Conference House Field Trip
By Jason Stroming | E-Mail
A Short History...
The Conference House, also known as the Billopp House, is a colonial mansion in the Tottenville section of Staten Island, N.Y. It's historically significant because on September 11th, 1776, Ben Franklin, John Adams and Edward Rutledge held a Peace Conference with British officials, in an attempt to stop the Revolutionary War. They failed.
The house was originally built in the late 1600's (no exact date is known), and belonged to a Captain Christopher Billopp, a British loyalist who settled in America. Future generations of the Billopp family also occupied the modest colonial home. Archeological evidence suggests that prior to Billopp's arrival, the area was settled by Native Americans.
Today, the house is the only pre-Revolutionary War landmark still standing in New York City. It's located on the western end of Staten Island, near New Jersey, and situated on the beautiful Conference House Park, which overlooks Raritan Bay. For more information on the history of this fascinating landmark, please visit the Conference House website.
Besides the historical significance of the Conference House, it is also a well-known haunted house. It is mentioned in just about every book on haunted locations in America. The house itself is small, but there are 2 floors, an attic that served as the slave quarters, and a basement which was used as the kitchen and food preparation area.
The main story associated with ghostly activity in the house regards Captain Billopp and one of the slave girls. Apparently, one day she was caught giving signals to the Americans across Raritan Bay by lighting a candle in her window at night, and Billopp (who was a British loyalist) either stabbed her at the top of the staircase, pushed her down the staircase to her death, or both. It is said that at night, sometimes a light can be seen in the Conference House window where she would signal from.
The house itself is unoccupied for most of the year. Guided tours are run Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 1:00pm to 4:00pm, from April until mid-December. There is a caretaker residence, which was built as an addition to the Conference House, which is always occupied, but these quarters face the road, and cannot be seen from the bay.
We arrived at the house at approximately 3:30pm, and were the last tour group of the day to see the house. The weather was unusually cool for a September day in New York, but made the day all the more pleasant. The sky was overcast, but it did not rain at all.
We only brought basic equipment along with us, as this was basically a scouting trip for a future investigation which we hope to be able to conduct in more detail and with some of our higher-end equipment. On hand we had 3 digital cameras, an analog tape recorder, a digital audio recorder, a tri-axis ELF EMF meter, an a Sony camcorder. We basically took pictures of the exterior of the house, the surrounding grounds, the interior of the house, and the trails running through Conference House Park.
Since this was not an official "controlled" investigation, we doubt we caught any evidence of any significance, but we are still analyzing the photographs, video and audio. We will post any evidence we do find, if any comes to light.
For me, the basement is definitely the creepiest part of the tour, and looks the least renovated or restored. It's mostly brick, and there is a fruit cellar in the back, which is basically a man-made cave (and not very comfortable for a 6 foot tall person as myself). The cellar at one point was used to hold captured American POW's during the Revolutionary War, and now is home to the last remaining Billopp family tombstone. The bricks on the floor of the basement were donated in 1929 (for the restoration) by the same company that provided the original bricks used in the construction of the house back in the late 1600's.
The other rooms are very standard and utilitarian. The first floor contains a dining or living room area, and a parlor. The upstairs contains the master bedroom, children's bedroom, and Billopp's study. The master bedroom contains the only piece of original furniture, which is the storage bench at the foot of the bed. Billopp's study contains an original handwritten letter (which is framed under glass, now) and a book given to him as a gift. The rest of the house is furnished with reproductions or pieces from the same period, but not originally from the Conference House. The attic served as the slave quarters, where as many as 12 slaves were living at any given time. It was as big as the second floor, but without any wall partitions, and only 2 small porthole windows on eitherside of the house for ventilation. It is not currently accessible to the public, since it is now used for storage. The wood floors on the second floor are the original floors.
Interestingly, as small as the house may seem by today's standards, it was considered a mansion in Colonial times. Most houses back then were single story, so the fact that there was a second story as well as an attic spoke to the wealth of the Billopp family. Also, the exposed oak beams running along the ceilings were a not-so-subtle sign of class and connectedness to Royalty. Oak was only permitted to be used with the permission of the King, and it was the most expensive wood available. The fact that Billopp used entire oak tree to support his house is a testament to how close he was with the British monarchy. His lands also encompassed Conference House park all the way up to what is now Wolfe's Pond Park, or basically all of southern Staten Island. Billopp was so wealthy, that even though he had all of this land, he never needed to do any farming.
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, the Conference House is a great way to spend an afternoon. The staff is very friendly, the admission is negligible (we can all afford $3, right?), and the surrounding grounds and forest trails are a great way to relive what New York may have been like 300 years ago. It's very easy to get to, as well (simply take Hylan Boulevard all the way down to the western end, and it's right there). Bring your camera, take lots of pictures, and if you ask nicely, the tour guide may share some of the ghostly events that still go on in the house.