Thursday, March 1, 2012

West Virginia's Haunted Amusement Park (video)

PRINCETON - Were you to believe the slew of ghostly encounters described by Gaylord White, you must conclude that spirits are so thick on his family's "Haunted Amusement Park" land you could cut them with a ...

Well, not a knife - them being ghosts and all.

"I have a lot of nonbelievers come here and they actually experience something and they walk away still being a nonbeliever because they don't want to believe what their eyes are seeing," says White.

He says this while leading yet another media crew across his weedy Mercer County property, in an unincorporated blip along W.Va. 10 called Lake Shawnee, about five miles north of Princeton.

But enough people and broadcasting networks do believe. Or, in the case of the networks, they believe in the frightful pull of the after-life to attract ratings.

It's a curious twist for a run-down property that you'd barely notice by day, but which has become a nationally known magnet for those who dearly wish to be frightened out of their wits, or awed into amazement, by encounters with shades of people killed there and still restlessly roaming the property.

Then, there's a potential gold mine of American Indian spirits on a property so full of artifacts and bones from ancient villages, says White, that several universities have done archaeological explorations.

"There's a total of about six people that accidentally died on the property," says the voluble White, warming to his task. "A little girl riding on the swings got hit by a pop truck backing up. Two kids died in the swimming pool. In the one, in the '60s the mother left him here while she went to work. They found him in the bottom of the pool with his arm hung in the drain."

White is recounting the first category of ghost tales from the property's history. The second breed of ghostly citizens supposedly hail from the land's Indian past and the days when settlers and Indians came to grips with each other via violence.

A nearby road sign plus a stone historic marker on the land recall that: "In this field in 1783, two children of Mitchell Clay were killed by Shawnee Indians. Clay was the first white settler in Mercer County."

People of a certain age in the county recall the property's history with far less frightfulness and ectoplasm.

In the early and mid-20th century, a popular regional amusement park opened by C.T. Snidow nestled amid what is still a lovely setting of rolling hills. The park featured a boathouse, swimming pool, rides and log cabins built around Lake Shawnee. (The tiny lake was once larger before part of it was filled in).

White's family bought the property in 1985. But Lake Shawnee eventually failed as an amusement park in the early '90s.

Perversely, the park's demise has contributed to the success of its latest incarnation - the two remaining rusted, busted rides are attractions in a completely new fashion. Vinyl banners on the front gates advertise lakeside catfish tournaments by daylight with "Haunted Amusement Park" tours by moonlight.

"People have seen silhouettes on the Ferris wheel," says White. "They ask, 'Well, how'd that guy get up there?' And I say, well, you can't - the leg guards are turned up into the seat. And they go, 'But I seen a man in a seat!' I'm going, 'That's what you're here for. You're here to experience it.'"

The girl who died on the swing? She's a virtual homesteading spirit, according to White. He tells how his father bought a 1957 Ford farm tractor to keep up with mowing the property's 100 or so acres.

"My dad drove it for four years. Said he always felt the presence of somebody sitting on his shoulder or leaning on his shoulder. And she showed herself. She come to him, told him that she'd like to have the tractor. So he got off the tractor and he give it to her."

And so here it is, the very tractor. It sits in a field, surrounded by a gantlet of carefully placed stones and flowerbeds, near the house where White, now 48, lives on the property.

"Right there is where he got off of it. Right there is where he put everything so we don't move it. And that's where it stayed. Now, that's a powerful ghost, when you can talk to them," he adds.

The spirit girl is nowhere in sight, but perhaps she only comes out at night to play with her tractor. Nighttime is when things get interesting.

"My house - doors open and shut, lights turn on. TVs turn on the middle of the night. Sometimes you take pictures out here and the orbs are so thick it looks like it's snowing. But a lot of paranormal groups rule them out because they can't explain 'em."

Or maybe they can - got Photoshop? - and the answer spoils the fun. Which brings us to the reputation of Lake Shawnee - and White - on the web.

Discovery Channel's GhostLab aside, there's a whole subculture of amateur ghost-seekers. Many find their way to the property for an overnight stay, then post breathless accounts and videos. (Search YouTube with the two phrases 'Lake Shawnee' and 'WV Paranormal Investigation,' for one spirited Q-and-A.)

One ghost-hunting group became so enamored of the bearded White's avuncular style and helpfulness (he plays a mall Santa Claus at Christmas) they named their MySpace site after him:

They added this paean of praise: "We've become dedicated to this stretch of land, enthralled by the mystery and death that surrounds it, and we've grown to care about the souls which have contacted us ..."

But another poster on a poltergeist forum on serves up another, not uncommon, thread of commentary: "Lived around here all my life and never seen or heard a ghost at Lake Shawnee. Money, money, money is the name of the game."

White, in the manner of unperturbed, seasoned showmen everywhere, shrugs off the naysayers.
He has other businesses, besides, including Twin Arrows in the Mercer Mall, an American Indian jewelry and gift shop, and Gaylord's Custom Signs in Princeton.

Even were it true that he is just working an alternative business plan for the old amusement park property, he seems to genuinely enjoy the thrills and chills the place continues to offer with him as its master of ceremonies.

One of his brothers, he notes, wants to bulldoze the rattletrap rides, put in townhouses and develop the place. Not over his dead body, he says. Or not until he's dead - which conjures the delightful image of White haunting his own property.

"I have fun doing it. I love the place," he says.

Just be sure you ask permission for a ghost tour. And most assuredly do not try sneaking onto his property after dusk, as some foolhardy souls have attempted.

Then, you'll really be in for a fright, says White.

"The scariest thing they'd ever meet is me in the middle of the night."

For information on ghost tours, call White at 304-487-1819.

Source: West Virginia Gazette

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