“So why have I lived my whole life on Long Island, less than twenty minutes from here, and have never heard of Mount Misery, if it’s supposed to be such a paranormal hotspot?” Miss Bronwen asked, looking out over the valley below. “I’ve heard of West Hills County Park, I’ve even heard of Sweet Hollow Road, but I never heard any mention of this place until you started prattling on about it.”
We were sitting atop the southern end of Mount Misery, having entered the nature preserve across the cemetery on Sweet Hollow Road and then heading up. This is the less frequented area of West Hills County Park, south of Northern State Parkway.
“In short,” I replied after giving it some thought, “blame it on the internet. “It should be said, because there is so much bullshit going around about this area, that there is no Mount Misery. According to legend, Mount Misery and Sweet Hollow Road have been haunted as long as anyone can remember. Supposedly the native Americans who lived around here considered Mount Misery no man’s land. They spoke of strange lights which appeared on it, livestock disappearing on its slopes, as well as mysterious creatures spotted in the woods. Which might explain why they had no hesitation about trading it to the early settlers The old Indian path which is now Old Country Road was one of their main thoroughfares, and the ridge of what people call Mount Misery begins to rise just to the north of that. When the settlers found they had to cross it, at least according to legend, they had a hard go of it, as you saw from just hiking up here. You can imagine how tough it would be with a wagon, or carrying supplies, hence the name Mount Misery.”
I rambled on, “According to the surely honorable James Truslow Adams, back in 1916, this whole area up to Jayne’s Hill, which was then called High Hill, was actually known as Mannetto Hills. Then there was West Hills over there, Dix Hills beyond and …
“I’m only telling you all this because I know you’re kinky for geography.”
“Oh yes,” she replied flatly. “And cartography makes me wet.”
“Mount Misery has always been the road, not a specific height. As such, anything in this area could be said to be on Mount Misery. Which has caused a lot of confusion over the years. Here’s an example. Over there, west of Mt. Misery Rd. used to stand Highhold, the estate of the Secretary of War during the second big one, Henry L. Stimson. Whenever you find a reference to it, it’s said to be in West Hills. And if you look at a topographic map …”
“Swoooon” she moaned.”
“You’ll see that there is no way that the land under Mt. Misery Rd. is the same hill, from north to south. It’s undulating hills. I have a geographical paper on the makeup of the earth here, that’s to die for, and it lays out the area pretty clearly. With no mention of any Mount Misery.”
“And the only reference to Mount Misery I’ve even seen as an area rather than a road, has it over west of the road around where Highhold stood. With West Hills to the north rather than the east.”
The sun was setting on the afternoon before Halloween, and the autumnal leaves were taking on red and golden hues. It was hard to believe as we looked out over what appeared to be wilderness, that we were looking out over one of the busiest highways on Long Island. The view from here is sudden and surprising, the trees hiding the numerous houses of the well to do, the park and the valley below seeming to be nothing but unbroken forest, rising again in the distance as Walt Whitman’s West Hills.
“What does a bunch of pre-colonial era legends have to do with the internet?” Miss Bronwen asked.
I continued, “It all seems to begin and end with Bill Knell.”
“Who in the hell is Bill Knell?” she groaned.
“Glad you asked,” I replied. “He used to run a site called ‘The UFO Guy, as well as about a million others,’ and has written on a variety of bizarre topics which can be found online. His reputation, if it could be said that he has one, is that he’s a writer you wouldn’t normally trust. Even one of his kids said he’s a bullshitter when it comes to his writing. And then there’s the whole video piracy thing. In short, normally if he told you a fantastic story, you wouldn’t take the time to put on hiking boots to check it out for yourself. Unless your hiking outfit also includes aluminum foil hats.”
“Then aside from the view,” she asked, “why are we up here?”
I answered, “In folklore there is usually some truth. As Mr. Knell seems to have a habit of working off of other people’s research, he played a pivotal part in keeping the legends of this area alive. He’s an online authority on Mount Misery because he was the first person to get this stuff up there. Even if it was bullshit.”
“We know a lot of his ‘inspiration’ came from John Keel and his book “The Mothman Prophecies. Who got much of his information from Jaye Paro, a Long Island DJ in the sixties who wrote for an obscure, sensationalist pulp magazine, specializing in UFOs, ghosts and anything bizarre. It’s possible Knell did some research of his own, and possible he just made the rest up. My guess is he had all these elements and wove them together into a more or less coherent history of a place.”
“His claims include a couple of insane asylums built early on someplace on Mount Misery, as well as a military hospital, built in the 1940s. In addition to that he claims it’s a hotspot of UFO activity, Men in Black and even the Mothman of The Mothman Prophecies fame.”
“You mean that dreadful Richard Gere flick?” she asked.
“That’s the one, though to be honest I kind of liked it. The movie is of course based on the book by John Keel, and the Mothman, who gets short shrift in the film is supposedly a regular on Mount Misery. When I first started coming here I was convinced this was an ancient story, because it said so on the internet. That was before I realized what I read online is just Knell’s stuff endlessly rehashed. Or even my own now, which was based on his writing as well.”
Miss Bronwen zipped up her jacket and stood up, stretching. “So does Mr. Bill offer any evidence to back up his claims?”
“Not really,” I replied. “He cites sources, but those are notoriously difficult to pin down. Much of what he writes appears to be rehashing of urban legends, from many different places around the country, and perhaps – how to say this delicately – while displaying a staggering lack of knowledge about Mount Misery’s geography.”
“Usually people refer to the valley down there as Sweet Hollow, which itself isn’t exactly correct, and the highlands to the west of it as Mount Misery. Knell certainly does. And for the sake of argument, I’ll buy that. After all, an early settler coming out of the plains and seeing a ridge of hills wouldn’t necessarily know the geography well enough to know what he was facing. All that would have been important to him was “ugh, big damn hill to get over.” Further confusing the issue, he speaks of Mount Misery being a main route used to cross through the area, but he certainly can’t mean Mt. Misery Rd., as it runs today. It’s definitely not shown on DeWitt’s map of 1802, but I do believe it’s on the Traveler’s Map of 1847, which seems to show both it and Sweet Hollow Road, though not labelled. But it only shows the northern most section.”
“Mt. Misery Rd. stretches from the end of Chichester Road to the north, down to Old Country Road to the south, but it’s cut in half like a snake by Northern State Parkway. If we were to hike down the trail to the west, we’d come out at the top end of the southern section, which is a water facility for Suffolk County and a day camp for children. When it starts up on the other side of the parkway, it’s a dirt road for hikers and horses only for about a third of a mile, before it’s once again paved. Somewhere in there you leave Mannetto Hills and enter West Hills.”
“But I believe it was only a continuous road from the late 19th century till the Parkway came in, and I’m guessing the section that is a dirt track now never was paved. Or hadn’t been for long, as Secretary Stimson used to hold his Highland Games up there, which was very much an equestrian pursuit, until the 1920s when the roads were finally paved. And Northern State Parkway came in during the thirties.”
“Right where the dirt track turns to pavement on Mt. Misery Rd., at the infamous 666 log, there’s a trail which goes to the east. That trail, winds through the woods a bit and picks up another dirt track, which is the culmination of Gwynne Road, which of course is paved from Sweet Hollow Road over to 110. And that I believe is the original road – the dirt trail from the Gwynne Road/Sweet Hollow intersection was likely the miserable section – and from that trail north on today’s Mt. Misery Rd., up to Chichester. At least that’s what appears to be shown on the Traveler’s Map of 1847.”
“I’m guessing this isn’t going to be the most exciting story you’ve ever told me?” Miss Bronwen asked, arching an eyebrow.
“You’re guessing right. The Coyler house on the road there was built about 1819 by Walt Whitman’s father, so we know the road was in existence by then, even if it was just a farm road. But we don’t know how well travelled or developed those roads were. In fact, when Whitman visited the house in 1850, they reached it by hiking ‘across lots,’ rather than taking the roads from Jericho Turnpike, which would have included Mt. Misery Rd if it was there. Most of the existing residences from that time, especially those built by the Whitman family, are further east. And of course that’s where Route 110 eventually became the dominant north/south highway in the area. As far as Mount Misery being a major crossroads as Knell says, I just don’t see it. And then there’s the military hospital …”
“Ha! I did a Google search on Mount Misery before we came here and who should come up but you,” Miss Bronwen called out triumphantly. “Are you’re saying now that your claim to fame is based on bogus information?”
“I believe so,” I replied. “According to Knell’s story, the hospital was built to care for the wounded from World War II, but there wasn’t enough of a demand. It was closed down, then reopened mysteriously in the fifties. He supposedly spoke to a fellow who was stationed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, who took sick and was sent to the hospital on Mount Misery. Most of his time was spent in a fog, then he suddenly recovered, and as he left the facilities he saw a sign which said “Area 5.” Back in North Carolina he was told Area 5 was for psychological warfare testing, and not to ask any more questions. Likely part of the MKUltra Project. Of course the fellow is never named, and that’s the only story Knell offers as evidence. He goes on to say after the hospital was closed, voices were heard coming from it, as well as lights being spotted inside. Supposedly in the seventies some teenagers broke in and fell down an elevator shaft, and were seriously injured. And after that it was torn down.”
“But?” Miss Bronwen asked, leaving the question hanging in the air.
“But I can’t find any evidence that there was ever a hospital here,” I continued. “It’s certainly not apparent on overhead photos of the area from the fifties through the eighties. It wasn’t supposed to be all that large, but there aren’t many places here that it could have existed. I’ve only spoken to a couple of locals who have heard of it, and they heard of it of course, off the internet. The only other independent mention of it that I know of was supposed to be from a project on West Hills County Park, carried out by a boy scout. Supposedly he found some oblique references to ‘the hospital’ in the papers of the family that donated the land for the park. But I never saw that report.”
“And the other locals you’ve asked?” Miss Bronwen asked.
“Never heard of it,” I replied. “Including several people who lived in the area all their lives. Knell and others attribute this to the fact that it’s supposed to be a secret, and that the locals don’t want people snooping around. The Scooby Doo theory if you will. ‘We would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those darned kids!’ And it makes the whole thing seem quite eerie. The more people you ask, the higher the wall of silence becomes. Until you start to realize, it’s not a conspiracy. It’s just that the story probably isn’t true.”
Miss Bronwen nodded, “And so the whole military hospital story is a fabrication?”
“A case of mistaken identity,” I replied. “The 1947 Huntington Town Planners Map shows no hospital. And since that was just after the end of the war, I would expect it to be on there, if it in fact existed. Remember, it wasn’t a secret at that time. However, John Leita author of Long Island Oddities told me his theory on it, which makes a lot of sense. He believes the hospital was actually Mason General Hospital, or Edgewood, which was carved out of Pilgrim Psych, and was located in Deer Park.”
“It was built in the forties, used as a military hospital in World War II for the treatment of traumatized soldiers afterwards, and closed up in the seventies.”
“So maybe the story has an element of truth, just the wrong location?” she asked.
“Exactly. Why would they even need a hospital on Mount Misery for mind control experiments, when they had a huge facility equipped to do that less than ten minutes away? Now why Bill Knell wouldn’t know this I can’t say. Supposedly he knows where on Mount Misery the hospital stood, and even stated the steps leading to the hospital are still there. I mean I spent god knows how many days looking for those steps out here, as well as other people. And no one that I’ve heard of has ever found anything that can’t be explained.”
“And the location you found which is listed on Google as being a possible site of the Mount Misery Military Hospital?” she asked with a smirk. “Maybe that was the older asylum that people talk about?.”
“That’s pretty unlikely,” I answered. “According to the legends, the first asylum was built and burned in the 1700s, which is almost certainly poppycock. A second asylum was supposedly built and burned again, sometime later, but I find it hard to believe that the foundations would be visible from either the eighteenth or nineteenth century. And if it was here in the twentieth century, or even the late nineteenth century, there would be records of it.”
“Why do you say the asylum story is poppycock, other than you like using that word?” she asked.
“Okay, so the legend is that back in the 1700s there was a lunatic asylum built on Mount Misery. As the care for the insane was so poor, actually brutal, it was built here, far from towns and villages so the screams of the patients wouldn’t bother the locals. Others say they brought patients from New York City out here, but remember, there wasn’t even a decent road back then. According to the legend, it was burned down by one of the inmates, the infamous Mary, with all the patients and workers inside. Some time later it was rebuilt, and in another legend, once again burned down, and again blamed on the hapless Mary, though we presume a different Mary this time.”
“Mary certainly was resilient,” Miss Bronwen said.
“She’s the legend who will not die here,” I replied.
“In the early 1700s, this area was part of the British colonies. Psychiatric care was in its infancy, and asylums were rare. Had there been one here, it would have been quite unique, and would no doubt have been documented. Typically, people cared for the mentally ill at home. It’s entirely possible that there was an early farmer in the area who had one or more members of his family that suffered from mental illnesses. And perhaps, as according to the legend, the house burned down, killing all who lived there. Most myths and legends spring from some grain of truth after all. But you have to remember, during this time there were very few people living in the area. I believe in about 1800, there were only 45 residents. Huntington was still small as well. New York City was a few days ride away, and of course the difficulty of getting people up Mount Misery has already been spoken of. There simply wasn’t the population here to warrant an asylum, nor the staff to work there, and it was too far away from the population centers, with too poor of roads to make it feasible to send patients here.”
“So there was no sanitarium on Mount Misery?” she asked, sounding a bit disappointed.
“There I believe you might be hitting on another truth. The word sanitarium. People tend to associate the word sanitarium with asylums for the insane, but in the past, this wasn’t the case at all. A sanitarium was simply a place which housed people with chronic, or often, contagious diseases. And the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were rife with epidemics of one sort or another. Cholera was a big one, scarlet fever, typhoid, influenza, all were great killers, and all spread quickly.
“Here’s a story … Back home there was this big old abandoned house out in the country. And according to the stories, it used to be an asylum. Built in the the middle of nowhere for the same reason as this one. Eventually I asked the right person, and found it it was in fact once used as a sanitarium for cholera patients. The family who lived there were stricken by the disease, and were quarantined. As it was a large house with lots of rooms, when other people in the area took ill with the disease, they were sent to that house as well for quarantine. Eventually, all the inmates either die or recover and were released. That building survived, but quite often as the buildings were viewed as being diseased, they were burned.”
“And I suppose it wouldn’t be unheard of for the buildings to be burned with the patients still inside, if someone in the area was afraid of the disease spreading,” she said with a shudder.
“Christ, I never thought of that,” I replied. “Aren’t you the macabre one? But you’re certainly right. And it would fit in with the legends. Of course I don’t know of any evidence of that happening here. That’s the problem with the story of the asylums on Mount Misery, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence one way or another. There’s a comprehensive list of sanitariums in operation as of 1914 and there are none listed in the area. So if there was a sanitarium here, it wasn’t very large, and certainly not state or public funded. A quarantine house perhaps, but nothing more.”
“What about cemeteries and death records?” she asked.
“Good point. If you look at the records of Melville Cemetery on Sweet Hollow Road you do find clusters of deaths during certain periods. And one giveaway for epidemics is to look for multiple deaths among babies, infants and the very old. You find several babies and children dying in and around 1881 for instance, or 1935-36, but probably not enough to warrant a sanitarium strictly for epidemic purposes. Still, what you have to remember, is we’re dealing with legends and myths. And it only takes a grain of truth to start the whole process. A single freak of a moment that gets remembered because it’s so unusual or so horrific. Like one large family, quarantined in their house with some deadly disease, one of the family members forgets to blow out a lamp, the house burns down, and a hundred years later the story is transformed into an insane asylum, with one of the inmates burning the place down with all the patients and workers burned to death.”
“And no historic records of asylums in the area? What about poor houses?” Miss Bronwen asked. “People with mental issues were often housed in those.”
“Between 1650 and 1799 there are only three public asylums, or almshouses on record in the state of New York that I’ve found. Two in New York City and one in Albany. Between 1800 and the end of that century, the only public almshouses and asylums nearby that I can find is one in Amityville, and the Jones Institute, which I believe was around Hicksville. According to its census of the time, the Jones Institute was for accommodation of the poor that came from Oyster Bay and North Hempstead. They had ‘four idiots’ – one male, three female, and three who were blind. And incidently, when it was in full swing, it only had four employees. So a large asylum with lots of workers is certainly a myth. I did find mention that some of the communities of the area moved the poor or those who were considered ‘idiots’ into farms in rural communities, and it’s possible that some of them might have found their way to farms in the Mount Misery or West Hills area. But that’s certainly not an asylum, and as I said, I can find no record of this happening. Just to the south and west, between Old Country Road and Round Swamp Road, which is only a few miles from here, was the Nassau County Sanitarium, which was a tuberculosis ward. And that would be in Knell’s definition of Mount Misery. But that dates from the 1930s, and it certainly never burned down. Still, perhaps that somehow became the nucleus for the asylum on Mount Misery?”
Miss Brownwen stood up and stretched, her arms reaching up towards the darkening sky.
“It’s getting dark,” she said. “And even if there were no asylums, no loonies burned alive, no mothmen and no UFOs, I don’t really want to go down that hill in the pitch black.”
I stood up as well and picked up our knapsack.
“I suppose you’re right, but can you really think of any better place to be on Halloween, than the haunted South Woods of Mount Misery?”
Miss Bronwen grinned and started back for the trail.
“Well, they say misery loves company,” she said.