Spooky story hidden in the woods: “Ghost Town Tour” allows visitors to enter the ruins of the town common and learn about 19th century Hawleyites

By BELLA LEVAVI

Staff Writer

Published: 09-29-2023 12:13 PM

Taverns, inns, and stagecoaches once defined the bustling downtown of Hawley. Now the forest has reclaimed Main Street, dead leaves blow through empty cellar holes. 

The Department of Conservation and Recreation and Hawley Historical Commission have teamed up to provide an interactive tour of Hawley’s Old Town Common. Visitors will enter the ruins of the town common and learn about the Hawleyites of the 19th century, all by the period-appropriate light. The program is called “Ghost Town Tour by Candlelight.” 

“Here we have the last remnants of central Hawley,” Department of Conservation and Recreation Park Interpreter, Christian Drake, said.

Participants will meet Oct. 7 once it is dark at 7:30 p.m. at Historic Hawley Center on East Hawley Road in Kenneth Dubuque State Forest. They will take part in a historic interpretation of the town common ruins led by Drake. Candles and oil lamps will be provided; no flashlights allowed.

Today, Hawley, the 300-person town, is split between the east and west sections with a state forest in the middle. Unlike most small towns in Massachusetts, the town lacks a usable common, typically with a town hall, church, meeting house, cemetery, library and more. While a common is not in use today, the ruins of what once was still exist. This tour will allow people to imagine what the bustling days of yore of Hawley once looked like and learn about the local history of the town. 

Drake will lead people through the rock basements and broken walls that still stand, to tell the story of a visitor who arrives in town in the 1830s. This visitor arrives by stagecoach on his way to Albany, New York, and meets the residents of the time. At the time of the story, Hawley’s population was its highest in history, topping 1,200 residents. 

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“There will be an imaginary story; through the story you will learn about what life was like in those days,” John Sears said. 

While it is, quite literally, an empty and abandoned ghost town, the tour will have no focus on the supernatural. 

Features of the old common include a combination meeting house and church; Sears explained there was no separation of church and state in Massachusetts until later. This was true even in leadership, Drake explained, as the town reverend also functioned as the town leader at that time. 

The Sons and Daughters of Hawley created a series of trails around the town common. They built award-winning kiosks and signs taking visitors through the historic area explaining the history. These trails are open to the public and available for visitors during open hours of the park. 

Sears said the town center, post-peak Hawley in the 1830s, was later known as poverty-square until it was eventually abandoned and overgrown with forests. 

This is Drake’s first history tour. He typically focuses on ecology and astrology with regular and special programs he runs with the Mohawk Trail State Forest’s seasonal program schedule.

“People run across these ruins in the woods and often wonder what was there and why is it now a forest,” Sears said. “The landscape tells a story.”

Reach Bella Carmela Levavi at 413-930-4579 or blevavi@recorder.com.