Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Boulder From Mount Hope

The book, Traveler's Tales - Rumors and Legends of the Albany-Saratoga Region by Mark MacGregor Steese and Sam McPheeters contains scores of anecdotes about ghosts, odd happenings, and local legends drawn mostly from newspaper clippings and old books. Among the stories is this one about Mount Hope Drive in the Kenwood area at Albany's southern edge.

The old Prentice Mansion on Mount Hope Drive, in Kenwood, was long the subject of ghostly tales.  Most of these concerned the Prentice burial vault, which was somewhere on the estate -- no one knew where.  The most popular tale was that there were particular times during the month, when the moon could only be discerned faintly behind thick shrouds of cloud, passersby might see in the vicinity of the vault, used as a temporary resting place for some members of the Prentice family, the specters of those people, clad in their cerements, discussing matters of days long past.

In the forties, the vault was rediscovered by some Albany boys.  When the earth was cleared away and the rusting padlock removed, the massive hinged slab covering the entrance was lifted, and the chamber was entered.  It was found to be empty.  Whether or not this dispelled the ghost stories in not known.

Born in Alstead, New Hampshire on December 18, 1797, Ezra Parmalee Prentice came to Albany at the age of twenty-nine where he and his brothers made their initial fortunes selling wholesale furs.  Selling the fur trade to George Treadwell, Ezra moved on to railroads and banking.  He was actively involved in the organization of the Albany & Susquehanna Railroad and later served as president of the National Commercial Bank.  One of his greatest interests, however, was agriculture (especially the breeding an improvement of cattle stocks) and he was a founding member of the New York State Agricultural Society.

He married Philena Cheney, described as "an excellent woman, loved by all."  The couple had eight children and celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on September 24, 1872.  

 Ezra Parmalee Prentice

In 1834, Ezra P. Prentice purchased a farm from a member of the Van Rensselaer family.  Known as Mount Hope, the steep hill had a spectacular view of the Hudson River and its eastern shore.  Atop this hill, Prentice built a beautiful mansion of red brick (reportedly sent over from Holland).  The house was surrounded by extensive gardens which were further ornamented with statuary such as this now-lost marble Discobulus.
A pair of imposing lions sat atop columns which flanked the gate at the foot of the hill.   From a 1950 article in the Knickerbocker News:

An interesting story persists about the two stone lions that used to be at the gate. The sculptor who carved them forgot to give them tongues. When the error was called to his attention, his chagrin was so keen he committed suicide. That's the tale that has survived all these years.  Later, it is reported the lions were removed to Williamstown, Mass., to adorn the grounds of a new Mount Hope, the estate of Mr. Prentice's grandson, Ezra P. Prentice, who married Alta Rockefeller, daughter of John D. Rockefeller.

Ezra Parmalee Prentice died in 1876.  Later generations made their home in New York City, but continued to use Mount Hope as a summer residence.  By the middle of the 20th century, however, the mansion had fallen into disrepair and a few rosebushes struggled to survive it the abandoned gardens.  Stripped of everything but its fine marble mantles, the mansion was eventually demolished and the land redeveloped for houses.  But not before a spooky discovery was made.

As mention above, there was a burial vault on the Mount Hope property.  Mentioned briefly by Huybertie Pruyn Hamlin in her memoir, An Albany Girlhood, it seems the vault stood somewhere just inside the lion-guarded gates along the winding road up to the house.  She noted that she did not like passing the old crypt on visits to the Prentice family.

At some point, the remains originally interred in this vault were removed to the Albany Rural Cemetery and reburied in a family plot on the South Ridge.  The massive boulder that stands in the center of the plot was hauled to the Cemetery from Mount Hope.  Weathered and nearly illegible headstones surround it.

The old vault was left empty on the grounds and, eventually, hidden by weeds and overgrown bushes.  Until March of 1947 when a group of boys exploring the area stumbled across the crypt.

The lid was raised and they were able to enter the old burial chamber along with a reporter from the Knickerbocker News who took a photo of the boys inside.

Despite long-standing rumors of treasures hidden inside, the vault was completely empty.  Like the mansion, the vault has since been demolished.  The Albany Housing Authority development along South Pearl Street at the foot of Mount Hope was named the Ezra Prentice Homes as a passing nod to the area's history.

Close-up of lichens and moss on the boulder


  1. Until the question of the discobulus came up, I had never made the connection between the Ezra Prentice Homes and any piece of local history. Now, knowing that the family went off to grander climes, I wonder if the statue didn't end up on some other estate.

  2. Good point - I'm wondering if it might have made it to Williamstown with the lions.