Subterranean Voyage down Sinking Creek

September 25, 2012 |

FROM THE ARCHIVES of the West Virginia Writers’ Project, Greenbrier County:

“I was plowing on General Davis’s farm in 1856, unsuspicious  of being on insecured ground when suddenly the earth seemed to fall beneath me. I saw the horses descending, but was too frightened to let go the plow handles. When I landed, I fell on the horse whose mane I had hold of, and although the horse was instantly killed, I was merely stunned and confused. On recovering myself I looked up and the hole through which I had fallen looked as small. I concluded I had fallen full 120 feet.”

This story is known to many local historians in Greenbrier County, though the facts are often disputed. This story was first written up by the Greenbrier Independent, and during the Great Depression, a Lewisburg researcher named Edith Lett unearthed this story and included it in her writing about the history and lore of her community. Lett was for the Works Progress Administration’s West Virginia Writers’ Project.

“My first thought was to call for aid, but I instantly recalled the fact that I was at least a mile from General Davis’s house, and there was not the remotest probability that anyone had seen my descent into the earth.” He was then pulled “head long into deep water by the precipitous nature of the rocky bed of the stream. Talk about darkness of the grave, the grave itself could not have been more impalpably dark than the passage I was following.”

In 1938, when Lett included the “subterranean voyage” article for her research, she claims that “the hole where this man went through is now fenced around. On listening one plainly hear the rush of water below, and a stone thrown down will sometimes be heard to splash in the stream.” This is the only account of a local historian who claims to know the exact location where this adventurer first fell beneath the earth, though she doesn’t provide directions to the sight. The story doesn’t end there.

Searching for Sinking Creek:

Jim Talbert, the archivist with the Greenbrier Historical Society’s Northouse Museum, says he knows this subterranean tale quite well, as he was part of a crew of citizens who went looking for the sinkhole not too many years ago, though he went as a “skeptic observer.”  The late Dr. John F. Montgomery was the leader of this expedition, who after years of arguing that he knew where the plowman could have fallen, finally convinced a team, including someone with a backhoe, to dig to unearth this infamous sinkhole. They went to the property outside of Lewisburg where General Davis once had his farm (this farm extended about 1,000 acres).

The Dr. Montgomery team did not unearth a sinkhole that day, but merely a thin crack in the rock that could hardly have been large enough for a mouse to crawl through, remembers Talbert. Still, Dr. Montgomery insisted that he knew of another location nearby where the sinkhole might have been. But he never got the crew together for another dig, and Montgomery went to his grave with his theory still unproven.

During the 1800s, many underground creeks in Greenbrier County were called “sinking creek”, so the name might be misleading. Montgomery argued that the underground creek is really Mulligan Creek, in Rader’s Valley, located on the old General Davis farm and runs about five or six miles underground till it empties in the Greenbrier River. The creek is also known as the Davis Spring. To find the area where General Davis’s farm once stood, simply follow US 219 into Fairlea, and when US 219 splits, do not turn left to head up to Kroger’s, but simply stay straight and follow the road a few miles.

The Voyage Down Sinking Creek, Continued:

“To say where I was, or to attempt to follow the subterranean passage, was the next question. I sometimes took the teams to my own tenant stable, and therefore might not be missed for days; so I determined to follow the stream. Leaving my dead companions [horses] behind me I followed the steam. I was often precipitated head long into deep water by the precipitous nature of the rocky bed of the stream. Talk about darkness of the grave, the grave itself could not have been more impalpably dark than the passage I was following.”

“The occasional rippling of the water was an inexpressibly dear sound to my ears. Day and night were the same to me. At last, wearing with my efforts, I laid down on a comparatively dry rock to rest, and must have slept for hours. When I awoke again I took to the water. When I had gone perhaps a mile I came to a place where the archway narrowed so much that I had to crawl on my hands and knees in the water. Here was a dilemma I had not looked for. I tried hard either bank of the creek but found no passage. I could swim under water a considerable distance but the distance before me was unknown, and I halted long before making the dangerous venture.”

“I plunged boldly in the current and soon found that I was so swift in its confined passage that I only needed to hold my breath to go through. In the course of twenty or thirty feet I again for my head about the water and took a long breathing spell.”

“At last, in the long distance ahead, I saw a glimmering that looked very bright in the darkness and when I had gone perhaps a mile, I came to another place where my path narrowed and the very tunnel filled by the water. My case was now becoming more desperate. I could not easily retrace my steps, so I submitted myself to the current, and was immeasurably overjoyed to find myself rapidly swept into daylight. I had come out into Greenbrier River as I knew from the familiar look of General Davis’ mill on the bank. In reaching home I found that I had been over forty-eight hours in making my perilous journey of six miles.”

Edith Lett wasn’t a famous historian in her time, though her father, Marcellous Zimmerman, wrote a great deal about the history of Greenbrier County. In 1930, she had recently moved back into her parents’ Lewisburg home. Twenty-nine years old herself, Edith had three children all under the age of 10, who she was supporting with her job as a church musician. Edith was still married, but her husband was elsewhere earning money for the family. She submitted more information about Greenbrier County than any other researcher for the West Virginia Writers’ Project. She was never on the WPA payroll, and was probably submitting her work, like the report she turned in on the Subterranean Voyage Down Sinking Creek, as an unpaid volunteer.

-WVU graduate student, Josh Howard, contributed to this article. “Subterranean Voyage” is courtesy of the West Virginia and Regional History Collection Library at West Virginia University, in Morgantown.


Category: Lewisburg to Rich Creek

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