Note: This was originally posted on September 10, 2014, in an earlier version of The Pennsylvania Rambler. This article has been edited and updated as Part One of Two.
Pennsylvania’s Black Forest is a region of northcentral Pennsylvania that mostly is as wild today as it was to those who first tried to tame it. The rugged valleys reminded early German settlers of the their homelands and the name was transferred to these new lands. The Black Forest region includes lands from Potter, Lycoming, Clinton, Tioga, Cameron and Elk Counties.
From these remote lands come many legends and lore that have been passed down through the generations and many of these were collected by Robert Lyman, Sr. in two books filled with folklore and unique pieces of history of the Black Forest region. Ever since I was a young boy, I was fascinated with Lyman’s writings and read through them enough times I practically had them memorized. One of the cryptids which interested Lyman was the thunderbird, which made its home in Pennsylvania’s Black Forest and ever since I first read about them in Lyman’s Amazing Indeed, I too have been fascinated by these reports.
The thunderbird is a common figure in many Native American mythologies in the United States and Canada. The sacred figure varies in appearance from culture to culture, but it is often described as a large, eagle-like bird with the ability to produce thunder when it flaps its wings and was able to shoot lightning from its body as it flew. In some cultures, the thunderbird is described as having brightly colored feathers, a beak filled with sharp teeth, and curved horns on its head. Other myths state the monstrous bird has two heads – the second one was located on the chest of the gigantic bird.
Outside the Native American cultures, the thunderbird is described as looking like a large vulture or possibly a condor. Reports of the modern-day thunderbird state these birds stand between four and five feet tall, have a wingspan between sixteen and twenty-four feet, and are covered in dark brown or black feathers.
Note: The following list of sightings – which is not a complete list – comes from a number of sources. While the majority of the historical sights of the Pennsylvania thunderbird can be traced to Lyman’s Amazing Indeed, the following newspaper articles are referenced. Curt Sutherly’s “Thunderbird: Myth or Fact?” from the February 17, 1975 edition of The Daily News (Lebanon, Pa) – Sutherly used Lyman’s writings as his main source, but only included a handful of these sightings. Also used is an article from the Lock Haven Express (Lock Haven, Pa) by John Rasmussen in his “This ‘n’ That” column from the January 29, 1971.
The earliest sightings of the Black Forest thunderbird come from Elvira Coates who lived in Potter County. Coates stated she had been told stories about the thunderbird in the mid- to late 1800s. These unidentified birds were described by Coates as “when on the ground, the birds looked like vultures but were much larger. In flight, the great wingspan made them appear even bigger.”
Fred Murray of Westfield, reported seeing a flock of thunderbirds near Dent’s Run in 1892. This flock of thunderbirds were described as looking like large vultures with wingspans of sixteen feet. Note: In some modern sources, there is more information about Murray’s sighting attributed to Lyman and these sources state the information came from Amazing Indeed. Unless there is an edition of the book with added information, I’m not sure where this information came from.
In 1898, a farmer near Centerville, Crawford County captured a large bird he was unable to identify. The large bird was described as gray in color, between four and six feet tall with a big body, but short legs and neck. Note: Many modern articles state this capture made national news at the time, but I have not been able to discover any mention of this event outside Lyman’s article. Sutherly did not include this thunderbird capture in his article.
Robert Lyman had a personal sighting with a large unknown bird in 1940 near Coudersport. He described it as resembling a large vulture, standing about four feet tall, was brown in color and had a twenty-five-foot wingspan. The large bird was first spotted on a road and using the road width when it took flight, Lyman was able to determine the bird’s wingspan.
Sarah Boyle, the wife of Clinton County Sheriff John Boyle, had two different sightings of a large bird while staying at their camp along Little Pine Creek. The first sighting was in 1968 when Sarah witnessed a large bird flying up the valley past their camp. The following year, she saw one standing in Little Pine Creek. When it flew off, it had a wingspan that was the width of the creek, which was seventy feet.
Albert Schoonover and two road workers had a sighting in the summer of 1969. They were near the Bush Dam at Kettle Creek when they witnessed a large bird swoop down, pick up a fawn and fly off with it. Schoonover estimated the fawn weighed fifteen pounds.
Judith Dingler had a sighting on October 28, 1970, when she saw a giant bird while driving on Route 220 west of Jersey Shore. She described the bird as being the size of a small plane and her sighting would be the first of many that continued through late 1971.
On November 9, 1970, Clyde and Anna Mincer witnessed a large bird from their home in Jersey Shore. The bird had a sixteen-foot wingspan and was spotted flying eastward toward Williamsport. Around the same time, Mrs. Walton Richey saw a similar sized bird near Tombs Run, north of Jersey Shore.
Ramussen lists another sighting of a large, unidentified bird and while he does not list a specific date, it was sometime in late 1970. He states Mrs. Walton Richey stopped him to report another thunderbird sighting. The witness was a young girl who spotted the bird near Robbins Run, west of Haneyville in Clinton County. The witness saw a large, unidentified bird swoop down and carry off a groundhog.
Linda Edwards and Debbie Kraft had a thunderbird sighting on June 8, 1971. The duo saw a bird with an eighteen-foot wingspan in Cement Hollow, northeast of Jersey Shore.
On August 7, 1971 Clair Koons and Wilson Frederick witnessed a gigantic bird in the sky over Larry’s Creek, which is located between Jersey Shore and Williamsport.
Rasmussen notes that Robert Lyman, Jr., the son of the author Robert Lyman, had a thunderbird sighting in 1973. This sighting happened in the Kettle Creek Valley. Note: In many modern sources, the sightings by Robert Lyman Sr. and Robert Lyman Jr. have been accidentally mixed up or combined into one sighting.
After 1973, reports of thunderbirds slowed down in regional newspapers, but it was not because people were no longer seeing them. The reason reports no longer made the newspapers was due to the death of Robert Lyman, Sr. in 1974. But Lyman’s death did not stop nor slow the sightings of the mysterious flying cryptid. While thunderbirds were still being spotted over the Black Forest region, in the late 1990s and early 2000s reports of large, unknown birds would be reported in the southwestern corner of the state.
While I have not personally seen any large, unidentified birds in all of my journeys, it does not stop me from asking: “What are people seeing in the skies over Pennsylvania?”
Note: Continued in The Black Forest Thunderbird: Part Two.
5 thoughts on “The Black Forest Thunderbird: Part One”
Fascinating read! I’m from this area and always heard stories about the thunderbirds from my family, but never knew there were this many sightings. Al Schoonover’s my great uncle, and his sighting wasn’t the first time our family had an encounter with a thunderbird. Around 1950 Al’s younger brother Max, who was about 10 years old at the time, was nearly picked up by one as he was running in their open yard in Kettle Creek (they lived on a dirt road called Trout Run). Luckily their neighbor, close family friend, and postman Hiram Cramner was able to scare it off as it was swooping down. You might be familiar with “Hi” Cramner, he was an avid folklorist in the Kettle Creek Area. He’s a legend himself in my family. Thanks for writing this! Both Al and Max have passed, but I’m glad their stories are still alive through you.