were sometimes accompanied by a knock on his door. When he would open it, he would hear words being spoken, although he never saw anyone there. When I asked him what the voices said, he responded, “Oh, just regular words.” I wasn’t able to pry out of him, despite a lot of begging and pleading, exactly what was said. He told me that he also had witnessed the water turning on by itself in his bathroom - something that happened a number of times. I was so excited hearing his stories and getting confirmation that there really was a ghost in the Officer’s Club! He was such a straight-laced guy, I was sure everyone would believe him, too. So I asked him, “Have you told everyone else what happens here?” He gave me a hard stare and said, “No, of course not. They would think I was crazy.” He made it very clear to me that I was not to repeat what he’d told me. To this day, I’ve rarely talked about what happened to me there and I certainly never attributed any of it to him. After all, he had a career to protect!
Who is it?
The spirit in the Fort Hancock Officer’s Club has never been identified. While I worked there, I did ask the historian if any deaths had occurred in the building. There had been reference to an accident that occurred on the parade ground, directly in front of the building, that might be a clue to the spirit’s identity. The historian said that a soldier performing drills on the parade ground was injured, severing his femoral artery. He was rushed into the officers’ quarters, where he quickly succumbed to his injury. It’s possible that he lived in the building, since the spirit seems to know his way around it. Or perhaps it is simply a soldier that remembers his happiest years there - we may never know.
Parade Field at Fort Hancock (below)
Just One of Many Ghosts
The spirit that wanders through the Fort Hancock Officer’s Club is just one of many that have been seen or heard at Sandy Hook. I hope to share some of the others with you soon. Looking back all those years, I have to say that I could not have anticipated that living in the old Officer’s Club would change how I looked at everything from then on - but it did!
I hope you join me on my next Haunted National Parks adventure!
Carol Pollio, Ph.D.
Director and Lead Investigator