Indiana County Ghost Stories Part I

As we enter into the spooky Halloween seasons, we thought it would be fun to share some local ghost stories that were collected by Frances Strong Helman.  They are just that stories, but as with many stories passed down through the generation there is some truth to them. These stories are reprinted as they were originally published in 1963, should you have any local “ghost stories” we would love to hear about them in the comments.

The Ghosts of Watt’s Hill

Watt’s Hill is located west of Indiana on Route 422.  As early as 1889, travelers on that section of road reported seeing strange things.

One story was that a little hunched figure could be seen several yards back from the road, and one young woman felt sure that she had seen the apparition as she rode along the road with her father when she was a very small child.

From another family came the tale about the little hunchback.  It was recalled that a family lived just at the foot of the hill, and the crippled child was a part of the household.  It was not known if he was their very own or if he were a homeless waif they allowed to share their roof.  The little fellow received very cruel treatment at their hands, and finally one day after an unmerciful beating he crawled away into the woods.  Except for the little hunched figure sometimes seen at a distance – over a period of many years – nothing more was ever known about the unfortunate little boy.

The second ghost attached to the hill always made its appearance nearer the top of the hill.  A man was hanged from a tree near that spot – some say he was a peddler.

Before 1890, a group from Indiana saw this ghostly figure.  They had driven by horse and buggy to Shelocta for supper.  It was a fine fall evening and they were in no hurry to return home, and it was after dark when they started back to the county seat, but after they were half way up Watt’s Hill the fun ended for most of the group.

They all claimed to have seen the famous ghost of the hanged man.  The young people had passed by when someone noticed “the thing.” At first a few of the couples were brave, got out of the buggies, and started walking back down the hill to investigate, or hold a consultation with the ghost.  The ghost seemed to move forward to meet them.  That was all that was needed to complete the investigation! They turned and ran back up the hill.  One of the young ladies fainted and had to be carried to her buggy near the top of the hill where she was revived.  Except for being scared they arrived home safely.

The entire group declared the ghost was eight to ten feet tall, it floated along six feet from the ground, and it was all white.  The wind seemed to blow it backwards and forwards just as the remains of the hanged man must have swayed in the breeze.

Years have passed, the route of the highway has changed, and the settlers responsible for what happened on Watt’s Hill have gone to their reward.  The ghosts of the woe-begone creatures must be satisfied for they are seen no more.

The Fiddling Ghost of Mahoning Valley

Indiana County’s musical ghost inhabits a little house at Smicksburg, in West Mahoning Township, and has been named the “fiddling ghost of Mahoning Valley.”

The story begins in the days when the Baltimore and Ohio railroad was being built through the township, soon after the turn of the century.  Two cronies came to work on the railroad and took up their abode in the little house with its high steep roof.

One of these fellows played a fiddle.  He played everywhere he was asked to play; at any neighborhood gathering he had toes tapping with his rollicking tunes.  He also played at the temporary diggings in the little house; and he played without invitation from his friend – early in the morning and late at night.  Finally, there came a day when the friend could stand no more.  When the fiddler and his companion did not show up for work some one went to the house.  The musician was found stabbed to death, his violin broken, and the companion gone, bag and baggage.

When fall arrived, strange stories were whispered about.  Yes, there was “something funny” about the little house.  A few folks swore they saw and heard the dead fiddler, and of all places – he was sitting astride the house roof.

As years rolled along it was found that on frosty nights a vapor seems to envelope the top of the house, and as an unfelt breeze clears it away the old fiddler is seen on the roof and the weird tunes are faintly heard.

As late as 1955, the old boy was heard if not seen.  It was just about Hallowen when George Swetnam aired the almost forgotten yarn in the Sunday Pittsburgh Press.  A group of students from the Dayton high school decided to visit the old house just for kicks.  The weather was exactly right, and as they came to a halt near the building, the eerie strains of a violin was heard.  Not one of them bothered to look up at the roof as they tore out of the area.  One boy fell while leaping across a ditch for a near-cut and almost broke his leg.

Without question the fiddling ghost of Mahoning Valley is the noisiest in the county.

Headless Apparitions

Two headless apparitions have been reported in the county.  The first was seen in the Starford neighborhood, out in Green Township.  This one was a traveler who walked along the road carrying his head under his arm while in the opposite hand he clutched a rolling pin.

The first man who saw him ran as fast as his legs would carry him until he reached the village store.  There he babbled incoherently about the “awful sight” until someone brought the minister who managed to quiet him, and the unbelievable story was told.

The story seemed true for soon others declared they met the headless ghost walking along the same stretch of road, still carrying his head under his arm and swinging the rolling pin.

This restless spirit must have wrought vengeance upon the proper person or persons for he is seen no more.

The second headless man made his appearance at the foot of the Trimble Hill on Route 286, between Indiana and Clymer.  It is said that this was the ghost of a murdered peddler.  He did not get busy until exactly midnight in the dark of the moon.  Then he stepped from the side of the road and grabbled the bridles of passing horses.  A sharp cut of the whip was all that was needed to throw the ghost of balance.  The writer never fails to think of the headless peddler on dark nights, but either the time has been wrong or he dislikes automobiles.

The Village of Smicksburg

Many natives of Indiana County know of the quaint little village of Smicksburg, many people know Smicksburg for the little shops and the Amish community. But this little village has quite a history behind it. Smicksburg was founded in May 1827 by Reverend J. George Schmick, a Lutheran minister from Huntingdon County, who purchased the land from Charles Coleman. Yes, there is a reason why the town is referred to as “Schmicksburg.” The town was a thriving community and business center in the northwestern part of Indiana county.

The federal government purchased the property which resulted in the loss of two-thirds of the town, for the construction of the Mahoning Dam. There were twenty-two buildings removed including several homes, the Lutheran Church, three cemeteries, a grist mill, creamery, telephone exchange, gas station and a school house. During the towns peak there were 225 people living in the borough; today Smicksburg is one of Pennsylvania’s smallest boroughs.

The Mahoning Dam, known as the Mahoning Creek Lake, and the acquisition of flood control property had a devasting impact of the community, as can be seen from the information listed above about the destruction of the twenty-two buildings. The Lake was authorized by Congress through the Flood Control Acts of 1936 and 1938. This dam is one of sixteen flood control projects in the Pittsburgh District, which were created in response to the St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936. Mahoning Creek Lake provides flood protection for the lower Allegheny River Valley and upper Ohio River.

Smicksburg is home to the 12th largest Amish settlement in the United States and the fourth largest in Pennsylvania. Beginning in the 1960s, Old Order Amish families began to move to the area from Ohio. These families were attracted to the area because of inexpensive farmland and the rural location.

The Amish shun modern conveniences and travel locally via horse and buggies. The area is dotted with one-room schoolhouses which are close enough, so students can walk to school.

A prominent person from the Smicksburg area, was John Buchanan McCormick, world class inventor and more. For more information about Mr. McCormick see a previous blog post.

The Smicksburg Lime Kiln

In order to make limestone a marketable material it needs to be heated, this involves a process of burning or roasting natural limestone cobbles or blocks. In order for lime production to be feasible there needs to be several natural features; a natural limestone ridge or vein of the appropriate stone near the surface needed to be located, as well as a large quantity of wood for fuel. In later years, coal was introduced to the lime firing process, so that added easy access to coal sources. However, it is not clear whether coal was used in the Smicksburg lime kiln. Although there is coal in the area, but it was not mined to the extent that it was in other area of Indiana County. The Kiln is located on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Mahoning Lake property.

Lime kilns were used to produce quicklime, which was used to make plaster for mortar for building construction. There were other products produced as well, which included whitewash (quicklime saturated with water and then mixed with glue). It was also used as a bleaching powder in the paper industry, hair removal in the tanning industry, an ingredient for soap making, and a fluxing agent in the glass and iron making industry.

The most common use was a neutralizing agent or fertilizer for agriculture. This is the most likely use of the Smicksburg lime kiln, because of the large agricultural area nearby. Some tanning and iron making occurred in the nearby area, but by time the kiln’s construction (c. 1933), these industries were no longer operating in the area.

Processed lime was perishable and necessitated a quick, reliable, and protected means of transport. The lime had a volatile nature when it came out of the kiln, therefore it was not uncommon for wagons to catch on fire if the lime had not been sufficiently watered down or cooled.

Kills were made by laying fieldstonle into a bank of a hill with a wagon path to the top. The chimney would be filled from above with alternating lays of wood or coal and layered with limestone chunks and then set on fire. The temperatures reached two thousand degrees Fahrenheit and would break up the stone into hot lime, oftentimes with an explosive bank. The fire temperature was controlled by adjusting the air flow in the draft hole.

These kilns would burn anywhere from one to four weeks. Because the kilns were brilliantly lighted, a new word was termed: ‘limelight.’ The lime would filter onto the grate to the hearth below. The lime was then set in mounds and wetted down with water. The bushels of cooled, slaked lime were then loaded onto farm wagons and spread onto the fields.

The Smicksburg lime kiln was a unique industry, but it was short lived. The only remaining evidence of the Smicksburg kiln is the hearth and chimney along the banks of the Little Mahoning Creek.