I stepped out of the vehicle and took in the view of the Kettle Creek Reservoir. Nearby, the Alvin R. Bush Dam continues to serve its function of flood control. The dam forever changed the valley as it flooded former homesteads. Note: More about how the erection of the Alvin R. Bush Dam changed the Kettle Creek Valley can be found here: The Kettle Creek Project.
As I scanned the distant shores for wildlife, my mind was recalling a conversation I had recently had with a classmate of mine – a conversation that brought me back into the Kettle Creek Valley for some exploration.
“You have a moment?” Kyle asked as I packed my notes away.
“Sure,” I replied as I sat back down knowing there was not a class in the room after ours. I rarely talked to Kyle though I had two classes with him that semester, but I was willing to talk or listen to any of my classmates. The age difference often found me as a mentor rather than a classmate to many of them.
“Are you still writing The Pennsylvania Rambler?”
I stared, surprised that my classmate had connected me to the blog. “Yes, it’s my blog.”
“I thought it was you on the first day of classes, but I wasn’t sure. I have a story that you might be interested in.”
“You ever hear of the Headless Frenchman of the Kettle Creek Valley?” Without giving me a chance to respond that I was familiar with the legend, Kyle quickly added, “My great-grandfather saw it back when he was a kid. Maybe late 1940s. I’d have to ask my grandfather because he’s the one who told us the story. A lot of people saw it back then, though you don’t hear about many sightings nowadays.”
“The place to see it was along Kettle Creek, where Route 144 crosses over it at Road Hollow. I guess back then they didn’t have much to do, so it became a popular thing to do – sit on the bridge and watch for the ghost. This wasn’t the only place people saw it. From down at Shintown to up above Cross Fork locals saw the headless figure roaming the mountain or walking the train tracks.”
Kyle paused for a moment. “He said that it had been a typical night and a group of them had gathered at the bridge to watch for the ghost. They had only been there for a couple minutes when this shimmering figure appeared. As they watched, it ran off downstream. He swears it was a shimmering outline of a headless person. Of course, as it ran one way, the group ran off in the other direction.”
“Around the same time, a picture of the ghost appeared in the local newspaper. I have a copy of it.” He produced a piece of paper from a folder and placing it on the table, slid it towards me. I picked it up and studied it. The picture showed something – it could have been anything – that appeared as a large, human-like blob. I took a picture of the article before handing it back to Kyle, thanking him for showing me the picture that ran on the front page of the the August 12, 1950 edition of The Lock Haven Express. Note: In part three, this photograph and the story behind it will be discussed.
“I wish I had more to tell you, but I thought you’d be interested.” I thanked him for his time as I checked my notes.
After talking with Kyle, I returned to the Kettle Creek Valley to search for answers. This was not the first time the legend of the Headless Frenchman of the Kettle Creek Valley had brought me into the Kettle Creek Valley. The legend, which was extremely popular among the residents of Clinton and Potter Counties in the 1940s and 1950s has since vanished as the headless spook fails to appear as often as it once did.
The most popular version of the story involves the explorer Etienne Brule, a young Frenchman who arrived in North America with Samuel de Champlain. Brule’s journeys brought him into the wilds of Pennsylvania as he traveled with a group of Seneca southward into the region where the Susquehanna River emptied into the Chesapeake Bay. Note: In some sources, the party does not mention Etienne Brule and merely states it was a group of Frenchmen who had ventured into the wilds of present-day Pennsylvania in search of furs and other precious metals.
As the group journeyed northward, legend states Brule’s party ventured up the Susquehanna’s West Branch as far as the Kettle Creek Valley. Here is where the two most popular versions of the story slightly differ.
In Version A: Near the mouth of Kettle Creek, the group of explorers were shown a cave filled with small balls of pure silver. American Indians living in the valley had refined the silver under the direction of the Iroquois Confederacy to be exchanged for firearms.
The group continued up Kettle Creek, but one of the French explorers left the group in an attempt to relocate the cave of silver and steal the treasure for himself. Failing to find it, he was captured, tortured and killed by having his head cut off. The ghostly figure was known to haunt the area where he was executed, doomed to search for his head for eternity.
In Version B, the group journeyed up Kettle Creek to a point above present-day Cross Fork. Here they discovered a vein of silver. The group dug some of the silver out of the ground and was in the process of refining it when they were attacked. While the majority of the French explorers were able to escape, one of the Frenchmen was taken prisoner and executed. The Frenchman is still wandering the area where they had discovered the silver vein.
Note: Though most of the versions state it was an unnamed Frenchman, a couple of the versions state the ghost is of Etienne Brule. While it is possible that Brule returned to the valley to haunt it after his death, he was not killed in the Kettle Creek Valley.. Brule was murdered by Hurons in 1633 at Toanche, Ontartio after it was believed he had betrayed the Hurons to the Seneca. Brule may have wished he died in the Kettle Creek Valley because after his death, he was dismember and ate by the Hurons.
Scanning through the newspapers, the stories of the Headless Frenchman comes from the reporting of one man – H. Cranmer. Cranmer was the “historian” of the Kettle Creek region. Some of his stories can be considered exaggerated at best. Most versions of the legend of the Headless Frenchman unfortunately can be traced back to Cranmer’s writings. Personally, I would like to blame all of the stories about the headless ghost on him, but then if that was the case, what were people seeing wandering about the Kettle Creek Valley?
One thing Cranmer does do in his recording of the Headless Frenchman’s ghost is give an explanation. Cranmer connects the headless ghost that people were seeing with natural gas that was seeping from the ground. As it escaped, it created low moans and groans, which is what witnesses were hearing. The Headless Frenchman was nothing more than natural gas seeping out of the Kettle Creek Valley.
Historically, speaking, the 1950s was the start of the natural gas boom. By the 1960s the headless ghost was rarely spotted anymore and Cranmer believes with the natural gas being taken from the valley, the amount of escaping gas would have decreased, meaning fewer people would have spotted the shimmering of the natural gas as it escaped.
As I stood taking in the beauty of the Kettle Creek Valley, I had many questions about the ghost of the Headless Frenchman and I knew that I would have to look a little deeper into the legend. And what I found was there might not have been one headless ghost haunting the Kettle Creek Valley, but possibly three different headless figures.
To be continued….