Dogwood Ghost: Part 1 of 3
Editor’s Note: This is a story Mr. Clegg originally shared with us several years ago. Being October, the season of frights, Mr. Clegg found it fitting to share once more… Enjoy.
It is the month of October, and this time of year, more than any other, we hear stories and see images of ghosts. So to stay with that theme, I have a tale of mystery, love and – yes – perhaps even ghost.
Nearly fifty years ago I was a guest of Joe McCaskey and his wife Melis on a showboat that came to visit our fair community. The showboat was tied up down by the old ferry landing with its gangplank down to welcome guests for the boat’s nightly performance. It had come to town with a crew of college students, working for the summer, on board as part of an old time riverboat theatrical show. Dancing, singing and minstrel acts were the events for the evening performance for the local citizens.
At that time Joe was head of the First National Bank on Main Street. He seemed to know about everyone at the evening performance including the boat’s captain. It was not long before he had arranged an invitation for us to visit the pilothouse of the showboat on the upper deck.
For a young boy this was a real treat, to stand in a place that I could imagine Samuel Clements may have stood as he navigated the waters of the Mississippi. As you can tell, even back then I had a vivid imagination. The wheelhouse was not fancy in appearance, but looking back, it was practical for the job it had to do. The large wheel used to guide the boat on its journey up and down the river showed signs of many hours of wear over the years.
But probably the thing I remember the most was the large glass window that surrounded the pilothouse on all sides. Inside, it was lit with lights that were low and soft. The captain indicated, when traveling at night, most pilots have no light on the inside, so their eyes would become accustomed to the dark that surrounded the boat. When I looked out at the dark water, the only light I could see was from the homes on the far side of the river reflecting across the water’s surface. In those days, looking north on the river, there was no dam and the new bridge was still not complete.
As I stood there, looking into the dark, Joe, who was standing next to me, said, “did I ever tell you the story of the dogwood tree ghost?” Before I could answer, Joe’s wife put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t go scaring the boy; he won’t sleep tonight!”
Joe explained it was not really a scary story, as much as it was one of the many forgotten mysteries of the river. Now, for those of you who may not have known who Joe was, suffice to say he seemed bigger than life to the kids of my neighborhood. He told stories of hunting and fishing among the woods and creeks of the area – tales of early days in the Ohio Valley when Indians made their homes along the river. I always enjoyed his stories even if I kind of knew they might only be for our entertainment.
As well as I can remember, this is the tale told to me in a dimly lit wheelhouse, looking out at the dark water of the Ohio River almost fifty years ago. Now, I will have to admit to filling in the gaps in the story to help make it more interesting for today’s telling. But, I guess every time a ghost story is retold it may grow just a little, and I know Joe would not mind.
After the terrible war between the north and south, the new state of West Virginia would begin to play role in the industrial growth along the Ohio River. Towns grew as coal, oil, and timber was being shipped to the south, and loads of tobacco and cotton came north on the return trip.
During the war, almost all the steamboats had been pressed into service as gun boats to patrol the river to help keep supplies, mail, and soldiers moving up and down the river. After the war, many of the boats returned to more commercial service as cargo and passengers once again moved freely on the waterways.
One such boat was called the Rose of Virginia. The Rose was over 2oo feet long and nearly sixty-five feet wide. The bottom decks were mostly open for large cargo or livestock. During the war, Federal Cavalry traveled south aboard the Rose to try and capture the Confederated raider John Morgan in the battle of Buffington Island.
No frills now adorned her decks, as she now was mostly used for cargo. She still had a few rooms on the upper deck for passage coming north to find work in the mills or mine of the Ohio Valley. The rooms could accommodate twenty passengers who did not mind the less than first class rooms. The dining room, near the front of the boat, still was where the passengers could eat their meals. The small stage that sat in the front of the once formal dining area was now mostly dismantled and long forgotten. Before the war, traveling groups of Shakespearean players or musicians would work off their passage expense with shows in the evening for the paying passengers. But the stage and crystal chandliers were long gone since the war.
At the front, on the top deck, were two rusty black smokestacks that still had bullet holes from Confederate gunfire. Behind the rusting stacks was the pilothouse where the captain guided the boat around ever tree snag and changing sand bar on her travels.
The Rose was built in Pittsburgh in 1856. During her original construction, she was being built with an extra wide hull and with four oversized boilers to drive the massive paddlewheel. She was going to be commissioned as a river snag remover when her construction first began. But the owners saw more profit for her as a heavy cargo carrier than as a government river snag remover.
The captain had piloted the Rose for fours years before the war. Those years she carried steel from the Pittsburgh mills south and returned with heavy loads of cotton and tobacco from towns along the Mississippi.
During the war she was converted into a gunboat with four heavy cannons mounted on her lower deck. Heavy oak planks covered the sides to protect her form gunfire and small cannons hidden along the rivers banks.
After the war she would return to limited passenger service and continued to carry heavy cargo up and down the river.
It was in the spring of 1867 that the Rose of Virginia and her Captain made a stop in the small town of New Martinsville to unload cargo for the oil fields.