Unsolved: Black Moshannon’s Unknown Man

The Antes Schoolhouse, Black Moshannon State Park

Black Moshannon State Park has always held a special place in my life. As a youngster, my parents would bring us here to fish. In high school and college, it was the place where a group of us would gather for picnics or spend our time fishing or exploring the trails around the park. Nowadays it is a place to sit and relax to escape the world and its drama. As I sit on the porch of the cabin and listen to the stream bubble past, I find myself relaxing and becoming one with my surroundings.

Located in Centre County, the park straddles Route 504, east of Philipsburg. Covering close to 3,400 acres, Black Moshannon State Park receives its name from a corrupt of the native American words “Moss-Hanne,” meaning “Moose Stream,” however, seeing moose were not native to this region of the state, a better interpretation of “Moss-Hanne” would be “Elk Stream.”

The park is situated around a 250-acre lake, created when the Civil Conservation Corps dammed the creek. The tea-colored waters of the bog and lake give it the name Black Moshannon. As waters move through the sphagnum moss and other plants of the bog, it becomes tainted with tannins, which gives the water its dark color.

Despite being a popular place for people to visit, the park still maintains a sense of wild about it. Black Moshannon State Park features more than twenty miles of trails within the park itself, plus an additional forty on the Allegheny Front Trail, which encircles the park lands. The lake provides fishing, swimming and boating.

However, despite the present-day peacefulness, my mind is filled with thoughts of what the landscape was over one hundred years earlier. In 1861 the mountains of Central Pennsylvania were a wild, yet to be tamed place. The road that became Route 504 was a dirt path through the forest that was a part of the Philadelphia-Eire turnpike system. The nearest communities were Antis, which was located within the present-day park, Unionville and Philipsburg. The wilderness would still be wild for nearly another twenty years, when the lumbering industry would wipe the precious resources from the mountains.

Into this region an unidentified man traveled in mid-June 1861. It was not known where he came from nor where he was going. The only thing that was known about the man was on the evening of June 20, 1861, he was traveling by foot along the turnpike road.

At the same time the unidentified man was headed westward along the turnpike road, Mr. Dan Swab and his sixteen-year-old son, John, were preparing to go out in search of fresh meat to place on the table. Note: Yes, this hunting accident happened in June. Please remember, this was before the Pennsylvania Game Commission and before set dates for hunting were put into place in an attempt to save the state’s wildlife.

The duo headed out; Mr. Swab selected a location roughly a mile east of the location where the turnpike road crossed over Black Moshannon Creek to place his son. After sitting his son down along the turnpike road to watch a place where deer often crossed the road, he went a short distance away to watch over a natural salt lick. Note: the general location of where this tragedy took place would be near the entrance to the Back Moshannon Ski Lodge – also known as Cabin Twenty – is located.

With the unknown man walking westward and the Swabs hunting along the turnpike road, the players were set for a tragedy to unfold.

Darkness was quickly covering the land as John sat watching the turnpike road. It was close to eight when he lifted his gun and fired at a dark object which had appeared almost eighty yards away. Note: While the Centre Democrat (Bellefonte, Pa) stated the shooting took place around eight, the Raftsman’s Journal (Clearfield, Pa), stated the shooting took place closer to nine, which means it was very dark when John fired the fatal shot.

Mr. Swab heard the shot and believing his son shot a deer, left the salt lick and headed to the spot where he had left John. Upon arriving at the scene, Mr. Swab discovered the horrific scene. His son had shot a man.

John stated he had spotted something – about eighty yards away – moving along the turnpike road. John, believing it to be a deer, lifted his gun, took aim and fired. Suddenly a man ran towards him before collapsing dead on the ground. The bullet had entered through one shoulder, passed through the man’s neck severing an artery, and lodged in the opposite shoulder

Rather than leave the body at the spot of the accident, the duo got help from their neighbors and moved the body to a nearby empty house before alerting authorities what had happened. Once the body was moved, the boy traveled to Bellefonte and put himself into custody where he was placed in the jail until the incident could be investigated further.

The next morning, the coroner traveled to the lonesome spot to examine the body. After holding an inquest, he had the body buried before returning to Bellefonte.

The man was unknown to the Swabs or their neighbors. A description of the man was passed around the county, but nobody seemed to know who the man was or where he had come from. Despite the Centre Democrat stating there was a description of the man being circulated, they failed to print it. Their complete description of the man stated he “was very dirty and nothing was found about his person save a short pipe and a piece of tobacco.”

However, the Raftsman’s Journal did provide a description of the unidentified man. The man had a dark complexion, stood about six foot tall, had black hair and a trimmed beard. It was mentioned the unknown man had two distinct scars, one on his chin and the other on his left cheek near the temple.

And then sadly the story disappears from the newspapers. The U.S. Civil War began less than a month earlier and the regional newspapers were filled with information on the war and the letters written home by those who went off to serve. With the public’s attention focused on the war, the accidental shooting vanished from the newspapers and was quickly forgotten.

As I finished my weekend away from the world and its drama, I am left to wonder who the man was and why no one missed him. Was he someone newly arrived in the United States or was he someone who had been born here? Even worse, he lies forgotten in some unmarked grave at a location known only to those who have long since passed.

Pausing a moment, I listened as the wind whispered through the trees and the birds called out their last songs of the night. I silently said one last remembrance to the unknown man before retiring for the night.

Note: While searching through the Centre Democrat and Raftsman’s Journal, I have not been able to uncover any articles stating if John was or was not charged with the death of the unknown man.

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