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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Granite State of Mind, #106: Hamilton Smith Chapel, Durham

Don't come knockin' when the crypt is rockin'

Hamilton Smith was a Kentucky native who grew up in Durham in the mid-19th century and was one of the builders of the London Underground. The English building (and first library) on campus, built in 1907 with Andrew Carnegie money, was named after the engineer and philanthropist.

This isn't about Ham Smith Hall. (I wasn't an English major, after all).

This a ghost story.

In the summer of 1995, following my sophomore year at UNH, I worked as a building manager in the under-renovation MUB. Under the watchful eye of team leader Dave Emanuel, I labored alongside Kevin Cormier and the guys from Gluestick painting, cutting tiles for the dropped ceilings, and sanding doors. In the evenings I'd play sand volleyball on the outdoor courts then adjoining C-Lot with the Indian engineering graduate students living in Babcock then ride my bike to the room I rented on Oyster River road in the basement of a house of a retired member of the biology faculty for 250 bucks a month. I'd read (I distinctly remember Kagan's book on Pericles and Green's treatment of Alexander - I was in my Great Men of Antiquity phase), write letters to then-girlfriend Miriam Altman spending her summer teaching at a music camp in Maine, and turn in early. In the mornings I'd pick up the Foster's Daily Democrat in the driveway and read the box scores from the previous night's Sox game - I had no TV or radio and this was just before the internet, so I'd find out how Mo Vaughn and John Valentin and crew did from the morning paper.

On to the ghost story.

Getting from the MUB to my rented digs involved a couple of cycling routes. The quickest led down Faculty Road to the river and then right on Mill Pond Road. The quickest, but most discomfiting, especially after dark. The stately pines of Mill Pond Road shrouded a little stone building, set back from the street, flanked by grave markers and wrought-iron fencing. A tiny gothic place, complete with buttresses and stained glass, moss and ivy, it lurked quiet and dim and vaguely menacing. I would pedal faster past it, fairly convinced that it was the home of a vampire or lich or some other undead threat waiting to lure an unwary undergrad into its clutches.

One twilight summer eve I heard voices coming from the building, and saw a flickering light come on in one of the multicolored windows. Something had awakened the denizen of that sepulchral stone hut, and I can tell you, Greg LeMond would have been hard pressed to beat me home that night.

Of course, it's not a haunted crypt. It's the family burial plot of the Durham Smiths, including our Ham, who died in 1900 of a heart attack while boating on the Exeter River. His wife, Alice Congreve Smith, had the little chapel built in his memory. Alice's family, by the way, had developed the Congreve rockets used in the War of 1812, whose red glare is immortalized in our national anthem. The Congreve name is also familiar to Wildcats who lived in the Area I dorm named after Alice.

There's part of me that still thinks Ham Smith gets up at night in that spooky chapel, reading about mining and keeping an eye out for students who linger too long or wander too close to his lair.

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