Turnpike Terror—West Virginia

West Virginia Turnpike—Interstate 77
Between Princeton and Charleston

N.B. Part of this article was originally published 22 December 2014 as part of my article, “13 Southern Haunts You’ve Probably Never Heard Of.” This article has been revised and expanded.

If there was ever a place for a ghost, it’s that two-lane holocaust.
–Terry Marchal, “Always on Sunday,” Charleston Mail Gazette, 12 September 1971

The West Virginia Turnpike was plagued with problems from the very beginning. In the early 20th century the very mountains that made “The Mountain State” unique also cut off much of the state’s population from the outside world. To rectify this, the state looked into a major north to south thoroughfare between two major cities.

After a route was chosen, construction involved literally moving mountains at tremendous cost. By the time it opened in 1954, the project’s price amounted to $133 million—around $1.5 million per mile—over two years. But, the staggering statistics do not stop there; construction required the movement of 33 million cubic yards of earth, 16 million pounds of dynamite, 60% of excavation through rock, 116 bridges within the road’s 88 miles, and, sadly, five lost were lost during the project.

As it opened, some even deemed the highway “88 miles of miracle,” though that positive image did not last. Criticism followed with the two-lane road being called “the road to nowhere” by The Saturday Evening Post. As it became packed with the increased traffic brought to it by the Interstate Highway System, even more scorn was heaped upon the highway.

West Virginia Turnpike 1974
A two-lane section of the turnpike in 1974. Photo by Jack Corn for the EPA.

With the traffic and congestion also came a sharp increase in deaths on the road. Terry Marchal’s 1971 quip about the turnpike being a “two-lane holocaust” was apt considering the huge death toll. By 1975, the toll stood at 278 fatalities.

During the late 1970s and into the 80s, the road was expanded into a four-lane highway, which has eased some traffic woes, though congestion remained a problem. Another issue that arose—although the state government could not have foreseen such a thing—was ghosts.

congestion on the West Virginia Turnpike
Modern congestion on the turnpike in Raleigh County, 2006. Photo by Seicer, courtesy of Wikipedia.

By 1971, tales had been told for years about ghostly hitchhikers along the road’s route, when an article appearing in the Martinsville Bulletin of Virginia stirred some interesting commentary among West Virginia newspapers.  The article reports that the Associated Press reported that a West Virginia radio station reported (many people are reporting on others’ reporting in what might be a classic example of the telephone game) that witnesses have encountered a ghostly hitchhiker on the turnpike.

Columnist Bob Wills in the Raleigh Register (in Raleigh, West Virginia) pointed out this farcical reporting in his column on September 20, 1971, describing it as “another case of ‘I know a man who etc…’” Wills reprints the original Martinsville Bulletin article to show how ludicrous it is. The original article in the Martinsville Bulletin takes a humorous turn with the author suggesting several “answers to the mystery of the vanishing hitchhiker,” including “Anything can happen in West Virginia…and will on the West Virginia Turnpike.”

Despite the article’s skeptical tone, it seems that the story itself may still bear a kernel of truth, especially when compared to more recent stories from the turnpike. Wills reprinted the entire Martinsville Bulletin article in his column of which this is the most interesting part, my own notes are provided in brackets:

According to the AP, as reported by a West Virginia radio station, 22 motorists on the turnpike between Princeton and Bluefield [this is the southern end of the turnpike] have reported they picked up a hitch-hiking man who later vanished from their cars. [I can find no evidence of the Associated Press coverage of the hitchhiker, though this may simply be due to the fact that many papers from this period are not yet available online.]

You read that correctly. The man just vanished from their vehicles—in some cases while they were traveling at 65 miles an hour.

Some motorists even reported the car seat belt was still hooked together on the front seat after the man disappeared.

According to the radio station, the neatly dressed man got into the cars when motorists stopped, but said nothing.

But in cases he later spoke one sentence—“Jesus is coming.”

And with that he vanished.

Earlier that month, Bob Wills reported on a message the newspaper received on its reader tip line:

This is Charley Jackson, City Councilman at large, Beckley, West Virginia. Something happened to me not too long ago and people have been asking about it since. Also, it was announced on the radio that I was one of the witnesses that could explain it…it happened on the West Virginia turnpike…Well, this is it:

I was going down the Turnpike and I saw a hitchhiker. I picked up this hitchhiker and I had reached the climax of 60 miles an hour when this gentleman said to me, he said, “Jesus is coming soon.” And then he disappeared. Where he went to, how he left, only God knows. But I do know that it is mighty strange. There were no witnesses, no warlocks, no magic; but something is going on. There is a change that should be made in everyone’s life—and that is my story.

Wills says that the reporters who listened to the recording were well familiar with Councilman’s Jackson’s voice and the voice on the recording was not his.

While they also noted that the story was “a thin tale with an evangelistic bent” the story does seem to bear the hallmarks of more recent stories from the turnpike. In the intervening years, several state troopers have reported experiences here including one who discovered a little girl who appeared lost and wandering on the side of the road. After picking up the unusually quiet child and putting her in the backseat of his car. During the drive the trooper glanced in his rear-view mirror and was shocked to discover the child had vanished.

Another trooper encountered a pedestrian along the turnpike and arrested him as pedestrians are forbidden from walking along the road. Placing the handcuffed man in the back seat of his patrol car, the officer headed back to headquarters. At some point during the drive, the trooper looked in the rear-view mirror to find the back seat was empty. The pedestrian simply vanished leaving the handcuffs on the seat.

ghostly hitchhiker haunted West Virginia Turnpike
West Virginia Turnpike as it passes through Fayette County. Photo 2006 by Seicer. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Blogger Theresa Racer writes in her blog of her own experience. She and her mother were traveling along the turnpike when they passed “a scraggly looking young man wearing dark clothing and carrying an olive green army-like sack” standing in a particularly lonely area of the interstate. After passing him, they looked in their rear view mirror to see the figure had vanished. They turned their car around and did not see anyone along that same lonely stretch of interstate.

Folklorist Dennis Deitz posits in his The Greenbrier Ghost and other Strange Stories that the road cuts across two creeks where tragedies have occurred. Along both Paint and Cabin Creeks there were many mines where miners were killed in accidents. He also notes that both creeks have experienced flooding that has killed residents in the area. During the turnpike’s construction in the 1950s there were also a number of old cemeteries that were moved, perhaps these hitchhiking spirits are trying to find their way back to their earthly remains?

For further stories of ghostly hitchhikers in West Virginia, see my article on Fairmont’s Old Grafton Road, and  WV Route 901 in Berkeley County.

Sources

  • Deitz, Dennis. The Greenbrier Ghost and Other Strange Stories. South Charleston, WV: Mountain Memories Books, 1990.
  • Gavenda, Walter and Michael T. Shoemaker. A Guide to Haunted West Virginia. Glen Ferris, WV: Peter’s Creek Publishing, 2001.
  • Monday, Christopher R. “The West Virginia Turnpike: “88 Miles of Miracle.” West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly. Volume 11, No. 2.
  • Racer, Theresa. “WV Turnpike.” Theresa’s Haunted History of the Tri-State. 2 March 2011.
  • “West Virginia Turnpike History.” West Virginia Parkways Authority. Accessed
  • Wills, Bob. “The Turnpike Ghost turns up on tape.” The Raleigh Register. 14 September 1971.
  • Wills, Bob. “Virginian enlarges TP ‘Ghost’ tale.” The Raleigh Register. 20 September 1971.
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