The phantom of 49 Ten Broeck might be Albany’s oldest ghost. In fact, he’s probably two centuries older than the house he haunts!
The tall brownstone house was built by George Dawson in 1859. Born in Falkirk, Scotland, Dawson came to Albany with Thurlow Weed in 1830 and eventually rose to the position of senior editor of the influential Albany Evening Journal. Dawson died in 1883 and is buried at Albany Rural Cemetery, as is his son who was killed in the Civil War.
Though shabby with age now, the white Ionic columns that flank the front door of 49 Ten Broeck provide an elegant contrast to the brown stone of the facade (a building material that novelist Edith Wharton likened to “cold chocolate sauce”). The facade has quite a bit of wear and there are signs of on-and-off renovations inside.
The house faces a small, triangular park which was once a burial ground provided by the Van Rensselaer family for use by residents of their Rensselaerwyck Manor. Known variously as the Colonie, Arbor Hill, or Van Rensselaer Burying Grounds, it’s not to be confused with the Van Rensselaer family’s private burial vault. This burial ground was an impediment to progress and, in 1845, converted to a park. With the removal of the old graveyard, elegant residents filled in what’s now the Ten Broeck Triangle neighborhood. Many of the homeowners were associated with the city’s booming lumber trade thanks to the close proximity to the lumber district and the Erie Canal.
Just to the north of No. 49 and the park is the neighborhood’s oldest building, the Ten Broeck Mansion. This mansion and the area were originally known as Arbor Hill, a designation which now applies to the larger neighborhood. Built in 1797, it was the home of Revolutionary War general Abraham Ten Broeck and, later, prominent banker Thomas W. Olcott. The historic Ten Broeck Mansion is also known to be quite haunted.
The ghost at No. 49, however, seems to predate both the old graveyard and the brick mansion atop Arbor Hill.
After George Dawson’s death, his brownstone changed hands several times and eventually became a rooming house. It was during this time that the ghost was first reported. Of course, previous occupants might have seen or experienced the supernatural, but if they did, those stories remain unknown.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, two children came to live with their mother who owned the rooming house at the time. The children would roam the halls of the house and it was on the third floor that they encountered a man who was quite obviously not a boarder.
The man was somber-faced and silent. He was dressed in clothing from another era, complete with a metal helmet. In short, he was dressed quite like a 17th-century Dutch soldier. The helmet was, in fact, quite similar to the 1610 Dutch pikeman’s helmet currently on display at the New York State Museum.
At the time, though, the children were not familiar with the attire of a Dutch colonial soldier and, based on books and movies, called him “The Conquistador.” They found this apparition quite frightening and would try to avoid the third floor.
The ghost’s clothing and helmet places him in an era some two hundred years before George Dawson built the brownstone. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, there was very little on Arbor Hill. It was well outside the north wall of the stockade and about a mile from Fort Orange and its predecessor, Fort Nassau. The area was not even formally surveyed until Stephen Van Rensselaer II began that work after the French and Indian War.
Did this ghost meet his death on the future site of the Dawson house? Was he killed in some minor, unrecorded skirmish on this hill? An accidental death? Was he buried near where he died?
Or did he die elsewhere in the colony and, for some reason, his spirit attached itself to this spot? There were a few notable deaths here during his era, including Captain Daniel Van Krieckenbeeck who was killed in a brutal ambush near modern Lincoln Park.
Or, on a slightly sillier note, could it be the ghost of George Dawson or some other early resident of the house with a taste for historic costumes?
Who can say? He wasn’t the sort of ghost to reveal clues about his life, his demise, or choice of haunting place.
It’s not known if later residents of this old house have seen this phantom.