The Moonville Tunnel
The tiny town of Moonville, Ohio is on no modern maps nor can you locate it with GPS. It does not, for all intents and purposes, exist anymore.
But the Moonville Tunnel remains a reminder of the town, a final testament to a time and way of life long passed.
Welcome to Moonville, Ohio
Moonville, Ohio, deep in southeast Ohio, never had more than around 100 residents; it hit its peak around 1870. There were a few houses, a general store, a saloon, and active railroad tracks.
The epitome of a town that sprung up around modern innovation and transportation. Its said that it was named after the man who ran the general store, whose last name was Moon.
It was isolated and set back in the woods; people had to walk the railroad tracks to get to nearby towns like Hope or Mineral. And even today, Vinton County, where Moonville existed, is still the most heavily forested and least populated county in Ohio.
What remains of Moonville - the tunnel - also sits in Zaleski state forest, near Hocking Hills state forest. This part of Ohio is rugged but beautiful spanning miles of hilly woodland dotted with caves and waterfalls.
It's no wonder there are ghost stories about Moonville and the tunnel. Imagine being out in the deep, dark woods and hearing something crack nearby. Our imaginations are built for such folly.
The stories start, like so many ghost stories do, with tragic death. Over the years, a number of people died walking the railroad tracks in and out of Moonville, a few of those deaths near the Moonville railroad tunnel. The ghost stories started around this time - malingering souls of railway workers who died on the line, including brakemen who stayed on top of the trains and often fell to their deaths on the job
The Death of Moonville
Moonville, Ohio saw a slow demise even as train traffic picked up around the turn of the century. The Moonville line was bought by Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O - yes, that B&O from Monopoly) and became part of a line from St. Louis to Washington, DC. But even with increased traffic, the coal mines that provided other jobs for residents began to shutter. The town began to be abandoned, with the last family leaving Moonville in 1947.
By the 1960s all the buildings were gone and there was little of the town left, other than the tunnel and the town cemetery - both of which still exist today. Even after the town disappeared, the rail line continued to operate, all the way to 1988
Railroad workers called the Moonville line "the most lonesome, desolate eight miles (13 km) of track between Parkersburg, West Virginia and St. Louis." It was completely isolated and dark, even during the day. Trains seemed to show up without warning, which was incredibly dangerous. It was actually an unsignaled line and traffic governed by train orders. A signal wasn't put up until 1981, 7 years before the line was shut down.
So what about the ghosts?
There are a few famous ghosts people report seeing in and around the Moonville Tunnel:
- The Brakeman: Arguably the most well known ghost story for Moonville, it starts on a night in the late 1880s, when a drunken brakeman walks through the tunnel after a night of playing cards. A train approached, and the brakeman swung his lantern in an attempt to stop the train. He was struck and killed by the train, which decapitated him. It's said his ghost walks that final path before his demise, and he swings his lantern frantically for tourists to see on dark nights
- The Lavender Lady: Depending on who tells the story, the Lavender Lady may be a young woman walking home after seeing her lover illicitly; she's an elderly woman who crossed the tracks and fell; or she may be one of several other women killed near or on the tracks close to the tunnel. Witnesses report seeing a headless ghost in a long dress, searching for her head; others report the scent of lavender on the air right before and after her appearance.
- The Bully: This is believed to be the ghost of Baldie Keeton, a resident of Moonville who got drunk one night and who supposedly enjoyed a good fist fight when drunk. Legend also says that one of Keeton's "signature moves" was to bear hug his opponent. On this night, Baldie started a fight in the saloon and was kicked out. On his way home, he walked over the Moonville Tunnel and a group of men jumped him, killing him and tossing his body over the side. His body landed on the tracks, and when he was found the next morning, it was clear his body had been hit by several trains during the night. No one was ever convicted for his death. Legend now says that he stands above the tunnel and stares at approaching visitors, occasionally throwing small pebbles at them. Children also grew up learning the ghost story of Baldie, being told that The Bully would come for them if they misbehaved.
But not all the ghost stories are of long-ago perished workers or residents - the most recent death was reportedly in 1986, when a 10 year old girl was struck by a locomotive on the trestle directly in front of the tunnel. But there's no official record of this death and the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) shows no rail/pedestrian deaths in Vinton County in 1986.
The tunnel and its legends have been incorporated into modern culture - they've gone on to inspire a bluegrass song, orchestral piece, and a fictional horror story. "Moonville Brakeman" is a bluegrass song by the band The Rarely Herd. Composer Scott Michal wrote "The Ghost of Moonville Tunnel". And in 2009 author William M. Cullen wrote the book "An Incident at Moonville: The Conductor's Revenge".
Ghost hunting groups have attempted to verify the various stories and legends. Notably, the OES, Ohio Exploration Society, has been to Moonville Tunnel several times. Their latest attempt was in 2010
From the OES website:
We decided to make yet another trip to Moonville Tunnel during the night of October 9, 2010. The tunnel had become quite a tourist destination as there were multiple groups of people cycling in and out of the tunnel on a regular basis. Some individuals had even built a campfire inside the east end of the tunnel. With all of the activity from the living, we did not have high hopes of witnessing anything out-of-the-ordinary. We were wrong. We decided to walk about 100 yards down the track bed from the east end of the tunnel. While standing there recording for EVP, four out of five people present witnessed a small bright blue ball of light fading in and out along the ridge above and to the north of Moonville Tunnel. We thought perhaps it could be starlight being occasionally blocked by tree branches. However, two OES members witnessed the light smoothly move south about 10-15 feet, stop and disappear. A few minutes later, another member saw the light move to the north about 10-15 feet in the same manner. Four of our members witnessed the light come slightly further down the hill, blinking in and out. We do not believe the light was a flashlight since there was no beam cast from it. It would be almost impossible for a person to walk the area as quickly and as smoothly as the light moved due to thick foliage and uneven terrain. We were recording video during this time, but was unable to capture the light on video. EVP recordings done during this trip netted the "Oh God" recording below.
Southern Ohio is rife with folklore and ghost stories. Roughly 35 miles away, there is a lake known as "Death Hole". Old Man's Cave, arguably the most famous landmark in nearby Hocking Hills forest, has been the site of many deaths, including one very recently where in 2019 two teenagers rolled a 75 lb. log down a hill. The log struck and killed photographer Victoria Shafer, who was taking high school senior portraits. The teens have been sentenced to 3 years in juvenile detention after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
With so much death saturating the woods, streams, caves, and yes, tunnels in and around the natural beauty of Southeastern Ohio, who's to say what's legend and what's true?