Originally published Oct. 23, 2020.
Ask anyone from Wheeling about Tunnel Green and the first thing you’ll hear is “it’s haunted.”
Stories of apparitions and spooky feelings abound over the Hempfield Railroad Viaduct and Tunnel (commonly known as “Tunnel Green”), which is now part of the Wheeling Heritage Trail. Local legend says a mysterious green goo drips from the walls and those who use the trail have talked about shadowy figures lurking at the tunnel’s end. The story of the tunnel’s ghost is so well known that it’s even mentioned on the sign that welcomes visitors to the Hempfield Viaduct. But where do these stories come from and just how true are they?
The first part of that question is easy to answer. The second part? Not so much.
Let’s start with the tunnel’s origin story. Things got off to a bad start with the tunnel’s incorporation in 1850. Records suggest Peninsula Cemetery was moved from the hill where the tunnel now sits, meaning countless bodies of early Wheeling residents were disinterred and relocated. If that’s not enough of a classic recipe for a movie-style haunting, then the murder that followed certainly seems to be.
The tunnel was first built in 1857 by the Hempfield Railroad Company (later acquired by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad) for the purpose of connecting Wheeling to Greensburg, Pennsylvania, by rail. Ten years later, a German immigrant named Joseph Eisele is said to have murdered fellow immigrant Alois Ulrich inside the tunnel on June 29, 1867. Newspaper accounts from the time indicate Ulrich was killed by multiple blows with a hatchet before his body was dumped in a culvert near the northeast exit of the tunnel. Eisele, having killed two other men, went on to become known as the Hatchet Slayer and was the last person executed by hanging in Wood County. Ulrich is thought to have become Tunnel Green’s famous ghost.
Newspaper articles from those days were colorful, to say the least, and this account of the Tunnel Green ghost sighting is no less sensational. Here’s an excerpt from the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, July 19, 1869:
“The Hempfield Ghost: AN APPALLING MYSTERY. THE TUNNEL HAUNTED. THE GHOST OF A MURDERED MAN APPEARS….Thursday evening about 6 o’clock a party of four men were proceeding through the tunnel on their way to the country beyond. Having spent the day in Wheeling and imbibed the usual amount of fusel oil they were rather hilarious than otherwise, though none of them were sufficiently under the influence of liquor to be unable to accurately perceive anything that transpired… The darkness of the cavern had settled into an appalling gloom, but still they held their way. Soon groans and supplications for mercy fell upon their startled ears. The usual cavernous echo was doubly apparent, as the tone of the voice was unnatural and sepulchral — the men stood transfixed with horror and fright, the atmosphere was close and stilling. All at once issuing from the solid rock which forms the ceiling, directly over the spot where the murderer slaughtered his victim, a ghastly form appeared. All around, and we have said, was impenetrable darkness, but the specter itself was as clearly visible as in the noon day.
It descended feet first, until it reached a place about equidistant from the door and ceiling of the tunnel, where it stopped and remained for a few seconds. Although covered with the slime and earth of the grave the features of the ghastly specter were distinctly visible, clad in the habiliments of the tomb. Its appearance was horrible in the extreme. With one arm extended, and the bloody fingers of the hand hanging half severed from their stems, with the fore finger of the other hand it pointed to a gaping wound in his temple. The wound seemed fresh, but the drops of blood seemed clotted and stood out in bold relief on the face of the ill-starred wretch. Without a movement of the lips, a voice apparently issuing from the throat of the ghost, exclaimed in a tone so unnatural as to be totally indescribable “let the dead rest!” The horror-stricken witnesses of this appalling spectacle rushed -from the scene. At the mouth of, the tunnel they met other parties whose credulity was not sufficient to believe the story of the witnesses. They therefore obtained a lantern and returned to the spot where the apparition was first seen. They were not long waiting when the spirit, in the same place repeated the words he had before used, in, If possible, a more horrifying tone, and glided rapidly through the air toward the western mouth of the tunnel. The individuals thus made sure of the authenticity of the apparition, were deprived of the power of speech for some hours, and even after the intervention of days, their fearful recollections are so vivid as to render them almost afraid of speaking on the subject.”
Long story short, four gentlemen, who may or may not have been drunk, believed they saw a ghost while walking through the dark tunnel. Unlike today, the tunnel wasn’t lit, so any walk through it would have been intimidating and could have played on the imagination. What’s interesting is that the ghost they saw, seems to be that of the murdered Ulrich by the detailed description of the ghosts’ wounds. The same article goes on to describe a second, though undated, account of another man witnessing an apparition that appeared to play out a tableau of Ulrich’s murder.
The newspaper assures us readers that each of these were “men of respectable and truthful characters” but that, “their statements created a widespread and profound sensation in the eastern part of the city where they reside.” Hempfield Tunnel was rebuilt between 1902 and 1904, but could the ghostly sensations seen there have been so profound that the story has stuck around with us more than 150 years later?
In starting to research this story, I wanted to see if I could find someone who had witnessed the ghost. The obvious first source to search was the modern-day equivalent of colorfully written semi-journalism: Facebook. I started by asking local friends and family if they knew anything.
“It’s haunted,” is what I was told, every time, without hesitation.
“Right, but do you know anyone who’s personally seen anything?” I’d ask.
Almost always, the answer was no.
Ever the intrepid journalist, I decided to pay the tunnel a visit with the company of my 4-year-old son. We climbed the colorful stairs leading up from the East Wheeling baseball field and I pushed his stroller beyond the safety of the sunny viaduct into the tunnel. I expected to be hit by a woosh of spooky feelings and for the most part, the tunnel doesn’t disappoint. As mentioned in the ancient newspaper article, there is a certain strange green matter that clings to the ceiling, but tunnels are usually damp, so the presence of mold or mildew wouldn’t be shocking.
The addition of years of color graffiti make Tunnel Green feel slightly more comforting – it feels like people have been there – and some of the graffiti even tends to the encouraging side. There are cutouts in the tunnel walls just big enough to fit a person or two, leftover from its days as a rail tunnel. In shadow, it’s not hard to imagine some spectral figure leaping out from one of these cutouts. Someone had even graffitied a comic ghost into one of them, not that my son was very amused by it.
We left the tunnel and walked a little further, oohing and ahh-ing as moms with preschoolers do over all the construction equipment on I-70. I even took a quick call from my husband assuring him that we had it made it through the creepy tunnel alive.
But then, when it came time to turn back and head to the car, my son started to panic.
“No, mommy!” he yelled. “No tunnel!”
I tried to calmly explain that we had to go back through the tunnel to get to the car, that there was no other way of getting there, but he continued to cry and kick his feet against the stroller. I tried to ask why. All he said was “scary”.
I bristled a little, feeling goosebumps start to prick my arms. It’s long been said that young children feel spiritual things more acutely than us grown-ups. Was this his way of telling me he’d seen something? I promised him a stop at Tim Hortons and then we moved as fast as my feet would carry us back through Tunnel Green.
“Keep looking up, buddy,” I told him. “And if you can’t, close your eyes.”
With my son continuing to fight and cover his eyes with his little hands, we made our way back out into the sunshine, our progress through Tunnel Green ending nearly as quickly as it had begun.
And again, nothing happened. At least to my eyes, it seemed.
But maybe that old Intelligencer article says it best. Their version of the story ends, “We give the leading circumstances as they are related to us and leave our readers to judge for themselves of their probability.”
• Cassie Bendel was born in Wheeling and raised in Bellaire. A graduate of St. Vincent College, she began her writing career as a reporter with The Times Leader and the Steubenville Herald-Star before writing content for SiriusXM Satellite Radio and a national faith-based consulting company. After more than a decade in Pennsylvania, she has moved back to the Ohio Valley with her husband and two sons.