What Lies Beneath
A Ranger’s Story, Ohio 1972
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does one thing better than anyone in the world. When it comes to damming up rivers, they have no peers.
Construction of a dam on Paint Creek in Southwestern, Ohio, started in 1967. The resulting lake would inundate historic mill sites, rare wildflowers and archaeological sites. Not to mention that a beautiful river and the streams issuing from adjacent gorges would be forever silenced.
Those waters also covered up something that I haven’t been able to forget. It is a vivid scene of something so curious in its nature that I think about it often, even after a half-century.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My story starts when I was assigned to live in and patrol in what was then a wildly beautiful river valley. Paint Creek and much of the natural beauty surrounding it was soon to be below the surface of a large lake.
Parks, which are all about outdoor activities, sometimes partner with the Army Corps who is primarily concerned with flood control. For the Army Corps, recreational opportunities seem to be a fringe benefit of creating a lake.
I was the only ranger assigned to a park that, at the time, had no facilities. Those would be added in the years following the completion of the dam. Then construction could begin on cabins, campgrounds, offices and everything else that makes up a park.
Paint Creek State Park officially opened in 1974, two years beyond the scope of this story.
The Division of Parks and Recreation housed me in an old farmhouse near the junction of Rattlesnake and Paint Creeks.
This location happened to be the precise site of an incident in the late 1700s between a high-ranking Shawnee named Waw-will-a-way and three white men. The whites wrongly accused the Indian of scalping a white man.
Although he was fatally shot in the chest, Waw-will-a-way managed to kill one of the men and severely wound the other two. He was buried where his body fell, a stone’s throw from my back door.
A neighboring farmer stopped by shortly after I moved in to inform me that the area was haunted due to the unjust killing. He offered no details other than saying that voices could be heard coming from a sinkhole near the shootout. (More on this in a later episode)
Regarding the issue of the injustice, my visitor didn’t indicate if he meant those of the white men or the Shawnee.
That was the first of several unannounced Welcome Wagon-style visits by people in the area, each indicating that the locale had its share of mystery and legends.
My own Paint Creek enigma would soon arrive.
During the last ice age, three-quarters of Ohio was covered with a one-mile thick sheet of ice. When the ice finally retreated, it left behind massive deposits of stones, sand and clay brought down from Canada. Some of the deposits are loose gravel, while others are car-sized boulders.
Many commercial sand and gravel operations in Ohio owe their existence to the glacial till left behind by the Wisconsinan and Illinoian Glaciers.
Over millennia, Paint Creek cut a deep valley, exposing steep limestone walls pitted with grottos and caves. Its tributary streams created gorges rimmed with sheer limestone cliffs.
Grottos are small cavities or caves that generally are limited in depth. The limestone cliffs of the Paint Creek area are riddled with such features.
Following the small streams up any of the area’s gorges, one encounters ferns, columbines, trillium, and the rare Sullivantia. Wildflowers and fungus of many species dominated these cool lush areas.
In addition to the flora in the Paint Creek area, numerous archaeological sites ranging from the mound builder cultures to historic Native Americans are found in abundance. Serpent Mound, Fort Hill, Seip Mound and the Rocky Fork Site are all nearby.
When Europeans arrived, the Shawnee dominated much of Ohio and had a strong presence in the Paint Creek area. This fact will be important when we discuss the mysterious site found in one of the area’s gorges.
The entire region encompassing Paint Creek State Park and miles beyond had great religious and cultural significance for the indigenous peoples populating this area.
Naturalists and archaeologists had to act quickly to document what was about to be covered with water. It would be a fight against time. The closing of the dam gates by the Army Corps would take precedence over nature, history, and even pre-history.
In addition to my other ranger duties, I would spend the summer leading botanists, archaeologists and other interested parties around the park.
I must admit to being intrigued by the news coming from the archaeological digs in the area. There were reports of Native American burials yielding large obsidian ceremonial points and sheets of mica. Silver objects were found in some of the graves, as well.
Such findings are evidence that native trade routes extended to the West Coast and Canada.
Ohio has none of these materials in her native geology. She is all sedimentary, primarily sandstone and limestone. There are no surface exposures of igneous rock in the state.
In August, things were winding down, and I decided to explore an area that was some distance from a road. My companion and I followed the stream that issued from the mouth of a steep-walled ravine. By following the rim, we found a break in the 20-foot-high wall, permitting us to enter the gorge at its mid-point.
Although it was plenty warm outside the gorge, we enjoyed a sort of natural air-conditioning provided by the stream and the shade of the sheer limestone walls.
Sometime late in the morning, we decided to break and eat our sack lunches. We removed our shoes and soaked our feet in the cool stream while we sat with our backs against a log.
We dawdled after lunch, wordlessly taking in the beauty that surrounded us. My appreciation of the lush and pristine setting was tinged with sadness though; soon, this would all be gone forever.
The silence was broken when my compadré, gazing intently at a location on the sheer face of limestone across the stream, said, “What in the dickens is that?” (Not her actual words.)
I glanced up to where she was looking, and it took a few seconds for what I was seeing to sink in. One could easily hike in the gorge and totally miss it.
About two-thirds of the way up the dead-vertical cliff was a small grotto totally enclosed by moss-covered rocks. My reply was based on a quick assessment and came out sounding more lame than I intended, “Looks like somebody closed off that cave entrance.”
Of course, somebody did, that was obvious – but who, what and why?
I left the area in the fall of 1973 to take an assignment in northeastern Ohio. In the years to follow, I frequently thought about the experience. It remains reasonably fresh in my memory to this day.
The lake has removed nearly any possibility of revisiting the precise location again. So for years, I considered the mysterious sight just an unsolvable puzzle.
But a decade later, a borrowed library book with penciled notations in the margins has provided some clues as to what may lie beyond the moss-covered stones.
What these clues suggest may provide a plausible solution to the who, the what, and the why of this deliberately walled-off cave.
We will investigate these clues further next time “For Your Consideration.”