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New River Valley Folk Tales

Devil’s Stairs – Warrensville, Ashe County, North Carolina

The Jefferson Post recently ran a special section to commemorate Ashe County, N.C.’s bicentennial (1799-1999). The section includes an article about some of the county’s ghosts, including legends associated with Ashe County’s best known “haunted spot,” the Devil’s Stairs.

The Devil’s Stairs is a site along N.C. 88, just east of the community of Warrensville. The spot got its name when the Norfolk & Western Railway (now Norfolk Southern) extended the rail line from Abingdon, Va., into Ashe County, N.C., around 1914. A section of rock at that bend in the river was dynamited, and the resulting formation resembled a set of giant steps ascending the side of the mountain. The stairs may have been designated as the devil’s because at least one construction worker is said to have been killed in the dynamite blast.

Of course, any spot named after Lucifer is going to have accounts of supernatural encounters associated with it sooner or later. As a child, I heard variations on the theme of “devil in the car.” In one version, the car would stall at the Devil’s Stairs, one of the vehicle’s back doors would open and Satan would enter the car and exit through the opposite door, after which the engine would restart. In an alternative version, the driver would glance in the rear-view mirror as the car neared the Devil’s Stairs and would see Satan (presumably looking like he’d just stepped off the label of a Red Devil Lye can) sitting in the back seat.

But what is probably the best version of this story was recorded by a journalism class at Northwest Ashe High School in Warrensville and reprinted in the Post’s special section.
It concerns a preacher who was driving home after a church service on a rainy, cold night. As the car neared the Devil’s Stairs, the minister “saw a hitchhiker in a dark black raincoat that covered his head and face.” The preacher stopped to offer the stranger a lift, primarily out of compassion due to the raw weather that evening. “The hitchhiker did not say a word as he sat in the back seat,” according to the account. The reverend “looked in the rear-view mirror several times, but never saw the hitchhiker’s face. So he turned around and looked into the man’s eyes, which were as red as fire and as big as a fist.” The startled minister pulled over to the side of the road to let the rider out, but when he got out and opened the back door he found no one inside the car.

The driver of the vehicle felt that he needed to stop the car in order for the unwelcomed apparition to exit. These stories also go with the assumption that the driver has control over the vehicle…there’s no sense of what if the entity doesn’t want to leave. These accounts clearly stem from a time before the threat of carjacking made drivers realize their car isn’t their fortress.

Also, if legends are to be believed, than Satan spends more time in North Carolina than he does anywhere else. In addition to the Devil’s Stairs, there’s a circular spot near Siler City known as the Devil’s Tramping Ground, which by some accounts gets a visit from Lucifer every night.

(Geography lesson: Ashe County is located in the northwest corner of North Carolina. It is the only county in the state that borders both Virginia and Tennessee. The spot known as the Devil’s Stairs is on the road from West Jefferson to Mountain City, Tenn. This was the first “paved road” in the county, which may have been a factor in why so many legends became associated with the Devil’s Stairs, as opposed to other sites along the N&W rail line. Interestingly, this road has remained largely unchanged since it was first built in the early part of the 20th Century. It still has many sharp curves, one being at the Devil’s Stairs, and the road was designed for a top speed of…what in 1920 would have been frighteningly fast…35 mph.

Taken from a Usenet news article from Dennis Lewis.

The Woman in the Cemetery

The Jefferson Post in West Jefferson, N.C., ran a special section in commemoration of the county’s bicentennial. (The northwest tip of North Carolina officially was designated Ashe County in 1799.) The commemorative insert included a few ghost stories, including one about a haunted cemetery that I thought was exceptionally interesting and which I’d never heard during my years growing up there.

The alleged haunted cemetery is the Howell Hill Cemetery, located in Ashe County. Apparently the cemetery was a popular spot for couples “to park” during the 1940s and 1950s. One couple went out to the cemetery early one summer evening and had an encounter they wouldn’t forget.

A woman in Jefferson, N.C., who is the niece of the man who encountered the apparition, told the newspaper what her uncle said happened relatively early (around 8) that evening. Her account is so vivid, I’m taking the liberty of quoting verbatim:

They were up there when they saw a woman rise up out of the ground in the cemetery.

My uncle said that the woman had long black hair and was wearing a transparent or sheer white dress. They never saw her face because her hair was in it and, even though the wind wasn’t blowing, her dress was flowing everywhere.

He said that he started the car and, as they pulled away, they felt a strong draft in the car, and they both turned and the woman was sitting in the back of the car. By the time he stopped the car to let her out, she was gone.

This is the first account of this type I’ve read in which the driver of a car thought he needed to stop the vehicle so the spirit could get out. The Post’s report also notes that the caretaker of the cemetery has seen the woman, and she has been seen by unnamed other people in the area.

Taken from a Usenet news article from Dennis Lewis.

Baptist Chapel Church, Helton, Ashe County, North Carolina

According to local legend, Baptist Chapel Church on Big Helton Creek in Ashe County, North Carolina has two ghosts.

The first account is of a “black dog” which appears in the door of the church from time to time.

The second accounts says that when workmen were constructing a road below the church, a grave was opened up. Some thought the skeleton found was that of an Indian, others thought it was the skeleton of David Helton’s wife. At any rate, the skeleton was put in a box and the box was placed under the back pew of the Baptist Chapel Church. Supposedly the spirit of this person haunted the church until it was reburied some years later.

Henry Miller House on Stagg’s Creek

The Henry Miller House on Stagg’s Creek in western Ashe County is supposedly haunted. This structure predates the Civil War, and its first occupant was a physician who doubled as an undertaker for the community. Supposedly the spirits of those who died in the house still linger.

Moonshiner’s Cave on Mount Jefferson

Legend holds that Mount Jefferson in central Ashe County was a station on the Underground Railroad prior to the American Civil War. Until the 1960s the mountain was called “Nigger Mountain.” [No offense is intended here, just relating the facts]. Supposedly a group of 60 run away slaves was discovered to be hiding in the Moonshiner’s Cave on this mountain until it was safe to head further north. With a group of 60 individuals, it was dangerous to enter the cave to confront the runaways. The story goes that the cave was sealed by explosives with these runaways inside. Supposedly they still cry out for freedom.

This story comes from William Albert via Tim Ferrier

Here’s the ghost story my grandmother Callie told me. It was told to her by her grandfather Ashley Roten (my great-great-grandfather). I titled the story “The Haint in the Holler ” — (“Haint” is how my grandmother pronounced the word “haunt”, and because I couldn’t understand all of her old-fashioned western North Carolina accent — I use to think she was saying the man’s name “Hank” — and for a long time just figured some guy named Hank died and haunted the holler — until my Aunts Goob & Blanche, corrected me and told me that was just the way she pronounced the word haunt — boy did I feel foolish! I thought that was funny — anyway now back to business — here’s the story:


Callie Roten Wingler said when she and her brothers and sisters were young, they would attend Peak Creek Church which was located on the opposite side of the holler in which they lived. After evening church service they would often take the shortcut home through the holler.

Her grandfather, Ashley Roten, warned them . . . “Don’t walk through that holler after dark … there’s a haint in the holler and he will get you . . . he got me!”

All though this sounds like something you would tell your children so they would come straight home at dark … Ashley swore to them that the following story truly happened to him.

Ashley said he use to visit his good friend, Jim Sheets, who lived at the opposite end of the holler. Ashley would often stay late, and since Jim Sheets had a spare room in his house, Ashley would often spend the night.

One night while sleeping in this spare room, Ashley was awakened by something pulling the sheets off his bed. He sat up and looked around the room, but he saw nothing. He laid back down and began to fall asleep. Suddenly the sheets were pulled from his bed again, and this time he heard footsteps in the room. He sat up in bed and again could not see a thing. So he laid back down and started to drift off to sleep, when, for a third time, something ripped the sheets from the bed and footsteps were heard. This time, Ashley said he got up and lit the lantern and looked all around the room and even under the bed, but nothing was to be found. He again laid back down and was finally able to sleep the rest of the night undisturbed.

The next evening, while returning home from Jim Sheets’s home, it was starting to get dark, and Ashley decided to take the shortcut home through the holler. While walking along, he began to hear footsteps behind him and sometimes off to the side of him in the bushes. Suddenly something tripped him and he fell to his face. As he was picking himself up off the ground, he could hear laughter and footsteps running away from him. He quickly jumped to his feet but could see nothing or no one. He continued on through the holler. Again he began to hear footsteps and again he wa s suddenly tripped and fell to his face . . . just like before he heard laughter and footsteps running way from him. A third time the incident was repeated before he finally made his way out of the holler.

Ashley said he would never again go in the holler after nightfall, and he warned all this children and grandchildren of the “Haint in the Holler”.

Jim Sheets also warned Calle Roten and her brothers and sisters of the “Haint.” Callie said another neighbor lived near the holler told her that a Civil War battle had been fought around the holler and he believed that the “Haint” was the spirit of a dead soldier.

My grandmother, Callie, told me that she was never afraid of no “Haint.” And though she had many times been warned to stay away from the Holler at dusk, she would walk through the holler on her way home from Peak Creek Church. She said she was never tripped, never heard laughter, but a few times she did hear footsteps.