Fifteen years after first hearing the creepy tales tied to the Cuyahoga Valley, a writer uncovers fact in fiction and finds the truth as haunting as any childhood ghost story.
I’m not sure what to expect as I turn onto Boston Township’s lonely Stanford Road. The rays of sun spilling through my windshield do little to calm my goose bumps as I click through a mental checklist of stories I’d heard as a kid. I know better, but that doesn’t matter as I pass creepy, dilapidated homes.
I stop my car where the road crests — the place known as “The End of the World” among those familiar with the legends tied to this part of the Cuyahoga Valley. I look down the steep drop-off, past the “Road Closed” sign to where the asphalt disappears into a canopy of green foliage. The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” fittingly drifts from my radio as I decide whether to take the plunge and follow the road to its end.
I grew up in nearby Brecksville, a land of quiet suburban homes nestled beside the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I first heard about Hell Town in sixth grade. It seemed everyone had an account from an older sibling who knew someone who had actually been to the purportedly abandoned village hidden in the hills. I remember a story about the ghosts of a busload of children and the tale of a satanic church with candles that burned in its windows through the night.
I’d always wondered about the basis for the creepy Hell Town tales. Then, years later, I learned — at least from a purely physical standpoint — the abandoned village at the center of the myths exists … sort of. There are many places in the Cuyahoga Valley where visitors will stumble upon vacant, boarded-up houses that serve as perfect settings for haunted tales to take root. And though I outgrew the ghost stories a long time ago, I’ve always wanted to know the real story behind those abandoned homes.
Then, I find a Web site (www.prairieghosts.com) that details how it happened. The explanation comes in an exhaustive article penned by Ohio ghost hunter Jim Willis, who visited Boston Township in 2002 to debunk the supernatural tales.
He discovered that the village of Boston, founded in 1806, was a hub of activity during the 1800s and early 1900s thanks to nearby mills, the canal and the construction of a railroad line. Over the years, people made the surrounding area of Boston Township their home. Then, in 1974, the federal government granted the National Park Service authority to buy land for preservation, including a large portion of the Cuyahoga Valley. The mass buyouts led to a large-scale eviction of private property owners. Houses were boarded-up until they could be torn down. But the government fell behind and many of the homes were never demolished. The ghost stories began soon after, latching on to bits of truth that provide innocent explanations for the sinister legends.
For example, Willis learned that a school bus, which belonged to a family who lived in the area prior to 1974, was left behind after the buyout. (It has since been towed away due to the number of trespassers searching for its ghostly passengers.) The rumored satanic church was probably based on the secluded Boston Community Church, which is listed in the phone book and open to the public. And Stanford Road eerily ends because it’s obsolete and repairs are expensive, not because someone wants to keep visitors out.
Part of what Willis wrote sticks with me: “There is an odd feeling throughout Boston Township and the surrounding area. But it’s not caused by anything supernatural. It’s a certain sadness in thinking of how the residents of this area had to sit helplessly by while neighbors, friends and, in some cases, family members were forced to move.”
Looking down Stanford Road, which sees no traffic anymore, I sense that emptiness stronger than ever. Since the National Park Service isn’t fond of people snooping around, I turn my car around and head back the way I came.
As I leave, it occurs to me that it’s no longer the Hell Town tales that haunt me. It’s these lonely old homes — places where people worked and played, lived and died — boarded-up, alone and still inhabiting a world that has left them behind.
Visit www.prairieghosts.com/helltown.html. for more info.
in the cle
12:00 AM EST
September 28, 2005