Thursday, November 9, 2017

Beam Me Up

Centralia was booming. This little town, which got its name because it is nearly at the center of Braxton County and the geographic center of West Virginia, is today a shadow of its former glory. But at the time of this story the area was a magnet for men seeking work, because there was work a-plenty. The 1890's saw the rise of the coal and timber boom, a time when there was a job for any able-bodied man willing to work long hours in the woods or underground. A branch of the B&O Railroad was being proposed up the Elk River Valley from Sutton, a line sure to make the little town of Centralia grow even faster. In 1840, Braxton County had a population of about 2500 people, but by 1890 that number had grown to almost 14,000.

In 1919, John Davison Sutton wrote in his book, History of Braxton County and Central West Virginia, that "Centralia, fifteen miles east of in the heart of the coal field, and is surrounded with a vast timber region. A railroad coming down the Elk River will tap the B&O at this point. A company owning a large tract of land is preparing to build mills at this point. A circular sawmill has recently been put into operation on the site of the old mill....The town consists of one M.E. Church, hotel, two stores, and quite a number of new homes are being built. Centralia is destined in the near future to be a town of considerable interest."

Centralia train station, from Pinterest
How little Mr. Sutton knew what the future held for Centralia. As the timber was cleared and the coal mines gave out, the town dwindled. The coming of major highways that did not come close to the small community, and the decline of agriculture in the state further sealed its fate. Today Centralia is a place you might pass through without realizing it had ever been a sizable little town; some might call it a ghost town. And that might be an apt name, because Centralia does have its own most unusual ghost.

Logging camp, Thomas, WV, From Pinterest
Jacob Beamer may have been a coal miner, a railroader or perhaps he was a farmer working the fertile Elk River bottomlands. Or maybe he was a logger, living in one of the lumber camps with other strong and rowdy men. A history of Braxton County gives the following account of the lumber camps: " There is a fascination about the camp and woods that is to be enjoyed nowhere else. The pure water of the mountain stream, the aroma of the newly cut timber, the well-trained skidding team, the inclines, the skidways, the lightning-like revolutions of the bandsaw cutting its thousands of feet of lumber a day, the whirr and buzz of machinery fascinates the young man and keeps him wedded to his job. But they are not altogether free from bad influences and environments. The whiskey jug, the cigarette, cocaine and other drugs equally destructive to humanity follow the camp." 

work train, Centralia. from Pinterest

And it may have been that Jacob imbibed a bit too much from the jug or the drugs because he told a most unusual story or his origins. According to him, his forebears came to this earth from the moon. He said that a meteor had knocked the moon out of its orbit and much closer to earth, and that the meteor had destroyed the communities on our lunar satellite. It is true that in the early 1850's a comet passed over Braxton County that was 20 to 30 feet long and made a rushing sound as it passed close to the treetops. This event was seen my quite a few people; perhaps Jacob was a child at the time and the meteor made such an impression on him that he came up with his strange story.

Those who knew Jacob Beamer said that he liked to stroll after dark on moonlit nights, perhaps feeling the call of his lunar homeland? No one knows just how it happened, but somehow Jacob got into the path of an oncoming train, and there he met his death. Was he daydreaming--or rather, moondreaming? It seems odd that he would not have heard the train coming, especially in those days of steam engines. Maybe he stumbled and fell onto the tracks, or maybe he'd had a bit too much to drink. Whatever the case, when his lifeless body was found, it was missing its head--it had been severed by the train.

After his death, people in the area would sometimes see a gray figure leading a headless man: Beamer, they were sure it was, with a spirit helping him look for his head. I would imagine that folks gave that pair a wide berth, and probably avoided walking that section of tracks at night to avoid encountering such an unnerving sight. 

According to the story, Jacob Beamer met his death in the 1890's. In the 1930's a man from Pittsburgh was visiting Centralia to go deer-hunting, and evidently no one warned him about walking along the tracks at night, because this gentleman saw the pair, the gray spirit and the headless man, making their way toward town. But he saw something no one else had ever seen: the headless ghost was cradling a white skull in his arms. 

No one saw Jacob Beamer's ghost again after that night. It seems that he found his head, and perhaps the "moon man" returned to the planet of his ancestors for his eternal rest.

Note: A search of West Virginia birth and death records and various Census records turned up no one named Jacob Beamer in Braxton County. It's possible that Jacob was his middle name or even a nickname, or that the name has been changed over the years in the re-telling of his story.

Comstock, Jim. West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia, vol 12, p.2244. Headless Ghost. Richwood, WV: 1976.

Railroads of West Virginia and North Carolina

West Virginia on View

Sutton, John Davison. History of Braxton County and Central West Virginia. Parsons, WV: McClain Printing Company, 1919.

West Virginia Vital Records.

US Census records.


hart said...

I love this story, especially about being from the moon. I can just see him telling people this.

JoAnn ( Scene Through My Eyes) said...

Such an interesting story - I think I would go out and help them search.

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