A Z4 Tour of Haunted Houses—and the Devil’s Own Mercedes


Halloween reminded me of a recent trip through parts of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. There were plenty of good haunted houses, some with open doors as if to invite the unwary inside. And then there was the eerie black Mercedes Benz SLK that showed up, challenging me, daring me to chase it through the night, only to disappear in the fog.

Other than that, it was a normal BMW jaunt through the countryside.

It all began in Berkeley Springs, WV (also known as Bath). I’d driven through this historic town so many times over the years that I’d lost count, but I’d never really looked around. I started with the Italianate/Gothic T.H.B. Dawson house on Green Street, well up the hill that borders Berkeley Springs to the east. It’s a beautiful old place, built right into the hillside—and thus requiring the imposing front steps to reach the first level of the house. It was built in 1880, sat vacant and deteriorating through the 1980s, and was thoroughly renovated by its current owners. Following his death, the original owner Thomas Dawson was characterized by the local newspaper as “one of Morgan County’s oldest and best-known citizens.” He had served in the Union Army during the Civil War and subsequently as the county clerk for 36 years.

The hillside also offered nice views of two churches, not to mention a sense for just how steep West Virginia tends to be.

Off in the distance, on the hillside overlooking Berkeley Springs from the west, I caught a glimpse of something intriguing.

This was one part of the town that I had actually visited, as a youngster in the late 1950s or early 1960s. In about 1880, wealthy whiskey distiller Colonel Samuel Taylor Suit met and immediately fell in love with a beautiful 17-year-old named Rosa Pelham. She was the daughter of an Alabama Congressman and would have nothing to do with the much-older Col. Suit. Five years later, however, he tried again, promising to build her a castle if she would marry him. Apparently that was a sufficient offer. They were married shortly thereafter, and work began on what is now known as the Berkeley Castle.

Ironically, the Colonel did not live to see the completion of his magnificent wedding present for his wife. She had the work completed—as required in the Colonel’s will, else she would not inherit his fortune—and the “merry widow” promptly began to spend that fortune through numerous lavish parties. She would even hire entire railroad cars to bring her friends to Berkeley Springs from Washington, DC and other locales. The ensuing 28 years were a great time for Rosa—but then the money ran out, the castle was foreclosed and sold at auction, and she became an impoverished chicken farmer. Oh well… Rosa’s ghost is said to haunt the mansion, along with the Colonel’s and two of Rosa’s later suitors who died at the castle under mysterious circumstances. (One is said to have been pushed from the castle roof by Rosa herself.) An interesting account of Col. Suit’s life is available at THE LIFE AND LOVES OF S.T. SUIT: A JUG-FILLER’S STORY. (Historical photos courtesy of this site.)

Since this photo of the castle was taken, WV Route 9 was built and runs immediately behind the guard tower and in front of the castle. Some nerve! (Photo courtesy of Berkeley Springs Castle.)

Over on the other side of town, I found the 1884 Queen-Anne-style Clarence Hovermale house. Clarence was the editor of the Democratic-leaning Berkeley Springs News. The editor of the paper’s Republican-leaning rival, the The Mercury, once wrote of the News,

To state its lying qualities

In full, all pens refuse;

So we’ll close by saying

that it calls

Itself the B.S. News.


The town of Berkeley Springs is best known for its warm mineral springs, which were used by Native Americans for thousands of years and by European settlers from at least the early 1700s. The health spa has operated here since 1750.

I arrived here following heavy rains the prior day, which had flooded the historic Roman bathhouse—a fairly common occurrence, as it turns out. The baths are open to the public, with the 74-degree spring water heated to 102 degrees. I contented myself with a lengthy drink from the fountain.

George Washington first came here when he was 16, working as a surveyor for Thomas Lord Fairfax. He returned many times, enjoying “Ye Fam’d Warm Springs,” as he termed it in his diary. This outdoor, stone-lined bathtub was used by the First President. Somehow it didn’t look quite as comfortable as the indoor Roman baths.

Nearby, there was evidence that I was not the only BMW-drivin’ tourist on this day. Long live the mighty R1200GS! (Sorry Tina.)

Also nearby, the Country Inn was built in 1933 to replace the original Berkeley Springs Hotel, which burned in 1897.

Taking Route 9 up the mountain (and right through the old Castle estate grounds), I soon reached the town of Great Cacapon. George Washington owned land along the Potomac here, which he prized for its hickory trees. Naturally I had to stop for a photo of the scenic railroad bridge, where the Cacapon River flows into the Potomac River.

As a reward, I got a brief look at my favorite of all water birds, the Great Blue Heron. (It’s not easy, incidentally, getting three exposures for an HDR photo, of a GBH, from a quarter mile away. Fortunately, said GBH stood perfectly still as it kept an eye out for breakfast.)

The weather had improved sufficiently that I could finally put the top down. There was a chance of major thunderstorms later in the day, however. I vowed to take advantage of the improved visibility while I could.

One of my goals for the day was to find what was left of Magnolia, West Virginia. Once a prosperous railroad town, Google Maps suggested that the town had largely disappeared. To get there involved leaving Route 9 and taking Detour Road. This is not recommended, although I know that my motorcycling friend RocketMan has ventured here and lived to tell about it. The first time I tried it, some years ago during my pre-GPS era, I got hopelessly lost and ended up encountering a fellow right out of Deliverance (as recounted in That Does It—I’m Getting a GPS!). This time, armed with my Feckless Zumo, I managed to find Magnolia on the first try—and promptly discovered the home of my Deliverance-worthy benefactor! (He was actually quite a nice guy.)

On my way to the ghost town of Jerome, WV, I found the Cherry Orchard Cemetery. As it happened, that’s as far as I got in my effort to reach Jerome. Even in its heyday, it was considered the most inaccessible town on the B & O Railroad. These days, getting there apparently involves either a very long walk on mouldering railroad tracks—or a canoe. Anyway, the cemetery was quite scenic and interesting in its own right.

That fallen tree in the first photo, incidentally, landed exactly on one of the headstones and has been supported there ever since.

Having tried and failed to drive to Jerome, I decided to give the abandoned ghost town of Green Ridge a try. After skittering up a rocky dirt road for a ways on my first attempt, I encountered this view:

That led me to backtrack to Magnolia. Back in 1906 the town was thriving, made prosperous by passenger and freight travel on two railroad lines.

Sadly, the town was largely wiped off the map by a devastating flood in 1936. The B & O ended its passenger service along the “low-line” tracks that bordered the Potomac, and the new bridge across the Potomac was built far above the town itself. This photo shows the bridge nearing completion (courtesy of the Baltimore & Ohio Historical Society).

These days, what little remains of Magnolia often looks like this:

As long as I was back in Magnolia, I decided to try to find the railroad bridge across the Potomac. I parked the long-suffering Z4 in a mud puddle, slid down a muddy embankment, walked through a quarter mile of Great Freaking Mudholes—and found the still-active Western Maryland Railroad Bridge.

Magnolia, incidentally, is believed to have been named by early resident Timothy Norton after his two daughters, Maggie and Nora. “Magnora” didn’t sound that great, so he adjusted it to “Magnolia.”

Resuming my search for Green Ridge, I threw caution to the winds and set off up a steep, muddy dirt road, in the middle of nowhere (even by West Virginia standards) just as a monstrous thunderstorm began. I wondered whether the road might get washed out altogether before I could get back, in which case I might have to walk back to The Deliverance Homestead.

Honestly, there are times that I think I should be doing this exploring in a Jeep, rather than a low-slung sports car—but what fun would that be?

Anyway, I never even got close to Green Ridge. I made it to a fork in the road, with one branch blocked by another metal gate and the other diving straight downhill in a series of potholes, large rocks, and fallen tree branches. I guess I’ll need that canoe for Green Ridge, too. It reminded me of Woody Allen’s line: “Now, more than anytime in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” Well, I chose to return the way I’d come, which itself promised miles of mud, plus steep climbs and descents, all while the rain bucketed down.

Disappointed at my second failure to find a ghost town, I decided to give Hansrote Siding a try. I drove as close as I could, and parked the poor Z4. Thankfully, the thunderstorm had rocketed on by, and the rain had stopped.

Hiking the rest of the way down the hill, I encountered an active railroad work zone, here in the (repeat after me) middle of nowhere even by West Virginia standards. As best I can tell, this siding is still used as a maintenance base for the B & O railroad. Who’d a thunk?

By now you’re probably wondering, “Okay, what happened to the haunted houses and the Devil’s Mercedes?” Patience, Grasshopper! Here’s a down-payment on the haunted houses:

This sight puzzled me no end. From left to right, we have a 1960s Ford sedan, nearly covered with foliage and Household Stuff, a laundry line with various soaked-looking articles of clothing (it was still raining off and on), and the apparent entrance to an apparent hovel. I couldn’t tell whether all of this, clothes and all, was what was left of an abandoned dwelling or whether someone might still be living there. Sometimes it’s best not to inquire.

I drove over this old bridge and decided to walk back down for a photo of the Little Cacapon River.

As I finished my last photo, two things happened simultaneously: One, it began to rain heavily, and two, a battered pickup truck backed out of the woods near where I’d parked, drove down the hill, and stopped across the road from me. A shirtless older fellow (uh, I mean, like my age, even!), wearing bib overalls and a beard that was easily two feet long, clambered out of the cab and walked through the rain down to the riverside. Moments later, he was back up on the road, got back in the truck, waved, drove back up the hill, and turned left into the woods, across from where he’d started. Was he checking on the body of his last victim, whom he had left in the river under the bridge? Or maybe he had lost his lunch box? With the rain still coming down—and my umbrella safely in the Z4—I sprinted back up the hill and continued on.

My next stop was the sister town to Great Cacapon—in this case, Little Cacapon. This is the road that, in theory, leads to Little Cacapon. I duly added one more item to my “return someday” list. Make that my “return someday with a Jeep” list!

I had better luck (such as it was) with Okonoko, once a thriving town of about 50 people in the mid-1800s. By my count, it is now down to three houses, one of them boarded up and abandoned. At least the remaining few residents have a nice view of the Potomac River.

Determined to find an old abandoned train station, after my failures at Jerome, Green Spring, and Hansrote, I grimly drove up (yet another) narrow, winding, muddy dirt road in search of South Branch Depot, which was previously known as Forks of Potomac and French’s Station. With relative ease, I found the train tracks, which are still in use.

Seeing no sign of a station or depot, I continued on, parallel to the Potomac, on this luxurious thoroughfare. Still no luck.

Finally, on the way back, I realized that the station must have once stood at the top of these steps, next to the overpass. I had actually made it to the South Branch Depot. It just didn’t exist anymore, sigh…

Does a sign like this mean anything if it’s fallen off its mounting? I assumed that it didn’t, and hiked up the hill to see if there was a good view from the top. There wasn’t, but at least it was scenic on the way there.

Retracing my steps, I arrived in Levels, WV just in time to find a couple of good candidates for haunted houses. Note that tempting doorway in the first shot! (Ever since the Blair Witch Project, I’ve been very hesitant to actually enter any such enticing ruins.)

A haunted barn, perhaps?

Driving along, this Odd Implement of Destruction suddenly appeared in a farm field. I have no idea what it’s used for, but it certainly looked striking (not to mention dangerous). Any farmers out there who can educate us?

The South Branch of the Potomac River did a nice job of reflecting the clouds roiling overhead. It was still raining off and on, but the worst of the thunderstorms had passed by.

With the day wearing on rapidly, I turned north and soon crossed the North Branch of the Potomac and my all-time favorite, low-water bridge at Oldtown, MD. I stopped to look at the old C & O Canal lock 70 and lockhouse—which could be a proper haunted house in its own right, if the National Park Service didn’t keep up the maintenance.

With clouds gathering again and sunlight fading, I rushed northward toward Pennsylvania. Needless to say, I had to stop and look around in Flintstone, MD along the way. There I found one of the better haunted house candidates in the form of this mammoth building. Based on its size, I’m guessing that this is the Flintstone Hotel, on the National Road. If so, it was built in 1807, originally as a private residence and later expanded as an inn. Back in the day, guests included the Marquis de Lafayette, Henry Clay, and Theodore Roosevelt. (No word regarding Fred or Wilma.)

Have you ever wondered where “barn wood” comes from? Well, I think I found the source:

Gotta love a scenic vista, especially with those clouds.

I was looking for several historic bridges in Pennsylvania. I found the first easily enough. The Hewitt covered bridge was right where it was supposed to be on Covered Bridge Road, naturally. It has carried traffic across Twin Creek since 1879. At one time, Bedford County, PA had as many as 75 covered bridges. Today, only 14 still stand.

And, yes, it started raining again the moment I got out of the cozy Z4 and walked down to the water’s edge for a photo! A passing rooster appeared not to care, however.

Nor did the cattle grazing along this ridge.

The frequent rain was helping to wash the worst of the mud off of my poor roadster. I mean, if I showed you a photo of the worst of the mud, you’d throw me right out of the club! This, by the way, is the Fairview Christian Church, from 1875.

Everywhere I went, more haunted houses turned up. And even a possibly haunted abandoned high school!

I suppose barns can be haunted?

As far as I know, there are no known reports of ghosts at the stately Stone Bridge Church of the Brethren. (Its cemetery might be another story.) The church dates back to 1871, and, based on historical records, the stone exterior appears to have been a recent addition to the original framed structure. The 1871 deed for the church property described its location as follows: “Beginning at a marked red oak tree standing on the west margin of the public road leading from Mill Stone point to the stone across Licking Creek and running thence North 21 (deg) West 24.2 perches to a pine tree. South 70 (deg) West 11 perches to a stone. South 9 1/2 (deg) East 23 perches to a white oak tree. North 75 (deg) East 15 perches to the place of beginning.” The deed was made with the State of Maryland—the church is about 100 feet south of the Mason-Dixon Line—by German Baptists (also known as the Tunker Brethren, just in case you didn’t already know that.) (“Tunker” is apparently a variation of “Dunker,” as in baptism by immersion.)

As for a “perch,” I bet you’ve never heard of this unit of measurement! (Neither had I.) It comes from ancient Roman times, deriving from the Latin term “pertica” meaning a pole or a rod. In Rome, a perch was 10 feet, but the distance varied in other countries. In France, for example, a “perche d’arpent” was defined as one-tenth the range of an arrow, or about 22 feet. And you thought the metric system was hard to get used to…

Returning now to our regularly scheduled ride report, here’s another Scenic Barn, measured in good ol’ feet and inches.

My last scheduled stop for the day was to find the Yeakles Mill Bridge across Little Cove Creek. This historic Pratt “pony truss” bridge was built in 1887 and served the local population faithfully—right up until a year or two ago, when it was replaced with the plain, uninteresting, modern bridge shown in the second photo. The original bridge still exists, although it’s not entirely clear where it is. For true bridge-a-holics, the Library of Congress offers this cutaway axonometric drawing of the bridge.

With the sun setting and thoughts of haunted houses in the back of my mind, I headed for home. I got all of three-quarters of a mile before spotting the Little Cove United Methodist Church in all its sunset-lit glory. I couldn’t find out much about this church—but I did notice that Yeakles are buried in the cemetery. (Can their bridge be far away?)

The last of the reflected sunlight provided this dramatic view.

As I fumbled my way toward home in the pitch-black darkness, I drove by the birthplace of President James Buchanon, through Mercersburg, PA, and then across the West Branch of Conococheague Creek on the Hayes Covered Bridge. Although Pennsylvania is absolutely littered with covered bridges, this is the only one left in Franklin County. Here’s the best I could do for an HDR photo using the Z4’s HID headlights for illumination:

As I motored along the back roads in the darkness, I felt fleeting sensations of creatures or spirits lurking just outside of headlight range. Some produced waves of coldness, while others seemed to emit faint, glowing swirls of fog. And then I caught up to the black 2001 Mercedes Benz SLK. As I came closer, it suddenly began to glow with unearthly red colors, and the unseen driver put his foot down hard, challenging me to race his Benz through the misty bends. While early SLK’s are not powerful cars, this one seemed capable of extraordinary acceleration. And its engine screamed like a thousand lost souls.

Using all of my skills from 10 years of SCCA racing, I could just stay even with the SLK. As a hairpin turn came into view, I put off my braking to the last possible moment and managed to pull alongside the other car. Suddenly, the heat was intense, and I felt as though his car must be on fire. Looking across at the driver, I could see only an unreal pair of glowing red eyes.

With the Z4’s ABS clattering away, I outbraked the SLK and pulled into the hairpin just ahead, trailbraking, countersteering, and then standing on the gas to maintain the lead. Crossing the Mason-Dixon Line into Maryland, the SLK seemed to dissolve behind me into the fog. With a last flare of its red reflections, it disappeared entirely, and minutes later I was home and feeling oddly refreshed.

I thought no more of it, believing it to be just an odd, imaginary day dream, until I received a photo in the mail. It was quite warm to the touch, and the enclosed note merely said “Until the next time.”

Unlike many of you, I did not go out on Halloween!

Rick F.

PS: For the record, I do not condone or engage in street racing, even if Old Scratch himself is the challenger. I do condone vivid imaginations and the occasional flight of fancy.


Written by Rick

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