The Old Silk Factory Ghost
While whaling is historically the main industry one may think of when it comes to Nantucket, it’s not the only industry that once called the island home. Even if only for a little over a decade, silk was once a growing industry on the island. The old silk factory ghost still remains in the building that sits on Academy Hill.
The once large and looming silk company building is just a ghost in some way itself now – a distant memory, told only on ghostly tours and to island visitors looking for exciting local history. There are ghosts roaming within the rooms and homes that now take up space in this large place – but some of the stories have been lost in out-of-print books filled with tales of supernatural sightings in inns across America.
Nantucket’s Silk Industry History
Silk is a popular fabric, and in the 1800s, the US scrambled to become a leader in the industry of silk manufacturing. There was something special needed in order to make silk, aside from the silkworms that create the silky strands used to make this shiny, soft material – white mulberry trees are the preferred dining spot for silkworms.
It was found that these particular mulberry trees grow well in Nantucket, and because of that, Samuel H. Jenks began promoting the silk industry in the Nantucket Inquirer. The publisher encouraged people to plant mulberry trees on their private and public land as a way to nurture silkworms.
Another early supporter of the silk industry in Nantucket was William H. Gardner, an agent for Kenrick’s Nursery out of Newton, Massachusetts. In 1835, Jenks and Gardner, along with a shipping merchant named Aaron Mitchell, founded the Atlantic Silk Company.
The street where the company building was erected was named for another important person in Nantucket’s silk industry – Gamaliel Gay. This Rhode Island inventor created the steam-powered silk loom used at the company on Gay St. This was the second such machine in use in the world at the time. Gay also oversaw the building of the factory.
More than four thousand Mulberry trees were planted on Academy Hill and other areas of Nantucket, and in the middle of 1836, the factory was up and running. The Atlantic Silk Company produced silk thread and cloth. They mainly focused on men’s silk products, such as handkerchiefs, vests, and silk coats. They also made aprons. In the beginning, they had to send the stuff off the island for dying and printing, using Boston & Lynn Silk Printing Company in Massachusetts.
Silk was made from extracting the silk from the cocoons the silkworms made after eating their fill of the mulberry trees. Extracting the silk required lots of work using spinning machines. It was hard work, each thread needing its own individual bobbin – the company employed fifty women at any given time to run the spinning machines.
Unfortunately, there was an extremely harsh winter in 1838 that hit the entire nation and did not exclude the orchards at Nantucket. The cold weather killed nearly all of the mulberry trees. Some reports say the problem was with the sandy soil on Nantucket, which didn’t give the trees the nutrients needed to survive. There continue to be some mulberry trees spattered around the area, but only a few – definitely not enough to make anyone think they could run a silk-making business with them, and likely not enough to keep silkworms alive and munching.
While the company was an award-winning maker of silk products, they only made it until 1842 before they had to shutter the business. The empty building would find new life again, over and over – most often as a place for tourists to lay their weary heads.
The Old Silk Factory Ghost
These days, there is a private residence in half of the building and an inn running in the other half, which has been common since the closure of the silk company. In the 70s, the same was true for the building, with a collection of rental rooms in one half and a private residence in the other. One of the people who lived there talked to Blue Balliett for her book “Nantucket Ghosts.”
The woman lived in the basement of the east half of the building in 1978. As partially her private residence, she ran the upper part of that portion of the building as a guesthouse for visitors to the island. Her ghost story is of a translucent woman who showed up in the apartment one day.
There was a brief knock on the door, and both she and her two-and-a-half-year-old son looked toward the door. Since she was lying in bed with her young child, she wasn’t quick to get up, and soon she heard the door to the apartment quietly close. She called out, but no one answered – instead, the ghostly figure passed the open bedroom door. The figure seemed to be in a hurry and was heading toward the office in the back of the apartment – the fact that the person was see-through was an indication to the apartment owner that she’d seen a ghost.
The woman got up to investigate, but she found no one in her home. What’s even more amazing about this sighting is that the woman’s young son remembered seeing the ghost, even having witnessed the paranormal event at such a young age.
That wasn’t the last time the woman would see the female ghost – and she felt her, or at least something, there the whole time living in the basement of the old silk factory. The next time she spotted the specter, the ghost was upstairs while the woman was going around getting the rooms ready for summer guests. This time she came face to face with the ghost when she rounded a hall corner.
Who was the ghostly woman seen in two different areas of this old building? It seems that many of the workers at the Atlantic Silk Company were women – perhaps the ghost was one of them. The owner who saw the ghost wasn’t able to give any information about clothing that could help determine what time period the revenant may have hailed from.
The ghostly woman in the basement apartment, in a hurry to disappear into the back office, may have been on her way to her spot at a spinning wheel, or perhaps she was a former tenant wondering why her apartment looked different. Sometimes it’s more fun to speculate over whose spirit is lurking around the corner when there’s no way to find out who they were in life. And, as quickly as the ghost flitted by the bedroom – is there a chance the two ghosts the woman saw were two different spirits?
The Haunted Sherburne Inn
One-half of the old silk company is known as Sherburne Inn now. It’s gone through many names over the years, including Waverly Inn, Summit Inn, and the “House at 10 Gay Street.” Sherburne comes from the original name of the town before it was Nantucket – back when the area was first settled.
More ghosts than the one in the basement apartment have been reported over the years in this building. Sherburne Inn alone has had four ghostly reports, according to “Haunted Inns of America” by Terry L. Smith and Mark Jean.
Unfortunately, this glorious book full of paranormal events at inns around America is out-of-print. The rare copy sells for nearly a hundred dollars. Even more unfortunate is the fact that the stories of the four hauntings reported to them are also lost within the pages of this book.
Speculations can be made about people who may haunt the premises – from the original founders of the silk company who lost their prize business to people who stayed in the rooms once the building was turned into living quarters. No major reports of deaths are recorded about people losing their lives as tenants or employees, but one does not have to die in a place to haunt it.
Having gone through so many changes over the years since the closing of the silk company, there’s a good chance that ghosts of the past were awoken during remodels and renovations. The silk company had a rough ending, which may have left many souls crushed over lost work and lost money – that’s enough to make anyone come back to look for answers after death.