Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Paranormal Misdiscoveries...

There is a ton of absolutely mind-boggling ghost hunting out there. And even more, there is an unending wealth of erroneous history, bad investigating, and sheer stupidity. Most of the time, I just breeze by these things and roll my eyes. But yesterday, after watching a half hour video by Discovery Paranormal, I just couldn't bite my tongue any harder. It was begging me to pick it apart... and shed some truth on the reality behind the "Lehigh Valley Train Crash of 1911".

The video starts off with a walk down railroad tracks to the site of the accident, which occurred on August 25, 1911 on a trestle near Manchester, New York, spanning the Canandaigua Outlet. Three passenger cars plunged off the bridge when a faulty steel rail broke apart under the train (which was traveling at excessive speed). According to Michael Angley, the narrator for the show, they also investigated the nearby roundhouse which was "the last place the passengers were before the crash." We'll get back to that major mistake later, but first let's get to the bridge investigation.

It's obvious from the terrible audio that he's using the same full spectrum HD camcorder I have (and didn't feel the need to bother with an external microphone). Heading down the tracks, he says that the train "went down in the ravine," which is a partial truth. Three of the 14 excursion cars went down; that is all. The team's psychic Tammy sensed "it's like fear... it's like 'oh my god, we're going down' kind of feeling... people were scared; I hear children crying and... crash." Really. At a train crash site? But then, Michael goes on: "...back then, those trains they had no safety devices; you know, it was 1911. We're talking about... you're going down 40 feet in a wood and metal coffin; essentially, you're dead."

The first railroad safety improvements (beginning with air brakes) were made in the 1870s. He makes 1911 rail travel sound downright rustic. But if you look at photos of the crashed cars, you will see that they were a far cry from the old wooden cars heated by wood stoves used in the 19th Century. Very little has changed with passenger car design since that time. Today, if you plunge 40 feet off a bridge in an Amtrak car, the only safety feature you can brag about is emergency exit windows. That doesn't help when you're already dead. Michael went on, "...they used that shop back there as the temporary morgue." Actually, the makeshift morgue was in the basement of a country furniture store in nearby Shortsville, just south of the crash site. But I digress.

After many more obvious revelations from the "psychic", the team headed down the ravine to the bottom where the crash happened. And they brought their trusty dowsing rods. Thanks to the wonders of high definition filming, you can watch as the hands of the dowser rock back and forth ever so slightly, causing the rods to cross over and over. And they don't even wait for a question sometimes! While busy talking to a ghostly little girl, the group fails to address an important point: this train carried a number of Civil War veterans and their families returning from Rochester. The brooches worn by unidentified women from the wreck may have been mourning jewelry bearing the initials of dead soldiers. You would think the psychic would have at least picked up on that much, or that someone had bothered to actually read all the newspaper stories about the accident.

But the ghosts were far too busy trying to rush the intrepid ghost seekers to the more important destination: the roundhouse to the west. Ah yes, the roundhouse; that place where passengers wait to board trains. Oh, that's a station... nevermind. For those of you who don't know, a roundhouse is where locomotives are stored and repaired. There is absolutely no reason any passenger would be wandering a roundhouse unless he or she was an employee of the railroad. Still, the team decided this was the most likely spot to look for ghosts (instead of the makeshift morgue, that actually would make any sense whatsoever).

"...if a crash happened here, the victims--or the passengers--would go back to the place that they knew the most, which is the round house [sic]." Inside the old locomotive warehouse (I mean "passenger waiting area/place they turned around trains"), they bring out recorders to capture really vague nonsensical "voices" and sounds. Michael says, "the historian said that the train was still, uh... that the platform was probably still here." Once again, roundhouses did NOT have station platforms. Oops. Just then, the psychic says the first thing that actually makes sense: "...there's a man here... he's really, um, getting people to work..." Finally, something that talks about what the building was really used for--locomotive repair.

The dowsing rods come out yet again and questions fly while the rods swing back and forth a lot. You can really see the hand movements better here (around 15 minutes into the video) when he's asking how many ghosts are inside the building. And the questions keep getting better. "It was a grand building at one time, wasn't it? It was round all the way around?" Both get a 'yes' from the rods. (A roundhouse is commonly a half circle or smaller, otherwise there'd be no place for locomotives to enter. Only a few full circle roundhouses were ever constructed.) There's just one minor problem with this place. The round house was built in 1916, five years after the accident.

The psychic (and by now I use the term loosely) goes on to tell about sensing the passengers. "It's like they were anxious to see their relatives... and they were going on a trip and they couldn't wait to get there. They were almost there..." Thanks for that obvious report. "This is where they changed over, they got a little rest and something to eat..." (This town was NOT a stop for the speeding train in 1911.) Here they bring out "Pete's Ghost Box" to communicate with the spirits. Of course, when using a Ghost Box, you don't actually need to pay any attention to what words are coming out of it (as the team wisely shows us). Never mind that it sounds more like an Ovilus than a "Frank's Box" sweeping radio frequencies. In sure it's just coincidence and they really know what their equipment is called.

After reading off the list of the dead (and getting different answers from the dowsing rods; watch for the hand movements yet again), they announced they "found a bunch of spirits that have not moved on" at the roundhouse. Michael ends it with "Who knows when a train will ever come for them." If they're waiting in the roundhouse, my guess is probably never. And so ends a bafflingly unresearched investigation. Could it have been worse? Absolutely. But this is one video that makes me wonder why some people call themselves serious "paranormal investigators" who, as the website states, are "dedicated" to "collecting hard evidence of paranormal activity."

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Ghosts of Railroads Past...

In keeping with my last post, I've been thinking a lot more lately about how much I've enjoyed railroads over the years. They're still my favorite means of transportation, and it's quite sad seeing how rail travel has died out over the years. People might say that the automobile killed streetcars and passenger railroads, but that's not entirely true. They were still very popular when the transit systems were dismantled. It was mainly a change in public mindset brought on by billions of federal dollars spent to build national highways. In nearly every metropolitan city across the nation (and many small towns in between), it was possible just 60 years ago to get almost anywhere via interurban streetcars and trains.

Since the mid-1800s, railroads shaped and formed this land and our cities. The stories of Casey Jones and John Henry are forever remembered in their old folktales. And it's hard to travel anywhere without passing (or crossing over) an old railroad line, if you know where to look. Many of our towns sprang up from railroad lines snaking across the landscape. Sadly, many of them died out when the trains disappeared. In the Cuyahoga Valley alone, I can think of several towns that have disappeared off the map when the Cleveland Terminal & Valley Railway was sold and switched entirely to freight.

Slowly, I'm working on compiling together some of the thousands of old legends and myths associated with the railroads. Eventually, I'll be setting aside part of my website for them, but there's a lot to wade through before I get there. I find railroad ghost stories just as fascinating as the golden age of steam. Just in Ohio, there are dozens of ghosts associated with train wrecks and accidental deaths from the Ashtabula Train Disaster to the tragedy outside Republic, Ohio, or even the specter of Lincoln's Funeral Train. Even one of my first visits to a haunted place as a teenager was train related: the old depot in Galion, Ohio.

All of the hauntings I've heard have involved steam locomotives, oddly enough. I'm sure there are diesel engines behind hauntings out there somewhere, but I'm content to stick with steam. It's a dying technology; if we don't keep teaching generations about operating old steam engines, they'll become mystifying museum relics. Few people who are alive today can operate an old engine. They require skill and finesse you won't find in a simple diesel engine. Perhaps that's why when it comes to historic preservation, I think railroads are so important.

Interestingly enough, we owe much of the current railroad preservation efforts to two men: Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg. They pioneered railroad pictorial books and started the California State Railroad Museum. Much of our history would be forgotten were it not for these two men. And what's even more interesting is they were a couple. Yes, railroad preservation owes a lot to two gay men. You can still see their private car the Virginia City (complete with its elegant interior that would make Liberace jealous) in California.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Local Ghosts by Rail...

Back around 2004, I was trying to put together a ghost tour on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be; there were some issues raised by the fact that it was both true ghost stories and locations in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I can't blame anyone for the plans being thwarted. There was (and still is) some threat of vandalism within the park system, and inviting people to start exploring the valley for ghosts late at night always carries with it the risk of unscrupulous individuals wreaking havoc on historic places.

But times have changed. Ghosts and hauntings have gained popularity and are seen as a possible source of revenue for many businesses. Slowly, the National Park Service has opened up to the idea of telling ghost stories. They may deny any possible existence of paranormal phenomena, but seeing how popular Gettysburg is with tourists looking for a few ghosts and scares can be an influential power. And now, even the scenic railroad has opened up to otherworldly possibilities.

For anyone looking for something spooky to do this weekend (or during a few other weekends this summer), one option is the new Train to the Paranormal on which visitors can leave Northside Station in Akron for a trip full of ghosts and psychics. On the journey south, guests are accompanied by two mediums—Anne Miller and Helen Mayor—who will offer personal readings to anyone interested. The train stops at North Canton where passengers disembark and board a bus for Canal Fulton. At the Warehouse on the Canal, they will have dinner and drinks in the style of a Victorian wake followed by a ghost walk of the old canal town. The 5 1/2 hour round-tour costs $80 per person and ends back at Northside around 11:00 PM.

Canal Fulton is a lovely (and spooky) little place, full of many ghostly tales. I have been there several times, both to investigate the Warehouse and take Sherri Brake's tour. I've been on a few investigations with Sherri over the past decade and highly recommend her Haunted Heartland Tours. I have also worked with Anne Miller and her daughter, Brenda Brand, on a few investigations (all four of us investigated a few places in the valley together back in September 2005 for the Akron Beacon Journal) and find them both delightful people. Undoubtedly, this is one railroad trip worth taking.

Hopefully, one of these days I'll give another go at an event tied in with Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. I have a few ideas kicking around inside my head as we speak, but they'll require plenty of planning and cooperation with a few businesses. But until that time, at least you can enjoy a few ghost hunts dreamed up by other creative people.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Burning Truth of the Cuyahoga...

The story of Cleveland becoming the home of the "burning river" dated back some 40 years when, for the first time, pollution caused the Cuyahoga River to catch fire. Right? Well, one part of this is true. On June 22, 1969, an oil slick on the river did catch fire and subsequently caught the attention of national media. It also burned in 1950 and 1952. But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

"The fire was caused by the water. It flooded some place where was stored some gasoline and carried it down on top of the water to those stills above Wilson Av. to the right as we go in to Cleveland. The water got high enough to carry it in to their fires where it ignited and went down among the tanks below, and as they got hot they blew up and gave their contents to the flames. . . They put timbers across that big creek and threw wood, lumber and anything they found handiest above them into the water and so stopped the surface water and Oil from running down, but they had several acres of burning Oil above. It commenced burning Saturday and we could see the light still Monday morning."

The above account by Alexander Snow in a letter to his son, Fred, wasn't from 1969 or even the 1950s. This blaze touched off on Saturday, February 3, 1883. This was just one fire of the dozen or more on the Cuyahoga since 1868. During the late 19th Century, the river was “so flammable that if steamboat captains shoveled glowing coals overboard, the water erupted in flames” according to author Ron Chernow. Boats were to blame for several of the fires on the sludge-covered river.

Recorded incidents of the river in flames occurred in the following years: 1868, 1883, 1887, 1912, 1922, 1930, 1941, 1948, 1950, 1952, ad 1969. That's more than a century of stories of "the burning river." Yet we only seem to talk about the 1969 fire which led to stricter EPA regulations ad the Clean Water Act. Time and National Geographic magazines widely reported on the last Cuyahoga River fire, which helped it gain such notoriety. In recent time, it inspired "Burning River Pale Ale" made by the Great Lakes Brewing Company.

Rivers flowing through all major industrial cities have been polluted since the mid-1800s when manufacturing boomed. Over the years, the Cuyahoga hasn't been the only "burning river" in the United States. Dearborn, Michigan's Rouge River suffered from several fires. On June 8, 1926, a fire broke out in the Jones Falls area of Baltimore, Maryland, blowing manhole covers off sewer lines and sending a river of flames to the harbor.The Buffalo River burned in 1968 (and July 29, 1880) as did the Chicago River on April 18, 1899 (and many other times, including as recently as 2008) and Philly's Schuylkill River in the 1950s. For as log as mankind has been dumping flammable liquids into our waterways, we've been creating floating infernos.

To call the Cuyahoga the "Burning River" might be accurate, but it's a name synonymous with so many other rivers. Perhaps Cleveland can claim the title for the sheer number of fires on its river. Today, those of use who've been along the Cuyahoga River anywhere between Akron and Cleveland know full well that it's still polluted. Perhaps it won't flare up again, but the root-beer-float-style foam that churns up in some areas is enough to make most people think twice about fishing there. The "Crooked River" is aptly named on so many levels, but we can't say that 1969 was the only year to immortalize a city as the home of a watery inferno.

Most of the information on Cuyahoga River fires was taken from Jonathan Adler's 2003 article 'Fables of the Cuyahoga: Reconstructing a History of Environmental Protection' in the Fordham Environmental Law Journal, Vol. XIV, pages 89-146. The quote attributed to Alexander Snow was published in the book History of the Family of Benjamin Snow (1907; page 126).

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Never-Ending Forgotten History of the Valley...

After a lot of debate, I decided to bring back the Haunted Cuyahoga section of my website. Yes, a lot of my old research (and some rescued documents from Jaite Mill) were turned over to Jeri Holland of Cuyahoga Valley Paranormal about a year ago. I'm still leaving much of the valley's hauntings in her experienced hands. Still, there's so much I've wanted to write about... and so many corrections to make from the old information I had posted. Most of the old pages hadn't been updated since the time when I started looking for ghosts in the Cuyahoga Valley around 1999. Sadly, a lot of that information was total speculation; a lot of research over the years changed what is real from what is urban legend.

In September, Jeri's book Haunted Akron: Ghosts of the Rubber City will be published by The History Press. In it are a few stories from the valley in the southern part within Akron city limits. Since we both feel passionate about history and tossed tons of researched material back and forth over the last few months, we've both been excited by all the new discoveries in both bizarre local history and haunted places. There was the murder of a mixed-race man in a long-since-vanished town, a gruesome suicide at an old canal lock, and a haunted pond in Green Township. But when I scoured old maps and newspaper articles sent to me by Jeri and pinpointed the real location of the "haunted River Styx railroad bridge," you can't imagine how excited we both were.

And there's so much more to tell about; so much so that Jeri is already planning a second Haunted Akron book. At the same time, we're working together to get a early start on teaming up as co-authors for a book on ghosts in the Cuyahoga Valley tentatively planned for The History Press next year. I'm slowly adding some new discoveries to my site, though a lot of it will remain hidden until the book eventually is written and released (though I may share some stories at library talks before then). It's hard to keep all these stories to myself. I've always know that the Cuyahoga Valley has had some wild tales in its past; I ever expected the list to keep growing.

While not all stories involve ghosts directly, there are plenty of downright creepy sites to see. Along Riverview Road, I found the site of a fatal shooting by an "insane," drunken husband. Near a old canal lock, there are apple trees growing which are likely the offspring of trees planted by French traders in the 1600s. And, of course, one tale is a particular favorite of mine: the railroad station along the Valley Railway built on top of an old Irish cemetery! Yes, the bodies are still there... and I'm pretty sure that no one--not even the National Park Service--realizes it.

Hopefully before the heat of summer dies down, I'll have a chance to check out some of these places and (perhaps) have an investigation or two. This is the one thing I've missed the most: being the first person to look for ghosts in certain locations for many decades. Back when I started exploring the valley, it was like that. As some spots have become extremely popular, it took the fun and excitement out of investigating. I've never been crazy about going places that hundreds or thousands of would-be ghost busters trample to death. I like being unique, and in finding these new places that haven't been exhausted to death is the best way to do that.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Bits of the Strangely Newsworthy...

While I've been busy digging through Akron history, here are a few of the more bizarre (and slightly morbid or preternatural) news stories I missed from around the world.

Exterminating Self-Extermination...

Euthanasia can be controversial, but what about the right to do yourself in? While assisted suicide of terminally-ill patients is fine in Oregon, the state's House of Representatives has decided it's not right to cash in on someone else's desired death. A bill was passed on Monday making the sale of "suicide kits" illegal. California woman Sharlotte Hydorn has been selling asphyxiation kits for $60 each (plus shipping) to would-be final clients for some time, but now might face up to 10 years in prison for selling her wares (called "exit kits") to people in Oregon. I guess for those down-and-out souls on the rainy, dreary coast, it's back to the tried and true methods like arsenic, hand guns, and hangings.

File Under V for Vanished...

Many people have complained about the blacked-out portions of US military records dealing with unidentified flying objects. It could be worse; they could have disappeared. So seems to be the case in Australia where, after an exhaustive two-month search, the records housed by the military related to UFO reports (or "X-Files") are AWOL. The case files were recorded up until 2000 and a newspaper recently requested copies of the old documents, at which time the disappearance was discovered. Officials say they must have been lost or destroyed. Another government cover-up of alien contact? Or the cleaning crew doing overtime? One thing is for certain: no Aussie cattle are safe.

Recalculating the Apocalypse...

We can't blame Harold Camping for miscalculating the Rapture. Of the thousands of years of human time, narrowing down that one single day when the good Christians of the world would be beamed up to heaven must be a daunting task. After apologizing for his error, Camping has announced the real date of the end of the world: October 21, 2011. It's time to get those new billboards and signs prepared and enjoy the last few months before demons rise up and slaughter the wicked. Luckily for him, the new date falls much closer to Halloween. If you want to show the streets of the United States filled with ghouls, devils, and monsters, there's no better month than October.

Presidential Tomb Raiders...

The days of corpse theft are still alive and well . . . at least in the Mediterranean. Last month, three men were convicted of stealing the body of Cyprus' late President Tassos Papadopoulos. They planned to use the deceased as a bargaining chip to negotiate for the release of one of the men's brothers who was serving two life sentences for murder. (Luckily for him, not for the murder of the president.) Papadopoulos died of lung cancer in 2008; his body was stolen less than a year later. Desecration of a grave is a misdemeanor in Cyprus and the men were sentenced to 18-20 months in jail. While they may not have freed the convicted murderer, at least they won't have to wait to visit him behind bars.

Politics are Cutthroat...

We may think that politicians are insane fools, but in the republic of Kyrgyzstan, they certainly can be creative. It seems that Parliament in the former Soviet Central Asian country was having a lot of trouble. Obviously, it couldn't be caused by all the disputes and troubles caused by living people. It must have been the work of evil spirits. So they took it upon themselves to go back to their roots by asking, "What would our ancestors have done in times like this?" The answer was a eureka moment: Let's sacrifice some sheep! To appease the "evil spirits," rams were led to the green lawn in front of governmental headquarters and ritually slaughtered. According to Kurmanbek Osmonov, a member of Parliament, "This is a popular ancient tradition, carried out in order to avoid a repeat of last year's tragic events and for peace and harmony to triumph." Only time will tell of the sacrifice worked or, for that matter, if the trend will catch on and make politicians far more amusing.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Back to Local Ghosts...

Another year is rushing by. Though I've felt like my life has been quite boring lately, it hasn't been entirely without amusement and productivity. Most of my writing time has involved PowerPoint shows for libraries (I'm expecting to do several this fall on various places, including the Cuyahoga Valley) and helping with a book. Haunted Akron—written by long-time investigator and former arch enemy Jeri Holland (it's a long story, but we used to fight over the valley many years ago)—will be released this fall as part of the "Haunted America" series by The History Press. I've been helping with research and acting as contributing editor, making sure it's as free of errors as possible and polished before submission. I can tell you now; if you know about haunted places in Akron, you'll find plenty of surprises in this book.

There will likely be a sequel, hopefully within a year. There were so many hauntings in the Akron Metropolitan area that there wasn't enough time to thoroughly research them all and still meet the deadline. Some well-known ghost stories were left out due to time restraints, but other forgotten stories have been brought to light for the first time in a century. Then there's the surprise twist to an old story covered by many people over the years. Every paranormal investigator who has waited for a ghost train to appear at a certain bridge in northeast Ohio has been looking in the wrong place. Luckily, that legend has finally been told correctly in Haunted Akron. I'm looking forward to investigating the real haunted bridge this summer with Jeri and a few other friends.

Aside from the sequel, Jeri and I are teaming together for a new Haunted Cuyahoga book (likely to be named "Ghosts of the Cuyahoga Valley")slated for next fall, published by The History Press as well. I've enjoyed working with Jeri the past few years. We both feel passionate about history and love to dig up old stories from books and newspaper archives. This time, the Cuyahoga Valley will be covered in-depth and accurately. I'll be dusting off my old research from my old book, correcting errors and including many more tales recently uncovered along with stories meant to go in the unfinished sequel. I am looking forward to the chance at working with The History Press. Well, officially working with them this time.

Since Jeri has a bad case of stage fright, I'll be helping out with talks at libraries and events dealing with ghosts of Akron this fall. My talk at Cuyahoga Falls Library on Australian hauntings will kick things off on July 5 at 6:30 PM. From that time on, I'll be heading into my usual busy autumn filled with ghosts and goblins. I have some other plans in store as well, but I'll save the details until they happen. I really do need to get back to work on seeking out those bizarre, unusual ghost stories I do love to find. But for now, I have much more work to do.