The Haunted Paw Paw Tunnel

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, better known as the C&O Canal, operated from 1831 until 1924 along the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland. The canal was primarily used to transport coal from the Allegheny Mountains.

Building the 184-mile canal was a huge undertaking at the time; the lands to the west were remote and mountainous. A section of the canal, in Allegany County, Maryland, just across the river from present-day Paw Paw, West Virginia had to be bored through a mountain in order to bypass the Paw Paw bends, a 6-mile section of the Potomac with several horseshoe bends.

Work on the tunnel began in 1836 and was completed in 1850. However, the tunnel was initially estimated to be complete in 1838. The work was slow-going and hazardous; using only hand tools and dynamite, works were only able to tunnel about 12 feet per day. Cave-ins were commonplace, as were injuries and even deaths from work related accidents. Laborers also suffered through outbreaks of diseases such as cholera.

To construct the tunnel, immigrants were hired from Germany, England, and Ireland. The workers were hired on for near slave wages. The low pay, and in many instances no pay due to company financial difficulties, wretched working conditions, and ethnic tensions turned the primitive work camps into a powder keg. Ethnic strife ensued; tensions boiled over and resulted in a series of bloody riots.

Once the tunnel was finally completed and in operation, the violence did not end. The tunnel was too narrow for two boats to pass at the same time. Boat captains routinely ignored the right-of-way rules that had been put in place and many fights resulted.

In 1890, the lock keeper near the end of the tunnel was murdered. His skull had been smashed in and his cabin, along with his body, were burned. The lock keeper was well-liked and a collector of rare coins. His murderer was discovered after buying drinks in a local saloon with the lock keeper’s coins that were recognized by canal workers. The man was arrested by the Allegany County sheriff; he was later tried, convicted, and hanged.

The Tunnel Today

Today, there are many who believe the Paw Paw Tunnel is haunted. Strange shadows and weird noises are often reported in the tunnel. Some have even claimed to see a headless apparition.

On a recent visit to the tunnel, I picked a spike on my EMF meter toward the downstream end of the tunnel. On the other end, a loud noise that I could not explain also occurred. Other than that, I did not detect any anomalous activity. With that being said, the ¾-mile walk through the dark and cold tunnel is certainly creepy!

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The following is an excerpt from my book Wild & Wonderful (and Paranormal) West Virginia:

A river monster is said to dwell in the Monongahela River near the town of Rivesville in Marion County. Although unrelated, in light of the giants discussed earlier, it is interesting to note that giant skeletons have been recovered in Rivesville near the confluence of Paw Paw Creek and the Monongahela River. At any rate, the river monster is called the Ogua, and its legend originated with the Native Americans who inhabited the land long ago. According to folks who are familiar with the legendary creature, many more Oguas existed in the river, and also in the Ohio River, before colonial times. It is a true testament to the impact of European colonization when even the river monsters experienced dwindling population numbers as settlers pushed west!

The Ogua is a serpentine creature said to reach a size of about 500 pounds; it is reddish-brown in color and has deadly razor-sharp teeth; it is also amphibious. The monster is said to dwell in the river during the day, but at night it comes onto land where it stalks prey. Reportedly, the Ogua hunts deer; it lies along game paths and thrashes an unsuspecting deer with its tail and pulls it into the water where it devours the helpless animal.

Of particular interest to me is the Ogua’s abode. It is said to dwell in an underwater cavern. Time after time, creature after creature, rumors of underwater caves and tunnels are a commonality among water monster legends, and for that matter, cryptids in general. I spoke of this in detail in my first book People are Seeing Something: A Survey of Lake Monsters in the United States and Canada.

Reports of the Creature

The first documented report of the Ogua took place in the 1700s. The report came from a young man staying at Fort Hamar who wrote a letter to his parents. Today, the letter resides in West Virginia University’s Manuscript Collection.1

There is an animal in this country which excites the imagination of all who have had the opportunity to view it; being amphibious it resides in the water during the daytime, but at night repairs to the land in quest of its prey; which are deer. They lie in the deer paths undiscovered, behind an old stump, until the deer, unaware of its enemy, passes over him; this creature immediately seizes him, and entangling him in its tail, which is 15 feet in length, and not withstanding all the deer’s exertions to free itself, draws him in the water, where he drowns and devours him.

Some of our men lately discovered one of the formidable creatures early in the morning with its prey, of which they informed some of the company who were nigh; they soon came up with him and killed the giant beast with clubs. The monster weighed 444 pounds.

They lurk in deep underwater caves with no bottom and their head resembles a giant turtle. Woe to any man who chances upon one of these formidable predators unarmed. The Indians call them Oguas.2

Many skeptics who seek to explain the Ogua believe that the Native Americans told embellished stories to try and keep the ever-encroaching white man away from the rivers. Perhaps there is some truth to this, but it certainly seems that something large and frightening existed in the river. Especially when you fast forward to modern times when the creature was spotted by a number of fishermen.

A rash of Ogua sightings took place in the early 1980s. The Fairmont Times reported on a number of sightings that occurred in the area in their May 15, 1983 issue. According to the report, something that was at least 20 feet long and reddish-brown in color had frightened a quite a few local fishermen. The creature was said to have a mouth lined with razor-sharp teeth and a long, flat tail that whipped the water into foam.

The most commonly cited Ogua report occurred in the summer of 1983. John Edward White was fishing for catfish on the Monongahela at the mouth of Paw Paw Creek. White recalled having an eerie feeling that night but continued fishing in spite of it. He noticed small waves in the water, but there were no boats in the area and nothing that should have caused t. Small fish began jumping out of the water and were swimming up Paw Paw Creek—it was as if they were being chased by something. Suddenly, a large fin burst out of the water about 30 feet in front of him. Then, he saw a large, serpentine tail emerge with a sweeping motion; with that, the creature turned and dived into the water and disappeared. White packed up and left as fast as he could; he never returned to fish at that spot.3

Today, sightings of the Ogua seem to be a rarity; recent documented reports are hard to come by. Given the Ogua’s long history, though, it wouldn’t be surprising if a rash of sightings were to take place again sometime in the near future.


1. TheresaHPIR, “Hoult River Monster of Northern WV,” Theresa’s Haunted History of the Tri-State, February 22, 2011, accessed November 12, 2016,

2.David Cain, “Ogua: The Rivesville River Monster,” Wonderful West Virginia, September 1999, 28.

3.Ibid., 27.

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Gyants in the Earth in Those Dayes

The largest burial mound in West Virginia is the Grave Creek Mound in Moundsville, just south of Wheeling. The mound, at 69 feet tall and 295 feet in diameter, is one of the largest conical-type burial mounds in the United States.

When the Grave Creek Mound was opened in 1838, several skeletons were found. Each skeleton was surrounded by beads; one was covered with thin strips of mica. A stone tablet was allegedly found as well; it was said to have been engraved with characters resembling hieroglyphs.5

Figure 4: Replica of the Grave Creek Tablet on display in the museum at the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex. Photo taken by author.

An article written in the Charleston Daily Mail on October 22, 1922 had this to say about the Grave Creek Mound:

Archaeologists investigating the mound some years ago dug out a skeleton said to be that of a female because of the formation of the bones. The skeleton was seven feet four inches tall and the jawbone would easily fit over the face of a man weighing 160 pounds. That the women of that ancient day were not unlike the women of today in their liking for finery was evidenced by the articles that were found beside the skeleton of what centuries ago was a “flapper.” Seventeen hundred ivory beads, 500 seashells of an involute species and five copper bracelets were found in the vault. The beads and shells were about the neck and breast of the skeleton while the bracelets were about the arms (emphasis added).

Not far from the Grave Creek Mound, laborers on a road by the river uncovered a skeleton “of a very large person” thought to be the remains of a Mound Builder.6

The second largest mound in West Virginia is located in South Charleston. This mound is 175 feet in diameter and 35 feet tall. In 1883, scientists from the Smithsonian Institute excavated the mound. Inside of a vault in the center of the mound, a large skeleton was found with other skeletons laid out around it. The central skeleton was over 7 feet tall.7

The 7-foot skeleton from the Charleston mound is certainly an impressive size. This is not a fluke or an outlier—skeletons well over 8 feet tall have been found in burial mounds throughout the Kanawha Valley.8

Colossal skeletons have been discovered along the Cheat River as well. In 1774, Jack Parsons was walking along the river, which had recently flooded, and saw bones protruding from the ground. He pulled a femur from the ground and when he compared it to his own, it was seven inches longer. He removed the remaining bones and laid them out—the person would have stood at 8 feet when alive! Moreover, the jawbone fit completely over Parsons’ face.9

Similarly, in Hardy County, a jaw bone was discovered that belonged to a giant. The lower jaw, with 16 perfectly preserved teeth, easily fit over top of a person’s face.10

Large skeletal finds have prompted many to believe than an ancient race of giants inhabited North America centuries ago. In 1930, Professor Ernest Sutton of Salem College excavated two mounds in Doddridge County. Sutton uncovered four skeletons during the excavation. The smallest was 7 feet long; the largest—9 feet! The best specimen measured 7’6. Professor Sutton believed the remains belonged to a group he referred to as the Siouan Indians.11

Across the river, in Ohio, large skeletons have also been found. The Ohio Science Annual reported in their 1898 issue that a skeleton measuring 8’7 was recovered in Morgan County.

Martin’s Ferry, just across the river from Wheeling, was the site of a mound that was demolished in 1893. The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer reported on April 6, 1893, that a skull was recovered in the mound that was at least twice the size of a normal human skull. According to the paper, the massive skull was put on display in the window of the post office news stand.

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Stop me if you’ve heard the story of Thomas “the winged cat” before. Feel free to flip to the next section; it won’t hurt my feelings. If you haven’t heard the tale, it is a fun story about a cat with wings—that ended up in court. 

In 1959, 15 year old Doug Shelton’s dog treed a cat while hunting. Doug climbed the tree and caught the cat and took it home with him. Doug named the cat Thomas; it was later revealed the cat was a female. Thomas had growths on her back that looked like wings. 

Word of Doug’s winged cat spread through the community and eventually the nation. Doug and Thomas were invited to New York City where they appeared on television.  


 Figure 1: The Raleigh Register printed this picture of Thomas in their June 5, 1959, issue. 

Back home in Pineville, West Virginia, Doug was charging 10¢ to see his cat. According to an article in the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Doug raked in over $2,000 from eager visitors. 

Whenever money is concerned, drama is sure to follow. 

It did. 

A lady named Mary Hicks claimed that Thomas was actually her cat Mitzi. According to her story, Mitzi fled after Hicks administered ear drops and was later found by Doug Shelton. Despite Hicks’ claims, the Shelton family refused to give her the cat. 

Mary Hicks sued the Sheltons. She demanded the return of the cat or compensation—in the amount of $279. 

A local magistrate awarded custody of the cat to Mrs. Hicks. However, upon appeal, the story took a twist. 

The Shelton family brought Thomas to court; she did not have wings. Mrs. Hicks conceded that the cat was not Mitzi. Apparently, the cat had shed its “wings.” As evidence, the Sheltons had a shoe box filled with clumps of fur.  

The jury awarded Mary Hicks $1.

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