The Wago Owanhan: A West Virginia Wonder
“Not another spook light!” I hear you protest. Well yes, it is another spook light, but accompanied by some unusual and possibly nonsensical details.
The Mysterious “Wago Owanhan”
An old-time West Virginia wonder is again causing quite a discussion among the reading and thinking people of Wyoming and adjoining counties. The wonder referred to is the mysterious light which has been known since times almost prehistoric as the “Wago Owanhan.”
This phenomenal light appears to emanate from a certain spot on the precipitous sides of the great Pat Wess canon [sic]. It casts its ghostly sheen across the waters of the river, lighting the surroundings, not with a “sickly, pale, white light,” but with a phosphorescent glow of sufficient brightness to make the reading of a newspaper or book possible on the darkest night. According to some investigators of the “Wago Owanhan,” the light does not emanate from any spot on the canon’s side, but hangs out over the river like a luminous cloud or fog. This appears to have been the case at the time when Professor Tohlure, and Mr. I.E. Christian—the latter of Oceana, W. Va.—visited the spot. On the 15th and 16th of last February an expedition headed by Mr. Christian again visited the “Wago Owanhan.” Snow was falling rapidly at the time, and Mr. Christian says that every flake, when it reached a height of about 200 feet above the water, “would blaze out with a dazzling brightness” and remain luminous until it reached the surface. A scientific investigation of the phenomenon will be made. St. Louis Republic.
Kansas City [MO] Daily Journal 6 September 1896: p. 15
I don’t know if that scientific investigation was ever made, but Mr. I.E. Christian was genuine enough. He was an attorney in Oceana, West Virginia and law partner of Judge Joseph M. Sanders of the West Virginia Supreme Court. He was murdered on 22 December 1904—shot to death by “Ken” Canterbury, a gambler who had been recently indicted through Christian’s efforts. Law Notes, February 1905: p. 455
He is described as a Judge in newspaper articles about the murder. Canterbury escaped “to the mountains” with a posse in pursuit; he was not captured until June of 1905.
But here are the snags: Where is the great Pat Wess canyon? It doesn’t appear in lists of West Virginia place names. What “water” runs through it? Who is Professor Tohlure? And is “Wago Owanhan” actually a Native American phrase or just something made-up? The actual manifestation does not sound in the least like the average spook-light. There was coal mining in Wyoming County–coal and gas fields are often accompanied by weird luminous phenomena. Or was this just a newspaper hoax?
Any answers to the questions posed above? Dazzle me with or without snowflakes. Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.
Just because I am a fortean completest I’ll add that Wyoming County is noted for its petroglyph sites, said to be written by Irish monks in the ogam script. One of these, translated by Dr. Barry Fell, is said to be a Christmas message and is positioned to be illuminated by the sun on 22 December.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.
Bruce T has sent along some brilliant observations about the location and the phenomenon and suggests a plausible origin for “Pat Wess.”
the river they’re talking about is the head of the Guyandotte. It’s about 70 miles south of where Barry Fell did his stomping around up in Lincoln County….
I’ve never heard of the lights, but there is supposed to be a ghostly death dealing fire truck in that neck of the woods, I posted a reference to it on Beach’s blog about a year ago. The world famous snake handling, strychnine drinking church at Jolo is nearby, too.
A lot of traditional place names were changed with the coming of the coal and timber industries and the railroads that followed. Names of certain towns and areas were renamed for coal barons, their family members and politicians in that era. Some of the old names are still in common use, but have long been off the maps.
I’m not from that region of the state, but there are newspapers in Williamson, Welch, Bluefield, Princeton, Logan and Oceana that are in the general area that might be able to help you. Pineville is the county seat of Wyoming County, but I don’t know if they have newspaper. The city of Mullens, the largest town in Wyoming County may have newspaper.
Most of the towns of Wyoming County are at the bottom of “canyons” or as we call them, hollers. In Wyoming County they’re deep narrow V shaped valleys dropping from ridges 1500 feet or so above the valley bottoms. Watching snow fall and disappear on the way down is common in most parts of WV. Inversion layers of warm air set up in the valley bottoms. When conditions are right they create all sorts of optical illusions on the horizon. That would be my guess on the lights, if they exist at all.
BTW, there is a place up near the head of a branch of the Guyandotte called Ostego. It name somewhat resembles part of the name of light you’re mentioning and is about as far up the Guyandotte as you can get.
One last thing, there’s a geothermal hotspot below the knot of mountains in Wyoming, Raleigh, McDowell and Boone counties. It was just detected a few years ago. Earthquake lights anyone?
During the race for the Ohio Country between the British and French in the 1740’s, before the French and Indian War, neither English or the French had any real inkling of the Cumberland Gap. The British would send expeditions from the region around Lynchburg near the head of the James, down three rivers, The New/Great Kanawha, the Big Sandy, and the Guyandotte. The Big Sandy and the Guyandotte enter the Ohio roughly 10 miles apart. Was Pat Wess a bastardization of the French Pas Ouest as it was one of the routes the Virginia longhunters were using to reach the Ohio Valley? Both the Big Sandy and Guyandotte routes were brutal, but natural passages through the Alleghenies, with the Kanawha and Cumberland Gap routes being preferred by the Natives, the Big Sandy being a distant third in their eyes. Even with today’s highways, that’s still rough country to get around in.
The Guyandotte itself was named after the Wyandot peoples residing there by the French in the 1740’s. However you might want to look at older names for the river on French maps of the Ohio Valley in the 1700’s. Names changed regularly.
The famous Minqua Chief Logan’s winter village was on an island in the Guyandotte where the city now bearing his name stands. The crux of his well known speech concerns his family being killed there in a raid by longhunters in the 1750’s. The site of the actual village has just been rediscovered.
There’s a spot about a mile from where I live that is subject to optical illusions due to temperature inversions. From that vantage point on certain winter days just before cold front moves in, the ridges to the east look about three times their actual height. 100 yards down the road, or fifty yards further down the hill and all looks normal. It’s very interesting.
Many thanks, Bruce!