West Virginia’s history is one of growth and decline. As with every boom, people come, homes are built, retail establishments come to town and entertainment facilities are developed. But what happens when people leave? The homes do not disappear. Nor do the retail establishments or the entertainment facilities. They continue to stand vigil, a testimony to the good times that were. But overtime, these witnesses to history deteriorate: they rust and crumble with the passing years. To have the privilege of experiencing these spots, in their current condition, brings feelings of sadness for what is no longer…This post is all about those forgotten things.
Thurmond is officially the least populated town in West Virginia. In fact, during the 2005 town elections, six of the city's seven residents sought elected office. According to the 2010 census, Thurmond had dropped to a population of five. 5! This means you could literally count the entire town’s citizenry on one hand. (During our visit, we only found 2 homes inhabited, so we think this number may still be accurate today.)
When coal mining was at its peak in West Virginia, Thurmond was a happening town. It was a hot bed of activity with a number of businesses and facilities to service the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, which thundered straight through the middle of town, transporting coal to other parts of the United States thanks to the efforts of Thomas G McKell. McKell also brought alcohol and gambling to Thurmond. Even a red-light district, called Ballyhack or Balahack, sprung up on the town’s south side. A fire that leveled the town’s hotel marked the beginning of the town’s demise.
Today, the majority of Thurmond is owned by the US National Park Service and is considered part of the New River Gorge National Park. The C&O train station now serves as a Park Service visitor center. The entire town is a designated historic district on the National Register of Historic Places.
Our Exploration of Thurmond, WV homes
It was undeniably eerie as we strolled down the main road of town without another soul in sight. After passing the 4-5 stores that make up town-center, we continued on toward several boarded homes. We joked with each other to lessen the weird feelings we both had, but didn’t want to admit out loud. At one point, we crossed the railroad tracks to photograph an old railroad maintenance building and both jumped back a bit when a bird, who had been startled by our approach, suddenly took flight.
Eventually, our curious (aka nosey) nature got the best of us. Merely viewing buildings from the exterior did not suffice. Seeing a path of matted grass to the left side of a 2-story brick home, we decided to explore further in. Lo’ and behold, we found the door to the back “screened” porch was unlocked. And the door to the home itself was easily moved off its hinges. Very gingerly, we entered the premises. To be 100% truthful, Claudio entered the premises and I remained on the threshold under the guise of shooting a video while I waited to ensure it was safe to enter.
Peeling paint hung from the ceiling in layered ribbons of baby blue, sunshine yellow and mint green, exposing color preferences of the former residents. All of the kitchen cabinets and drawers were ajar, with a tin of some indistinguishable food item on the countertop. As we made our way through the first floor, we noticed parquet tile in the dining room and an area rug of indeterminate color pushed to the side. As you guessed, Claudio proceeded upstairs first, thoroughly testing each step as he climbed. The staircase was remarkably solid, and less creaky than the floor in our last home! I noticed that we both took great care not to disturb anything, almost as if it were hallowed space. We wondered about the families who lived here, their happinesses and their sorrows. Were they the ones who added the formerly bright red and white striped awnings over the windows to lessen the day’s heat? Did they paint the upstairs bedroom princess pink? Did they feel the train passing no more than 20 feet from their front door? We don’t know. The family simply left. No one remained to purchase their home.
There is something inherently creepy about rusted and abandoned things –especially when those things are intended for children and adults seeking childlike fun. Lake Shawnee Amusement Park is filled with and has made a business based on those “things”. The long-ago abandoned amusement park has fascinated ghost hunters and paranormal experts alike. It is infamously ranked as one of the Travel Channel’s “Most Terrifying Places in America” and has made ABC’s list of the “10 Most Haunted Places in the World.” Apparently, this is the real deal. So, of course, we needed to check it out for ourselves.
It has been over 1/2 a century since Lake Shawnee Amusement Park was filled with the animated conversation of enthusiastic guests and the laughter of their children... or has it?
Over a 5-hour visit with Chris White, the park’s current caretaker, we learned about the history of the Park and heard first-hand accounts of the strange “happenings” that have taken place there.
In the late 1700’s, the park area was claimed by of Mitchell Clay, his wife and 14 children. Until that point, the land had been inhabited by the Shawnee Native American Indians. Not surprisingly, a violent turf war ensued. One day, while Mitchell was on a hunting trip, a group of Shawnee attacked the Clay family, killing daughter Tabitha and son Bartley. Son, Ezekiel was brought to Ohio with the tribe where he was burned at the stake. Mitchell was able to recover his son’s remains and bring them back to the homestead where he had already buried Tabitha and Bartley.
The history of this property is quite unremarkable until 1926 when Conley T. Snidow purchased the former homestead for use as an amusement park, designed to cater to the area’s many coal workers and their families. Snidow built quite a facility including: a dance hall, occasional Wild West shows, carnival rides, water rides, a racetrack, concession stands, and cabins for guests to stay in, a revolving swing set, a Ferris wheel, a swimming hole and he opened up the pond for paddle boating. Tragically, by 1966, death had befallen this cursed property 6 times, including a little girl who was hit when a truck backed into the path of the revolving swing and a little boy who drowned after getting his arm stuck in the pond’s drainpipe. Either the start of rumors of a ‘cursed’ park or the dwindling coal mining business or the opening of a major highway that diverted traffic away from the park, or the confluence of all these events may have contributed to seal the fate of this now doomed park.
Again, the derelict site was ignored until 1985 when Gaylord White, a former amusement park employee, purchased the parcel with the intention of subdividing the land for housing. Almost immediately after starting development, White unearthed a Native American burial site of an estimated 3000 bodies (mostly children) and other artifacts. Feeling the sacredness of his finding, he elected to re-cover the relics and abandoned his dream in favor of reopening his beloved amusement park. Sadly, the area population, combined with mounting insurance costs meant that the park would be forced to close again after only 3 years.
That brings us to present day. Lake Shawnee Amusement Park remains as White left it, albeit a bit worse for the wear. The once red and cushioned Ferris wheel and zebra striped seats of the revolving swings struggle to remain visible through the vines that have enveloped them over many years of neglect. These rusted giants stand in marked contrast to the natural beauty of Mercer County that surrounds them.
But there is a happy (?) ending to this story, as Gaylord’s family members have stalwartly dedicated themselves to upholding his memory and sharing tales of this storied property. On the night we were there, Gaylord’s son Chris shared numerous stories of his son hearing footsteps and visitors hearing Native American chanting. He told us, in vivid detail about the many guests who have been drawn to the exact swing where the little girl met her tragic end and about the photographs that are taken off nothing in particular, only to reveal ghostly figures when they are reviewed. Chris’ mother showed us photos of apparitions and held us spellbound with her recount of Gaylord’s repeated interactions with the little girl. Other folks in the park animatedly shared accounts of unexplainable experiences that they have had in the park with flashlights going on and off by themselves, seemingly in response to questions that were being asked of the spirit residents.
So, is Lake Shawnee really haunted? We did not experience anything unusual, but you must decide for yourself. HAPPY HALLOWEEN!