Traveling the mountain roads of the Delaware River Valley from Milford, Pennsylvania to Hancock, New York, Dad looks at his watch, puts his hand back on the wheel, and then checks his watch again before braking hard and muttering, “We have to do it.” Yanking the wheel and stepping on the gas, we accelerate past a sign that reads “Lordville Rd.”
From the fertile highlands of the upper Delaware River Valley down to the fabled river itself, we descend one of the more rugged roads east of the Mississippi. Our route is mostly vertical, steep and narrow. There’s a tumbling brook on the right side descending the very green and mature deciduous mountainside. Pure Catskills, I think to myself, and wonder how two cars can safely pass one another on a road this narrow.
Other than our typical back-and-forth banter, Dad doesn’t let on about where we’re headed. He simply says, “You have to see this place.” Arriving at a stop sign, I immediately know what he means. Three stories tall, the first building on the right demands our attention with large three-over-three pane windows, four across each floor. “Lordville” reads the sign under the top left window and I do a double-take, focusing on the window second from the left on the third floor. And there she is: a cold, lifeless mannequin staring over the town and all who travel through.
“What do you think?” Dad asks.
I get the chills and goosebumps pop up on my forearms. “I hear the Twilight Zone theme song playing and I feel like we could get murdered with an axe at any moment.”
“Yes! Exactly!” Dad laughs.
She’s blonde and, depending on the season, wears anything from a Santa suit to a red, white, and blue, star-clattered baton-twirler outfit. Her left hand is almost always extended outward, ever so gently touching the window. One time she tried to sass me with one hand on the hip and the other to her lips.
There are six or so historic-looking structures with the four most prominent being a mansion, two old hotels, and the homestead house. The old town is full of curiosity-peaking clutter; an old “magic bus” ice cream truck; more mannequins resting against exteriors of more vacant buildings or in trees; rusting antiques littering the town. One building was once surrounded by a beautiful white picket fence on which doll heads rested on every other picket until the fence finally fell over and decomposed.
If you’ve never been here you’ll undoubtedly feel uneasy. Do the mannequins come alive at night? Has anyone been murdered in Lordville? Or, perhaps more appropriately, how many? Is there a mass grave nearby or are the bodies dumped in the Delaware, to feed its massive brown trout? Another house has six charcoal and gas barbeques and I wonder if maybe the whole town is in on it, a cult that celebrates cannibalism and mannequin worship, perhaps.
Among Delaware River regulars—from famed fly-fishing guide Joe Demalderis, to Friends of the Upper Delaware’s Jeff Skelding and Sherri Resti, to the Hancock public librarian—nobody seems to know the who, what, when, or why behind the infamous mannequin hotel. A favorite urban legend tells of an eccentric violin player and high-ranking Cold War-era Russian spy who defected to the United States in the mid-60s and traded secrets for asylum. Purportedly beautiful and blonde, his wife was poisoned by the very government he betrayed. The spy never recovered and instead celebrates her memory with mannequins throughout the town which he dresses according to season and holiday. Nobody can confirm any of this, but it’s said that on occasion, you can hear him crying her name, Svetlana, and playing the most melancholy music on his violin.
At Equinunk, Pennsylvania, a shared bridge is the last crossing before the east and west branches of the Delaware River converge to form the “Main Stem.” As we cross, Dad points out the fishing access and the good dry-fly water, explaining, “It will only fish well through mid-June on a good water year, otherwise the water warms and you can exhaust the trout to death.” He also warns me that “there are a lot of rattlesnakes; I’ve seen at least a dozen or so since 1981.”
As with many of those first days fly fishing with Dad on the upper Delaware, I remember it fondly. I recall him opening his Richard Wheatley fly box and revealing a small catalogue of art. Whoever thought that fur and feathers bound to a hook could be so moving? That box, the sport, this town and its mannequin, filled me with wonderment and magic like an attic or cellar door to a young child. We enjoy a riverside sandwich dinner and then dad coaches me to a smallish rainbow that I thought was 22 inches until I netted it. Those Delaware trout do fight.
In the days since, I’ve introduced countless friends to both fly fishing and the hamlet of Lordville. A few years back, my wife and I headed there after work to enjoy some peace; her with book and wine, me with fly rod and flask. Pulling into the hamlet, I’m completely taken aback to see two men sitting on the homestead house porch to the left of the Mannequin Hotel. My wife grabs my arm and tries to stop me from putting the vehicle in park and engaging them.
“Babe, they’re listening to the Grateful Dead with beers in their hands sharing a smoke. How dangerous can they be?”
With my head, partially out of the car I yell, “What’s happenin’ fellas?”
“Hey, hey brother what’s going on?”
“Man, I’ve been coming up here fishing with my father since I was 16 years old and I’ve got to ask, what’s the deal with the mannequins?”
They bust up laughing, and now begins the long-awaited truth.
“You see, my mom bought them at an auction back in the early 70s and it’s a funky family tradition that we dress them up with each passing holiday.”
My heart sinks. “You wouldn’t believe some of the urban legends. You’re supposed to be a Cold War-era Russian spy turned U.S. asset, man.”
My new friends bust up again and I force a chuckle. We make small talk a while longer but I’m eager to get in the river. We continue on our way, but not before they offer me a beer. I gladly accept, thanking them and they invite me back. Moving on, I turn to my wife, “All of these years, no murder or mayhem.” She nods.
At the river, there are a good number of bugs hatching: various caddis, cahills, sulfurs, Isonychias, and golden stones. Looking upstream into the shallow riffles, I see six different fish working. No subtle sips or barely audible gulps; more like small boulders dropped into the water and three-foot splashes shooting up in the air. Fish are coming clear out of the water and takes are violent.
Sometimes the complex hatches can be insanity inducing, but can also be a saving grace when you’re without the fly. Though trout can get keyed in on a stage of the hatch or species of insect, when there are ten different bugs hatching you just need a good drift. They’ll never turn down a well-presented Isonychia.
As the light dies down, so do the bugs and the fish begin casually taking flies, unlike the gusto of early evening. I see a distinct dimple in the foam line and have a good feeling. It takes me a couple of casts to get the right drift but I hook him. A very large fish, he runs me across the river and into my backing, throwing in some aerial acrobatics for good measure. There’s simply no stopping him, but I laugh in celebration.
As usual, the Delaware River trout make you earn it. I try for redemption a little while longer and my wife mentions she’s getting hungry and the heavy fog that has rolled in seemed to turn the switch off, so I clip my fly. Content, I head back to shore, because it was never about the fish.
Walking up the bank and making our way over the bridge, I explain to her how I’m saddened that the mystery surrounding the mannequins is gone and it occurs to me that this may be the first time I’m clearing this bridge without goosebumps. And then she points out a ghostly figure walking on the other end of the bridge. I yell, “Hello.” The fog doesn’t waft around our visitor; he disappears into it. The hair on my neck stands up and the goosebumps are back. My wife clutches my arm.
Here’s to another 20 years of murder, mayhem, and walking scared across the bridge.