Just about everyone has a skeleton or two in their closets … but how many people can say they have a headstone in the basement?
A few years ago some friends and I successfully conquered one of the downtown rooms at Escape Game Erie. Afterward, we had a great conversation with Vicki, our host. While talking about their 4838 West Ridge Road location, she just happened to mention there was a headstone in its basement.
Nicholson House on West Ridge Rd.
In late November 2023, I finally sent a message asking if there really was a stone in the house’s basement. The answer arrived in less than five minutes. It was “yes,” along with an invitation to visit.
Jennifer and David Wedzik, owners of both Escape Game Erie locations, welcomed me into the former Nicholson House. Designed and built by Isabella Nicholson between 1825 and 1827, the house had 14 rooms and was located between the Ridge Road and the Erie Extension Canal. After the death of her husband, John, in 1828, Isabella operated the house as an inn, a tavern, and a farm until her death in 1866.
Awed by its thick walls and wide floorboards, the highlight of my visit came as we descended into the house’s basement. There, carefully pieced together by the Wedziks, was the headstone they discovered after buying the house in 2017. Its inscription read:
In memory of
who was born in Middletown
in the County of Donegal
in Ireland & Emigrated
to the U.S.A. in the year
1783 and settled in Millcreek
Township Erie Co. Pa 1797
& died Sept. 18, 1828
In the 65 year of his age
John Nicholson headstone located in basement
(Before reading any further, know that John is not buried in the house’s basement!)
John’s story begins in Ireland where he was born around 1763. His and Isabella’s families traveled together to the United States on the Lazy Mary. They were married in the mid-1790s while living in Lancaster and Fayette Counties. In 1795, Governor Mifflin sent John to scout for potential roads near Presque Isle. About a year later he returned to the area and obtained a grant of about 400 acres from the Pennsylvania Population Company.
John, Isabella, and their young son traveled to Millcreek along with a provision laden horse. Their first house was a log cabin, built in the Kearsarge area. After acquiring more land, John built a frame house immediately to the west of the current brick home on West Ridge Road. It opened in 1809 as a successful inn and tavern. John helped establish a mill, school, and church meeting house in the area, with seven of the couple’s eight children being born in Millcreek. It’s also rumored that he blazed a path from his Millcreek farm through the wilderness to Erie, a trail that would later become “Ridge Road.” In September of 1828, John died in the frame house (later razed) next door to the new home that was almost finished.
Nicholson home where John died in 1828 (no longer there)
So how did John’s headstone come to be located in the basement of 4838 West Ridge Road?
A visit with Pastor Dave Hastings and Administrative Assistant Sandy Kodrzycki, of the Asbury United Methodist Church, filled in many of the blanks. In 1819, a piece of land on the east side of Millfair Road, just south of Swanville Road, was conveyed to the Asbury Church “in trust for a graveyard and for no other purpose.” It’s likely that, upon his death in 1828, John Nicholson was buried here and a headstone erected.
In 1847, Isabella sold a parcel of her land to the Asbury church for $80 (the current site of the Asbury UM Church and Cemetery). A wood frame church was built and the cemetery moved from its Millfair Road location. John’s stone, along with others in the original graveyard, was probably moved to the new cemetery site.
Site of first Asbury Church graveyard on Millfair Rd.
When Isabella Nicholson died in 1866, the family commissioned a monument. Not only would it commemorate the life of Isabella, but it would also honor the legacy of her husband, John. It’s thought that at this time, John’s original headstone was removed from the cemetery and stored in the basement of the West Ridge Road house, where it would remain for (almost) all of the next 157 years.
John and Isabella Nicholson monument in Asbury UM Church Cemetery
Final pieces of the puzzle fell into place during a wonderful conversation with Georgiana Nicholson Ely, a descendant of John and Isabella. Georgiana grew up in the Nicholson house, one of seven generations to do so. She recalled her father putting in a sidewalk during her younger days and incorporating the headstone as one of its prominent features (a common practice in New England during the 1800s and early to mid-1900s). When the sidewalk was removed, the headstone was returned to the basement. It remained there when the house was sold in 2010 after being lived in by Nicholson descendants for over 180 years.
Thanks to the building’s current owners, Jennifer and David Wedzik, for lovingly caring for this headstone.