Sunshine glitters through the trees as the navy blue PT cruiser careens through the gravel roads of Zaleski State Forest in Vinton County, Ohio. The old car rumbles along, balancing precariously on the edge of valleys that shoot down into the abyss of the forest. It’s a drive that leaves the nerves a little frayed, but it gets 21-year-old Taylor Mead to where she needs to go: the abandoned Moonville tunnel.
It’s a place that’s called to Mead ever since she first came to the famously haunted location a couple years ago — due not only to the area serving as a great and peaceful place to take a hike through some old Ohio history, but also because of the numerous stories of lingering spirits left behind in the tunnel’s long and complicated past.
Ever since she was a child, Mead has always had a strong connection with energies around her, along with plenty of unexplainable encounters.
“When I was a little kid, I used to spend the night at my grandma and grandpa’s house,” Mead said. “I would always think someone was calling my name, but when I went to see my grandparents, they’d say it wasn’t them.”
Occurrences like this persisted past her childhood, taking darker turns when she and her family moved from Boardman, Ohio to Canfield, Ohio when Mead was in the eighth grade.
“That’s when I started to become afraid. I used to envision something creepy and ugly that followed me around that house,” Mead said. “A dark entity that was distorted and horrifying.”
Now that she’s older, Mead has learned to explain visions like that one away as her way of embodying her own negative energy, as well as the energies of those around her. The biggest takeaway from her younger experiences, perhaps, has been the goal to shake the fear of the unknown; a goal she’s sought after especially at places like Moonville.
As Mead steps out of the vehicle, the door slamming shut behind her, she begins to make her way toward the tunnel. It’s a route she’s taken numerous times – even more so now that she’s officially moved to Athens with her boyfriend. Past the first signs of graffiti on the trees, Mead’s footsteps begin to echo as she reaches the mouth of the old rail line. Her peculiar connection to old histories aside, this is a place anyone could look at and immediately understand the presence of the rich history behind the landmark.
In 1856, Samuel Coe gave the Marietta and Cincinnati Railroad (M&C) permission to construct a railroad over his property, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. His hope was that the rail line would allow him to easily ship coal and clay off of his land. M&C accepted the offer for a couple reasons: One, Coe gave them the land for free; and two, his land provided a better route from Marietta to Cincinnati.
This agreement led to the creation of Moonville.
Believed to be named after a local store owner – Mr. Moon – the town itself was very small and had only a few buildings: two saloons, a schoolhouse, a depot, a post office and a grist mill. The community housed around it, which had a peak population of around 100 in the 1800s, mostly included miners and a few railroad workers here and there. The decline of Moonville, at least as a thriving little settlement, really began in the early 1900s as the coal mines started to shut down. By 1947, the last family abandoned Moonville, rendering it a ghost town in more ways than one.
The streams of sunlight fade to shadow as Mead begins her trek into the tunnel. She runs her hand over the old brick walls, now covered in graffiti that varies in degrees of provocative and chilling. As her footsteps echo in the arcing chamber, she recalls more of her understanding of spiritual energies.
Mead spent a good portion of her life trying, like a lot of people when they’re met with something that seems unreasonable, to explain away her experiences. For instance, the figure she saw when her family moved to Canfield she tried to rationalize as her mind’s embodiment of the stress she and those around her were going through.
“But I also used to rationalize it as a demon,” Mead said. “My catch phrase was ‘if you think about evil, it hears you and it comes.’ In a way, I still think that’s true; negative emotion can attract negative energy and maybe even negative spirits.”
In a lot of ways, Mead began to think she was haunted as if this supposed demon had chosen her to attach itself to. Now, though, she’s begun to learn how to dispose of these types of unwanted energies. She’s become comfortable enough, in fact, to seek out places like Moonville to not only understand and try to encounter the supposed legends of places, but also the history and facts behind it all.
This might be why no matter how many times she’s made the drive into Zaleski State Forest, the tunnel always has a way of calling her back; as the tunnel’s past reaches far deeper than the simple dates of when the construction of the railroad occurred.
There are countless stories and rumors that swirl around the abandoned tunnel. A quick search online yields varying accounts from a wide array of people. Like many other supposedly haunted locations, word of mouth has played a large part in the reputation of Moonville and what exactly remains there. Luckily, ghost and history enthusiasts like Jannette Quackenbush exist.
Having visited over 1,500 ghostly locales around Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, West Virginia and Kentucky, Quackenbush has authored numerous books in which she digs up old stories from libraries and newspapers in order to get to the facts behind the stories. Her novel on the Moonville tunnel - Moonville: Its Past. Its Ghosts. Its Legends. - breaks down the four main spirits rumored to be lingering in the aging tunnel.
The first of these four is the brakeman who, in the mid-1800s, is said to have fallen under the wheels of a train after jolting awake from a nap and stumbling toward the tracks. His ghost is rumored to wander the tunnel, a lantern in hand, trying to catch a train before it leaves the station.
Then there’s the engineer, believed to be Frank Lawhead. He was taking a train from Cincinnati to Marietta in November of 1880 when a dispatcher failed to inform him of the other train that was on a one-way collision course toward him. The crash instantly killed Lawhead, whose ghost is now said to roam the tracks, dressed all in white and swinging a lantern about.
The third prominent legend of Moonville is that of Baldie Keeton, also known as the bully. A violent drunk who, after a visit to the saloon in 1886, got into a fight with another man and was told to get out of town. Though the criminals were never even found, it’s believed Keeton was mugged and murdered, being left on the tracks to be run over by at least three different trains before his body was found. Now, visitors of the Moonville tunnel claim his ghost stands at the top of the structure, chucking rocks and pebbles at those below.
Finally, there’s the lavender lady. Either described as a young lady or an old woman, she supposedly shuffles along the tracks where she was hit while trying to cross. The main legend is that she always carries a strong scent of lavender with her. It’s believed three documented deaths could be this lavender lady: an unknown woman who was killed in October of 1873, an 80-year-old woman by the name of Mary Shea, who was struck by a train in January of 1890, or Deborah Allen, who was hit by a train and carried for over 100 yards until it finally stopped.
Past the coal mining and the families that lived in the quaint town, Moonville clearly has a history with all the makings of a haunted location. Perhaps it’s the presence of legends like these ones that continually draws visitors like Mead back to the tunnel time and time again.
“I’ve always felt like I could sense spirits; I just didn’t have any guidance in the area,” Mead said.
A few years ago, due to various personal and financial reasons, Mead found herself living at her boyfriend’s home. After having gone through her high school years with minimal encounters, it was her boyfriend’s house that started to bring about more supernatural activity again. From waking up to a shadowy man whispering “Good morning” to her or a little girl asking her to wake up while she slept in her room in the basement, to cabinets slamming shut and someone pounding on the walls, it’s as if the house exploded with unnatural energy.
“Eventually his mother called a good family friend to come read and cleanse the house,” Mead said. “She was a medium and after sitting at the table with me and my boyfriend’s family for about an hour, she was overwhelmed by the amount of energy I was holding in.”
This was the moment Mead finally found out that she was an empath. The medium who informed her of this, Barb Cerny, has had enough experiences in her life to at least set Mead on the right track.
“The word medium to me is a person that communicates with a spirit by way of visions, senses and thoughts,” Cerny said. “I personally am an empath and we’re highly sensitive to other people’s energy, good and bad. It can be extremely taxing, overwhelming – sometimes you must shut it down.”
Like Mead, Cerny knew in small doses as a child that she had a connection to the supernatural. Growing from gut feelings to pushes in certain directions, she eventually began to worry about her encounters with spirits as a young adult. Unsure if it was a good or bad thing, she eventually reached out to her pastor at church, who proceeded to tell her that it was a gift from God and to not be afraid.
“I felt more comfortable about spirits after that,” Cerny said.
Though she does have certain days where she still feels overwhelmed, Cerny picks up on certain energies, and the spirits she sometimes encounters will often sense her mental state and give her breaks. She’s reached a certain level of comfort in which she is able to assess certain areas that others claim they’ve experienced things at.
“Spirits usually find me,” Cerny says. “If I know why I’m there, I tour the home and they let me know where to go. There are times also when they catch me totally off guard.”
She describes the spirits as usually appearing in thought and showing her certain visions.
“Keep in mind these are borrowed thoughts, mostly belonging to others,” Cerny said. “There are times when I need to write things down because I’m not going to remember what was said.”
Though Cerny did inform Mead that she’s an empath like her, she still views her as extremely young in terms of pursuing it and believes she must learn certain ways to be calm.
“There’s a bit too much chaos right now for her to process her true ability,” Cerny said. “My approach to communicating with spirits is I find my core, blank out my mind – almost a clean slate – and I remain calm and open.”
She provided one exercise for Mead to start practicing.
“She told me taking a walk in the grass and expelling all my extra energy into the ground, which is known as grounding, might help calm me down,” Mead said. “Later that day, I took a walk outside and instantly felt so much better.”
It’s a small step in the journey Mead has decided to embark down, in order to better understand not only her personal encounters but ones experienced by other people at places like Moonville.
Finding out she’s an empath seemed like both an incredibly obvious statement as well as a surprising one to Mead. She’s always identified herself as an extremely empathetic person as far as human emotion goes.
“I just didn’t know how I was feeling had a name,” Mead said. “I spent years soaking in other people’s emotions like a sponge and letting them terrorize me. And my home life wasn’t always the most positive thing emotionally, so the anger, frustration, sadness, it all festered and gathered inside me, making me feel out of control and leading me down so many dark paths.”
Now, Mead more fully understands why she feels certain ways around certain people or places. Cerny even explained to her that while Mead’s energy vibrated highly, her boyfriend’s runs more mellow, almost counteracting each other and balancing one another out in the process. It’s little pieces of information like this that have helped Mead to feel more in control of herself and her emotions. It’s what has allowed her to fully begin to explore and experiment. She’s been spending hours of her time researching and practicing things like grounding and meditation.
“Right now, I need to focus on myself and my own energy before I can truly learn to open myself up and be able to focus on the spirit of someone else,” Mead said. “I absolutely want to explore every inch of this new piece of myself.”
Through learning how to quiet her own mind, Mead eventually hopes to reach out to others like her. She wants to continue to read, to write and most importantly, to experience. She doesn’t feel she’s come close to mastering anything by any means, but it’s at least gotten her on the right path as she continues to visit places and talk to people, with a lot of recent experiences pertaining to Moonville.
“It’s my insistent curiosity that makes me want to experience all of the depths of emotion,” Mead said. “I think at my core, I want to be empathetic.”
Today, only the old schoolhouse’s foundation, the tunnel and a community cemetery remain of Moonville. The rail line that used to run through the tunnel was even pulled up in 1988, with what used to be the track now converted into a horseback riding, walking and biking trail. As Mead has read and experienced, though, there is still plenty to discover in the old railroad tunnel.
“The stories of Moonville are the kind that leave lots of unrest behind,” Mead said. “They’re almost folktales; stories passed along by word of mouth for long enough that we don’t really know for sure the detail and depth of what happened.”
On top of the unsure nature of the legends of Moonville, they’re full to the brim with tragedy. Mead believes the unresolved nature of a lot of the stories is what might contribute to the rumored unrest, as well as it all coming down to intention when someone visits the tunnel.
“My boyfriend and I rarely encounter activity when we go alone,” Mead said. “It’s when there are loud and obnoxious visitors that strange things start to happen.”
The knowledge that there might be spirits in the tunnel that are willing to interact with Mead is one of the biggest influencers to her constant returns.
“Right now, all I want is to understand myself and the world around me and it feels like when I’m there it’s just on the tip of my tongue,” Mead said.
And it’s not just for her – Moonville is a place with enough activity, enough history and enough energy behind it that Mead sees it as an opportunity for anyone to get the chance to encounter the past.
“Read up on what we know about Moonville, approach with respect and go in a small group,” Mead said. “Don’t expect interaction necessarily, but if you keep going back, maybe something will happen. No matter what, it’s an amazing experience, and the history is like static in the air.”