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Time out: Haunting and true

In 1918, as it swept across the planet, Spanish influenza did not spare Rochester. More than 1,000 people died here within a few months, many of them young adults. Saloons, theaters, ice cream parlors, lodges-anywhere people gathered-were closed; churches held limited services. Stores held off on sales that would attract big crowds.
With today’s onset of bird flu in Asia, some say a children’s song popular at the time has prophetic overtones:
“I had a little bird and its name was Enza. I opened up the door and in-flu-Enza.”
We’ll let you be the judge.
The Landmark Society of Western New York takes this and other grisly and gruesome stories of Rochester’s past and turns them into Ghost Walk, its annual story hour and neighborhood stroll down Arnold Park near downtown. Held at night in the yards of the street’s historic homes, the fund raiser stages actors posing as ordinary citizens of Rochester’s past, each telling a story designed to make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end.
The people who have called Rochester home over the years have seen much worth telling about. The tales told during the walk are based on old news accounts primarily before the 1920s. But they are more than just scary or odd. The Landmark Society selects stories that give snapshots of Rochester over time:
— A story about a grisly discovery in the frozen Erie Canal weaves in a description of the competitive ice business. Companies that retrieved ice from the canal for residential use dismissed competitors’ claims that ice from Hemlock and Keuka lakes was superior because it was free from “sewer drainage” and other objectionable materials. This story certainly makes the case for the competitors.
— In the late 1800s, a casket company once located at Exchange Boulevard and Court Street made 90 percent of all caskets produced in the country. Stein Manufacturing Co. had caskets stocked and ready for immediate shipment, says a Ghost Walk actor posing as a funeral director. “All the traffic stops for them; Rochester has given them the same right of way as the fire engines,” he tells the audience. “You don’t want a corpse in Chicago waiting too long for its casket!” Rochester also was home to “The Casket,” the professional journal of funeral directors. (The gruesome part of his tale involves what he calls “premature burials.”)
— The famous daredevil Sam Patch fell to his death during a stunt over High Falls in 1829. It was ensuing community guilt, says a Ghost Walk actor, that set the stage for a religious revival that changed Rochester forever. Rochester was the zenith of the career of evangelist Charles Finney. Touched by the “flames of religious zeal” during Finney’s six months of sermons in 1830-31, Rochesterians made sweeping changes in their business practices and social activities. As a result of revival meetings held here, 1,500 such meetings broke out in other towns. Finney is considered the forerunner of mass-evangelists D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday and Billy Graham.
— At the close of World War I, Americans were feeling invincible. But the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1917-18 proved especially brutal to healthy people in the prime of life-children and adults 20 to 40-and confusion over how to avoid it was rampant. Rochester hospitals overflowed; florists ran out of flowers. “At first we didn’t even pay it much attention, even when people started dying so quickly,” says a Ghost Walk actor portraying the mother of a sick child. “We kept having parades, where lots of people gather, and Liberty Bond drives, where lots of people gather, and fairs, where lots of people gather. It’s like we couldn’t believe that something this big and this bad could happen in our modern country.”
(-Sally Parker)

10/28/05 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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