Phantom Coach at Carter Hall

Phantom Coach at Carter Hall

Magnificent Millwood estate is  believed to be haunted by members of the Burwell family.

Carter Hall is a gorgeous estate located in Millwood, Virginia, right off of Route 255. It is among the many grand mansions built in Virginia during the colonial era and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Known for its spectacular, panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Carter Hall has attracted tourists and fascinated historians for centuries.

A panoramic shot of Carter Hall. Image Source: Unique Venues

But many also say that Carter Hall is haunted. Multiple people have experienced the same spooky phenomenon at Carter Hall. They hear the distinct sounds of a coach arriving at the mansion’s front door, only to find no one at the entrance.

First, a bit of history on the lavish estate. Carter Hall was inherited by Colonel Nathaniel Burwell from his father, Carter Burwell. The Burwells (sometimes referred to as the “Burls”) were socially prominent and among the first families of Virginia. Carter Burwell was born in 1716. He was the grandson of Robert “King” Carter, a famous businessman from Lancaster County. “King” began his public career as a vestryman of Christ Church Parish. He joined the governor’s Council in 1700 and served until his death in 1732.

Thanks to his political success, “King” amassed a huge fortune and left his family some three hundred thousand acres of land. This included a seven hundred fifty acre property near the James River, known as Wolstenholme Towne. The Towne was established in 1618, as the settlement of forty settlers of the Virginia Company of London. The site was abandoned after the terrible and bloody Indian Massacre of 1622. After Carter Burwell inherited it from “King,” he built a lavish mansion, known as Carter’s Grove, on it. The magnificent building was completed in 1755 and is an acclaimed example of Georgian architecture. It remained in the Carter family until 1834.

Nathaniel Burwell, the son of Carter Burwell and Lucy Grymes, was born at Carter’s Grove on April 15, 1750. When he came of age, he inherited a large landed estate located in the lower Shenandoah Valley, which become known as Carter Hall. Carter Hall encompasses an impressive two-story plantation house, a beautiful lawn and well terraced gardens. Construction of the mansion began in 1794 and ended in 1800. It was designed in the late-Georgian style and built of limestone rubble and has been described as an idealized image of a Virginia plantation. Georgian architecture was favored by colonists of the upper and middle classes. Typical features include side low-hipped roofs, doors surrounded by decorative crowns, refined cornices, louvered shutters and windows arranged in symmetrical rows.

Carter Hall is composed of a central hall flanked by two-bay wings. Its walls are wainscoted and lined with tall Ionic columns. A long spiral staircase leads to its second floor. “At one time the whole house was stuccoed and the center portion covered by a deck-on-hip roof with rectangular lantern.”1

The spiral staircase inside Carter Hall. Image Source: Library of Congress

In 1930, the structure was completely remodeled. The hall and east room were combined into a single large space, and its original woodwork was replaced. Only the dining room was left comparably untouched. Its chimney place is crowned by a plain white marble mantel, while a painting of a ship hangs above it.

Outside, one can see that Carter Hall consists of a main house sandwiched between two dependencies.  The east dependency served originally as the kitchen, but later became used as a guest house. The west dependency was where the caretaker of the estate lived. Several old wooden outbuildings, including a smokehouse, stand behind the main house.

The grand mansion on the estate. Image Source: Uploaded by Sevenofnine7o9 as own work to Wikipedia

Nathaniel Burwell attended the College of William and Mary. Shortly after graduating, he married his cousin Susanna Grymes and became appointed to the James City County Court. In 1774, Nathaniel Burwell joined the militia and became a county lieutenant in a mere two years. He was also avidly involved in the lower Valley’s social, religious and political activities. For example, in 1785, he and his neighbor Daniel Morgan completed the Burwell-Morgan Mill, after which the town of Millwood is named. General Daniel Morgan was a former French and Indian War soldier and Revolutionary War hero with a strong background in wholesale and trading. The mill he established with Burwell was used to process wheat into flour and was run by enslaved men and women. During the Civil War, the Northern and Southern armies would frequently pass the mill, set up camp there, and take from its reserves. But by World War II, the international demand for mill products had dropped drastically. The Burwell-Morgan Mill began to decline, and it eventually closed in 1953. Since 1964, the Clarke County Historical Association has been working to restore the ancient structure.  

The Burwell-Morgan Mill. Image Source:

In 1778, Nathaniel Burwell was elected to join the House of Delegates. He was among those who voted to ratify the Constitution during the 1788 Convention. That same year, his wife passed away at the tender age of thirty-seven. Says one biographer: “[Nathaniel was] so crushed and lonely he felt unable to bear his misfortune”2. In desperate need of companionship, Nathaniel remarried one year later, and had five sons and three daughters with his beautiful new wife, Lucy Page Baylor. He died on March 29, 1814 at Carter Hall and was buried in the Old Chapel cemetery. The Old Chapel church is an old, single story Episcopal church that dates back to the 18th century. Its cemetery was constructed on land donated by the Burwell family.

Colonel Nathaniel Burwell. Image Source:

After Nathaniel’s passing, Carter Hall was inherited by George Burwell. George asked Dr. William Thornton to design and add a portico to the mansion. Dr. Thornton was a British-American physician, inventor and architect famous for designing the United States Capitol. Many of his designs are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the grand Woodlawn Plantation in Fairfax, Virginia, the historic home called Prospect Hill in Baltimore, Maryland, and the Octagon House in Washington, DC.

Gerard Lambert became Carter Hall’s new owner in 1930. He commissioned the American architect H.T. Lindeberg to remodel the mansion. Lindeberg’s specialty was large country estates and suburban villas. He removed the stucco from Carter Hall’s exterior to expose the limestone underneath and updated its insides with neo-Georgian details. Meanwhile, landscape designer Wade Muldoon was hired to add a four-level terraced garden to the mansion’s surrounding lawns.

Other famous people who have visited Carter Hall include the Confederate general Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson and Edmund Randolph. Jackson earned his nickname during the First Battle of Bull Run, an important Civil War scrimmage fought on July 21, 1861. “Inspired by Jackson’s resolve in the face of the enemy, [General Bernard] Bee called out to his men to […]: ‘Look, men! There is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer!’”3 In the fall of 1862, General Jackson set up headquarters at Carter Hall.  “He declined George Burwell’s invitation to stay in the house, camping instead with his men on the grounds.”4 This is a great example of Jackson’s military discipline and devotion to his troops.

Stonewall Jackson. Image Source: Uploaded by Jbarta to Wikipedia

Edmund Jennings Randolph was the cousin of Nathaniel Burwell. He was a famous American attorney and served as Secretary of State under Thomas Jefferson. His uncle, Peyton Randolph, owned the haunted mansion we’d previously posted about.  Peyton Randolph was born in Williamsburg and served as President of the Continental Congress and speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses. His old historic home, the Peyton Randolph House, is rumored to be cursed by one of his wife Betty’s slaves. It is also said to be haunted by members of the Peachy family.

When Edmund Randolph ran into financial trouble, Nathaniel Burwell allowed him to stay at Carter Hall. Edmund suffered from paralysis, so his cousin made sure he spent his final years in extreme comfort. Edmund passed at the ripe age of sixty, on September 12, 1813. Like Nathaniel, he was buried in the family cemetery at Old Chapel.

Many of Carter Hall’s ghosts are thus believed to be members of the Burwell clan. According to Townsend Burwell, who resided in the house in the early 1900s, “several times I have heard the arrival of a vehicle at the front door and have later discovered that nothing was really there!”5 Mrs. Lucy Burwell Jolliffe experienced a similar spooky phenomenon while visiting Carter Hall with her two sons. While enjoying a quiet evening in the dining room, the three heard the unmistakable sound of a carriage parking in front of the mansion. They looked out to see an old-fashioned carriage, complete with two horses, a driver and footman, docked at the entrance. Yet when the footman stepped down to open the coach door, no passenger descended! With “the crack of the whip,”6 the phantom vehicle disappeared into the darkness. Nathaniel Burwell was known to favor large coaches for his travels across the state, so perhaps it was his spirit which was sitting inside the phantom carriage the Jolliffes encountered.    

Today, Carter Hall operates as a conference hall owned by Project HOPE, an international health care organization founded in 1858. “For over two decades, the tranquil setting has been a sought-after location for non-profit and civic-minded groups who wish to meet in a setting conducive to small group dialogue and creativity.”7 Project HOPE maintains and preserves the historic significance of the estate. If you do visit it or attend an event at Carter Hall, make sure to keep an ear out for Nathaniel Burwell’s phantom coach!

Marker outside Carter Hall. Image Source: Historical Markers


Works Cited

1. “Carter Hall.” National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form. United States Department of the Interior National Park Service. 24 July 1973. Web. 24 July 2016. Page 2.

2. Taylor, L.B. The Big Book of Virginia Ghost Stories. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2010. Web. 24 July 2016. Page 90.

3. “History.” FAQS. Stonewell Jackson House, 2010. Web. 24 July 2016. Para. 3.

4. “Carter Hall.” National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form. United States Department of the Interior National Park Service. 24 July 1973. Web. 24 July 2016. Page 3. 

5. Marguerite du Pont Lee, Jenny Lee. Virginia Ghosts. Baltimore: Reprinted for Clearfield Company, Inc. by Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1993, 2002. Web. 24 July 2016. Page 188.

6. Marguerite du Pont Lee, Jenny Lee. Virginia Ghosts. Baltimore: Reprinted for Clearfield Company, Inc. by Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1993, 2002. Web. 24 July 2016. Page 188.

7. “Home.” Welcome to The Carter Hall Conference Center. Project HOPE, n.d. Web. 24 July 2015. Para. 1.