Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Ghosts of Penn's Woods

Kevin Coolidge

“There it is again,” he muttered. “Sounds just like a little one crying for his mama. No wonder this part of the canyon used to spook the Injuns.”

Darkness can come early to the hollows and the hills of Penn’s woods, and O’Conner had put in a long but profitable day working on his trap line, but he was tired and anxious to make his way out of the hollow and head for home and supper. The last thing he wanted to do was wander these woods in the dark, especially with that brand new bear trap he had just bought in Williamsport. Its cold, steel jaws were lying out there waiting for some unsuspecting bear, but he’d never forgive himself if he read in the Agitator next week that a poor couple had lost their babe in the woods. A few more minutes at the end of a long day wouldn’t make that much of a difference…

In the dark, O’Conner must have lost track of his trap. Maybe he slipped, maybe he was distracted by the bawling child, and maybe he realized it right before the teeth clamped into his leg. He must have struggled and screamed long into the night, but he had done his job too well. He couldn’t break the tether, the steel held tight, and he died of starvation and exposure, leaving his body to be found by hunters. This gruesome event left an impression on the folks in these parts and to this very day it’s called Deadman’s Hollow. Some say it’s haunted by his shade because he feels it should bear his name.

Pennsylvania has many natural and supernatural attractions, and you can read more in Ghosts of Penn’s Woods by Jeffrey R. Frazier. Jeffrey is the author of a series of books called Pennsylvania’s Fireside Tales and specializes in compilations of old-time Pennsylvania folktales, legends and folklore. For his latest book he decided to write about ghostly encounters in and around Pennsylvania’s State Parks and historic sites.

Rickets Glen State Park offers scenic waterfalls and great hiking, but it’s also home to the “ghost tree” – a tree planted in the very spot a young “wood hick” or lumberjack was crushed to death. It’s still there today, but bears no leaves or fruit. It’s as if it has been covered with a killing frost, and appears as white as a dried, dead bone. Some claim to hear strange sounds and screams in the wind.

Few places in America can claim as many restless spirits as Gettysburg. The battlefield carries a sense of melancholy and the feeling that not all the dead have yet found their peace. There is at least one man who has heard shouts of “Give ‘em the cold steel boys” where Major General George Pickett’s Division met their bloody end. Perhaps these words are so imprinted on the fabric of space and time that you can still hear them.

Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon is today a designated National Natural Landmark, but it was also a place of bloody, human sacrifice. In the 1600s, the usually lush landscape experienced a period of drought that lasted three years, resulting in conditions so dry that the forest experienced fire after fire, and this time came to be known as the “Big Burn.”

The fires wiped out much of the game that the Indians depended on for food. It was a desperate time, and according to the tale, it was decided to take the child of an unwed mother and sacrifice it to the god of rain. The babe was thrown into the canyon, and the horrified screams could be heard until the baby had fallen all the way to the bottom of the canyon. On warm summer evenings the cries may still be heard. Some might say it is the wind, or warm air rising, but I’m not so sure.

The woods and wilds of Pennsylvania have claimed many a life, and the dead don’t always lie down. This summer, visit the natural, scenic wonders of the Keystone state, and if you’re lucky, maybe you can walk two worlds…if you dare…

Specters, spooks and haints--have a strange and weird tale to share? Send it to the ghost in the machine at Miss a past column? For all the news that’s fit to print, and some that ain’t, visit our blog at and catch yourself up. Looking for a children’s book with a happy ending? Check out “Hobo Finds A Home” about a kitten who found himself a home. You can look for Hobo this Fall where he will costar in the very first reality TV show to take place in a bookstore. Watch “Shelf Life” and feed your mind…

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