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History Around Here: Supernatural stories surround Ross estate

November 23, 2018

Today, it’s difficult to even picture a house standing near one of our area’s busiest intersections, at Freeport and Fox Chapel roads. But The Meadows, a large Colonial Revival-style home owned by lawyer and former U.S. Sen. James Ross, once sat on the land now occupied by the busy thoroughfare.

Ross’s summer home, situated on 1,700 acres in what is now O’Hara Township, was built in1910, long before commercial development encroached on the idyllic riverside property. The Pennsylvania Canal, later taken over by the Pennsylvania Railroad, cut through the edge of Ross’s parcel.

According to local author and historian Thomas White, the land may have been anything but idyllic after Ross -- the namesake of nearby Ross Township -- and his son, James Ross, Jr., died within four years of one another, in 1847 and 1851, respectively. White, who is the university archivist and curator of special collections at Duquesne University, has written 10 books on those parts of Pittsburgh’s history that can’t quite be verified.

“I’ve always been interested in folklore and how it intersects with history,” White says. “I’m trying to record as much of the folklore of Western Pennsylvania as I can.”

White says people would claim they would see the ghost of James Ross Jr. in the room he died in for decades after his death in 1851.

The source of many of the supernatural stories about the Ross estate is Joseph Weichel and his family, who acted as caretakers of the property after James Ross Jr.’s death.

Weichel told stories of coming home to find the entire front of The Meadows lit up, only to find no lights on once he entered the house. Weichel’s wife reportedly saw a headless woman walk down the hall, jump over the stair railing and disappear through the stone floor below without a trace.

The most famous story affiliated with the Ross estate, according to White, is that of Ross Johnston, a relative of the Ross family.

“Johnston committed suicide on the property in 1859,” White says, though the details of the death are curious. “He was found with his throat slit near the canal, but it was classified as a suicide.”

Afterward, Johnston’s ghost is said to have haunted the property, appearing more regularly around the date of his death.

But that wasn’t the end of the Ross Johnston story. White says one day, around 1885, a spiritualist -- a member of a 19th-century religious movement based on communication between the living and the dead -- arrived at The Meadows, claiming Johnston’s ghost had told him where to find $60,000 in gold buried on the property.

“Weichel let him dig for it, but after hours and hours, he never found anything,” White says.

The Meadows burned down in 1930, which seems to have put an end to the spooky happenings there, though it certainly hasn’t ended the public’s curiosity about the place.

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