Cave Ghosts of Hocking Hills
Not today, not tomorrow, but soon, the leaves are going to change into a brief explosion of autumn hues. When they do, people from across Columbus will head south to one of the city’s favorite fall playgrounds, Hocking Hills State Park. Let’s face it, the gorges, waterfalls, cliffs and caves of the region are a much more romantic setting for taking in the beauty of the season than city streets and subdivisions.
Then there is the other great reason to visit the hills of southeastern Ohio this time of year: the ghost stories.
As you leave the bustle of Columbus and venture south into the dense woodlands and shadowy hollows of the Appalachian foothills, not only does the topography get more interesting but so do the myths and legends. It’s as if thousands of years worth of collective memories have woven themselves into the landscape, invoking a sense of magic and wonder in all who visit.
Well, almost all.
When Dr. S.P. Hildreth was conducting the first geological survey of Ohio in 1837, he came across a grim warning as he traversed a pastoral creekside 40 miles southeast of Columbus. There, in his path, stood an enormous beech tree with the message “THIS IS THE ROAD TO HELL, 1782” carved into its trunk.
Undaunted, but perhaps a bit more cautious, Hildreth pressed onward to discover a splendid wilderness filled with beautiful ravines, glistening waterfalls and mysterious caves. Absent were the flame-licked souls of the damned and pitchfork-wielding devils foretold by the bark of the tree.
Following the pleasant valley upstream, the surveyor had only traveled a couple of miles further when he came upon the most wondrous sight yet: an enormous horseshoe-shaped recess cave filled with ashes of fires from hundreds, if not thousands, of years of occupation by Ohio’s first people.
As Hildreth took in the majesty of the location, he couldn’t have helped but wonder if the cave had once been the fiery hell foretold of by the beech tree. It was certainly a place of burning.
Knowing that Natives during that time would occasionally discourage settlers by torturing, and in extreme cases, lighting them on fire, Hildreth must have also wondered if the pioneer who scrawled those words hadn’t gone on to become one of the ash heaps he found scattered throughout the cave.
Over time the mystery of the message, along with the fate of its author, went on to become one of the many enigmas secreted away in the nooks and crannies of the region. The spot became known simply as Ash Cave.
Because of its beauty, the cave became a popular spot for picnics and outings and at one point a church took advantage of the natural amphitheater and held their meetings there, unaware that the location was likely once a very real hell on earth for at least one unfortunate settler.
There is also a tale of two pioneer children who fell to their deaths at the cave while being pursued by Indians. While this incident has never been confirmed, some visitors claim the boy’s screams can still be heard to this day.
In the years since it became part of Hocking Hills State Park, another legend has presented itself at Ash Cave, one that takes the form of a mysterious woman wearing a 1920s-era dress. Although her identity and reason for lingering are unknown, the spectral form is said to follow groups in and out of the recess, often coyly peering from behind trailside trees before vanishing into thin air.
Rock House, the closest thing to a true cave in the Hocking Hills park system, also is said to be haunted by a lone lady. She is thought to be a woman named Mary who purportedly was found dead at the resort hotel which once stood where the current shelter house is located. According to legend, her body vanished before the police arrived to investigate and someone likely got away with murder. Anything but vengeful, Mary’s spirit seems content to materialize just briefly enough to admire the wild flowers that grow around the parking lot.
Old Man’s Cave, the most popular destination in Hocking Hills, isn’t without its hauntings either.
Over the years, people camping in the vicinity have reported hearing the eerie baying of a hound that is thought to be the trusted companion of the cave’s namesake, Richard Rowe.
Rowe was a trapper who lived along the banks of the Ohio River with his father and brother during the later part of the 18th century. When he was in his late twenties, the War of 1812 began and the young man decided a reclusive and peaceful life was more his speed, so he packed up his things and headed for his favorite cave.
From that point on, Rowe spent nearly all his life in the overhang now known as Old Man’s Cave with only his dogs and rifle to keep him company.
In the 1850s, the old hermit accidentally shot himself while using his musket’s shoulder stock to break through an iced-over creek. According to legend, other trappers found Rowe’s body and buried him beside his beloved dog in the sandy floor of the cave the two had called home.
For nearly 50 years following this incident, people avoided the recess where the solitary fellow had lived, died and been buried, fittingly referring to it as the old man’s cave. Eventually, though, word got out about the beauty of the gorge and it became a “must go” destination for Victorian picnics and day outings.
One of the area’s greatest entertainers in the early 1900s was a local man by the name of James Iles. He would often serenade visitors with songs of whimsy and tell hair-raising stories of the cave’s ghosts.
In time, the spot garnered quite a reputation for being haunted and, as more and more tourist flocked to the cavernous valley, sightings of the old man and his hound became an almost daily occurrence.
Often the phantasmal duo were observed walking along the creek’s edge before stopping at a large depression in the cave floor where they would inexplicably sink into the earth.
Following a sighting of the pair in March of 1907, one local resident claimed to have returned to the depression with a shovel and found it was, indeed, the final resting place of a man and his dog. They also reportedly found a short biography of the dead man’s life near the gravesite.
Strangely, the name given in the biography was Retzler rather than Rowe and the dates cited were 50 years earlier than when the trapper lived in the cave. Could there have been two old men of the cave?
Maybe there were three. (They’ll be more on that later.)
Following the excavation of the old man’s grave, sightings of the ghost reached their peak. The spirit was appearing with a regularity that could only be achieved by a steady diet of pickles spiced in prune juice (a snack that was said to be a favorite of the specter).
One sunny Sunday in August of 1907, the entity nearly made a nuisance of itself, stopping to observe four separate groups as they engaged in various forms of recreation around the cave. One woman even fainted at the sight of the specter and had to be revived with opiates. Her recovery was happy, but sluggish.
After the old man made his rounds, all watched in disbelief as he and the hound made their usual exit, vanishing into the ground where their bodies were said to lie.
In October of that same year, another group had an interesting encounter as they began to lay out their picnic in the cave. When an old man with gray hair and a long, white beard approached the party, they excitedly offered up their pickles in prune juice and mentally mapped out how they’d tell their friends about the time they had picnicked with a ghost.
Unlike previous manifestations, the phantasm actually spoke this time, choosing conversation over the food laid before him. After a pleasant chat about interesting features of the surrounding area, the spirit excused himself. When he began to leave the cave using conventional means rather than eerily sinking into the ground where his body was said to be buried, a member of the party called out to the old man and asked his identity. “Jim Iles” murmured the form as it ambled away on a dusty trail.
Was Jim Iles the old man everyone was seeing drift about the cave in the early 1900s? He certainly enjoyed telling ghost stories about the place and reports seemed to drop off after he died at the age of 75 in 1909. If so, perhaps he joined the other two whiskered wraiths who seem content to spend eternity lingering in the ravine, the old men’s cave.
Strange encounters at the park are still reported to this day, often by visitors with no prior knowledge of the cave’s haunted history.
For example, in 2012 a hiker on her first trip to the park was startled after she had ventured too close to a cliff’s edge and an elderly voice behind her warned, “Be careful, deary, it’s a tittle of a drop from here.” Thinking it was her husband joking around, a cold chill overcame the woman when she turned around to discover he hadn’t yet descended into the gorge and that she was all alone in the cave.
These are just a few of the many tales of ghosts that are said to roam the caves and woods of this beautiful state park. So if you plan to visit Hocking Hills this season, keep your eyes open for misty old men and phantasmal female forms. Even if you don’t spot any ghosts on your trip, the scenery is guaranteed to take your breath away.
If you like your ghosts a little closer to home, join Columbus Ghost Tours for one of our walking or bus tours offered all year long. Tickets can be purchased at www.columbusghosttours.com.