Traveling through the Seven Mountains region of Central Pennsylvania has always proved to be an adventure of its own. Away from the hustle and bustle of State College, the dirt roads that navigate the mountain range provide opportunities to see deer, turkey and bear.
But driving through them provides another adventure. The mountains are home to numerous legends that have been whispered about throughout the years. In the remote wilds of Central Pennsylvania, the legends and lore have become a part of everyday life.
In the past, I’ve mentioned my love-hate relationship with Henry Shoemaker’s writings, but one of the more interesting stories that has taken its own life is found in Allegheny Episodes and has also appeared in some editions of Penn’s Grandest Cavern. The story entitled “The Silent Friend,” has morphed from Henry Shoemaker’s initial story to become its own legend that has been repeated to this day by those living in the Seven Mountains.
The story recorded by Shoemaker comes from Daniel Karstetter, a noted hunter who was born and lived in the mountains south of Coburn. Note: In typical Shoemaker fashion, he lists Daniel as being born and living in the Coburn region. However, the real Daniel Karstetter was born and lived in Sugar Valley, but did spend many hours roaming the Seven Mountains.
One night Daniel and his brother, Jacob, crossed the Seven Mountains on horseback to attend a dance in Milroy. After the dance, the two brothers headed back over the mountains with Jacob in the lead. At some point, Daniel fell asleep as his horse continued on the path over the mountain.
When Daniel awoke, he was alone as his brother had ridden on to their home. As Daniel was coming down the mountains, he noticed a man mounted on a horse waiting ahead on the path. In the dark, Daniel assumed that the other man was his brother, who had stopped to wait for Daniel to catch up, and called out his name, but the horseman did not speak. The two figures rode in silence towards Daniel’s farm.
When Daniel arrived at the barn, he dismounted to open the stable door. He looked back and discovered that the horseman disappeared into the night. Through the open door, Daniel was surprised to discover his brother was fast asleep inside, having fallen asleep where he sat down to await Daniel’s arrival home. After discussing the incident with his brother, Daniel was convinced that the horseman was a ghost.
A year later, when Daniel was returning from a dance in Stone Valley, he was again joined on the trail by the phantom horseman, who followed Daniel home, disappearing once Daniel arrived safely at the barn. Daniel would encounter the horseman once or twice a year while he was out hunting, or returning from town. Daniel never attempted to talk to the phantom horseman, because he was convinced the specter meant him no harm.
One night as Daniel was traveling through Green’s Valley in the Seven Mountains, he heard someone call out of the darkness. In German, the highwayman commanded him to put his hands up. From the darkness, Daniel heard the sound of hoof beats coming up the trail behind him as the phantom horseman rushed past him. The sight of the rapidly approaching horseman caused the highwayman to disappear into the night and Daniel was able to return home without any other incident.
Interestingly, it is at this point that the story changes between the version that Shoemaker records and the version I had heard as a youngster and is still told by many.
In Shoemaker’s version, Daniel tells of another encounter where the phantom horseman once again saved him. Daniel had climbed into the tree stand to hunt for the day. As he sat there, a large female panther appeared and laid down at the base of the tree stand. After a while, two male panthers appeared and Daniel watched as these two males fought to the death for the attention of the female. As the two male panthers laid dying, Karstetter fell from his stand, landing a couple feet from the large female panther. At that moment, as the female panther prepared to pounce, the phantom horseman appeared and the panther fled into the woods.
Over the years, Shoemaker’s version morphed into a more interesting version that leaves out the phantom horseman saving Daniel from the panthers. This alternate version goes: A couple years after the encounter with the highwayman, Daniel was once again camping in the Seven Mountains. As Daniel sat at his fire, a stranger appeared from the dark and asked if he could sit at the fire to get warm. Daniel invited the stranger to sit at the fire, and as the night wore on, the two sat talking.
Daniel had recognized the man from the moment he sat down at the fire as the notorious highwayman David “Davy” Lewis. Afraid of being robbed, Daniel carefully watched the outlaw. Davy Lewis finally told Daniel he had nothing to fear, because of the phantom horseman. Confused, Daniel asked the highwayman what he was talking about.
Davy Lewis revealed that he had planned on robbing Daniel one night while he was returning from town. The highwayman found a place to hide along the trail and waited. As Daniel appeared, Davy Lewis called out for him to put his hands in the air. At that moment, a gigantic figure riding a large, dark horse rushed past Daniel towards the highwayman. The sudden appearance of the figure scared the highwayman who decided to flee rather than fight this imposing figure.
Davy Lewis revealed he knew Karstetter was protected by the phantom horseman and stated that the phantom rider was sitting on his horse, just up the trail from where they sat and had been watching them since the highwayman arrived. He thanked Daniel for the coffee and conversation before he disappeared down the trail, in the direction opposite of the phantom horseman.
While the story of the noted hunter Daniel Karstetter meeting the highwayman Davy Lewis has been told and retold, the encounter could never have occurred. Daniel was born in 1818 and the highwayman died in 1820. But the story still echoes across the Seven Mountains as it continues to be told from generation to generation.
The identity of the phantom horseman was never revealed to Daniel Karstetter, but it watched over him on the dark nights when danger lurked in the shadows. If the ghost rider appeared to anyone else, it was never recorded, but if you’re traveling at night through the Seven Mountains, keep alert – the phantom horseman may help guide you through the dangers that lurk in the darkness.