Celebrate Halloween by traveling to one of the state’s spookiest spots—the abandoned Lake Shawnee Amusement Park outside Princeton.
In photos from the 1950s you can see the charm of the place. Suntanned teenagers in bathing suits float in a pool, sun reflecting off a water slide in the distance. A smattering of heavy, handsome cars are parked in a gravel lot out back, behind a big white building with a long porch crowded with spectators. Across a wide expanse of green grass—or at least we assume it’s green, even though these photos aren’t in color, just because it’s grass and it’s healthy-looking—you see the edge of an amusement park. A Ferris wheel peeks out of the trees. A circle of wooden swings dangle from long chains, the kind of classic ride that is best enjoyed by small children whiling away a long, hot summer afternoon.
Today’s photos of Lake Shawnee are different. These photos are in color, but they feel bleaker than those older images somehow. Weedy vines crawl up the Ferris wheel. Spindly trees stand stark against a gray sky. The chains holding up those mechanical swings are rusted over, the seats cracked and fragile. The smiling young people are gone, and in their place there’s nothing at all. Or, in some photos, there are “the orbs,” faint balls of light some say are hints of people who aren’t quite there. “There are strange things that happen regularly there,” says Chris White, who now owns the property. “Pretty frequently things happen that you can’t explain. It’s not normal stuff.”
Lake Shawnee Amusement Park outside Princeton opened in 1926, and for 40 years it was a source of entertainment for the families of coal miners in Southern West Virginia. In its heyday in the 1950s it had a dance hall, a small amusement park, and a concrete “swimming pond” where locals rented bathing suits for 10 cents apiece before taking a dip.
But Lake Shawnee was also, sadly, plagued by deadly accidents. In 1966 an 11-year-old boy drowned in the pool. And then there was the little girl who was riding the swings, flying around and around in circles, when a delivery truck backed into her path. She was killed on impact.
The park closed in 1966 and sat idle for nearly 20 years until it was purchased by Gaylord White—that’s Chris’ dad. He’d worked at Lake Shawnee when he was young and had always been taken with the park and the piece of property—he’d hated to see it sit vacant for so long. In 1985 he and his family reopened Lake Shawnee as a small amusement park with pontoon boats in the swimming pond and a little area full of kids’ rides. But they couldn’t make the economics of the thing work, and after three years Lake Shawnee closed to the public once again.
Is the park cursed? Could be. It turns out this little plot of land had a grisly history even long before its days as an amusement park. In the 1700s this was where Mitchell County’s first white settlers, Mitchell Clay and his family, had their homestead. In the 1780s violent clashes were common in this part of the country—Native Americans were outraged at the Europeans’ appropriation of their land, and the Europeans weren’t quick to cede what they’d so recently claimed as their own. In 1783 while Mitchell was out hunting and his family was back working on the farm, a group of Native Americans crept up to the property and shot one of his sons, Bartley, dead. Bartley’s older sister Tabitha was killed while trying to protect her brother’s body, and his brother was captured, taken away from home, and eventually burned at the stake. When Mitchell Clay returned home to find his children dead, he sought revenge by hunting down and killing several of the Native Americans. It’s said that Tabitha and Bartley are still buried at Lake Shawnee—there’s a grave marker there that says it was placed on their gravesites in 1937.
And then there are the human remains. Back when Chris and Gaylord were developing the property they started bulldozing around the lake. They stopped when they realized they were turning up what seemed to be Native American artifacts. “First off we saw lots of arrowheads, just a huge amount of arrowheads,” Chris says. “We were walking through there and just kept finding arrowheads, and picking them up and putting them in a bucket.” Eventually they got in touch with a professor at Concord College who was interested in excavating the site. He did an archaeological dig and found the bodies of several Native Americans there.
In recent years, for obvious reasons, paranormal investigators have become interested in Lake Shawnee. It’s been featured on Discovery Channel’s “GhostLab,” the Travel Channel’s, “The Most Terrifying Places in America,” and the National Geographic series “The Watch,” plus countless websites and blogs. Most often, the paranormal activity reported there comes in the form of mysterious orbs that show up in photos, disembodied voices and Native American chanting, and amusement park rides that move of their own accord. And Gaylord has had an especially spooky experience, Chris says. “My father would go out mowing the field and he said he’d always feel something, a weight on his shoulders,” he says. “Then one day he was riding on the tractor and he turned around and saw a little girl riding with him, just like it was nothing at all. He didn’t know what do, he was shocked, so he just turned to the little girl and said, ‘Sweetie, if you like this tractor so much I’m going to give it to you.’ He got up and left it, and the tractor’s still sitting right there where it was. We went and bought him a new tractor and haven’t moved it since.”
The White family wasn’t particularly interested in the paranormal before they bought Lake Shawnee, and certainly never intended to get into this business. But Chris says he gets countless calls every month from people who want to take a look at the property and feels duty bound to try to show it to them. He can’t accommodate them all the time because Lake Shawnee doesn’t have a dedicated staff, but he wants to let the public experience this piece of spooky history, so each fall Lake Shawnee hosts a series of public events. This October he’s planning on an event with a “dark carnival” theme. The details aren’t nailed down just yet, but when they are they’ll be on lakeshawneeevents.com. “All I want to do is keep the property the way it is and let people come experience it,” Chris says. “So many people have such different kinds of experiences here, everyone gets something different out of it. I want to let them do that.”
WRITTEN BY SHAY MAUNZ