Monday, October 1, 2012

On the Trail of a Story

Today was a full day of storytelling for middle school 8th graders--and the day isn't done yet as an evening performance for Road Scholars in on the schedule this evening. Today's stories were all about stories--finding them, examples of stories I've found and how I developed them, and family history stories.

The trip we took Saturday to find Petroleum, WV was one of my examples today. After visiting Volcano Days (I will post those photos tomorrow, I promise) we decided to find a place we'd visited once before: Petroleum, WV. This little community was once an oil drilling boom town with several thousand residents, a couple hotels, and all the other businesses you might expect in a thriving town. When the drilling died out, the railroad was discontinued and the jobs left. Today Petroleum is just a small rural community with few hints of its colorful past.

To get there from the festival, we took off on a winding road that soon dwindled from two lanes to one; we made a few wrong turns and after asking directions turned onto a narrow gravel road. It forked yet again. We took one fork and when it narrowed to just a little better than a grassy track, we turned around. The other fork, however, climbed a steep, rock-strewn bank. We drove up a little ways, saw big mudholes ahead and decided we'd have to give up. About this time a truck came down the other fork, We hurried down the hill to ask directions yet again--there had been no other traffic at all and we didn't want to miss this chance! I winced as we bumped and jounced over the boulders on the road. My little SUV is all wheel drive, but she's no off-roader.

The men in the truck assured us that the rocky road we'd been on was the right way so off we went again. By this time it was getting dark, the mudholes were getting bigger and deeper and the drop-off to the creek far below was ever closer as the road continued to narrow. I've been on many bad roads, but this one--well, knowing we were beyond cell signal and there were no houses for several miles made me a little nervous. What if we blew a tire, got stuck, or busted the oil pan on a rock? There was no sign of the little town we were looking for.

As we approached another hairpin turn, we saw headlights. Another vehicle was approaching and we searched for a pull-off place. The little blue Tracker stopped when Larry rolled down his window and waved. "Are we on the right road to get to Petroleum?"

"Yeah, but why do you want to go there?" Two sets of curious eyes checked out our car. "That's an awful nice car to have back in here."

"I'm a storyteller," I explained. "I like to find places with stories, and Petroleum has such a great history. I especially like ghost stories."

"Storyteller! Have you ever heard the story of Eaton's Tunnel?"

I had never heard of it, but it took only a few minutes for the man to give me the basics of the tale. It was enough to make me want to learn more. Buried bodies, ghostly wails, voices--what was the whole story behind the tunnel's haunted reputation? Yesterday I spent some time researching the tale, trying to get more particulars.

Eaton Tunnel, I learned, is Tunnel #21 on the B&O Line from Parkersburg to Grafton, WV. It was built sometime between 1867-1870. The keystone on the tunnel is dated 1867. In 1869, a young construction worker named Thomas Nashville Johnson was working at the tunnel. He was 27 years old, married to Alpha Jane Marshall, and the father of 4 children. Alpha had moved to Petroleum with her father who was a mail carrier and prior to her marriage and lived at California House, a large hotel so named because of the many travelers on the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike that passed the hotel who were headed to the western oilfields and the California gold fields.

One day there was a rock fall in the tunnel, and Thomas Johnson was killed. Alpha soon remarried, this time to a Civil War vet named Asa Jenkins. Asa was once arrested during the war as a deserter, but whether he was actually deserting or just assigned to a sharpshooting unit is not clear. He did spend some time in prison on the charge. He may not have been the best of men as he also at some point in his life spent time in prison for theft. Alpha divorced him in 1875, but he had already remarried at that time, so perhaps the divorce date was actually 1873. Still, he must have been a poor husband for her to divorce him since divorce was not common in those days.

So were the ghostly wails and the voice heard in Tunnel #21 Thomas Johnson? I continued to dig into the history, and found another tragic event at the tunnel almost 100 years later.

By the late 1950's, railroad freight cars were getting bigger and bigger. The narrow, low tunnels on the B&O line was creating an area referred to as "The Bottleneck" by railroaders because of the difficulty of getting the larger trains through the tunnels. The B&O decided to renovate the tunnels, widening them and raising their roofs to accommodate the larger trains; this was called a "clearance" project. On June 6, 1963, Tunnel #21 collapsed during these renovations, trapping 3 men.

One of the men was quickly rescued and sustained only a broken ankle. Another was rescued after hours under the rubble and taken to a hospital in Columbus, Ohio, where he later died of his injuries. The third worker could not be recovered; each time the rescue teams tried, more of the tunnel gave way. Finally, with the consent of the worker's family, the tunnel was sealed with his remains still inside. A new tunnel was constructed close by. No marker was placed at the site in remembrance of the lost worker, and today only a muddy footpath leads to the old tunnel, which has collapsed still further and is too dangerous to enter at all.

Most likely, then, this is why people think they hear things at the tunnel and why they report chill air and strange feelings when they visit it. We did not try to find the tunnel on this trip as darkness had caught up with us and we had miles to go before reaching home. I will go back one day, and I'll bring flowers with me to lay at the site of this lonely, unmarked and unintended grave.

That, as they say, is the rest of the story. Or most of the rest of the story. I still do not know the buried man's name, or the names of the other injured men. I still have research to do to complete this tale, but today it was the centerpiece of my explanation of how I develop a story--through curiosity, research, wondering and wandering. On the drive home under the Harvest Moon, I thought about how we find stories--or rather, how stories sometimes find us. In the most unexpected places.

 Copyright 2012 Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


Nance said...

oh good story material and a great adventure! I got chills on this one . . . when you wondered if sometimes stories find you. . . goose bumps up and down my back. I think that's it, Sue! the stories need telling and find the right one to tell it. good luck with the investigation and finding names and all. And I'll be back to hear "the rest of the story".

annie said...

I really enjoyed reading this! Would love to hear the rest when you gather it all in!

John "By Stargoose And Hanglands" said...

Fascinating post, Sue.

megan hicks said...

Maybe finding out about that story and sharing it will set a restless soul at ease. Good shivery tale!

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