By Jim Ignasher
I should have known better, but the urge to continue my explorations got the better of me, and I’d ventured too far and stayed too long in the woods. This was more than 10 years ago. It was January, it was cold, and the sun had fallen nearly level with the horizon. As darkness closed in around me I was thankful for the coating of snow on the ground, which provided enough contrast with the trees to allow me to navigate my way out.
I’d been exploring Hanton City, Smithfield’s colonial-era “ghost town,” located in a thickly wooded area where cellar holes, stonewalls, and a cemetery are all that remain of a once thriving settlement. It’s a place steeped in myth and folklore, and has sometimes been called “Haunted City”. As I traipsed back to my truck hoping for the moon to rise I began to wonder about the “haunted” part.
The mysterious tales surrounding Hanton City date back to the 1880s when a Providence Journal reporter published the term “Haunted City” in an article he wrote about the area, but made it clear that locals viewed the phrase with “amused contempt,” and no anecdotal ghost stories accompanied the article. Over time the article was forgotten, but the name stuck.
By the early 1900s what remained of any Hanton City buildings had fallen to decay, and Mother Nature was well on her way to reclaiming the once open land. As more years passed, hikers and hunters would visit the area and wonder about the cellar holes. Their questions as to who built them and when, as well as what happened to the populace, were answered with rumors and speculation that morphed into folklore that in modern times has been taken as fact.
This was primarily due to the lack of documentation relating to Hanton City, which, by the way, was never a “city,” but a small farm settlement. Thomas Steere’s book on Smithfield history published in 1881 didn’t mention the settlement, nor was it designated on early maps. This wasn’t due to any deliberate omission, for the names of some of Hanton City’s residents are mentioned in Steere’s book. It was likely because there was nothing remarkable about the settlement in terms of industry or historical significance. Yet it was this omission that fed the fires of folklore.
Hanton City has also been referred to as “Island Woods”, or “Islands in the Woods”, because granite hills jut up from its marshy wetlands. The rocky soil isn’t conducive for farming, and in summertime the area is infested with mosquitoes. Thus it wouldn’t have been considered “prime real estate” which begs the question: who settled the area and why? By the 1930s several theories had been put forth ranging from runaway slaves, ex-prison inmates, Native Americans, to ex-inmates of the town’s poor farm, and AWOL British soldiers hiding out during the American Revolution, all of whom could have reasons for wanting to live in seclusion. However, historical research has proven these theories wrong.
Speculation as to what happened to the inhabitants includes: they were wiped out by a plague or natural disaster, left to serve in the American Revolution, or had their land confiscated for refusing to fight in the revolution. Again, research has disproved these theories.
Part of that research lies in a Providence Journal article titled “A Buried City”, published Oct. 6, 1889. In it, the reporter interviewed Tom Hanton, 80, and his sister, said to be the last two inhabitants of Hanton City. The article indicated that the community was in its prime by the 1730s; about the time Smithfield was incorporated as a town. The first settlers were three English families of the yeoman class, which put them near the bottom of the social ladder, who arrived around 1676-77, shortly after King Phillip’s War.
Residents made their living by growing what they could, quarrying stone, tanning leather, and making boots to sell in Providence. There wasn’t much cash money to be had, so many bartered for their needs. For example, Mr. Hanton recalled how at weddings the Justice of the Peace would be paid with a good meal and some rum.
As to what happened to the population, Mr. Hanton explained, “They had all got poor, and sold out to anybody, and died off.” Of course “poor” had to be a relative term given their circumstances. By the early 1800s mills were springing up along the Blackstone and Woonasquatucket Rivers, which could pay regular wages, offer better opportunities, and make products more affordably than those who worked with their hands. Most likely the Industrial Revolution led to the demise of Hanton City.
As the settlement faded away, it became a ghost town of sorts, and by the late 19th century the name Hanton City had morphed into “Haunted City”.
However, on that long ago January evening I was unaware of much of this information as the black shadows of the trees and rocks assumed ominous shapes while I made haste to exit the darkening woods. Then I heard the call of a nearby coyote, and realized that encountering a ghost might not be my first concern.
So, is the place haunted? I guess that depends on one’s beliefs and experiences. There are Internet postings and stories in contemporary books (about the supernatural) of people who claim it is, and not all ghostly encounters are said to have happened at night.
Speaking for myself, I’ve returned to Hanton City dozens of times over the years – in the daytime of course. During those treks I’ve encountered hunters, dirt bikers, photographers, treasure hunters, various wildlife, and fellow explorers, but not a single ghost. I’m not saying ghosts don’t exist. I’m only saying I haven’t seen any in Smithfield’s so-called “Haunted City”. Happy Halloween!