The Block Island Times

This Week in Block Island's history, January 18, 1888

Block Island’s quintessential “haunted house”
By Robert M. Downie | Jan 23, 2013
Photo by: Robert M. Downie The author’s teenage sister sitting on the porch of the deserted Highland House in June 1965.

In January 1888 — 125 years ago — a tower was added to the otherwise mundane Highland House hotel on High Street.

With that adornment, a completed structure was created that would eventually wither away after eight decades, but not before becoming the quintessential “haunted house” on Block Island.

Delorin Mitchell (1845-1922) built his hotel in 1876, shortly after the breakwater was built, allowing tourists to easily visit the island, and causing Old Harbor to grow as though it were a boomtown of the old West. The original building was constructed attractively in the island’s standard resort design, three stories high, with a gingerbread-decorated porch wrapped around the front of the first floor, and a cupola atop the mansard roof.

Mainland newspapers chronicled the hotel in the late-1870s:

“Mr. Delorin A. Mitchell is building a house upon the high land at the east side of the island...

“The Highland House, located on a beautiful eminence, with a commanding view of the island and surrounding objects, is a new place for public favor ...

“The Highland House has the highest location of any hotel on the Island, and has been in use two seasons. It accommodates twenty-eight boarders; but on the 16th it fed eighty more.”

A decade later, on January 9, 1888, a newspaper reporter described the tower addition in similarly simple words:

“Mr. D.A. Mitchell, proprietor of the Highland House, is building a tower addition to his hotel, and making some other improvements.”

As with many other of the island’s commercial structures, the boom would last until the early 1900s, when the economic decline of New England’s seacoast resorts began. That fate was hastened by the advent of the ubiquitous automobile, which let tourists go nearly anyplace in the country they wished, rather than to just where steamboats or railroads could take them.

The 1930 Depression, and then World War II, halved the island’s population, leaving empty houses in the overgrown fields, and half the hotels closed and boarded up — or, worse, closed but open to the elements.

Such was the Highland House by the 1960s: unpainted, abandoned and decaying. It was a stunning sight to behold to all who saw it from a distance, or — as though lured by a Siren — to those who found themselves walking up the driveway, or across the fields from the Spring House, to casually enter through the doorless doors or the oversized empty windows.

Exploring room by room, floor by floor, was just plain fun — like having a Hollywood movie set or Western ghost town always there to impress unsuspecting friends with. Alfred Hitchcock could have done no better for a filming location.

Although artists and free spirits were enchanted by the Highland House, the Town Council wasn’t. After obtaining ownership due to tax delinquency, the town tore the hotel down in 1968, and a few years afterward sold the land.

Now, 40 years later, the owner of the adjacent Atlantic Inn has erected a housing development on the property.

The ghost of the Highland House has even lost its empty field, and only lives on in old, cherished photographs and active imaginations.

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