Potter County’s Phantom Hitchhiker

fog
Foggy morning in north-central Pennsylvania

The peacefulness of the early morning was broken only by the sound of wind blowing through the trees. Fog still clung to the mountaintops as I explored the Black Forest region of north-central Pennsylvania. At the moment, I was enjoying the quietness of Ole Bull State Park, straining to hear the sound of Ole Bornemann Bull playing his violin. Ole Bull was a world famous violinist who attempted to establish a Norwegian colony within the Kettle Creek Valley. After the failure of the colony, stories began to circulate that the sound of violin music could be heard coming from the area where Ole Bull had erected his “castle.” Note: The location of Ole Bull’s “castle” is now a part of Ole Bull State Park.

While the sound of ghostly violin music is one of the best known legends of the region, it is not the only ghostly activity associated with the valley. One of the most intriguing stories is one I had recently stumbled upon – it is the story of a phantom hitchhiker.

I found this story in Inez Bull’s Cross Fork Tales — a collection of personal experiences that happened in the Black Forest region of north-central Pennsylvania. Inez Bull, a descendant of Ole Bornemann Bull, maintained the Ole Bull Museum along Route 44 and was influential in the creation of the Ole Bull Music Festival in Galeton. In honor of her work, she received the St. Olav Medal and the title “Dame” by King Harald V of Norway.

Inez does not record the exact location of where she encountered the phantom hitchhiker. She describes the experience as beginning on a narrow road on a foggy mountaintop in the wilds of north-central Pennsylvania. Note: In her obituary, it is mentioned that Inez spent her time divided between her home in New Jersey and her home in Galeton. My guess is Inez and her mother had driven all night from New Jersey and the incident she describes happened as they approached either Cross Fork (due to the book’s title) or possibly Galeton.

Inez and her mother had driven most of the night to get to town and the sun was just rising over the fog covered mountaintops when the events in her story occur. As they passed through the fog, Inez spotted a lone figure dressed in white standing next to the road. The elderly man stood with his hand outstretched, as if he was begging for a ride. Knowing it was a long way from the nearest town, and despite her mother’s pleas not to stop, Inez slowed the vehicle to offer the man a ride. In the process of slowing, she realized that she had come upon a sharp turn in the thick fog. Slamming on the brakes, the car slid to a halt beyond the man. After some debate on whether Inez was going to offer the man a ride or not, her mother convinced her to keep driving because some other vehicle would pick up the stranger.

The two of them continued on and to their surprise, the same man was waiting for them at the base of the mountain. How he got there was a mystery. No other vehicle had passed them on their journey. Despite her mother’s protests, Inez stopped the vehicle and approached the man to offer him a ride. Inez asked the stranger if he was the same man she passed on the mountain and the stranger replied that he was the same man she had seen miles before.

The man accepted her offer and crawled into the back of the vehicle with the dogs, who remained completely silent, which Inez notes as being odd. The man did speak, answering a handful of questions, but for the most part remained silent. When asked where he was headed, his response was “North.” As they arrived in town Inez discovered the man had vanished somewhere along the way.

As if Inez’s story was not strange enough, it’s about to get weirder.

While Inez and her mother debated what had just happened, they noticed an elderly woman carrying a heavy bag. As they watched, she stumbled and almost fell, so Inez asked the lady where she was going. The lady pointed to an old house that was located at the top of a nearby hill. Inez took the bag from the woman and, taking the woman by the arm, helped her up the hill to the house. The moment the elderly woman passed the threshold into the cellar of the house, she vanished. Inez claimed that she could see all around the empty cellar and the woman was not there, as if the earth had swallowed her. The lady, as described by Inez, had the same face as the man they had picked up.

Inez compares the helping of the man and the lady as a religious experience, claiming it was God who was teaching her a lesson to help others.

I finally gave up on trying to hear Ole Bull playing his violin and started back towards the vehicle. I could not help but wonder if it was a religious experience and she encountered God, like Inez thought, or had she encountered two different ghosts that day – a phantom hitchhiker and the ghost of an elderly lady. I don’t have an answer to what Inez experienced that day, but within Pennsylvania’s Black Forest – strangeness does not surprise me.

On Phantom Hitchhikers

I personally find the folklore involving the phantom hitchhiker, also referred to as the vanishing hitchhiker, interesting because it is a legend that has been adopted and adapted into many different locations and cultures. The story of the phantom hitchhiker is not as common as it once was – the height of the sightings/experiences involving phantom hitchhikers happened in the 1960s. Pennsylvania has a number of them, but those sightings have become fewer over the years.

One thing the majority of the phantom hitchhiker stories have in common is the hitchhiker is female and the driver is usually male. Inez’s story is unique in that it crosses the borders between the different versions of the phantom hitchhiker story, including the reversal of roles as it was a male hitchhiker being picked up by a female driver.

Folklorists Richard Beardsley and Rosalie Hankey categorize the phantom hitchhiker stories into four types.

Type A: The phantom girl gives an address and as a male drives to the location, she vanishes. When he gets to the address, he discovers that the girl was killed at the spot he picked her up. The vast majority of all phantom hitchhiker legends fall into this category.

Type B: The phantom hitchhiker is described as an elderly woman who gives the driver some sort of disaster prophecy, or the promise of the end of whatever war is happening at the time. Most often these prophecies do not come true. Interestingly, this version often appeared in the immediate aftermath of World War Two and do not seem to appear much in folklore since.

Type C: The girl searches for a ride home from a dance hall, bar, theater, or some other place of entertainment. Either the driver offers her his coat, or she leaves something behind when she vanishes. Then an elderly lady at the girl’s address recognizes the object as her daughter’s or she sends the man to a cemetery where he discovers his jacket draped over the girl’s tombstone. The most famous of this version is Resurrection Mary in Chicago who haunts the area between the Willowbrook Ballroom and Resurrection Cemetery.

Type D: The phantom hitchhiker is a local goddess. This version most often appears in Hawaii, with versions of this story rarely happening elsewhere in the United States. However, according to Inez’s story, this was the experience she had that foggy morning in the mountains of north-central Pennsylvania.

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