Tall Tales Along the Canal

As the sun sets

As the sun sets

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal has been around in one form or another for roughly 180 years, and its 184.5 mile course covers territory from the tidal Potomac to the mountains of western Maryland.  With that in mind, I’ve come across several interesting stories over the years, but the problem with folklore and urban legends is that they’re generally little more than a sentence or footnote in an out-of-print book or on the internet.

Lockhouse 62 Murder Mystery: I have been following this one for several years now, but over the past year or so, I’ve become more confused than ever.  It all starts with a sentence in Thomas Hahn’s  Towpath Guide to the C&O Canal: “Lock tender Joe Davis and his wife were murdered here by shooting in 1934″ (194).  From there, the trail went cold until…

A couple of years ago, Candee and I went looking for the Kessler Tunnel along Tunnel Hill Road, and we met up with a local hunter/retired railroader.  Naturally, the murder mystery came up in our conversation.  The man described the events in detail, and what follows is the gist of the story.  Joe Davis was reputed to have money, and prior to the murders a rough character known as “Peg” (for his wooden leg) Johnson was in the area.  Johnson kept a pistol tucked in his trousers and was definitely nobody to mess with.  Shortly after the murders and subsequent burning of the lockhouse, Johnson disappeared and was never seen in the area again.  Mr. Davis and his wife were found–bound and charred–in the basement of the lockhouse.

End of story, right? Wrong!  I’m a member of the C&O Canal Association and was pleased to see an article written by James Rada, Jr. (“The Murder on the C&O Canal That Didn’t Happen”) in the association’s September 2013 newsletter.  Mr. Rada’s conclusion is that Joe Davis dozed off while smoking a pipe, and the result was the accidental death of he and his wife.  The man I talked to on Tunnel Hill knew a lot about the area, and we had a great conversation.  I’m not willing to completely let go of the “Peg” Johnson story, but the big mystery could be the result of an urban legend gone wild.  We will probably never know for sure.  I’ll leave this topic by stating that Mr. Rada has written some really good books pertaining to the C&O.  I particularly enjoyed his novel, Canawlers.

Mountain Lions at Indigo Neck: In his Potomac Pathway: A Nature Guide to the C&O Canal, Napier Shelton states that two NPS maintenance workers saw a mountain lion at the Indigo Neck hiker/biker campsite (74).  That’s right in the heart of my volunteer area, and I hope there isn’t any truth to it, but eyewitness reports state otherwise.  Shelton brings up two other sightings between Hancock and Little Orleans, and when I’ve mentioned the story to patrons at Bill’s Place, they concur.  In recent decades, coyotes have made a strong resurgence in the eastern U.S., and there’s no reason to believe that cougars aren’t close behind.

Twigg Lock:  This story predates the canal and allegedly took place in the vicinity of Oldtown (near the site of Lock 69).  I’ve heard others call the event a pioneer Romeo and Juliet tale of sorts.  The Twigg family lived near a natural pond in the area, and one day one of the boys went off hunting and returned with a Native American bride.  He was basically blackballed from the family and moved a short distance away.  Afterward, the two branches of the family (the blue-eyed and black-eyed Twiggs) feuded until a male and female from either side of the clan fell in love.  I’m not a born romantic, so I’m kind of sitting on the fence in regard to this one.

The Paw Paw Tunnel’s Headless Ghost: There are a few references to this on the internet, but the modern source of the story appears to be a single sentence in Hahn’s Towpath Guide: “No wonder local legend among the superstitious for many years had it that the tunnel was haunted by a headless man!” (198).  This quote references the ethnic and work-related strife–and death–associated with constructing the tunnel.  Okay, it pays to keep an open mind, and I actually went through the tunnel with a local ghost hunting group years ago.  I don’t recall any great spectral revelations, and my 50+ trips through the tunnel tell me that it is absolutely ghost free.  I don’t even agree with the sentiment that it’s all that creepy

Haunted House Bend: I’m not sure exactly where this bend is located, except to say that it’s somewhere between mile markers 33 and 34.  The name is also misleading, in that there is no house involved in the story.  Nevertheless, according to Hahn (I’m a big fan!), canallers helped to evacuate troops from the Battle of Balls Bluff (Oct. 1861), and on of the boats capsized in the river.  The soldiers were drowned and continued to haunt this part of the C&O Canal.  Rumor has it that this part of the canal was avoided for overnight stays, and mules were skiddish when passing through.  The fact that the park is closed after dark doesn’t help matters for anybody wanting to check this out during the witching hour, but brave campers at the Turtle Run campsite can take a hike downstream–if they dare.

In all, I’m a bit skeptical in these matters–mountain lions aside–but I love a good urban legend or folktale.  If anybody can add to or debunk this list, feel free to leave a comment.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. In 2010 Katie and I vacationed in November at Tygart Lake in West Virginia. Driving eastward on US 50 on our way home, a mountain lion jumped into the road in front of us. It was absolutely the last thing I had expected to see on that vacation — a bear maybe, but a mountain lion?

    After getting home I did some research about mountain lions in the Mountain State. I found one website which recorded mountain lion sightings in the eastern panhandle. I have forgotten the link and a quick search this morning didn’t locate it. I do remember, though, it mentioned sightings around the Cacapon River. It wouldn’t surprise me, then, if there was a report or two of the animals around Indigo Neck.


  2. Posted by LevelWalker on December 15, 2013 at 9:58 am

    That’s a great sighting! I think I would prefer to be in a car if I saw one. I’ve heard some informal mountain lion reports from the Sleepy Creek WMA in Berkeley and Morgan Counties (the Martinsburg area). The Tygart Lake sighting really interests me. I grew up in Morgantown, and one of my neighbors claims to have seen a mountain lion thirty years ago. At the time, that was like claiming to see a UFO, but the same would have been said for an eastern coyote sighting not all that long ago. The last time I walked in the Little Orleans area, we saw 27 deer (maybe the same ones a few times, but…), so food is plentiful in the area. All I can say is that I would love to see one from a distance. Thanks for the information and story. Now I can say with 100% certainty that mountain lions are in the mid-Atlantic region.


  3. Posted by Mark Francis Nickens on September 7, 2016 at 8:48 pm

    I too don’t find the Paw Paw tunnel that spooky. I’ve gone through it with others on dark rainy nights and alone by myself during the day. But closer to D.C. at night, I’ve seen softball sized blueish orbs in the air, moving around the trees, and last summer while practicing Native American flute, I noticed something behind a woodpile about 70 yards away, ducked down watching me for about 5 minutes before it stood up on two legs and moved off to it’s right. Looked like a cross between an NBA player and a chimpanzee with a dark uniform color that had a reddish Orange tint to it. I do think there’s a possibility that I saw a Sasquatch and when I researched it,
    I found out that I’m not the only one who’s seen them in the wooded areas surrounding the canal.


    • Posted by LevelWalker on September 12, 2016 at 1:10 am

      I remember hearing about an alleged Sasquatch sighting near DC a few years ago. Who am I to question it? The story was actually covered on the local news. I believe it was reported as running through a construction site.


  4. Posted by Karen Gray on February 12, 2018 at 6:27 pm

    Actually, Hooper Wolfe’s story of a murder at one of the tunnel locks can be assigned to legend with certainty. No such event ever took place and the story (included in Hooper’s book, flawed by multiple errors, “I Drove Mules on the C&O Canal”). It reflects Hooper’s tendency to tell great stories, often elaborated to the point of being factually false. The kernels around which Hooper grew this story were the deaths of a couple in a house that burned and the husband’s possession of a coin collection. The real event is documented by multiple newspaper reports took place Aug. 4, 1930 (thus 6 years after the canal had closed to navigation). The house that burned was near the canal at Kiefer (above the tunnel and roughly opposite Paw Paw, WV) and the coroner ruled at the inquest that the fire was due to Joseph Davis falling asleep in an over-stuffed chair while smoking. His body and that of his wife (who was in their bed) were found in the ruins and showed no sign of foul play. The coin collection he was known to have was also found in the ruins. (Hooper’s story has the murders associated with the theft of a coin collection and the thief/murderer being caught when he shows some of the coins at a later date in a tavern up in Cumberland.) See the Hagerstown Morning Herald issue from the next day. As an historian I enjoy fiction, but I regret that once it is passed off as history it is virtually impossible to remove it from the popular acceptance as fact. The canal has been a magnet for a great deal of false information and stories such as Hooper’s should always be accepted with a good deal of skepticism until evidence can be found that supports them.


    • Posted by LevelWalker on February 18, 2018 at 5:04 pm

      Thanks, Karen. Sometimes the truth is even more interesting than fiction. I’m familiar with your research and articles in the ATP and greatly appreciate the comment.


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