Kaleidoscope: Searching for ghosts in train depot, Zoar Village

by KEN LAHMERS | EDITOR Published:

Prior to Halloween, I went ghost hunting at a couple of locations in my old stomping grounds of Tuscarawas County. They were the Dennison Depot and Zoar Village. No really scary moments were encountered, though.

DEPOT GHOST TOUR

One of my favorite places to visit -- or just to drive by from time to time -- is the restored 1873 railroad depot in Dennison. Having grown up just a few miles up the road in New Philadelphia, I've been familiar with it since I was a kid.

I've been inside the museum a handful of times and have walked around outside dozens of times, even crawling up in the cab of the unrestored K4 Kanawha Chesapeake & Ohio 2700 steam locomotive which sets down the tracks east of the depot.

In recent years around Halloween, the depot has offered ghost tours, and on Oct. 12 I decided to check one out.

Lights were turned off in the building and the six rail cars which extend from it, and the small group made its way through the museum with the aid of a couple of flashlights.

A guide told stories about the many men and women who worked in Dennison's railroad yard and shops in the early 1900s. Some remain in spirit and might be the source of paranormal occurrences.

The guide told of locked doors which mysteriously open, items in the museum being moved -- but not by staff members -- and train cars on a model railroad layoff being inexplicably strewn about.

The guide said a former military hospital car among the six museum rail cars is where a lot of paranormal activity takes place because much misery occurred there.

Our group didn't encounter any unusual or scary situations, or ghosts.

THE DEPOT bustled with activity during World War II, when it was the third largest canteen for troops in the nation, serving 1.3 million soldiers. My uncle shipped out from it in the early 1950s after he joined the Army.

Because of the depot's canteen, soldiers referred to Dennison as "Dreamsville USA," a name which might have originated from the Glenn Miller Orchestra's famous song "Dreamsville, Ohio."

There's a happiness in Dreamsville

Even money couldn't buy

All that's missing down in Dreamsville

Is you and I!

At one time, Dennison -- located midway between Pittsburgh and Columbus -- was the Pennsylvania Railroad's second largest yard / shops complex outside of Altoona, Pa. The route was known as the Panhandle Line, because it crossed the West Virginia panhandle.

Decrepit and destined for demolition in the early 1980s after passenger service ceased in the 1970s, the building was purchased by the village, and area residents raised nearly $1 million to save it. The museum opened in 1989 and will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year.

The depot and its surrounding Center Street historic district have become a source of pride for the struggling 2,700-resident village, which along with its twin city of Uhrichsville, once made up the "Clay Capital of the World."

In 2011, the depot was designated a National Historic Landmark, one of only 70 in Ohio. It was selected because of its WW II canteen history. It is the only remaining depot in the nation to house a canteen.

ALSO IN 2011, the depot was chosen as the Institution of the Year, the Ohio Museum Association's highest award, and won a Gold Visual Communication Award for a documentary which is shown in the museum and is on the depot's website at www.dennisondepot.org.

The museum houses many railroad-related items -- lanterns, old photos of steam locomotives and the depot, a baggage cart, railroad signals and signs, model train layout and memorabilia related to the canteen.

In addition to the hospital car, the others display local history, a children's interactive railroad experience and an archival research library. The special exhibit for 2013-14 is titled "Chow: Foods of the 1940s," which includes a 1940s era refrigerator.

Museum personnel hope eventually to cosmetically improve the C&O 2700 steam locomotive, which was the first of 90 of its kind to be built in the early 1940s. Restoring it to running condition would require massive cash, so that's not really a possibility.

On static display at the west end of the depot are a Nickel Plate Road caboose which visitors can walk through, a 0-4-0 saddle tank steam engine, Wheeling & Lake Erie boxcar, tank car from Dover Chemical and a B&O flat car.

The building also houses the Whistle Stop Gift Shop featuring railroad and WW II memorabilia, plus the Trax Diner. A gazebo a half-block away hosts summer concerts on Friday evenings, and the Dennison Yard, one of my favorite Italian restaurants, is across the street.

A "Polar Express" excursion operates out of the depot prior to Christmastime. This year's dates are Dec. 13-15 and 20-22.

ZOAR VILLAGE GHOSTS

On the Friday night before Halloween, I ventured to another of my favorite places -- Zoar Village -- for another ghost tour.

Zoar is an almost 200-year-old community just east of I-77 and Bolivar. It was founded in 1817 by German religious dissenters, who formed the Society of Separatists of Zoar, a communal society.

Joseph Bimeler was the leader of the society. After he died in 1853, the village began to decline. The communal way of living was abandoned in 1898 and property was divided among the remaining residents.

Many buildings from the mid-1800s remain and have been restored. They are either privately owned or the property of the Zoar Community Association.

The ghost tour started in the old Zoar Store on the main road through town -- Route 212 -- where some really neat gifts can be purchased.

We went into the basement and sub basement of the store, and continued the tour around town with the aid of flashlights. We visited the Number One House (Bimeler's former home) and its detached kitchen, the garden, blacksmith shop and Zoar Hotel.

All along the route, the guide -- a woman dressed in 1800s attire -- told stories about paranormal experiences residents have encountered over the years.

We were accused of trying to steal spices and soap by a woman portraying the keeper of the kitchen. We went by a witch stirring a large pot over a fire. There were swamp weeds and a rubber chicken in the pot!

A frantic local resident approached us looking for her husband. Mind you, these weren't real encounters; just good acting by some tour volunteers.

We ran into the ghost of Captain Morgan in the garden. He told us he's been searching for his brother for decades. The latter was killed in the Civil War.

The village blacksmith was hammering away in his shop -- making nails for a coffin -- and told us about the cholera outbreak which wiped out 25 percent of the village's population in the 1830s.

We walked into the basement of the old hotel, where 25 years ago the Rathskeller tavern was still operating and my mom, stepdad and I used to stop in on weekends after I first moved to Portage County.

The basement is like a catacombs. It was a bit emotional for me to see how the once vibrant Rathskeller has deteriorated, and thick dust covers the floors and walls. No furniture or tavern equipment remain.

The Rathskeller produced one memorable story for me. One Saturday night when we were there, some folks at an adjacent table were awed at how much my stepdad looked like Charlton Heston. A lot of people told him that over the years.

We didn't encounter any real ghosts, hear any unusual noises or see anything mysteriously moving around town or in the buildings. But I've been looking for ghosts for years. One of these days, I'll find one.

Email: klahmers@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4189

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