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Legends of the Moonville Tunnel

Deep in the backwoods of Vinton County stands the Moonville Tunnel, a relic from an era long gone. The town was named for 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.

The Moonville tunnel marked the entrance to the town for the railroad. The town itself wasn't around long, maybe 30 years or so, before modern advances in mining made small mining towns like Moonville obsolete.

By the time the 1900s rolled around, the town was all but abandoned already. Many of the residents of Moonville are buried just west of town, in an old cemetery at the top of a steep, winding gravel road. Both cemetery and tunnel are about as far from civilization as its possible to get in this state—a full hour's drive from Nelsonville or Athens, buried in the Wayne National Forest along Raccoon Creek.

Today, all that remains of the town of Moonville is the small cemetery and the tunnel. Of the two, the ghosts have chosen to make the tunnel their haunting ground. The only thing that's consistent about the hauntings of the Moonville tunnel is that it's the result of someone being killed inside. But who, and how, is subject to debate. But the Moonville Tunnel legend is one of those tales that's based on historical fact, though it has been distorted by telling and retelling over the years.

The first candidate is simply someone who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes the person is a man who is somehow connected to the railroad, such as a conductor or engineer. In other retellings of the legend, the person is someone from the town of Moonville who just got caught on the tracks and was unable to avoid an oncoming train. In some instances, the person hit is a woman and sometimes the woman is pregnant. And if all those different variations aren't enough to make your head spin, then how about the only version that names the person who is hit by the train; Rastus Dexter, who is described as an 8-foot tall African-American. 

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, albeit grizly, 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 most complete version of the Moonville Tunnel legend is the one regarding an epidemic that had swept through the town. As a result, the entire town of Moonville was quarantined—trains were ordered not to stop in Moonville anymore. Low on supplies, the people in Moonville came up with a plan. They would send one of their own through the Moonville Tunnel to the outskirts of town with a lantern. The idea was that as the train approached, the man would signal for help with his lantern. Since he would be standing outside the town's limits, the thought was that the conductor would stop the train and help. The plan having been developed, a volunteer was selected and it was decided that he would set out the following day. However, the next day, the volunteer got off to a late start (either because he overslept or was sleeping off a hangover) and as he neared the tunnel, he heard the train approaching. Knowing the train would never stop for him unless he was on the other side of the tunnel and outside the town's limits, the man began sprinting through the darkness, waving his lantern wildly. Sadly, the man never made it through the tunnel as he was struck and killed instantly by the oncoming train. That is why today people report seeing a ghostly lantern walking along the track bed around the old tunnel.

One specific account about the ghost's habit of stopping trains 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 east 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.

A more recent sighting, from the Athens Messenger in 1993, tells the story of an Ohio University student named David and his three friends 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 two of the four of them were underage. Two of the boys headed toward 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!"

Another legend of the Moonville Tunnel tells the story of 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: while he was waiting for a train to pass it uncoupled between cars, separating the train into two sections. After the first section passed, poor Charles stepped out in front of the second half without looking in its direction.

In the years following the disintegration of Moonville, everything disappeared but the tunnel—and the legends. After the boarding house and miners' shacks were left to wash away, the railroad took the train platform down.  Trains ran until the late 80s, when the rails and crossties were stripped. Finally the trestle over Raccoon Creek came down, making direct access to the tunnel available only by walking across rocks when the water is low. A ruler-straight gravel path through the forest and the ghostly pillars of the trestle supports in the creek are the only remnants of the line once known as the loneliest stretch of tracks between Marietta and Cincinnati. The tunnel still holds up its wooded ridge as solidly as ever, the bricks curving high overhead and showing the blackish soot marks left by countless engine stacks.

Despite the difficulty reaching it, the Moonville Tunnel is something of an alternative tourist attraction.  Visit just about anytime and you're likely to run into another group; college students from Athens stage a regular Halloween party there every year.  Charred fire pits and empty beer cans are a regular sight, and the graffiti that covers the inner walls gets photographed almost as much as the distinctive openings, each with MOONVILLE written above the arch in protruding brick letters.

Today, as it was over a century ago, bizarre occurrences are reported on the old stretch of B&O tracks with amazing regularity. Is the lantern-waving spook just another bit of railroad folklore, or does something actually supernatural really inhabit the legendary Moonville Tunnel?

Phantom Figure Falls in Line

During the fall last year, a bunch of my friends and I went out to investigate the Moonville Tunnel.On our first few visits out to the tunnel, nothing was out of the ordinary.

The next time we visited the tunnel was a totally different story! We had already walked through the tunnel and were on the other side, walking down the path. Nobody wanted to walk in the back, so I, being the brave soul I am, decided to get bring up the rear of the line, as long as one of my buddies walked beside me. So he and I were walking behind the rest of our friends when he jokingly told me to watch out for the guy behind me. He was totally joking. We both just laughed but I, of course, kept looking over my shoulder for the "guy" following me. Of course, nothing was there.

About 5 or 6 minutes later I turned my head around to look behind me when I saw the scariest thing I've ever experienced in my entire life. There was a figure following us, only it definitely didn’t look human. I didn't know if I was seeing something or not. I tried to say something to my friend, and I couldn't even talk. I simply grabbed him and turned him around. As soon as I saw the look on his face, I knew I wasn't imagining seeing the ghostly figure. We turned and ran as fast as we could, nearly knocking everybody down in our path. When we looked back, the figure appeared to be getting closer to us. We kept running and the next time we checked for the ghost, nothing was there.

I am certain that what ever it is in Moonville, it is still roaming the woods behind the tunnel. I haven't experienced the headless man in the tunnel but I surely experienced something that wasn't of the norm.  –Letter via email

Cult Sacrifice at the Tunnel

I lived in Mineral, Ohio. It is only 2–3 miles from the Moonville tunnel if you come on the tracks from the backside. I have visited the tunnels many times and even camped overnight with friends. I've never seen the swinging lantern or any ghost-like creatures, but I have witnessed some type of cult activity.

It was the summer of 1992 the first time I saw it. A few friends of mine were going to party and showed a couple of our friends from Athens the tunnel. We walked in from Mineral towards the tunnel and after our little trip across the creek a few times we finally came into view of the ridge the tunnel is in. As we came closer I could see the tunnel had a fire built in it, so we were going to sneak up on who we figured were probably a group of teenagers drinking beer and partying. But as we were sneaking up the old tracks we could hear chanting. We stayed hidden in the brush and watched the scariest thing I have ever seen.

There were seven men all in what looked like hooded bath robes––one of them was in a red robe. They kept chanting and they opened what looked like a burlap sack and pulled either a small goat or lamb out of it (alive, we could hear it bah-ing) and they cut it open down the middle while alive. We freaked, and creeped as quietly as possible back until we could run. We decided to run to the first trestle, where we would have to cross the creek.  We ran there, crossed, and went home.  That was it for us.  –Letter via email

A Phantom Train

In 1984 I was working at the Zaleski CCC Camp. On the weekends we were more or less free to do as we pleased. Well, one night a couple of guys (who I shall refer to as RZ and RM) and I wanted  to do something. We had no money,  and  things were looking grim. Then, one of the R’s says, “Hey, let’s go to the Moonville Tunnel and see the ghost!” I had no idea what they were talking about, but after a brief explanation, I was in. We packed up our backpacks, jumped in RM’s Pinto, and off we went.

At this time, to make it perfectly clear, absolutely no one knew we were going to the tunnel. It was a spur of the moment thing between the three of us. When we got to the tracks and parked, there were no other cars around. After a short walk in the dark (it was around midnight, hate to be so melodramatic) we were at the front of the tunnel. We looked around, listened closely, and saw no one, heard nothing but the regular night sounds that one would associate with the woods. When we got to the tunnel, there was no one else there.  We felt absolutely nothing that would lead us to believe there was someone hiding there waiting on us.

About half-way through the tunnel, RZ and RM started running. I thought maybe they were screwing with me and I ran to catch up. At this point, I noticed they were looking over their shoulders as they ran. This was curious, because we were in a tunnel at midnight and a few seconds earlier all I could see was the opening at the other end. I looked back and saw a train entering the tunnel behind us. Shit! I ran like hell, but something wasn’t right. We got out the other side and jumped off the tracks to the sides of the tunnel. Then I realized what was wrong:  No choo-choo noises.

“Did you see that?” they yelled. Yes I had, and now I looked back down the tunnel and saw it again––a light in the mouth of the tunnel at the far end. It looked like a train light just entering the tunnel. I quickly ducked back again, then peeked again…still there!  Duck back again, look across the tracks at the R’s, and peek again. Gone, it was just gone!

Needless to say, we didn’t camp that night, and when we got the courage up to walk back through the tunnel everything was normal. No more mysterious appearances, no more lights, no sounds of local rednecks laughing in the brushes.

What did we see that night? I don’t know. I have ruled out a lot of things it couldn’t have been. I don’t believe in ghosts, ESP, UFOs, or much of anything else, for that matter. I tend to think people who do are whackos. The only reasonable explanation I can come up with is that some local high school kids happened to go the tunnel that night with a spotlight and see if they could scare someone, and we happened along.
It would be damn difficult to hide while we walked past, show the light, and get away before we came back, without laughing out loud. The whole thing happened in a few minutes. Still, this seems the only reasonable explanation.  –Letter via email

The Children of the Tunnel

I just wanted to tell you about my trip out to the tunnel. Me and my boyfriend went out looking for it after I read about it. We had no idea if we were going in the right direction but after a while we found it. It looked a little different and it wasn't as creepy as the pictures show until we started hearing voices. It sounded like two little kids playing and laughing in the tunnel. There were no cars around where we had parked and we didn't see any on our way out. We looked all over the woods and saw no one. And as you know there are no houses around out there that would have little kids that would be hiding in the woods.  –Anonymous

Lantern Man Still Swinging at Moonville

All the men in my family get together every year and go deer hunting in Moonville. We camped on the railbed that is on the other side of the trestle. On the third night I was there we were all hanging out and just goofing off. I decided I was going to go and scout for deer tracks. I got about 15 feet from the tunnel when I saw a light swinging back and forth inside. I thought it was just going to be one of my family members playing a trick on me so I shined my flashlight down the tunnel and all I saw was a light being swung by something that looked like a man, but it wasn’t a real man because I could see right through him. Then he walked to the opposite side of the tunnel and just vanished.  –Anonymous

Moonville images are all over the Internet, and I just had to see it for myself. On 8-1-04 I made the trip to this "haunted" place. It took me forever to get there as I thought I passed it up. I finally got there and ventured down the heavily traveled path before you get to the iron bridge. My hart was racing as I turned my head and see a HUGE black object in the middle of the woods. The tunnel pops out of nowhere. It was creepy for a minute then the history started setting in. All that remains of this small town is the forgotten train tunnel deep in the woods. The tunnel is obviously visited quite frequently as there was graffiti everywhere, some being created 2 days prior to my visit. I'm glad I made the hour drive to Moonville, as it will probably be destroyed soon like so many abandoned places are.  –Bob Kueppers

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