The Moonville Tunnel






Deep in the backwoods of Vinton County stands the Moonville Tunnel, a relic from an era long gone. The town it is named for was born when the Marietta and Cincinnati railroad was built through the coal- and iron-rich woods of southeastern Ohio in 1856. At its peak in the 1870s, the town boasted a population of more than 100--almost exclusively miners and their families. There was a row of houses along the railroad tracks, a sawmill just down Raccoon Creek, a general store, and a saloon. In its early days the residents of Moonville worked in the Hope Furnace nearby, but later on they turned almost exclusively to mining coal underground. The coal was then used in the many iron furnaces in the vicinity, usually the one at Hope, where weapons and artillery for the Union Army were made during the Civil War.


Hope Furnace



Many of the residents of Moonville are buried just west of town, in an old cemetery on top of a hill. Most of the grave markers are missing or unreadable, but a few have been replaced, and American flags are regularly put out for the veterans.


The Moonville Cemetery

The ghost of the Moonville Tunnel is one of those legends that's based on historical fact but has been distorted by telling and retelling over the years. The major story is that someone--an engineer, a conductor, a brakeman, a signalman?--was crushed under the wheels of the train that used to go through the place. Apart from that basic fact, things get hazy. Was he drunk? Was he stationed in Moonville or was he a brakeman on the train? Was he an eight-foot-tall black guy named Rastus Dexter? Some sources say he was playing cards with other guys. It's been said that he was a conductor murdered by a vengeful engineer who asked him to inspect underneath the train and then started it up. One source even said that he was trying to get the train to stop because Moonville was in the grip of a plague and was running low on supplies. His death was the end of Moonville. This seems a little too romantic, especially since the actual newspaper article from the McArthur Democrat on March 31, 1859 tells a much more mundane story: "A brakesman on the Marietta & Cincinnati Railroad fell from the cars near Cincinnati Furnace, on last Tuesday March 29, 1859 and was fatally injured, when the wheels passing over and grinding to a shapeless mass the greater part of one of his legs. He was taken on the train to Hamden and Doctors Wolf and Rannells sent for to perform amputation, but the prostration of the vital energies was too great to attempt it. The man is probably dead ere this. The accident resulted from a too free use of liquor."


The brakeman's job was a hard, unforgiving one, arguably the most dangerous on the railroad (which is really saying something). They stood atop the railcars and used a long metal T-bar to engage or disengage the brake couplings between them. The drawing above, by O.V. Schubert, appeared in Harper's Weekly March 10, 1877, and depicts a brakeman in the middle of a winter storm. It's surprising that any of them survived a winter. The drawing's caption is as follows:

THE FREIGHT-TRAIN BRAKEMAN
The position of a freight-train brakeman is one of peculiar hardship and peril, especially in winter, when he must stand, without shelter, exposed to wind, rain, or snow, ready to obey the sharp warning of the engineer's whistle. For this duty young men of hardy frame, strong nerve, and steady habits are selected; for it requires all these qualities to perform the duties of the post. No one whose nerves are unstrung by drinking could be trusted where a slip of hand or foot, or unsteadiness of sight, might plunge him headlong to destruction. Our sketch, true to life, gives a graphic idea of what he must endure on a stormy winter night, when the brake handles chill through his heavy gloves, and the steps and car roofs are as slippery as the surface of a skating rink.

Brakemen died all the time on the railroads; it was probably the least enviable job, since they worked with the couplings between cars and the heavy brakes, and any unexpected movement in the train could cut them in half or knock them down between the cars where they'd be crushed and split by the locomotive wheels--just like what happened to the nameless brakeman in the McArthur Democrat story. At the very least most of them ended up missing fingers or other appendages. The deadly nature of the brakeman's job is even the subject of a ballad, the authorship of which is credited to Orville Jenks, of Jackson County, Ohio. The song, usually accompanied by a fiddle and in the same genre as the labor and murder ballads of turn-of-the-century Appalachia, is called either "The Dying Mine Brakeman" or "The True and Trembling Brakeman," and it describes an event almost identical to the 1859 accident at Moonville. The lyrics follow, but you can experience it as it's intended by simply clicking over to the YouTube video of "The True and Trembling Brakeman," performed by Tanya and Larry Rose.

Listen now while I tell you
Of a story you do not know;
Of a true and trembling brakeman,
And to heaven he did go.

Do you see that train-a-coming,
Oh, it's big old Ninety-nine;
Oh, she's puffing and a-blowing,
For you know she is behind.

See that true and trembling brakeman,
As he signals to the cab;
There is but one chance for him,
And that is to grab.

See that true and trembling brakeman,
As the cars go rushing by;
If he miss that yellow freight car,
He is almost sure to die.

See that true and trembling brakeman,
As he falls beneath the train.
He had not one moment's warning,
Before he fell beneath the train.

See the brave young engineerman,
At the age of twenty-one;
Stepping down from upon his engine,
Crying, "Now what have I done!"

"Is it true I killed a brakeman,
Is it true that he is dying?
Lord, you know I tried to save him,
But I could not stop in time."

See the car wheels rolling o'er him,
O'er his mangled body 'n' head;
See his sister bending o'er him,
Crying, "Brother, are you dead?"

Sighing, "Sister, yes, I'm dying,
Going to a better shore;
Oh, my body's on a pathway,
I can never see no more.

"Sister, when you see my brother,
These few words to him I send;
Tell him never to venture braking,
If he does, his life will end."

These few words were sadly spoken,
Folding his arms across his breast;
And his heart now ceased beating,
And his eyes were closed in death.


I think if I were a brakeman I'd be trembling most of the time too. Funny how his last words are to remind his brother not to do the same job that he did. It's important to remember just how essential the labor movement was (and is) when it comes to ensuring safe working environments. Back then, no one had much of a choice; if you wanted to make any money to support your family, you had to take a job that was likely quite deadly, and there was a good chance you'd be severely injured or even killed doing it--but it's not like you could go somewhere else and find a safer job. And there wasn't any kind of safety net in place to take care of you if you were too injured to work, or to take care of your widow and/or children if you died--even if your job did it to you! Ah, the good old days.


Has anybody ever seen the Moonville Ghost? The only specific account I can find appeared in the Chillicothe Gazette on February 17, 1895: "The ghost of Moonville, after an absence of one year, has returned and is again at its old pranks, haunting B&O S-W freight trains and their crews. It appeared Monday night in front of fast freight No. 99 west bound, just eat of the cut which is one half mile the other side of Moonville at the point where Engineer Lawhead lost his life and Engineer Walters was injured. The ghost, attired in a pure white robe, carried a lantern. It had a flowing white beard, its eyes glistened like balls of fire and surrounding it was a halo of twinkling stars. When the train stopped, the ghost stepped off the track and disappeared into the rocks nearby."

You want a more recent sighting? A 1993 Athens Messenger story told the story of David, an OU student who went to Moonville to swim in Raccoon Creek. On their way back through the tunnel they saw a light halfway down it, and split into two groups, since they had beer and half two of the four of them were underage. The other two headed for the light, then came running back out of the tunnel, screaming, "There's no one carrying the light!" David went to check it out for himself. "He wasn't kidding," he reported. "It was just a swinging light with no one holding it. I hightailed it back to the car. I haven't been out there since."


The other ghost of Moonville is reputed to be a girl who was killed when she was caught on the trestle by a train while going to visit a lover. Since at least four people were killed at Moonville crossing, it is possible that she is one of these, although the only story that seems to fit this description is that of Mrs. Patrick Shea, who lost a leg to the train while crossing the trestle and later died during an amputation. Mrs. Shea, however, was in her eighties and a grandmother.

The other two recorded deaths in Moonville are: Raymond Burritt, an 18-year-old killed in a mine explosion; and Charles Ferguson, who was killed in an interesting way while crossing the tracks: the train he was waiting on to pass snapped in two and he stepped out in front of the second half without looking in its direction.


Daytime view of the tunnel
before the tracks were removed

In late July of 1999 my friend Hoss and I took his truck down Route 33 from Columbus to Logan, where we turned from the road and entered the Hocking Hills. Vinton County is the least populated and most heavily forested county in Ohio, and just turning off of the highway was scary enough. After ten minutes or so we stopped seeing other traffic. It was past midnight. Using my handy Ohio atlas we found our way to Lake Hope (which, incidentally, has its own ghost--the ghost of the furnace, which I plan to explore some other time). We missed the road several times before finding the unpaved, unnamed track where we would have to park.


A slightly tilted view of the tunnel from below

Immediately after crossing the river on a one-lane road we looked for the railroad tracks that were on the map, but we missed them and had to double back. Some time in recent years the Baltimore and Ohio railroad tracks were torn up, but the path they followed is still there.

We pulled down the old railroad path and parked there, a few feet from the road. Getting out was a struggle; knowing we were about as far out in the woods as you could get in Ohio--and having just seen The Blair Witch Project--made it pretty damn scary. Gathering our stuff together in the bed of the truck we began to adjust, but the whole night we were jumping at shadows. Hoss and I loaded ourselves down with flashlights, a digital camera, his very realistic-looking pellet gun, a machete, and about ten knives.


Another view

We started down the path of the railroad tracks. It wasn't far at all before we came to what we thought at first was the end of our trip: the railroad trestle. It wasn't there. The stone pillars that once supported it were, but the rest of the thing was taken out with the tracks. I guess the ghost of the girl is homeless now. But we found our way down the steep embankment and crossed the river on rocks and climbed up the other side.


A pillar from the missing trestle and
the rock path across the river


After the tracks were removed,
but before the trestle was

A few feet later we came to the tunnel. In the dark we were almost there before we saw it. It's maybe twenty feet high, curved underneath, made out of brick. It tunnels through a kind of ridge which was difficult to see, although it was apparent that everything around us was heavily, almost impenetrably wooded. We walked through and looked at the graffiti other people had painted on the inside walls: names, dates as recent as June, faces. A few were really sinister-looking. Hoss took pictures with the digital camera.


A plaque inside the tunnel, old and new shots
It says the tunnel was repaired during 1903-4

At the other end we noticed the word MOONVILLE written in brick above the mouth of the tunnel. No sign of the town, of course, although I've heard that there are some abandoned mines in the area. (Many of the mines were dug horizontally and have since collapsed, but the last I heard was that several are still around.) Shutting off the lights was scary. Straying too far from the other person was very scary. Going alone at night, I think, would be unbearable.


Train coming out of the other side
of the tunnel, circa 1970's

I made an effort to talk to the ghost. Nothing happened. We turned off our lights and I asked it to come out, say hello, something. Nothing. We hung around for the better part of an hour without hearing anything scarier than geese in the river.


Some of the scarier graffiti inside

Here are a couple of ghost photos taken in Moonville. One is my own, taken with a digital camera at the east end of the tunnel. Of course, light balls crop up in digital photos all the time, so it doesn't necessarily mean anything. The other is a more disturbing photo sent to me by a guy who visited Moonville for himself and captured something weird on film in the cemetery. You can read about his trip at http://users.3z.net/~jschmidt/moonville/.




The whole thing was very cool. I fully intend to go back, preferably during the day. Part of the legend says that it has to be stormy out for the brakeman's lantern to be seen, so maybe I'll have more luck if I pay attention to the weather forecast. In the meantime, I highly recommend visiting the Moonville Tunnel.

Click below to read true stories direct from Moonville.


Since my first visit I have been to the Moonville Tunnel many times with different people. During our second trip, my friend Elvis and I made a little movie called "The Moonville Tunnel Project," which is pretty ridiculous but at least showcases the tunnel. My third trip was with a group of people from the ROAR conference at Lake Hope State Park. During this trip I found the foundation of an old house on the slope up from the railroad tracks. So, if you're planning a trip to the tunnel, you might find the following map and directions helpful:


Moonville Maps

Find Route 278 in Vinton County. It runs beside Lake Hope and has some great views on the way. Going south, once you pass the lake, make the first possible left. This will be onto Wheelabout Road, shown above as Township Highway 18. This road forks right away; stay to the left. Next, you follow this until you cross Raccoon Creek on a rusty one-lane bridge with metal frame sides. Immediately following this bridge, the old railroad tracks cross the road. They are distinguishable as a razor-straight gravel path in both directions. Park here and walk down the tracks to the left. Before long you will come to the torn-down trestle. There are three ways to get down to the creek, all of varying steepness. They are all on the right. I'd advise the steep incline right next to the end of the tracks, mainly because it gives you the view across. At the bottom you cross the creek easily on a rock path and then climb again. Resume the tracks and the tunnel is mere feet from you. NOTE: Often the water level in Raccoon Creek is too high to cross on the rock bridge; at times like this, you can follow the far bank of the creek from the place where it goes under the road, at the red bridge. There is a path along the bank. Many people use this route anyway, but it is a little longer. To see the house foundations, climb up the embankment on the right of the entrance to the tunnel. It's visible as a flat place in the ground in an otherwise inclined area. There used to be a big house here where the owners rented rooms to railroad workers; one of the Moonville ghosts was murdered here. To see the cemetery, continue on the Hope-Moonville Road just a few feet down from the tracks and take the branching trail off to the right. It winds around and up and ends in the cemetery. I wouldn't advise any of this if your car is lowered--otherwise you will be giving the cemetery a car donation before you know it. I've heard reliable reports about open mine shafts in the area; if you stumble upon one of these and survive, please write me with its location.


This page was one of the very first I ever created for Forgotten Ohio, and as a consequence it's been the beneficiary of a lot of wonderful attention. Rarely have I been quite as honored, however, as when I discovered my Moonville webpage converted into a gorgeous short film. It's easily viewed on YouTube, posted by user TaraKitaideHunter. If you're like me, and you think there's an intangible eeriness to the whole Zaleski region, the tunnel, the ghost town it marks, and the dark legends surrounding death on the rails and the ghosts of Moonville in particular...then you are cheating yourself if you don't watch this video.



The song is "Heron Blue" by Sun Kil Moon, and it's an inspired choice; the music makes it genuinely scary. This presentation of the Moonville ghost story might best be viewed late at night without the lights on.

Having someone take the time and put in the effort necessary to create such a transcendent piece of art, actually *using* my own words and the images from my website...well, "honored" isn't quite a strong enough word. I hope to speak with the person who made "Forgotten Ohio: The Ghost of the Moonville Tunnel" very soon, but whoever it is, I literally cannot thank you enough, nor can I express how flattered I am. I only wish I could produce something so cool.

For more information about the tunnel, visit the Herbert A. Wescott Memorial Library in McArthur, Ohio. They have an entire file dedicated to the subject. The "spook file" at the Ohio University library also contains some relevant material.

And, of course, be sure to check out one of the following Moonville-related websites:

The Moonville Cemetery
YouTube: Forgotten Ohio's Ghost of the Moonville Tunnel
YouTube: "The True and Trembling Brakeman" Performed by Tanya and Larry Rose
Ghost of Moonville
Ghosts of Ohio: The Moonville Tunnel
Athens News Article: "Ready For Some Different 'Haunted Athens' Stories? Read On."
The Troubadours of Divine Bliss: A band with a song called "Moonville Train"
Haunted Hocking Hills

Incidentally, if anyone has additional material about the tunnel, I would appreciate it if you would drop me a line.




forgottenohio@yahoo.com
facebook.com/andy.henderson.319


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Sources

Chillicothe Gazette, Feb. 17, 1895.

Clarke, Thomas Curtis. The American Railway: Its Construction, Development, Management, and Appliances. New York: Arno Press, 1976. [Reprint from 1897 ed.]

Cross, Roy. "Apparitions still at home in hills of Vinton County." Athens Messenger. October 31, 1993.

Everett, Lawrence. Ghosts, Spirits, and Legends of Southeastern Ohio. Haverford, PA: Infinity Publishing, 2002. pp. 23-26.

"The Freight-Train Brakeman." Harper's Weekly, March 10, 1877.

Gohlke, Christopher. "Ready for Some Different 'Haunted Athens' Stories? Read on." Athens News, Oct. 30, 2004. pp. 10.

Kalis, Nanette. "Haunted Athens." Athens News. October 28, 1993.

McArthur Democrat, March 31, 1859.

Vore, Bob & Bill Lawson. Nelsonville Nostalgia. 1973.