POCONOS, Penn. — From the final hiding place of notorious cop killer and domestic terrorist Eric Frein, to the site of erotic fetish parties (first exposed to the public by the Pocono Record in 1999), to the failed revitalization by new owners indicted on charges related to tax fraud, the allure of Birchwood can be hard to resist.
The 300-acre property sits seemingly abandoned, flanking a public road in Pocono Township, on both sides. Tinsel and holiday decorations hang from dilapidated buildings that stand beside a lake. In the chilly Pocono fall — which doesn’t last long before winter takes hold — the Pennsylvania resort often is engulfed in an eerie mist.
Erik Arneson is a budding crime fiction writer working in Harrisburg. For him, exploring abandoned properties is a casual passion.
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“Whenever I happen to be on the road and I know there’s something nearby, I try to make a point of (driving past) … to see what the situation is, if there’s any good photos to be had.” Arneson said.
Arneson paid a visit to Birchwood Resort in Tannersville in 2016, while en route to a writer’s retreat with a friend. He said the resort property appeared to be “frozen in time.”
The day they visited, the Pocono Township property was “beautiful, peaceful.” Some of the cottage doors were wide open, and he could see furnished rooms inside.
“What sort of struck me was … there was still furniture, things like water heaters.” Arneson noted that it seemed as if the resort had closed, expecting to reopen a season later, but never did.
The blog post he wrote following that trip has proven to be his most popular to date.
Arneson said people familiar with the area tend to leave comments featuring treasured memories of Birchwood.
“My wife and I spent our honeymoon here way back in 1967. A couple of years ago, we drove there and walked around the grounds a little,” one reader posted. “We found our cottage and it was open so we went inside, pretty much trashed; however it was great to be able to step back in time a little and remember what it was like when we were there.”
Other readers reminisced about helping out family members that worked at the resort. Just about all lamented Birchwood’s current condition.
What exactly draws a person to explore the dilapidated remains of a once-prosperous vacation destination?
As it turns out, there are a number of reasons one might take a risk and explore an abandoned location.
Jon M. Shane is an associate professor of criminal justice in the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. His published analysis of abandoned buildings or lots illustrates several such motivations.
“Trespassing is a precursor to burglary that occurs when the property is unprotected,” Shane writes. “Trespassers view unprotected property — both buildings and lots — as available for their use as a shortcut, a hang out, or a place to engage in criminal activity. Unprotected property is also inviting to curious children, who use it as a playground, and homeless people, who use it to establish encampments.
“Trespassers, particularly children, risk injury and victimization and may generate noise or invade the neighbors’ privacy.”
Lance and Laura Longwell, a couple who run the website Travel Addicts, agree unsavory activities certainly play a part in why at least some people trespass at such sites. However, they also maintain that many trespassers are just driven by a sense of curiosity.
Having written about the abandoned resorts and love hotels of the Poconos, the pair find that visitors to such locations are motivated by fond memories in many cases.
“The first group that I think we shouldn’t overlook is what we call ‘nostalgia tourism,’ the people who either honeymooned there themselves, and they kind of want to see what has become of it, or maybe their parents or their grandparents honeymooned there,” Lance said. “And we’re contacted by readers constantly asking for information about places where parents and grandparents, or even people themselves, had spent honeymoons.
“That is a very real group that I think is kind of overlooked in the conversation: people who have an emotional, vested interest in these places.”
Others may be intrigued by the properties for other reasons – perhaps they harbor an interest in visiting an eerie location that inspires a sense of fright or excitement.
The Inn at Buck Hill Falls notably served as a location for the MTV series “Fear” in 2000. It was alleged that numerous murders occurred there, adding to the eeriness — though many of these incidents have been questioned.
These Pocono resorts also provide a visual slice of the human condition. “There’s the metaphor of how these crumbling resorts represent how the majority of marriages now end in divorce — a visual representation of the human turmoil. There are also lessons about change — sometimes you need extinction to evolve,” writes Lance in his Travel Addicts article.
Expanding upon that notion is the concept of the artistic value found in places like Penn Hills, a place replete with images of nature taking over man-made structures that once were a pillar of the local economy and community.
“We come primarily through the lens of photographers, and capturing what are very interesting images,” Lance said. “We’ve been around the world, you know, visiting similar places, and we happen to live in Pennsylvania. So this is kind of in our backyard, but I wouldn’t say that we are exclusively drawn to them, but it does make a very interesting backdrop for our photography.”
No matter what the attraction, the Longwells adamantly discourage the public from wandering onto abandoned premises, and stress that they stay on the right side of the law by not trespassing and securing permission during their own excursions.
Faded glamour, false promises
A YouTuber, known simply as Devin, posted the video “Abandoned Pocono’s Honeymoon Resort – Caught by Owner with Gun” to his channel “Dark Exploration Films” in January. While walking the 300-acre Birchwood property, Devin and his companion are confronted by what he called a “property owner with a gun.”
At the time this story is being written, the Birchwood Property is apparently still owned by C.Castle Group, who had posted plans for Spa Castle Grand Resort in 2015. Those plans included an 80,000 square-foot waterpark, multiple “villages,” among other recreational additions, with an environmentally conscious development plan.
Blogger recalls visit to abandoned honeymoon resort in the Poconos
Erik Arneson remembers “perfect weather” and a peaceful setting the day he and his friend ventured out to Birchwood.
Ashley Catherine Fontones, Pocono Record
Today, the website hosted by C.Castle Group still hosts those plans from 2015, along with the statement: “Spa Castle Grand Resort focuses on bringing the healing power of mother nature to its guests. Feng Shui design principles will be integral throughout the resort, allowing rest, relaxation and life balance to be primary objectives for visitors.”
The company was indicted in 2017 on charges of grand larceny and criminal tax fraud for allegedly failing to pay taxes in New York.
Castle Group has not returned a request for comment.
Wagner said sometimes owners of such properties will ask local residents to patrol the grounds as a type of informal security, in exchange for the ability to hunt or fish on the land.
In the video, the YouTuber points out numerous hazards such as sunken floors and caved-in ceilings. About 13 minutes in, the pair are met by a man holding a rifle.
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The man points out that they are trespassing on the property, and asks if they’ve seen the numerous “no-trespassing” signs throughout the resort. One of the young men replies that he hadn’t seen any of them.
“Well, then I’ll go ahead and call the cops … let’s be serious here, dude.” The man says. Devin and his companion reply that they are just passing through.
“Everybody says the same (expletive) thing. You see how the place looks like, right?” The man says.
The video currently has more than 96,000 views.
‘Anything but a playground’
Arneson said there’s a kind of “bittersweet” nostalgia permeating properties like Birchwood.
“You know that it used to be populated with people that visited there,” Arneson said. “They had stories, they had families … It’s something bittersweet and fascinating about trying to picture what it was like — and then seeing the reality of what it has become.”
Not everyone holds as reverent a view as Arneson, however.
Abandoned resorts in the Poconos sometimes are the sites of vandalism, suspicious fires or worse, often tied to the activities of otherwise well-meaning tourists or curious trespassers.
For Sgt. Detective James Wagner, abandoned resorts like Birchwood are anything but a playground. In February, Birchwood was plagued by two fires, just weeks apart. One of those fires was determined to be arson, the other, “suspicious” in nature.
“A lot of these fires we are seeing are people just playing around,” Wagner said. “People think they are old, valueless buildings.”
Wagner and the Pocono Township Police Department often are made aware of suspicious activity by local residents. “Neighbors will call if there are cars parked in the area of the property,” Wagner said. There are several private homes in the area.
Wagner said officers regularly drive along the quiet township road as part of their patrols.
There are “obvious dangers,” he added, when it comes to exploring an abandoned resort like Birchwood, like “falling through weak floors.”
“Some of these buildings are subject to rain and rot, or worse” which could lead to a risk of structural collapse.
And that’s not all a trespasser would risk.
“Growing up in the Poconos, you know all of the dangers” pertaining to wildlife, he said. Packs of coyotes, bears or even rabid animals could lie in wait for would-be Instagrammers, bloggers, or anyone else roaming the sites.
Resorts like Birchwood pose an attractive nuisance in the county, and Wagner’s opinion is that resorts that are not in use should be razed. “That’s on the property owner,” Wagner said.
Incidents like the Birchwood fires are “what happens when these large resorts sit vacant,” said Taylor Muñoz, Pocono Township supervisor. “We always hope for and try to work with the property owners of these old resorts to hopefully get voluntary compliance, in terms of them securing their facilities or barring access to dangerous structures.
“But when that doesn’t happen, we have ordinances that address that activity and we have actively used our ordinance provisions to try and obtain compliance in terms of securing the structures or razing them,” he said. “But that’s an ongoing process for us.”
Muñoz referenced two specific township ordinances related to this issue: a dangerous structures ordinance and a property maintenance ordinance. The township will enforce those ordinances via the courts if voluntary cooperation is not an option, he said.
Rising from ruin
Chris Barrett, president and CEO of the Pocono Mountain Visitors Bureau, believes the sites of these abandoned resorts potentially could be resuscitated and utilized to attract tourists to the region once again.
“People are actually … very quietly buying those up and rehabbing them,” Barrett said. “Especially the ones in the northern Poconos, like The Rex is one that was a 10-cabin property that a couple from New York bought it and totally rehabbed it, and did an amazing job with it.”
Barrett noted that The Rex was located mere steps away from the Promised Land State Park, making it an ideal location for visiting hikers and adventurers to stay.
And the appeal of such scenic views certainly applies to other abandoned locations, Barrett noted, especially in the age of COVID, where weekend trips have become a popular option while international getaways are still not considered a safe option for many.
In light of the changes to resorts industry over the past two decades — locations that once were antiquated and uninteresting to the youth now may evolve to attract new audiences — these sites may still prove useful for new development.
“Those resorts are located in those places to begin with, because of their viability as a great location,” Barrett observed. “So they could serve that purpose and function again very easily. It would be great if somebody bought the properties, that would be awesome.”
While some of the more rundown facilities across the Poconos have reached a state of no return, Longwell noted there are at least a few places that could benefit from preservation. Citing a trend in Budapest where ruins have been saved and embraced as tourist destinations in and of themselves, Longwell said there is potential to do the same in Pennsylvania.
“These places in the Poconos are a gem, they’re a historical gem that really tells you the (story of) post-World War America, and we’re losing them,” he said. “And this could be something — the Poconos region could embrace them could make things safe, and could turn it into something like an Eastern State (Penitentiary), and financially capitalize on it.”
Not all former Poconos resorts are abandoned, of course. Many resort properties have found new life, such as Mount Airy Lodge’s resurrection as Mount Airy Casino Resort, or Fernwood Resort’s transformation into the Jinyin Temple, the North American headquarters for Chinese Sino Esoteric Buddhism.
A location often cited as a “good example” by insiders is that of Brookdale Recovery Center in Scotrun.
Once known as Caesar’s Brookdale Resort, the initial proposal to turn the property into a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility first drew a mixed reaction from the community.
Today, it’s a different story.
The resort likely played backdrop to “a lot of drug activity and and other trespassing” in the past. Now its a thriving rehabilitation center.
The center owners “brought a dilapidated property … back into productive reuse,” Muñoz said, something that has enhanced the tax base and improved the safety in nearby residential communities.
“Now there’s there’s a great community use happening at that facility,” Muñoz said.
Dilapidated and dangerous
While Pocono Township has not yet had to step in to demolish an abandoned resort property, some municipal governments in Monroe County have had to take matters into their own hands.
Stroud Township said complaints from residents in the Analomink area, as well as numerous fires, prompted the demolition of the Penn Hills Resort property, once a honeymoon destination that put the area on the map until its closure in 2009.
Officials called on the property owners to clean up the site for at least two years, township manager Daryl Eppley told the Pocono Record in June.
“They’ve done nothing with the property,” he said. “They’ve done nothing as far as cleanup.”
In January, 20-year-old Adam Schultz of East Stroudsburg was allegedly shot and killed by homeowner Randy Halterman after he and his girlfriend Chastity Frailey had entered Halterman’s home, thinking it was another abandoned building near Penn Hills Resort.
According to the case affidavit, Frailey told police the couple happened upon Halterman’s building as they were walking along Paradise Trail on the way to explore the remains of the resort property.
The dangers that exist on the Penn Hills property are endless, Eppley said. Open well covers and shards of glass litter the ground.
“If a crime is committed, or if somebody is alone up there and something bad happens to him — who knows when they’re gonna get found?”