The weekend following the assignation of President John F. Kennedy at his reported assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, two of my neighborhood friends and I walked off across the railroad tracks from the old C&O Depot at 53rd Street and Lancaster Avenue. We were on our way up the side of the mountain across from the depot to hunt for Civil War artifacts that were common in that area.
Many West Virginians are unaware that Robert E. Lee’s first Confederate command was the protection of the Kanawha Valley from West of Charleston to Gauley Bridge where the New River and the Kanawha meet at the falls. Lee had placed artillery on as many of the mountain tops on both sides of the Kanawha River as he had available. They were manned by the Kanawha Riflemen and other volunteers. Lee was a former colonel in the US Army Corps of Engineers and had set up as formidable defense as he had men to maintain it. His “failure” to march on the Yankees marching in from Ohio had his men disheartened to the point where he had actually been nicknamed “Granny Lee.”
So, with the help of our fathers we boys knew just about every “fort” on top of the hills on our side of the river. My father told us that if we went pretty much straight up the hill behind the depot we’d find an old tunnel that had started out as a coal mine until saltpeter had been located there. Saltpeter is a main component of gun powder and tracks had been laid out in the tunnel so mules could haul it out in boxes. Dad told us that there were other Civil War artifacts to be had there including musket balls and even cannon balls could be found.
The three of us made our way up the hill, stopping occasionally to swing on a grapevine or two and before very long, about two-thirds of the way up, a hole in the side of the hill was found. It wasn’t very deep into the mountain, maybe 30-40 feet or so, and the light from the winter sun shone fairly deep into the hole. We’d also swiped a few candles and so armed, made our way inside.
What I remember most about that late afternoon was how cold it was inside the tunnel. Indeed, there were some rusty tracks inside but they no longer went the entire length of the tunnel. We also found a pick and a couple of tongs, a rusted shovel and a couple of cases worth of empty Wild Irish Rose Wine bottles. There was a whole lot of dirt piled up on either side of the tunnel so we went to work sifting through it hoping to find Confederate buttons, old lead round-ball bullets, and especially one of those cannon balls my Dad said were up there.
When you are a kid, on a mission, you lose track of time and we did. Before too long, it was dark and our candles wouldn’t stay lit because of a wind that kept blowing them out. We had stayed until true dark and we were becoming more and more certain there were ghosts in the tunnel.
We decided to lock hands and stretch out to hold onto a wall and walk the short distance out. The problem was that the tunnel that we thought was only about 30 feet deep seemed miles long on our journey out. We got scared and one of the boys, my wimpy cousin (or was it me–NAWWW) started crying and yelling for help. Our imaginations ran wild and soon we could hear voices in the tunnel. When we yelled out to them to help us, all we heard was laughter and, what was worse, no one answered our cries for help.
We rounded a slight bend in the tunnel, one none of us could remember seeing going in, and wonder of wonders, there was a lighted oil lamp burning on the wall. It wasn’t the type of kerosene lamp we were used to seeing either. It was square with a large front glass and somewhat square in shape. There was a reflector behind it. About ten feet behind the lamp was the opening to the tunnel and we took off for it without even thinking.
We flew down the side of that hill, ripping through blackberry and other briar patches, falling and slipping all the way down. The street lights were on below us so we had no trouble finding our way down. I fell and hurt my ankle and the other two guys kept on running, leaving me behind to fend for myself. After sitting still for a minute, I got up, turned around and could just make out the dim light of the lamp above me. I heard, once again, the laughter from inside the tunnel.
And the light. Where had the light come from?
So far as I know, none of us ever went back to that tunnel.