MOONVILLE, IT’S AN OHIO GHOST TOWN
Excerpt from a past edition of OhioTraveler by Robert Carpenter
Unless you’ve lived in the vicinity, you probably don’t know there’s a place in Ohio called Moonville. In all fairness, unless you have a very old map, you won’t find it—it’s a ghost town. Doubly apropos, because in addition to only skeletal remains of a once viable settlement, it is also occupied by “real ghosts”—which to some is an oxymoron—but you won’t dissuade many of the people in that area. Even the name of the place has a paranormal ring to it.
According to a recent survey, 27 percent of the U.S. population believes in ghosts. Their primary conviction is that they have seen one. The cause is unexplained by ghost hunters, but they claim that there are geographic determinations that allow mystical things to “breakthrough” more frequently in some locations than others. Notably, there is an area in southeast Ohio bordering Hocking and Vinton counties that seems to be such a place. Perhaps it should be taken into account that it is the state’s least populated and most heavily forested locale.
Zaleski in Vinton County is a good place to start—directions are easy from there. Located between the town of Mineral and Lake Hope State Park, no roads can be driven to Moonville—never were—although a present-day two-lane township gets you within walking distance. The only access residents had was the railroad that could be walked or a ride hitched on a passing freight. That alone explains the inordinate number of deaths that occurred, worsened by liberal indulgence in Moonville moonshine.
Built by the Marietta and Cincinnati Railroad in the mid-nineteenth century to haul rich deposits of coal, clay, and iron ore from the region, the eight-mile stretch of tracks that detoured through Moonville was the most desolate, isolated area between Parkersburg and St. Louis, and hated by work crews for that reason. It was the heavy woods, they thought, that swallowed the sound, allowing trains to come out of nowhere, catching walkers on one of the several trestles or the now infamous Moonville Tunnel, preventing their escape. In addition, there were conductors and especially brakemen on those early trains who were vulnerable to accidental death.
Ghosts of both types of victims, it is said, have been appearing for well over a hundred years, usually taking up residence in the Moonville Tunnel. The tunnel, historically interesting due to being one of the last vestiges of a lost society, has been photographed many times, revealing images digitized or burned into film that was not visible to the photographer. Of those forms detectible to the naked eye, the most disturbing have been phantom trainmen waving lanterns used to signal an emergency stop. In 1981 the railroad finally saw fit to install a signal light at the old Moonville site with instructions that it alone was to be obeyed—the result of swinging lanterns in the middle of the track forcing many trains over the years to make emergency halts—only to see the light dissolve into the darkness.
The line was ultimately abandoned, and the rails pulled up in 1988, but the tunnel is accessible, and the old right of way easily followed, with plans for a “rail trail” in the works. However, there are several bridges and miles of roadbed to be refurbished—that is, if there continue to be enough hikers willing to whistle past the graveyard that was within spitting distance of the tracks.
But that’s not the end of the ghost story. Departing in the direction of Hocking County, SR 278 skirting Lake Hope State Park would appear on the map to be the best means back to civilization. However, this road’s desolate, isolated nature gives many people the willies. The heavy pine forests on both sides of the road, under different circumstances, might be considered quite beautiful, but here the woodlands seem to close in on you and take your breath away for a wholly different reason than the observation of southern Ohio splendor. If you have claustrophobic tendencies, keep the tranquilizers handy.
This stretch is so lonely it is hard to believe that it once encompassed a thriving community with a general store, post office, and school. If you dare to explore some of the semi-cleared areas, you might discover some of the old stone foundations by kicking the pine needles aside. But there is one thing along this otherwise abandoned artery for which you will not need an acute sense of observation. Without warning, the remains of a huge stone furnace come at you from the west berm like a sucker punch. It’s all that’s left of the primitive smelting operation that extracted iron ore and occupied almost everyone in Hope. It’s interesting in bright daylight, but few people have the courage to tread the grounds at night.
Frequently there is a bright light, said to be the lantern of the night watchman who, on one of his inebriated rounds, fell into the furnace and was incinerated. The light dances around the chimney and over thin air where buildings once existed and approach cars that stop to investigate. Most people sum up their inquiry rather quickly and vamoose.
Escaping west on Route 56 into Hocking Country may ease anxieties, but it takes you right into Ash Cave State Park. You may feel more comfortable there being accompanied by professional guides, but it is also known for its apparitions.
Ash Cave has long been known for the haunting echoes of waterfalls, winding trails, and the dark depression of its recess cave. Many are convinced that it is more beautiful in winter than in summer. Often the cascading waterfall transforms into a shimmering figurine of frozen elegance, and the leafless trees reveal formations not discernible in the thick foliage of summer.
Often hikers are mesmerized by the surroundings, and the goosebumps rising on the backs of their necks are attributed to the awesome beauty and coolness of the forest. But inevitably, when it happens, a shadowy figure of a woman in 1920s attire is seen following along on the trail. Unlike the poltergeists of Moonville tunnel, there is no history to indicate who she is. Night tours are not meant to be ghost-hunting expeditions, but ghosts have never been known to follow the rules. Lights described as greenish-yellow often dart around in the trees—up and down, back and forth they shimmy, sometimes putting on a show for several minutes before disappearing into the forest. Usually, park rangers make no attempt to explain them.
A little farther west, you can catch SR 664, which will take you north to Old Man’s Cave in Hocking State Park. The name is derived from the fact that a man in the early 1800’s lived in a cave with his hunting hounds. Described as a hermit—what else could he be? —Richard Roe lived most of his life in the cave located on the north wall of the main gorge. One cold morning he descended the wall to the stream below and found it frozen over. Foolishly—for a mountain man—he used the butt of his muzzleloader to break the ice, accidentally discharging the load into his face.
Mr. Roe is not known to make appearances. Perhaps his face would be too ghastly even for a doppelganger, but on many nights, especially under the full moon, his hunting companions can be heard baying endlessly for the return of their master. It is said the sound sends chills through the most fearless of overnight campers.
This is, without question, a strange region in our state and virtually unknown to a great many. Exploring the area will take a day, or maybe two, to see everything, and it’s guaranteed to be an unusual experience, whether or not you come across any spooky manifestations. Of course, the most important instruction is to bring your camera. You may be surprised at what develops.
For more information, visit vintoncountytravel.com.