Local lore hangs heavy in the river hills along the Susquehanna. It likely lies heaviest at Shenks Ferry. Inside its rolling hills and hidden hollows is an area of vibrant history dating back thousands of years. Here’s a brief overview.
Here in Grubb Hollow inside of Shenks Ferry, evidence of a Native American longhouse was found in the early 1900s. It belonged to an unknown group of indigenous people we today refer to as the Shenks Ferry people. Archeological evidence suggests they lived in the Susquehanna Valley as long ago as 4,000 years before disappearing about 1300 AD.
It was these same Native Americans who are believed to have carved the nearby petroglyphs of Little Indian Rock and Big Indian Rock. These 1,000-year-old stone carvings represent the two oldest man-made artifacts in the region.
Much is still unknown about these mysterious pictograms, including their exact meaning and why they are there. However, even with our modern eyes, we can easily identify most of the carvings. Here are four easy-to-identify examples.
Colonial Settler Benedict Eshleman
Benedict Eshleman is likely the first European to settle in what would later become known as Shenks Ferry. Born in Bern, Switzerland, in 1709, Eshleman immigrated to Lancaster in the 1720s. On June 5, 1727, at around the age of 18, Eshleman purchased 600 acres inside what would later become Conestoga Township.
Not much is known about Eshleman beyond the distinction of having built the first colonial-era dwelling in Conestoga Township. Unfortunately, the ravages of time have consumed that structure. Eshleman died on August 5, 1780, when he was 70 or 71 years old.
On private property, just outside of Lancaster Conservancy’s Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve is the Benedict Eshleman Cemetery, also known as the Eshleman Family graveyard. Benedict has one of the oldest tombstones in the cemetery. He is joined by his wife, Anna, who died a few years later in 1787.
There are 27 marked graves from the Steman, Eshleman, Lingerfelter, Schenck, and Warfel families. Many of the tombstones are written in German. It is easy to forget that many of Lancaster County’s earliest settlers spoke this language. In fact, when the first newspaper, The Lancaster Gazette, was published in 1752, articles were written in both English and German. Click here to learn more about the Benedict Eshleman Cemetery.
You might also be curious to learn the subtle difference between a graveyard and a cemetery.
Around 1775, Captain Joseph Reed, who served with the 3rd Company, 6th Battalion of York County’s Revolutionary War militia, purchased the river rights over the Susquehanna River and built a ferry with a York County terminal near the Chanceford/Lower Chanceford Township line.
By 1832, Henry Shenks was living in this area and operating a ferry. It was customary to refer to a ferry by its owner’s name. Shad fishing was an important local industry around this time as well.
Between 1864 and 1875, local iron baron Curtis Grubb built a short narrow-gauge railroad track to transport iron ore from a nearby mine to an iron furnace. The hiking trail through Shenks Ferry follows the old rail line. You can see the railroad route, which ran along the bank of the stream that takes his name, Grubb Run. The depression between the hills here also bore his name and is today known as Grubb Hollow.
After changing hands several times over the next five decades, the “Shenks Ferry House” was purchased by John Pearthree on March 29, 1890. A photo of the hotel can be seen below. Two years later, on March 17, 1892, the Shenks Ferry post office was established with Pearthree as postmaster.
As the dawn of the 20th century approached, Shenks Ferry transformed into a bustling community boasting both a hotel and a school.
Death by Dynamite
Shenks Ferry is no stranger to horrific tragedy either. In 1903, H. S. Kerbaugh Company built a dynamite factory in nearby Bausman’s Hollow to produce explosives for the construction of the nearby Enola Low Grade.
This massive three-year Pennsylvania Railroad project cost over half a billion dollars in today’s money and claimed the lives of 200 men. Many of whom were workers were recently arrived immigrants. You can read more about the building of the Enola Low Grade and how it claimed the lives of 200 men here.
Then on June 9, 1906, at precisely 12:42 pm, the unthinkable happened. It was at this moment that the Kerbaugh dynamite factory accidentally exploded. Eleven men were instantly vaporized and nine more injured as 2,500 pounds of TNT devasted the site. To this day, it is still the worse accident in Lancaster County history. Click here to read more about the dreadful disaster.
Two years later, on February 15, 1908, service at the Shenks Ferry post office was discontinued. However, the community gained a railroad station around 1912. Ferry service across the Susquehanna at this location continued well into the 1920s.
Coal Dredging at Shenks Ferry
A new industry came to Shenks Ferry in the 1920s—coal dredging. After decades of coal mining in northeastern Pennsylvania, millions of tons of waste anthracite had washed downriver, settling along the banks of the Lower Susquehanna.
There was such a quantity that it eventually became profitable to salvage it. So much coal was sucked out of the river that Holtwood Dam burned it as part of its electrical generation.
The industry thrived on the Susquehanna until 1972, when Tropical Storm Agnes made significant changes to the Susquehanna’s sediment load and ended the practice. Click here to read more about Coal Dredging on the Susquehanna.
By the 1940s, most of the area within and around Shenks Ferry was used for agriculture. As all the industry left Shenks Ferry by the 1970s, Shenks Ferry became forested again and has largely remained the same for the past 50 years.
Things that Go Bump in the Night
With so much history and death, it should come as no surprise that Shenks Ferry would also have its fair share of ghost stories. All center on the ominous tunnel that marks the entrance to the wildflower preserve and typically involves the ghost of a woman dressed in white.
Stories vary, but most center around a young woman wearing white. In one version, a murderer brutally ends her life there in the tunnel, and now her spirit remains forever trapped in the dark, foreboding space. Some believe it was her husband that killed her.
Others assert that it was the woman’s beloved who met a tragic end in the tunnel—perhaps murdered himself— and her spirit has lurked in the tunnel for decades, mourning the spot of his death.
However, the most popular version of the story is that a heartbroken and pregnant bride hung herself at the tunnel’s entrance after being left at the altar earlier in the day. Click here to read the full tale of the ‘White Angel’ of Shenks Ferry’s haunted tunnel.
However, one curious story involving the tunnel does not include a woman dressed in white. Here’s how the person told the chilling encounter.
When I was a student at Millersville University, I liked to explore the surrounding area. One night my roommate and I decided to go to Shenks Ferry.
We were sitting in the middle of the tunnel with the lights off, having done everything you are supposed to do there. Ten minutes or so passed when suddenly, on one side of the tunnel, I saw a black figure crawl into the light. This thing looked like Gollum but with longer arms and legs. When it got to the middle of the tunnel, it turned its head and looked directly at the car. Then it crawled very quickly to the other side of the tunnel.
“Go!” I yelled.
I barely got the word out of my mouth before my roommate started his car driving as fast as possible out of there. We both clearly saw something. No one said anything until we were back on the main road. Then my roommate said, “Did you ever see The Lord of the Rings?” Then he began to describe the same thing I saw.
I’m usually skeptical of this kind of stuff, thinking the mind plays tricks on you, but knowing we both saw the same thing makes me believe.
What haunts the tunnel?
This is where things get interesting. These two college students obviously did not see Gollum. Instead, they saw something far more sinister and, according to Native American folklore, real. Algonquin legends speak of a gaunt and foul-smelling monster known as a wendigo. It haunts the northern forests of the United States and Canada in search of human flesh to consume.
People who encounter the wendigo report smelling it before seeing it, saying it gave off a strange and eerie odor of decay and decomposition.
It is often depicted as a humanoid figure with pale corpse-like skin and eyes pushed deep into its sockets. It is sometimes described as having antlers. Perhaps this differentiates between male and female wendigos.
According to legend, the wendigo was once a lost hunter. During a brutally cold winter, the man’s intense hunger drove him to cannibalism. After feasting on another person’s flesh, he transformed into a crazed man-beast, roaming the forest in search of more people to eat.
It is said that the wendigo is always hungry and never satisfied with his cannibalistic urges. Obsessed with hunting for new victims, he is forever hungry until he’s eating another person.
The exact details vary depending on who you ask, but some people who have encountered the beast say it’s a relative of Bigfoot, with reports of it sometimes being as tall as 15 feet. Others compare the wendigo to a werewolf with antlers.
The Algonquian believe that when people are weakened by cold, hunger, isolation, and fear, the person becomes vulnerable to “wendigo fever.” When this happens, the wendigo’s spirit can possess a victim’s body, forcing it to commit extreme acts of violence.
People of the First Nations blame many unsolved disappearances of people on wendigo attacks.
Warnings in Stone
Here’s what I find fascinating. Less than a mile from the Shenks Ferry tunnel where these two college students reported seeing a creature, they misidentified a Gollum are the earlier mentioned petroglyphs. Again, these two islands are covered with glyphs of things these ancient people saw in their everyday life. Most can be easily identified by modern humans.
However, Big Indian Rock has two unique carvings that are difficult to explain. Within close proximity to each other are two humanoid-looking figures that appear almost alien. But they aren’t.
Some believe they represent two wendigos. A warning, perhaps?
We speak often speak of ancient wisdom. What did these indigenous people know that we don’t? Perhaps everyone should heed Lancaster Conservancy’s warning to leave their preserves before dark.
- Dark Culverts. Decimated dynamite factory. Lost Treasure. Explore the forgotten mysteries of Bausman’s Hollow
- Death by Dynamite: The 1906 Shenks Ferry TNT factory explosion obliterates 11 men
- A Brief History of ‘Black Diamond’ Dredging on the Susquehanna
- Visiting Safe Harbor’s petroglyphs during a low water event