Gif and the Ghost Girl: Part 1

Our recent road trip was to Pennsylvania for a national meeting of Forest Service Heritage people. Well, Mr. GG had to go to the meeting. I tagged along, cause my good friend was going to be honored at the meeting, and I had always wanted to visit the venue: Grey Towers, home of Gifford Pinchot, the father of the U.S. Forest Service.

Grey Towers, outside Milton Pennsylvania

In the one of the most frightening instances of “stage fathers” I have come across, Gifford’s dad raised him to be a forester, with an imbedded sense of noblesse oblige to serve his country. Which is especially interesting, since Gifford’s grandfather expanded the family fortune by denuding lots of the forests in the east.

If you watched Ken Burn’s series on the National Parks, you are aware of all the politics that surrounded the creation of national lands. The same kind of situation existed for the Forest Service. Lots of drama, big money against the environmentalists, personal issues, muckraking, etc. Gifford Pinchot was a national player, a tall, wealthy, talented man with a mission, and a very public figure. He was good friends with Teddy Roosevelt, joining him in lots of outdoor adventures (which included skinny dipping in the Potomac with the French ambassador), and most importantly, convincing TR to establish the National Forest Service.

Anyway, it turns out Gifford had a big secret. A REALLY BIG SECRET. He maintained a relationship with the love of his life for twenty years. After she was dead. Yep, you read that right. Gif talked, consulted, read to, traveled with, and married Laura Houghteling. After her death from consumption in 1894.

Naturally, this was not generally known, and it wasn’t until 1999 that James G Bradley published an article on the affair in Pennsylvania History titled, “The Mystery of Gifford Pinchot and Laura Houghteling” (Pennsylvania History, Volume 66, Number 2, Spring 1999, pp 199-214).

In 1892, Gif met Laura, a Chicago socialite, while he was working on Biltmore, the Vanderbilt estate in North Carolina. Laura was there to get treated for her “consumption” or TB, the white disease so prevalent at the turn of the last century. They had met previously, but this time, they really connected, and found that they were soul mates. Aware of the terminal nature of Laura’s disease, they apparently discussed spiritual matters in great detail, and agreed on a number of life goals, including Gifford’s calling to a career in national forestry. They became engaged in late 1893, but Laura’s health deteriorated, and she died on February 7, 1894.

Laura Houghteling in the 1890s

Although Gifford traveled to Chicago for the funeral services, he did not appear to be grieving… and 38 days later, in a diary entry, he recorded that his lady was very near. This was the beginning of 20 years of of monastic faithfulness to his dead “wife” for Gif, 20 years where Laura was an intrinsic part of his life, 20 years where he journaled whether it was a “bright” or “cloudy” or “blind” day – his code words for how close Laura was to him, or whether her presence was there for him. This ongoing relationship nurtured Gifford through years of work, allowing him to accomplish the goals he and Laura had set out as his life’s work.

(More to follow. Check back for Part 2).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: