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Ghosts of industry past

via Flickr
The Phelps Mansion is rumored to be haunted by the ghost of early Binghamton mayor, Sherman Phelps.

Merchants and railroad magnates helped found many upstate cities and towns. But often all that’s left of their legacy are their rambling mansions. Except sometimes, the old industrial tycoons are rumored to still walk the halls.

Sherman David Phelps arrived in Binghamton in 1854 with $100,000 in cash and opened a bank. He started the gas company, and invested his wealth in the city’s cigar manufacturers. He became known as "Mr. Binghamton."

Phelps is long forgotten by most, but his elegant home with its high, paneled rooms still sits beside the public library in downtown Binghamton. Things also happen inside the house: people hear strange voices, candlesticks are misplaced.

"We think it’s Sherman," says Bob Keller, who gives tours of the house, but his statement is amended by Laura Bassett, the mansion's caretaker.

“A lot of people think it’s Sherman,” she says. “We’ve seen kind of shadows and things so it seems almost like maybe there’s more than one, but basically I think that mostly Sherman kind of hangs out.”

Bassett and Keller point to pieces of evidence that Sherman may still be around, in every corner of the house. Bassett wrangles with a piece of an ornate grate in one of the downstairs fireplaces, showing how firmly attached it is.

“It came off from there and rolled across the floor,” she says. “Twice.”

Elizabeth Tucker, who teaches English at Binghamton University, and who's writing a book about the ghosts of the Southern Tier, says these types of stories are not unusual. “I’ve noticed that people tend to look back at the elegant, prosperous past with a kind of nostalgia,” says Elizabeth Tucker, “but also with a bit of suspicion.”

Tucker says ghost stories tend to surface during times of stress, like the current recession.

“In many towns that have been established for some time,” Tucker notes, “there will be stories about the early industrialists that founded the local economy. Especially if there is a beautiful historic building that still is available to be visited.”

Tucker hasn’t heard of any modern ghosts of industries past, so there’s no spirit of IBM. But she says the company left difficult legacies in the community, and she’d like to watch as they enter the city’s mythology. Caretaker Bassett thinks the ghost of Phelps just wants to make sure his things and his legacy are looked after.

“They said Sherman Phelps was a tall, dark austere man who wasn’t very well liked,” Bassett says. “I think that he built this place as his showcase. And I think he likes me.”

Bassett says one of the Phelps ghost’s favorite haunts is a modern elevator, installed to make the house wheelchair accessible. It has certain safety features that need to be engaged for it to operate. But Bassett has seen the elevator travel between floors on its own. A psychic who came through on one of the house tours told her ghosts sometimes like to play with more modern things because they never had them when they were alive.

Another psychic also told Bassett that Phelps’ ghost would like her to visit his grave to honor his memory. Bassett says normally she doesn’t do cemeteries. But she’s going to go for Sherman.



Former WRVO/Central New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.