Growing up here many decades ago, we were aware of a number of places around town that had notorious connections to them.
One of those places was spot familiar to me.
It was a building located on the southeast corner of Kinderkamack Road and Tenney Avenue.
A large mansion-like house once stood there. In its time it must have been quite stately. But the time I got to know of it, the place had become quite run down and dilapidated.
It was the home of Annette Laurence and Juliette Laurence Douglas, two elderly sisters who were my baby sitters back then in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Originally it was built by William Williams, who later served on the Board of Education. According to one local history, Williams was a trader and his home included a tower which served as a convenient lookout for ships.
The sisters were part of a family that lived there for decades and who, in 1920, named the place “Pinehurst”.
Some who grew up at the time they lived there thought the pair to be strange – “maybe witches” because their house looked so much like a haunted house.
In fact, the two were unique, but nothing even approaching anything witchlike. They were gracious and caring women – two lovely souls.
Their family came from Quebec. While babysitting, they would describe what it was like growing up in a large house along Sherebrooke Street in Montreal. They painted a picture of winter-life in Canada around the turn of the century. Sleighs plying the cold Canadian winter thoroughfares. The women had a glamorous quality to them, wearing potent perfume and adorned in fur coats for their Saturday evening babysitting appointments.
That the Laurence sisters spoke French to one another made them appear that much more exotic to me. In fact, I was so captivated that their chatter that they inspired me to study French. Moreover, their descriptive accent laden stories drew me to their winter hockey heroes in Quebec – the Montreal Canadiens.
One night Juliette tuned a radio to a crackly radio station out of Canada where a Saturday night hockey game was being broadcast in French. It was “Les Canadiens de Montreal”, the fabled Flying Frenchmen playing in the midst of one of their Stanley Cup dynasties. The language and the electricity of the passionate Montreal Forum crowd quickly had me smitten. I remain a Canadiens’ fan decades later.
As unique as the women were, so was their house.
First, there were said to be some 22 rooms in the house. When I got to know the ladies, their living area was limited to the main floor and the basement. The upstairs (2 floors) were virtually uninhabited – though replete in furniture and artifacts from earlier generations of Laurences who lived there. The place was quite dusty and musty.
It was also a place of history.
The sisters explained how in an earlier time the house was a stop along the Underground Railroad, the informal network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th-century black slaves to escape to free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause. Being of a younger age, I kept looking for railroad tracks but never found them; I could not fathom how a track ran to the Erie tracks a block and a half away or to the river beyond.
On one Saturday morning visit, they did show me a door in the basement leading to another room. A tunnel was said to be back there. It was dark, and I never bothered to peak in. There were no tracks anywhere in sight.
Only years later would I come to understand what the Underground Railway was really about, and I have always regretted that I did not look inside that room.
It was only decades later that I also came to appreciate that there might have been another motive for the building of the tunnels (there were three such tunnels running to Pinehurst, say local histories) – illegal liquor transactions.
Apparently, according to comments to this publication, there were other homes along Kinderkamack with similar tunnels leading to the river.
Now, decades later, the old home is long gone – so are the enormous trees that graced the property that lied on the hill. A Chase bank occupies the location now.
Of all the furniture china and other fineries in those 22 rooms, not much remains. In the basement of my Mom’s house is an ornate brass wind-up clock, supposedly made in France, which was given to our family as a present by the sisters, Juliette and Annette – a way to recall the special bond between our families.
They were babysitters, but they were unofficial family too.
Now along with the clock, there are just some memories. But perhaps, just maybe, one day someone might locate the remnants of a tunnel from the age of the Underground Railroad – that tunnel behind the door that I did not want to see.
Back to “Pinehurst”; like the Laurence sisters, the place was exotic, mysterious, and overwhelmed the senses.
But haunted? No - not then.
But today, these many years later, I remain haunted by the house and the wonderful ladies who lived there.
Acknowledgment: Source and background materials from Musket Anchor and Plow, The Story of River Edge; Arno Press, 1976