Old Harold’s Ghost

Back in the late nineteen eighties I had to good fortune to make my living as an elevator mechanic. The company I worked for had service contracts with dozens of old textile mills all across the Carolinas and some of those mills were almost a hundred years old. My fellow mechanics and I worked hard to keep the old freight elevators in those mills working as best we could, and oftentimes this meant driving to some remote small town in the middle of the night to troubleshoot and repair a downed elevator.

Rock Hill Printing and Finishing Co. in its heyday. Photo courtesy of Bill Wornall.

Late one night I was called to an old textile mill known at the time as Rock Hill Printing and Finishing. It was a huge textile mill in the town of Rock Hill, South Carolina that at one time had probably colored and printed enough fabric to clothe half of America. But by the late nineteen eighties it was on its last leg. Huge portions of the mill were sitting idle and as I walked along carrying my tool bag through a portion of the mill that was no longer in use I couldn’t help but feel that I had been transported back in time to a bygone era. That part of the mill was dark and musty and I swear I could feel the wandering souls of the former workers moving in the shadows around the abandoned machinery.

The elevator I had been called to work on was an old freight elevator that was over fifty years old. Once I fixed the problem, which turned out to be a broken door interlock on the 3rd floor, I decided to go to the basement so that I could check the elevator’s machine room. I wanted to make sure everything was okay so that I wouldn’t have to come back again later that night.

I didn’t think anything about going down into the basement as far as ghosts were concerned. My old man had always told me not worry about the dead, and that it was the living that I needed to watch out for. I thought about this as I rode the elevator to the basement.

The basement of an old textile mill in the middle of the night it not a place for the fainthearted, but it didn’t really bother me. I had seen countless machine rooms in dark basements and it was just something that came with the job. When I stepped off the elevator into the basement I closed the safety gate and doors so that the elevator would be able to respond if it was called from one of the floors above me.

Once in the machine room I opened the elevator controller, which for this particular elevator was an ancient contraption full of chattering relays and lots of wires. I knew better that to dust off any of the relays, touch any of the old components or otherwise disturb anything in the controller unless I absolutely had to. Old freight elevator controllers are temperamental animals that prefer to be left alone. I wanted to hear the pump run so I took the pencil out of my shirt pocket and used the back of it to push in the 1st floor call relay. The pump roared to life and promptly sent the elevator on its way.

The machine room fell silent as soon as the elevator reached the 1st floor. Out of the corner of my eye through the open door of the machine room I could see the heavy steel doors of the elevator. Unlike passenger elevators doors, freight elevator doors open up and down, not side to side. I could see the call button on the wall to the right of the closed doors.

Just as I was about to look back at the controller the hallway call button lit up. This was followed by a loud click as a relay on the control board energized to open the valves. I listened to the hissing noise as the oil began to drain into the tank as the elevator slowly descended to the basement.

Something had called the elevator to the basement. I looked at the energized basement call relay and knew that I hadn’t touched it with my pencil.

I walked out of the machine room and over to the steel doors. I could see the elevator car through the small window on the upper door. It was empty. I walked back into the machine room and used my pencil to push in the 3rd floor relay. Once again the pump roared to life and the elevator took off to the 3rd floor. Once it was there the machine room again fell silent.

To my surprise, the call button on the wall lit up again and the elevator returned to the basement. I stood there dumbfounded. As I had done before I used my pencil to push in another relay, this time sending the elevator to the 2nd floor. But the elevator didn’t stay at the 2nd floor for even a minute before the basement call relay clicked shut right before my eyes. I looked out of the machine room door to see the hallway call station button glowing brightly in the dim light of the basement.

I spent the next two hours trying to figure out why the elevator kept coming back to the basement. I unfolded the old wiring diagram and checked every circuit possible before finally giving up. The elevator was working fine but for some unknown reason it wanted to stay in the basement. It was late and I was tired and wanted to go home. I had no idea why the elevator was behaving like it was and I made sure I told this to the lady in the tool room on the first floor that had the job of signing my service ticket.

“I could have saved you some time, young feller,” the old woman said as she signed my ticket. “That’s just Old Harold playing around. He does that from time to time.”

“Who?” I said. It was two in the morning and I wasn’t much in the mood for a mill story but I knew I had to hear this one. I knew I had been alone in the basement. No one had been down there with me.

“Who is Harold?” I asked again.

The woman gave me an understanding look. “Bless your heart,” she finally said. Then she decided to tell me the story.

“Old Harold had a heart attack and died down there in the basement way back in the late forties. He was trying to work on that old elevator and didn’t know what he was doing, or so the story goes. So every now and then he likes to call the elevator to the basement. But we don’t pay him any mind. We just let Old Harold have his fun. He’s not hurting anyone.”

I looked at the old woman and tried to figure out if she was serious. It seemed to me that she believed what she was telling me.

The next day I mentioned the elevator to my coworkers. All of them knew about Old Harold and how he loved to call the elevator to the basement anytime someone was down there working. Every last one of them had seen the basement hall button light up, pushed by Harold’s unseen finger.

Three months later I was called back to that mill to work on the same elevator. Just as he had done before, Old Harold’s ghost returned and called the elevator to the basement over and over while I was down there working. When I was finished, I collected up my tools and returned them to my tool bag. As I walked towards the closed elevator doors I smiled when the call button lit up just as I was about to reach for it. Then I smiled to myself.

“Thanks, Harold,” I said into the empty basement.

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