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History in the Hills: Local haunts to ‘scare’ us

What is our fascination with stories from the past? I am not talking about the history we learn about in school, but stories we hear from our loved ones. Anecdotal, and often personal, these stories connect us and help make the past not so distant.

In museums our goal is to tell the stories of the past, and we strive to do that by finding ways to connect them and make them relevant to visitors in the present. Like most folklore, ghost stories can be useful, too. I think primarily they are told to scare us, give us a chill or to teach us something. For me they are one more way we can connect to the past.

Some ghost stories, though, may take place in the past, but are not necessarily based on historic fact. The historian in me would like to do my due diligence in thoroughly researching a story, and the places, people and things associated with it, but that may take all the fun right out of it. With Halloween upon us, it is a good time to look at a few ghost stories of our area.

One of my favorites in this area is about the ghost that is said to walk the train tracks, now the Panhandle Trail, in Colliers. Recorded by folklorist Ruth Ann Musick in her book “Coffin Hollow and Other Ghost Tales,” this apparition is of an old man who was run over by a train between Colliers and Weirton. As the story goes, a family rented a home near the railroad tracks just outside of the town, and one night while sitting on their back porch, they saw a man walking along the tracks drinking from a brown paper bag. He then sat down on the tracks, apparently unaware that a train was fast approaching. One of the residents of the house who was witnessing all of this from a distance began to run across the long lawn toward the tracks, yelling for the old man to move off the tracks. He was too late, and the steam engine swiftly roared past. After the train had departed, expecting to see a gruesome scene, the spectator was met with nothing that indicated that there was anyone ever there.

The man, confused, returned to his house, telling his wife, who had seen the old man, too, that the tracks were empty. Later he found that years before there was indeed a stranger in Colliers who was killed on the tracks after the town’s folk ran him out of town. After this incident, the ghost of the old man on the rails was never seen by the residents again. Whether this story is rooted in true events is not clear.

Another great ghost story in our area is the ghost that is said to haunt the Main Branch of the Public Library of Steubenville and Jefferson County. Alan Hall, retired director of the library, in a 2016 article recounted that when he arrived at the library in 1983 the staff asked him if he had been to the attic. Upon examination, he found the tower room where the very first library director had her office for a time when the building was new. On the door was a poster that indicated that here was the home of the library ghost. After some digging into the history of the building, Hall discovered that most likely the resident ghost was that of Ellen Summers Wilson, the first librarian who died tragically of tuberculosis in August 1904 at the age of 31 after only two years as director. Alan tells me that if the ghost exists, it is friendly and is happy to welcome visitors to the library. He also says that while Ellen was director, she created a special reading area for veterans of the Civil War. I agree with his statement that perhaps the old veterans never left. The story of our friendly librarian ghost is rooted in fact. Ellen Summers Wilson existed and met an untimely end.

Another local story is not necessarily a ghost story, but sometimes fact is stranger than fiction. Historian Mary Ferguson, one of my favorites in discovering local lore, tells a story of a local person who also met an untimely end. Zane Buchanan a resident of Hollidays Cove in the late fall of 1903 contracted “the black pox.”

Mary relates that when Zane died, his body was removed from the upstairs window of his home so as to not contaminate the first floor. She writes, “They took him through town in the dead of night and the men, who carried him on the wagon, made room for a couple of jugs for sipping to ward off evil spirits and to keep them clear of the black pox.” When they arrived at Three Springs Cemetery, the undertakers claimed that they buried Zane face down, although it can’t be proven. To bury someone face down is an old medieval tradition originating in Europe in the time of the plagues. This practice would ensure that the dead would not arise and infect the living with the disease.

This obviously was the intent of the undertakers to protect the living of Hollidays Cove. True or not, these few ghost stories of our area can give us an insight into the past. Whether it is a dejected man killed on the railroad, a sweet librarian ghost, or an undead victim of the plague, ghost stories are all around us.

On this Halloween, perhaps we will come up with a few ghost stories of our own.

(Zuros is director of operations at Historic Fort Steuben and the Steubenville Visitors Center.)

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