By Tod Westlake
If you travel through the towns surrounding the Shawangunk Ridge, you'll notice that, like other parts of the country, there are quite a few old cemeteries. But unlike many areas in the rest of the country, the ridge area has a history stretching back well into the seventeenth century. Given this, the age of many of the cemeteries in the ridge area are considerable older than the ones that are seen in some other parts of the United States. Some of these are so old that they've been forgotten or abandoned entirely.
This fact never really sat right with Charlie Goetschius and his wife Helene. So, the couple took matters into their own hands and began the task of cleaning up and cataloguing cemeteries in the Town of Mamakating. They began raking leaves, mowing grass, and generally doing whatever they could to spiff these places up. They also do what they can to ascertain just who, or in some case what, was buried in some of these graves, many of which have lost their markers.
But Charlie Goetschius takes what many would consider a unique approach to this search: he uses a pair of diving rods.
Divination — or dowsing — for those who are unfamiliar with the practice, is the art of using a Y-shaped stick or a pair of L-shaped metal rods in order to locate something underground, very often a source of water or a seam of precious metals or other types of minerals. In Charlie's case, he searches for abandoned graves.
"I don't know if it's a horse or a mule in this one," Charlie says, divining rods in hand, as he traverses a particularly large grave in an old cemetery just south of Haven Road in Mamakating.
The key to successful dowsing, Charlie says, is to hold the rods in such a manner that they remain parallel with the ground, but can still move freely horizontally. As the dowser walks over a location that has something detectable underground, the rods will cross of their own volition, in a literal example of the old adage "X marks the spot."
"Keep your eye on it and it'll tell you when it's gonna open up." Charlie says about the metal rods he employs.
Charlie Goetschius, who has been dowsing for forty years, has developed a delicate touch that allows him to see things others can't. He also claims that one of his ancestors was a dowser in General George Washington's revolutionary army, so it's something that runs in the family. Indeed, on several occasions on this particular afternoon, Charlie is able to locate several old grave markers that had toppled and sunk into the ground.
"I can even tell the difference between male and female," Charlie says of these unmarked graves.
This area of the ridge was once home to the D&H Canal, the nineteenth-century waterway that transported millions of tons of coal and lumber between the Delaware and Hudson Rivers. Many thousands of men, women, and children worked or made their homes in the settlements on or near the canal. Hamlets with names like Phillipsport and Port Ben now seem incongruous with the landlocked valley.
Working along the canal was a highly dangerous way to make a living, and many of these people died during both its construction and the seven decades in which it was active. Sometimes these workers would die far from home, with no one in the area having knowledge of an individual that could be used to identify the body. In these cases, graves were hastily dug, the body was interred, and a simple fragment of bluestone was employed as a marker. It is likely that no one will ever know who many of these individuals were.
"I wish they could talk," Charlie says about the occupants of the graves.
Charlie and Helene feel it's the least they can do to maintain the final resting places of these forgotten individuals.
Several of the markers in the old cemetery carry the name of the Brown family, including a Jesse Brown who died on the canal at just 18 years of age, and a Theodosia Brown aged 31. The Browns still live in the area, it turns out, and Charlie and Helene have been working to identify as many of their graves as possible.
"We have so many requests, I hope we can get them all done," says Helene about the endeavor.
And one can't help but speculate that, given all the time they spend in graveyards, one or two unexplained events have taken place. In one instance, the camera the couple uses to document the markers simply wouldn't work whenever it was near a particular grave. They took the camera to the repair shop, only to be told that nothing was wrong with it. Still, the camera wouldn't take a picture. So, Charlie sat down next to the grave in question and began talking to it. The grave was of a four-year-old boy who had died on Halloween.
"He wouldn't let us take a picture," Charlie says, "so I talked to him for a while and told him we were there to clean up the place. The problem went away."
Despite this spooky incident, Charlie says that he doesn't believe in hauntings.
"I'm a believer in spirits, but not a believer in ghosts," he says.
Charlie and Helene have now left the ridge area for the winter, preferring to stake out the warmer climes of Florida during the cold weather. But they'll be back in their familiar haunts sometime after the spring thaw.
And if you happen to be driving through the ridge area this winter, be sure to bring your divining rods with you. And take careful notes while you're at it. Charlie and Helene, and the ghosts of the old D&H Canal, will thank you for it.
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