Travel Back in Time: The Spirit of Powder House

One of the most important old buildings in Massachusetts, the Powder House graces Somerville's city seal, and people drive by every day without pondering the silent old sentinel.

No one who's driven around or walked across Powderhouse Circle can say honestly, with a straight face, that he or she has never resorted to salty language:

"Some neanderthal in an SUV nearly hit me! That 89 bus just ran four cars off the road while a pedestrian talking on a cell phone pressed the walk button for no good reason, causing a back-up halfway to Ball Square. And now there's a funeral procession at rush hour! Fudge!"

Only you don't say "fudge;" you say something a wee bit stronger.

Powderhouse Circle, in fact, is one of the worst motor-vehicle crash sites in Somerville, according to statistics collected by the city's SomerStat program.

A malevolent spirit?
It's almost as if the area has its own malevolent spirit, a spirit that causes fender-benders and fits of language suitable only for 19th century New Bedford whalers.

Perhaps it does.

While most of us are dangerously barreling around the traffic circle in our cars or risking our lives trying to get from one side to the other, a landmark stands above us like a sentinel, as unassuming as it is famous, and it's both.

It's one of the most important landmarks in Massachusetts. It nearly caused the Revolutionary War. And it's probably haunted.

We're talking, of course, of the old Powder House in , the 30-foot-tall round stone tower that has stood at the site for over 300 years.

Nearly caused the Revolutionary War
It was the Powder House in Somerville that nearly caused the onset of the Revolutionary War about eight months before the battles of Lexington and Concord.

Probably built sometime after 1703 or 1704 by Jean Mallet, a Huguenot shipwright-turned-miller, the round structure was originally a mill, but it was sold to the Massachusetts colony in 1747 and converted into a storage facility for colony's gun powder, according to Somerville, Past and Present, edited by Edward A. Samuels and Henry H. Kimball in 1897.

In the summer of 1774, in the wake of the Boston Tea Party, as tensions rose between colonists and the British Crown, a number of towns, including Medford, began removing their gun powder from the Powder House, according to Somerville, Past and Present.

British General Thomas Gage, in an effort to take war-making material away from the colonists, ordered the remaining powder seized, and on Sept. 1, 1774, a contingent of British troops sailed down the Mystic River, landed about a mile away from the old building, then marched off with approximately 250 half-barrels of powder from the Powder House.

This caused an alarm across the colonies, helped along by rumors of fighting and bloodshed. Armed colonists, thinking war had broken out, made their way to Cambridge, ready to fight. At the time, an estimated 50,000 armed colonists responded to this alarm across the colonies, according to Somerville, Past and Present.

With colonists on the brink of open revolt, bloodshed was narrowly avoided, but only for a few months. In April, 1775, fighting began with the battles of Lexington and Concord.

An angry, foul-mouthed ghost
Perhaps by 1774, the Powder House was already haunted.

In its early years as a windmill, a young farmer and the daughter of a wealthy man "held their tryst" at the site, according to Myths and Legends of Our Own Land, written in 1896 by Charles Skinner.

When the girl's father discovered what was going on at the mill, he decided to surprise the two lovers so he could punish and humiliate them.

However, on that fateful night—the date is not known—the two lovebirds saw the girl's father approaching. The girl convinced the farmer to hide, and then she ran up the steps into the loft of the mill.

"The flutter of her dress caught the old man's eye, and he hastened, panting, into the mill," Myths and Legends tells.

He groped around in the darkness, and the frightened girl crept backward in the mill's loft, hoping to stay out of sight.

But her foot caught a loose board. She tripped, falling into space. Frantic, she reached out with her hands and managed to grab hold of a rope.

In doing so, she set the giant windmill's gears in motion. And at that moment she heard a fall and an angry cry that quickly turned into the sound of great pain.

The girl's father, unable to see in the dark, had been standing on one of the millstones. When the girl pulled on the rope, the millstone moved; her father fell, and then his arm was crushed to a pulp under the mill's giant grinding device.

The girl and her lover rushed to the old man's aid. They took him home, but the injury was too great. He died soon. Before he did, he had a change of heart and consented to the marriage of his daughter to the farmer.

But the girl suffered from the death of her father, and for the rest of her life she avoided the old mill.

And for good reason, reckons Myths and Legends. The ghost of the girl's father used to haunt the old mill. On windy nights, his profanity was so filthy that "it became visible in the form of blue lights, dancing and exploding about the building," according to Myths and Legends.

Dancing, exploding, flashing lights
Perhaps its the lights that make Power House such a volatile place:

The violent flash of light caused by gunpowder that sparked a war.

The dancing, exploding blue light come to life by a ghost's profanity.

And those flashing reds and yellows that cause ulcers and angry words to this day.

In New England, there's still power in old buildings.


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