October 23, 2010
Princeton park a ghostly experience
Douglas Imbrogno
The riders are all gone on the overgrown Ferris Wheel at Lake Shawnee's Haunted Amusement Park in Mercer County.
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PRINCETON - Were you to believe the slew of ghostly encounters described by Gaylord White, you must conclude that spirits are so thick on his family's "Haunted Amusement Park" land you could cut them with a ...

Well, not a knife - them being ghosts and all.

"I have a lot of nonbelievers come here and they actually experience something and they walk away still being a nonbeliever because they don't want to believe what their eyes are seeing," says White.

He says this while leading yet another media crew across his weedy Mercer County property, in an unincorporated blip along W.Va. 10 called Lake Shawnee, about five miles north of Princeton.

But enough people and broadcasting networks do believe. Or, in the case of the networks, they believe in the frightful pull of the after-life to attract ratings.

That's why you might have seen the property's spooky, overrun-with-weeds Ferris wheel on the Travel Channel series "The Most Terrifying Places in America." It's why ABC Family network filmed the abandoned swing ride creaking in the wind on "The Ten Most Curious Places in the World."

Bagging spirits also brought the Discovery Channel's "GhostLab" to haul its ghost-finding gadgetry there in June to film a program to air sometime in November.

It's a curious twist for a run-down property that you'd barely notice by day, but which has become a nationally known magnet for those who dearly wish to be frightened out of their wits, or awed into amazement, by encounters with shades of people killed there and still restlessly roaming the property.

Then, there's a potential gold mine of American Indian spirits

on a property so full of artifacts and bones from ancient villages, says White, that several universities have done archaeological explorations.

"There's a total of about six people that accidentally died on the property," says the voluble White, warming to his task. "A little girl riding on the swings got hit by a pop truck backing up. Two kids died in the swimming pool. In the one, in the '60s the mother left him here while she went to work. They found him in the bottom of the pool with his arm hung in the drain."

White is recounting the first category of ghost tales from the property's history. The second breed of ghostly citizens supposedly hail from the land's Indian past and the days when settlers and Indians came to grips with each other via violence.

A nearby road sign plus a stone historic marker on the land recall that: "In this field in 1783, two children of Mitchell Clay were killed by Shawnee Indians. Clay was the first white settler in Mercer County."

People of a certain age in the county recall the property's history with far less frightfulness and ectoplasm.

In the early and mid-20th century, a popular regional amusement park opened by C.T. Snidow nestled amid what is still a lovely setting of rolling hills. The park featured a boathouse, swimming pool, rides and log cabins built around Lake Shawnee. (The tiny lake was once larger before part of it was filled in).

White's family bought the property in 1985. But Lake Shawnee eventually failed as an amusement park in the early '90s.

Perversely, the park's demise has contributed to the success of its latest incarnation - the two remaining rusted, busted rides are attractions in a completely new fashion. Vinyl banners on the front gates advertise lakeside catfish tournaments by daylight with "Haunted Amusement Park" tours by moonlight.

"People have seen silhouettes on the Ferris wheel," says White. "They ask, 'Well, how'd that guy get up there?' And I say, well, you can't - the leg guards are turned up into the seat. And they go, 'But I seen a man in a seat!' I'm going, 'That's what you're here for. You're here to experience it.'"

The girl who died on the swing? She's a virtual homesteading spirit, according to White. He tells how his father bought a 1957 Ford farm tractor to keep up with mowing the property's 100 or so acres.

"My dad drove it for four years. Said he always felt the presence of somebody sitting on his shoulder or leaning on his shoulder. And she showed herself. She come to him, told him that she'd like to have the tractor. So he got off the tractor and he give it to her."

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