Today’s story combines two popular Fortean themes: underground places and spook lights. If only it had been a treasure cave, things would have been perfect, but I can promise you a Luminous Entity.
SAVED BY A GHOST.
A TRUE WAR TIME TALE.
The Army of the Cumberland in the latter part of August, 1863, crossed the Tennessee River at Bridgeport, Alabama, en route to the fateful field of Chickamauga, one of the hottest battles of the war. We bivouacked one night at Shell Mound, a little way station on the line of the Nashville and Chattanooga railway, near which nature had formed a cave of the grandest proportions. The opening was at least one hundred and fifty feet wide, while its height admitted the light freely for a long distance, by which the eye could discern the irregular rocky formation of the sides and arches. Tradition has it that in the long past it was a natural tunnel through which rushed a turbulent stream emptying into the Tennessee. The dark and dangerous fastnesses of this cavern had never been penetrated to its deepest depths, for a mile from its mouth obstacles in the shape of wide and ugly chasms had been encountered, and its secrets have never been disclosed.
News of this wonder at once became known to our command, and the next morning under guides, groups of soldiers with flaming torches of pitch pine were following its dark and sinuous trails. It was a rough and rugged road, around great rocks and across openings, which would suddenly threaten to engulf our party, — our torches giving a weird aspect to the place and increasing the awful solemnity of its dismal grandeur.
At a certain point I had become interested in some curious formation, and fell slightly in rear of my comrades, when suddenly my torch became extinguished. Mechanically I sought to relight it with some matches, but was unsuccessful. My companions were only a short distance in advance, and with the natural impetuousity of youth I rushed to overtake them. I had probably taken three or four light bounds, when I was suddenly seized by what seemed an invisible power, and I stood rooted to the ground like one bereft of his senses, and in a manner bewildered, not knowing what to do. The strangest feeling took possession of me; I trembled in every nerve and my brow felt chill and damp. I was conscious of a feeling as if a piece of ice had passed rapidly down my spine, and my teeth rattled a reveille. Mingled with it all was an indescribable horror of some impending fate.
How long I remained standing there I cannot say, but at last the nerves relaxed and I sank to the ground. After a while my nervous power gradually returned, and I began to think of the practical side. My companions by this time were out of sight and hearing, and I supposed none of them had noticed my absence. By some movement, while sitting there, my foot touched an obstruction, and by extending the action, I learned by contact that it was a stone. Half in rage I drew back my foot and kicked it; I felt it go from me, but no sound accompanied its movement, and my curiosity was aroused. I arose, reached forward to feel before my feet, and found as I believed, one of the ground crevices mentioned before, but how wide or deep I of course had no means of knowing, as it was black as Erebus all about me. Within my reach I found quite a large stone, which I picked up and threw before me. I listened, but it gave forth no sound. The deep stillness, and silence, and darkness, was around me, yet some sudden instinct warned me of the dread presence of some unseen, unrealized thing, and I was powerless to remove the fixed gaze of my eyes from the spot where 1 had a tossed the stone.
At that moment the faintest gleam of a peculiar light appeared from out the earth in front of me, and rapidly growing brighter with a bluish tint, it stopped just before me for an instant, looking like an illuminated screen. In that light for the shortest possible duration, I saw plainly the outlines of a human form which waved its arms toward me as if a warning to go back. The figure then instantly disappeared, followed by the light, and the thought seized me that I had been in the presence of some supernatural being. With faltering step I moved a pace or two from the spot, and dropped to the ground once more.
While I remained in this condition another exploring party came up with brightly burning torches. In as few words as possible I told how my torch had become extinguished and what I had experienced. Our unexpected meeting and my agitated manner had thus far engrossed the attention of the arriving party, but as we were about to move forward the light was thrown brilliantly on the very spot where my steps had been so mysteriously arrested. In front of us, and not two paces beyond, was a black and yawning chasm at least twenty feet wide. It was like a great cauldron with its hideous mouth wide open, ready to receive any unfortunate victim.
In the blanched faces made more ghastly by the glare of torches we could read each others’ thoughts. Had I not been stopped in time by the strange power referred to, another step would have been my last, and no man could have lifted the veil of mystery that would have surrounded my disappearance.
We threw large stones into the monster opening, but no sound came back in response. Then larger ones were pushed in, with the same results, and finally, by our united efforts a huge bowlder was rolled to the edge of the gloomy pit and forced over into its depths. We waited, but not even the sound of an echo greeted our sense of hearing, and we regarded the uncanny and dismal wonder in amazement and fear. Some one threw in a lighted torch, which for a moment sputtered, and then as if by magic went out.
At this moment a returning party with an old guide came up, and from him we learned that the chasm before us had never been fathomed. Heavy weights attached to chains made fast to strong ropes had been played out to an almost incredible length, but no bottom had ever been found. It was believed, though, that at some great depth there was a subterranean river which ran with rapid current passing under the pretty little cities of Huntsville, Decatur, and Tuscumbia, Alabama; at the latter place finding an outlet through an opening in a rocky wall far above a creek, and thence to the Tennessee River near Florence. Our old guide told us that more than one courageous adventurer had lost his life at this spot, through carelessness or efforts to seek into its mysteries, and the Indians thereabouts, who often made the cave their temporary home, would relate how they had seen the spirits of unhappy mortals hovering over the great black opening, while a light of peculiar color glinted up from its depths and made the surroundings half luminous.
What unseen guardian controlled my action and saved me from taking, in another moment, the unconscious step to destruction?
Frank Elliott Myers.
The Overland Monthly May 1896
The cave was probably Russell Cave National Monument, which is close to Bridgeport. A spring is said to flow into the cave, run underground for nearly 2 miles, join Widow’s Creek, and eventually run into the Tennessee River. Have any of you visited the cave? Is the “bottomless” abyss accessible to the public?
The warning figure waving its arms is more usually a staple of railway ghost stories. But what can we make of the warning lights? Luminous lichen/fungi or cave creatures spring to mind. It seems to me that I’ve heard of strange images when the eye is confronted with complete darkness–perhaps in connection with a sensory deprivation experiment. I confess that I was waiting for orcs or a Balrog to swarm out of the yawning chasm, awakened by the narrator’s imprudent stone.
Theories about the mysterious luminosity? And what was the peculiar color (The Color Out of Bridgeport?) and why didn’t he describe it? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
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. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.