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Tales of unexplained sights and sounds echo along Youghiogheny River Trail

Wednesday, October 31, 2001

By Mary Ravasio, Tri-State Sports & News Service

For those who like to celebrate Halloween with a chilling tale, a trip to the video store isn't necessary when two historic and supposedly haunted hollows are right in our backyard.

Two popular haunts, Dead Man's Hollow and the Dravo Cemetery, can be found abut 5 miles apart while biking or hiking along the Youghiogheny River Trail in Elizabeth Township. Both places carry suburban legends more than 100 years old.

Dead Man's Hollow is just eight-tenths of a mile north of the Boston access to the Youghiogheny River Trail. This quiet tributary valley was a thriving industrial area a century ago, when it included a sewer pipe plant, two brick works and oil and gas wells.

The only clues remaining of Dead Man's Hollow's industrial past are the ruins of the Union Sewer Pipe factory that burned down in 1924.

Today, the hollow is a 400-acre nature preserve acquired by the Allegheny Land Trust. It contains a handicapped-accessible hiking trail with several offshoots for more adventuresome hikers. It's home to wild game, some rare spring flowers and, some believe, at least one ghost.

Some locals say a ghost makes its presence felt in the hollow each autumn. There are stories of rustling sounds among the fallen leaves with no one present and other unexplained noises.

Dead Man's Hollow has been the scene of at least four deaths during the past 125 years, said Karen Frank, who's writing a book about the mysterious hollow. Her home in Lincoln borders the hollow, and she began researching the area five years ago when she formed a volunteer group to maintain the preserve.

"I'm Miss Dead Man's Hollow," jokes Frank, who has published a trail guide for Dead Man's Hollow.

How did this area get its deathly name? There are so many stories it might as well be named "Many Dead Men's Hollow."

Who is the dead man?

Frank said that in 1874, a group of boys found a man hanging from a tree limb in the hollow.

"An old newspaper article said he was brutally murdered," she said. The victim was never identified and the killer never found. "Some people say it was backwoods justice, others the KKK. One older resident told me his father many years ago was rowing across the river in the fog to go to work when he saw the ghost of the hanged man. He said it was an Indian."

Another tale claims the dead man, for whom the hollow is named, was actually a woman. Maybe "Dead Woman's Hollow" didn't strike the same fear as the original name.

Bob Cupp, who calls himself the "unofficial historian" of the Youghiogheny River Trail, said there were three other deaths in the hollow he researched in old newspaper articles. To him, the most intriguing one happened in 1881.

That's when three men robbed a McKeesport general store owned by Robert McClure. McClure and a posse of 20 armed and mounted citizens followed the robbers to Dead Man's Hollow and found part of the loot hidden in a tree. While pursuing the robbers in the hollow, McClure was shot to death.

Seven years later, Ward McConkey was arrested and convicted of McClure's murder. McConkey, who proclaimed his innocence to the end, was quoted as saying, "Goodbye, all you murderers," just before he was hanged for the crime.

"I think he's the ghost of Dead Man's Hollow," Cupp said. "Maybe he was innocent and he came back to haunt those who killed him."

In 1887, Edward Woods drowned in the Yough River after crossing on the McClure Ferry. His hat was found near the entrance to Dead Man's Hollow and his death ruled an accident. But some believed there were suspicious circumstances leading to his death.

In 1905, Mike Sacco, an employee of the Bowman Brick Plant in Dead Man's Hollow, was crushed between an elevator and the third floor of the brick works. There were no witnesses to the accident.

Looming legends

There are many undocumented stories about the hollow, Cupp said. One legend has it that two Clairton bank robbers were meeting in the hollow to split the loot when one robber shot the other and kept all the money. Some believe the money still may be somewhere in the hollow.

John Canelle of Liberty was born in Dead Man's Hollow in 1936, just a couple of months after the great St. Patrick's Day flood, which caused his family -- one of about four residing there -- to move. In 1943, Canelle's aunt and another woman drowned in a boating accident in front of Dead Man's Hollow. Canelle said they were crossing the river from Versailles when a bad storm developed and capsized their boat.

Canelle has heard some of the legends surrounding the hollow and said a neighbor scared him as a child with another tale. "He said at night when the moon comes out, you could hear a baby crying in the woods for that hanged man." Canelle said he never heard the crying, but the tale scared him enough to keep him out of the woods at night.

Dead Man's Hollow even had its own kind of Loch Ness monster. Frank found a newspaper story from the late 1800s about a monster snake rearing its head in the hollow.

"It said it was 30 to 40 feet long with a head 2 to 3 feet in circumference. When the man saw it, he swooned," Frank said with a laugh.

She said there were many moonshine stills throughout the hollow.

Frank's home borders the upper hill of the hollow, and she and her husband camped out in the hollow on New Year's Eve of the new millennium. Frank said they are experienced outdoor explorers but admits they've heard some strange echoes out of the hollow. "We hear sounds we can't identify. We know that's a deer, that's a possum. Sometimes we hear things we just can't explain."

Ghoulish graveyard

The other popular haunt found along the bike trail is the Dravo Cemetery, also known to some locals as the Stringtown Cemetery. It is about two miles north of the Buena Vista Access on the Youghiogheny River Trail.

The Dravo Methodist Church was built next to the railroad tracks in 1824, and the cemetery sat behind the church. The church, a two-story frame building that accommodated 200 people, served small farming and mining villages on both sides of the river. The church burned down twice because of sparks from passing trains. When it burned the second time in 1920, it was not rebuilt.

There are 708 grave sites on this half-acre cemetery, but only 81 of them are identified. The Dravo Cemetery was previously the Newlin family cemetery. There are gravestones that date back as far as 1812. Nine Civil War veterans are buried there along with one veteran from the War of 1812.

Many young children are buried here as well, evidence of the many childhood diseases of the time, Elizabeth Township Historical Society spokesman Ron Morgenstern said. The society obtained the cemetery from the Methodist Conference of Pittsburgh in 1986 and continues to maintain the property.

Some believe the isolated burial ground to be haunted. Different tales of strange happenings at the cemetery have circulated in nearby communities for years. Derrick Jubeck, a 16-year-old from Industry who frequents the trail, said he won't go into Dravo Cemetery at night. "Different people say if you go there at night, you can see a two-headed dog."

Jubeck said he also heard about a train wreck near the cemetery more than a 100 years ago.

"At night they say you can sometimes see and hear a ghost train."

Morgenstern doesn't believe the cemetery's haunted. "I'd go there any time of night," he said.

In the '60s, Morgenstern and the Greenock Volunteer Fire Department took kids on hayrides to the old cemetery and lit the cemetery with lanterns and candles.

In the '70s, it was the scene of a fraternity's hazing incident. Morgenstern said members took pledges there and made them dig graves for themselves across the tracks from the cemetery. The pledges were put in rough boxes and three shovels of dirt were put on the boxes. Then the brothers left them. No one was hurt, and the pledges found their way out and called the police.

Haunted or not, the Dravo Cemetery is one of the most-visited spots on the trail. A picnic shelter was built at the cemetery last year, and the trail council plans to put in a primitive campground soon.

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