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Harpers Ferry Ghost Walk

Text and photographs by Carl E. Feather

According to Shirley Dougherty, you can learn something about a train engineer by the way he runs his train through Harpers Ferry. If the engineer slows down to a crawl, particularly on a foggy night, there's a good chance that he's met Jenny at some point in his career.

Shirley Dougherty
Shirley Dougherty of Harpers Ferry chills visitors with her walking tour of haunted places.

Jenny, as the local ghost story goes, lived in an old storage shed near the Federal Armory in the mid-19th century. She, like other poverty-cursed residents of the industrial town, suffered through the humid summers and cold winters of Harpers Ferry with only a shanty to protect her. One winter night, Jenny drew too close to her fireplace and her ragged dress caught on fire. Screaming, Jenny fled from her shack and ran down the railroad tracks C head on into a locomotive. The night train killed Jenny, Shirley says, but it could not silence her screams or extinguish the flames.

"Watch the trains pass this point in the old Armory yard," writes Shirley in her book, A Ghostly Tour of Harpers Ferry. "You will be able to tell which engineers have met screaming Jenny by the slack speed by which they guide their trains over this section of track."

An orange-red sunset hanging over the Chessie System tracks brings Jenny's story to mind as I wait for Shirley's tour at Hot Dog Haven in Harpers Ferry on a steamy evening in late June. While the local souvenir sellers and ice-cream vendors thrive during the heat of the day, Shirley's business is best conducted when mist rises from the stagnant canal, a yellow moon hangs over Loudon Heights, and a lonesome locomotive wails through the tunnel running under Maryland Heights. And if something should go bump, bump, bang down a flight of back steps or an orange fireball roll down the railroad tracks, so much the better.

Since 1977, Shirley has conducted her hour-long pedestrian excursion into stories of the supernatural and to the places where these tales originated. Tens of thousands have taken the tour, including West Virginia legislators and actress Mary Tyler Moore who made the tour incognito. Most nights, the crowd consists of the curious, the half-believing, and the skeptical. By the time Shirley gets done with them, however, there are very few unbelievers.

You can read the rest of this article in the Fall 2001 issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.