Richard White offered to show me around, to give me the tour of the old Lake Shawnee Amusement Park in Mercer County.
It’s something he’s done hundreds of times by now. His family owns the old lakeside attraction.
“I just won’t go down the creepy trail,” the mild-mannered caretaker and guide of the park told me. “I can show you where the creepy trail is. You can go down the creepy trail, but I’m not going down the creepy trail.”
Old stomping grounds
Visiting the allegedly haunted amusement park has been on my bucket list of West Virginia Halloween sights to see for nearly as long as I’ve lived in the state. When I decided to spend a month exploring the season, Lake Shawnee was near the top of the list.
But I already knew this place — sort of.
In the early 1990s, I was a student at Concord College.
A back road from the school in Athens to my girlfriend’s apartment in Princeton ran next to the park, which was penned in by a chain-link fence to keep people out — or keep something else in, if you believed the stories. And there were plenty of stories.
The place had some history. Human remains discovered on the property were linked to a Native American burial ground. Building anything on Native American burial lands always meant cursed with angry spirits in the movies.
Besides that, a young boy was said to have drowned in the swimming pond in the mid-1960s. In the 1950s, a little girl was killed when a soda truck backed into the path of a carousel swing ride. She slammed into the back of the truck.
Given the original layout of the park, with the road right beside the ride, it’s a wonder it hadn’t happened before.
You couldn’t legally get into the park when I was in school. The family that owned it had closed it up and locked the gate in the mid-1980s. Left like that, it might have been eventually bulldozed, leveled and turned into a haunted Dollar General.
But it wasn’t.
Lake Shawnee Amusement Park reopened once more almost a decade ago, though not as a playland destination for working families, as it had been originally envisioned back in the 1920s.
The Whites brought it back as a haunted attraction, with a haunted house and a history tour that includes ghost stories.
Setting the mood
The drive felt like the opening to a horror film. The park felt secluded, though it was less than 10 miles off I-77 in Mercer County.
To get here, however, you have to travel down a couple of narrow, winding country roads leading down into the dark, bottom of the valley.
It was right at dusk when I made the turn off the highway. I thought my directions were wrong at first. Traffic seemed light for a perfect autumnal Friday night. I expected a crowd, but cars were few and far between.
A single truck followed behind me.
Just down Route 10 North, I spotted the sign for the park entrance and signaled to turn.
A couple of seconds later, as I turned into the lot, the driver of the truck behind me laid on his horn and stomped the gas as he passed and faded into the night.
What was that about, I wondered.
Right after I got out of my car, a woman approached me. She asked about the sign, if it had been lit, if I’d been able to see it, if she needed to send someone up to the road to check the lights?
Lights from the park had been stolen before.
“No, I saw it fine,” I said. “I don’t know what happened back there.”
She smiled and then told me to mind my car keys.
“The little girl likes to take them sometimes,” she said.
This was Jewel White.
Jewel’s husband, Gaylord, bought the park in the 1980s. He’d worked at Lake Shawnee in the early 1960s, before it closed in 1966, and loved the place. Reopening it had been a dream and he’d given it a try, but it took a lot of money and effort to restart the park, and more to run it. The money just wasn’t there to keep it going.
That 13 skeletons unearthed on the property probably didn’t help with attendance.
Jewel said she and her husband had seen spirits on the land. Her husband, working the grounds with a tractor, had seen the specter of the dead girl.
Jewel said he’d abandoned the tractor. The keys were gone after that. Jewel said he’d told her that the ghost “could keep them.”
“The tractor is still there,” she said.
Jewel told me she’d seen the spirit of an Indian brave, that he’d been a kindly ghost who’d imbued her with new strength to help her care for her dying husband in his final days.
The other side of the park
Lake Shawnee Amusement Park is more than a guided tour of a dilapidated playground peppered with spooky stories. They operate a dark carnival, a haunted house attraction run by teenagers that raises funds for charity.
This year, Richard said they were raising money for the Make-a-Wish Foundation. “It would be too much for us to handle, so we let other people do it for good causes. It’s a way for us to give back.”
While it wasn’t the most sophisticated haunted house I’ve seen so far this month, it was well-designed, and the actors were earnest.
Spooky attractions are generally about creating atmosphere to set you up for a good jump scare. Psychotic clowns in Lake Nightmare seemed to pop up from everywhere. They slipped out of the walls, came up from the floor and dropped from the sky.
“We’ve had people run out of this place screaming,” the front entrance attendant said. “People freak out.”
She told me to have a good time, but not to swing on anybody. There were mostly just kids in there.
“People have taken a swing at someone in there?” I asked.
She sighed and said, “It’s happened. Maybe a little too often.”
History and horror
With soft moonlight bleeding through the gauzy clouds of an October sky, I took the tour of the amusement park with Richard, who explained, “We don’t really have evil or angry spirits.”
He told me that the park was supposedly a site of some kind of spirit portal, that the ghosts who haunted the land around the lake weren’t bound to the property because they’d suffered some violent end.
“Our ghosts weren’t murdered,” he said. “They died through accident.”
In the 1700s, a family of settlers, the Clay Family, was attacked by a band of natives while the family’s father, Mitchell, was away hunting.
Two children, Bartley and Tabitha, were killed during the raid, while a third, Ezekiel, was kidnapped and taken north. When Mitchell returned, he gathered together a posse, went after the marauders and discovered that Ezekiel had been burned at the stake.
Richard explained that the three children were buried on the land, but that the family had used wooden markers, which had fallen over and disappeared. The graves of Bartley and Tabitha were buried side by side and were later marked again with stone, but Ezekiel’s grave wasn’t marked.
Richard said some nights Ezekiel will stand where he may be buried.
Other nights, Tabitha will walk along the creepy path, walk from near the lake to where her brothers are buried.
Richard told me visitors had told him they’d seen and heard all kinds of things. He was naturally skeptical, hadn’t seen anything like a full-blown apparition himself, but had felt the presence of things following behind him when he used to cut the grass.
“I pay somebody else to do that,” he said.
I did two laps around the lake. In the distance, I listened to teenagers scream over the sound of chains being dragged and Marilyn Manson singing “This is Halloween.”
I watched for ghosts but ultimately decided not to venture down the creepy path.
I left the park with my keys still in my pocket.