Michelle Ann Kratts

Part 4: The Island of Lost Souls; a brief and macabre history of Cayuga Island

In Ghost Stories, If This House Could Talk, LaSalle on December 29, 2012 at 8:43 pm

Cayuga Island

Photograph of Cayuga Island, courtesy Tim Baxter

In the beginning there were three sisters and many ghosts…

The sisters were frantic.

Maybe your mother can help us, they said.

My daughter raced over to the unassuming house perched at the edge of the Niagara River, on Cayuga Island,  as soon as she had heard the news.  She texted me some of the story.  The sisters were friends of friends and apparently they had a little ghost problem that was getting out of control.  Their stepfather was away so they could concern themselves with this situation for a few minutes–or at least until he pulled into the driveway.  He wasn’t fond of the ghost talk.

But the girls were willing to tell their tale–hoping that some kind of help would come their way.  They had had enough of the faceless man and the lady with the scraggly hair.

And they were not the only ones to see the scraggly-haired woman.  The neighbors had actually seen her through the windows.  There were many, many specters that seemed to hover outside the windows and oftentimes pushed their ghostly faces against the glass.  There was a man who wore a baseball cap.  They have never seen his face–no matter which way he appears, it is only darkness.  And there are spirits of animals.  They claw their way up and down the stairs at all hours of the day–unseen–resounding through floor and wall.  Their beds rattle and shake while they sleep.  And one night, one of the sisters found herself in a most precarious position as she struggled with all her might to keep one of these ghosts from pinning her down to her bed.

Enough was enough.  These spiritual encounters at the house on Cayuga Island were becoming quite sinister.

I never knew much about the history of Cayuga Island so this was quite an adventure for me, as well.  The house, itself, was not too old.  But I have learned that the age of a house has nothing to do with the probability of it being haunted.  There are so many other factors to consider.  There was always something on the premises–even going back to ancient times–whether a fire pit, a Six Nations camp, a cottage or a final resting place for a murder victim.

And Cayuga Island IS ancient.  Searching through books and histories you will find that the first actual building erected by white men in Niagara was a bark church built on Cayuga Island around 1678-1679 by Father Hennepin, a priest who had accompanied the explorer LaSalle’s party to the New World.   The infamous ghost ship, Le Griffon, was also built somewhere close by on the banks of the Cayuga Creek– under the watchful eyes of the Iroquois.   The church was abandoned soon after the ship was sent off and probably burned by suspicious warriors.  Shortly after, the ship also disappeared into history.

Building-le-griffon

According to Tuscarora historians, even before the explorer LaSalle stepped foot in the area, Cayuga Island was an important location for the Natives.   Dugouts were carved in locations throughout the island  as this was the embarkation point by which they made their trips out to all the other islands.  These islands in the Niagara (Strawberry, Squaw, Buckhorn, Navy and Grand Island) were all inhabited during ancient times.  According to their histories, if one were to excavate the location, ancient fire pits would be found all along the river.

Cayuga Creek was one of the most mystical corridors leading straight through (what is now) the Tuscarora Nation and into the Niagara River.  The Creek flows first from the Tuscarora swamps.  It was at this origination point that the natives would load their canoes with goods for trading and follow the route which would ultimately lead them to Cayuga Island.

peaches

Before the Civil War, Cayuga Island was famous for Mr. John Burdett’s peaches.  Cayuga Island was home to the best peaches the area could offer.  The harvests were so plentiful that Burdett was selling over 500 baskets a day at Rowe and Co’s on Main Street in Buffalo–not to mention the sales to other locations closer to home.  By the 1870’s the passenger trains on the Central and Erie Railroads between Buffalo and LaSalle were bustling and it was not uncommon for visitors to come and visit Burdett’s Orchards on a regular basis.  They were only a four or five minute walk from the LaSalle depot.  In the summertime Cayuga Island was the center of considerable activity as a cottage colony.  A few residents lived there throughout the year, however only a handful stayed over the winter months.  In fact Cayuga Island was almost completely cut off from the rest of LaSalle during that time.  And then there were the baptisms.  It was on Cayuga Island, in the Little Niagara River, that hundreds of people were baptized.

Baptisms

During the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Cayuga Island was a summer resort.  A cottage colony, it was the center of considerable activity.  It was so popular a rest spot that in 1897 it was considered a viable location for the Pan American Exposition.   President McKinley checked the place out himself.   In the end, however, Buffalo received the honor of hosting the world famous event, but not without the tragedy of a dead president.

Maybe one of Cayuga Island’s saddest stories was that of Billy the Bear.  Back in 1907 George Luick’s tethered bear became the victim of a public execution.  He had been kept on a chain outside Billy’s house and as the years passed came to resent the patronizing spirit of the passerby and the occasional snapping at by the marauding fat calf.  One afternoon he broke away and chased little Henry Baker down Main Street.  Following this incident it was decided that the bear would be murdered.  But it was a specially planned “killing.”  Even twenty year old Rex, LaSalle’s greatest hunting dog, (and George Luick’s beagle)  would join in on the fun.  The game plan consisted of the following:  Billy’s collar would be slipped off at a given signal, he would run for his life and all the area hunters would have a go for it.  But it did not go as exactly as planned.  When Dr. E. H.P. Griswold, S.P.C.A. agent, heard about this he explained that as an officer of the law he could not permit the hunt to take place.  Mr. Luick was angry.  As the hunters began to arrive with firearms that represented every make of rifle and shotgun from the Civil War to the last sportsman’s show Luick took the law into his own hands.  With Billy double chained to an iron post at the edge of the creek, Luick put an end to the bruin with his Winchester 45.  Poor Billy.  It was said he cried like a baby before he finally died.  A.P. Spitzig, the village butcher, dismembered him while the villagers stood and watched.   In the end, poor Billy ended up in a pot of Christmas stew for he had been a bad bear.   Maybe Billy wasn’t bad at all, though.   Maybe Billy just wanted an end to his miserable existence.

billy

There is a dark history that ripples through Cayuga Island’s past.  One that may account for the ghosts in the house of the three sisters.  These are the stories that most people wish to forget.   Stories not of fruit orchards, religious revivals and rebirth–but stories of destruction and death.      Actually much of the macabre history of Cayuga Island may have been born of the great fire of 1912.    For it was after this date that the headlines often revealed tragedy and mayhem. Many of the most prominent cottages lay in smoldering ruin.  It was believed that the fire was of incendiary origin.  In other words, someone had purposely set it.  Other than the destruction of the adorable cottages, it was learned that but one life was lost in the fire...and that was a black crow.  His charred remains were disclosed near the ruins of one of the cottages…. This one sole sacrifice left to the wind.

fire

Following the fires, it was found that there were quite a few inadequacies concerning structural safety on Cayuga Island.  Improvements were made at this time.  New homes were built and the bridge restructured.  Measures were in put in place to make it easier for the firemen to reach the island.  Things were looking so much better…until the two little girls vanished.  Their names were Ruth Ratcliffe and Bertha Weise.  The mystery of the disappearance of the tiny playmates of Cayuga Island sent Niagarans into a flurry.  It was a Wednesday morning, on March 11, 1925, that two three year old girls, who had been playing outside near their homes on Cayuga Island, vanished from sight.  Continual dragging and the dynamiting of the Little Niagara River yielded no bodies for some time.  But they did show up, eventually.  By March 14, Bertha’s little body was found.  A  red rubber boot, worn by Ruth, was the only evidence of her demise until May 6,  when her body was found in the river at the foot of Sugar Street (Hyde Park Blvd).  I recently found the exact spot where this event occurred and drove past while my own daughter was asleep in the car.  A chill went through me as I noticed children’s toys laying about the property.  I couldn’t help but wonder if those little girl ghosts pick them up here and there and play–for old time’s sake.  Perhaps they are frozen in time–on this island–forever.

ratcliffe and weise

The 1920’s and 1930’s brought on an entirely new era to Cayuga Island.  An era of construction and…an era of destruction.  It was christened Niagara’s beauty spot and referred to as healthful, delightful, restful. In 1927, along with the village of LaSalle, Cayuga Island was annexed into the city of  Niagara Falls.

sumer homes

Enter:  the era of the rumrunners.  Violence by gunfire caught Niagara by surprise.  It was not uncommon for Islanders to awaken to shooting forays upon the Niagara River–for when the sun went down, it was inevitable that the river was run by the runners.  It was reported in the Niagara Falls Gazette, May 14, 1931, that practically every resident of the island and adjacent part of LaSalle section has reported hearing heavy battles on the river… A section of breakwall was found to be riddled with bullets.  Promiscuous shooting on the upper river had become a menace to life along the river front.

And there were cries for help in the night.  Last ditch screams for help from the river.  Residents often called the police station claiming they had heard cries coming from the Niagara but could see nothing.  Cayuga Island watchers often caught sight of flashlights in the river, too.  They would turn on and off, as if beckoning for someone’s assistance.  And then nothing.  It is believed that most of these people were ultimately carried over the falls.

over the falls

Inevitably, Cayuga Island was a perfect spot to leave a murdered cadaver.  It was also a perfect cove in which floaters naturally gravitated.  In 1911, the body of an unidentified woman was found floating in the Niagara River near Cayuga Island, opposite LaSalle…on the index finger were two rings…one plain and one inscribed “M.L. & E.G.”  It was May when she was found by Michael Abbott, an upriver boatman.  It was presumed she had been in the river throughout the winter.  I imagine her hair may have been quite scraggly by that time.

Strange phenomenon is not uncommon on Cayuga Island, either.  In August of 1930, a phenomenon that defied explanation in ordinary terms was witnessed and reported by several persons who were standing on the Cayuga Island banks of the Niagara River.  Summer revelers, they maintained that there was no indication of high winds or a coming storm when suddenly they all became aware of a fury building in a tree some distance away.  The circular motion called to mind a cyclone, however there was no cloud formation in sight and all the rest of the area was clear and calm.  What they saw resembled the commotion when a flock of birds is flushed.  But there were no birds.  The air current passed in a direct line coming from a northwesterly direction and headed due southwest.  The viewers surmised this as they noticed that the waters of the river in its path were also suddenly agitated.   This most unusual occurrence was never fully explained.

witness phenomenon

Through the years, there were more murders and deaths on Cayuga Island.  One striking one occurred during the holiday season, in 1958, when a beautiful young woman from the Town of Tonawanda was found strangled and frozen to death on Cayuga Island.  The autopsy revealed she might have still been alive when she was left on the river bank.  Her name was Judith McCollum and she was murdered by William Liss, who was believed to have been a serial killer, for he had reportedly killed at least one other woman.  Her body was found beside concrete blocks at the foot of 86th St., on Cayuga Island, by two little boys.

woman left

So who can the ghosts be that haunt this particular house on Cayuga Island?  If such a thing is possible, they may be any of the tragic folks who died miserable deaths on Cayuga Island.  The Tuscarora historians insist that all the places around the Cayuga Creek are enchanted.  Perhaps some of these souls are lost on the island forever.

Although we attempted a formal paranormal investigation (with NF Paranormal) of the haunted house on Cayuga Island, the day came and went.  The homeowners ultimately decided that they did not want to follow through with anything of the sort.  The three sisters were a bit disappointed.  Things continued to occur and (I believe) the house was ultimately sold.   The ghosts of Cayuga Island are not their problem anymore.  They are someone else’s.

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  1. I grew up on the island, and we had a ghost in our house we called her the woman in white.

  2. I also grew up on the Island. I had a variety of paranormal incidents happen to me in our house. We called it the Poltergeist but I also remember the woman in whitee…

  3. I grew up on Cayuga Island, class of 1961 LaSalle High. We never knew of any ghost stories. The Island was a beautiful place. I never knew about its connection with President McKinley until about ten years ago. A friend of mine lived in the large brick double on the west side of South 86th St. That is the oldest house on the Island, built in 1964. I would love to heart more of the Island history.

    • Sorry about the date of the house. It should be1864. I would like to know in which house the woman in white was seen. My house was on Council St. at the end of Hennepin Ave.

      • The home is actually located on Rivershore Drive. To protect the privacy of the owners I am not able to say the exact address. It is along the river, though.

    • Thanks for the comment. There is certainly some great history in all of LaSalle!
      I will try and post more LaSalle and Cayuga Island stories.

  4. My husband Jim Hahn and his friend Skip Kleber were the two boys who found the body of Judith McCollum on Christmas day 1958. There was an article about it in the True Detective magazine along with pictures.

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