Haunted history or local folktale?
(Road sign for Sensabaugh Hollow Road.)
“…Houses are alive. This is something we know. News from our nerve endings. If we’re quiet, if we listen, we can hear houses breath. Sometimes, in the depths of the night, you can even hear them groan. It’s as if they were having bad dreams. A good house cradles and comforts, a bad one fills us with instinctive unease. Bad houses hate our warmth and our human-ness. That blind hate of our humanity is what we mean when we use the word ‘haunted’ but what we really mean is that the house has gone insane.” – Stephen King, “Rose Red.”
There are places in our world, locales of darkness, sites alive with energy that lives, pulsing beneath the walls and between the studs and stones. In the depth of night or when we are alone at our most vulnerable, if we are silent, we can hear those who came before. Whispers and voices, barely there, speak out to us, telling us their stories. Not all of those stories will make sense, lost in the miasma of humanity and years. Sometimes, these stories become real again, if only for the briefest of moments in sheer desperation to make contact once last time with the walking world for good or for ill. The world itself therefore has gone insane, not following its set rules of logic and reason. This is what I believe Stephen King meant when he wrote that piece for his screenplay for “Rose Red”, a film about a house that went “bad” and gained a creeping sentience over its lifetime.
But are houses the only places that can go insane? Can other places go crazy, mad with anger, sadness and depravity? A second question is how much can we as living people influence the power of these places by our retellings of their insanities?
There is such a place located in Kingsport, Tennessee, deep on the back roads a decent ways from the city center. On this winding narrow road the trees grow over and reach to the banks of the river on the right side, making a type of natural canopy. The Holston River flows, churning and swelling with the heavy rains a beautiful but deadly partner to the twisting road and its single large railroad trestle. The place is a tunnel, called Sensabaugh Tunnel. The tunnel itself is set into what was once a hill. Back in the mid 1920’s, the hill was blasted apart to make way for a roadbed and to act as a support for the train tracks that would be going over it from the C.C.&O. Railroad. The property used to belong to the Sensabaugh family who owned a farm on the opposite side of what was to become the roadway. They sold the land and assisted in the tunnel’s construction. Over twelve feet high and at three hundred and eighty odd feet long the tunnel was paved to allow traffic to pass through.
(Sensabaugh Tunnel, road entrance. Crybaby Pool is to the lower left.)
During the mid to late 1950s and early 1960s stories began to swirl about the haunting of Sensabaugh Tunnel. The local teenagers would often use the small parking spot just before entering the tunnel as a necking spot, a place to hang out, make out and get into all kinds of mischief. The stories started small: Strange eerie noises of crying and screaming coming from inside the dark center of the tunnel itself. Not long after a story began to whisper on the air: A baby had been killed by a hobo in the tunnel after a robbery went wrong at the Sensabaugh home on the other side of the tunnel. The most common variation on the story was that a hobo broke into the Sensabaugh home and took the family jewels and kidnapped the baby as insurance after he was caught. Running through the tunnel with Ed Sensabaugh hot on his tail, the hobo tossed the baby into the pool of water on the side of the tunnel facing away from the house to distract Sensabaugh as he made his escape.
Another variation is that Ed Sensabaugh, the man who lived in the white house on the other side of the tunnel, went crazy one night and murdered his entire family and then killed himself inside the tunnel. On top of that story, was the tale of a woman who was driving home one night during a thunderstorm who had car trouble inside the tunnel, breaking down. She got out of her car and walked towards the Sensabaugh home to use the phone. She never made it and is assumed to have either been murdered by a lunatic or just vanished into the tunnel itself, not unlike the demonic house in Rose Red.
It was said that no one could ever walk the tunnel at midnight, from back to front without going insane or being attacked. There were stories of cars driving through the tunnel, shutting off their engines on purpose and a few seconds later be unable to start them up again, all the while hearing shrieking laughter and seeing a tall dark figure with red eyes rise up from the shadows behind the car. Later, tiny child size hand prints would be found seared into the vehicle (Price, 1999).
These stories persisted until modern times and teenagers and locals still recount them as though they were bona fide history, tried and true. The inside of the tunnel is now covered in graffiti and satanic symbols. Water flows through one side, emptying out into a small pool just outside the mouth and inside, there are no lights, just a single power cable near the roof, hanging desolately in the damp dark. Cars still drive through it, honking their horns as they enter to avoid an accident and on the far side, the white house that used to belong to Edward and his family still stands. The first question we raised before was “Can places other than houses go insane?” and the second was how much we as people could influence their insanity with our retellings and fanning the flames of the stories about them.
(The old Sensabaugh family home.)
To answer the first question, we have to examine the stories that have grown up around Sensabaugh Tunnel. Is it really haunted and if so, why? The second answer will depend on the first. Does our spreading of the stories add to the mystique and the power places, especially bad ones, can hold over us?
Tackling the story of the hobo and murdered baby first seems like an excellent place to start.
Simply put, it never happened, not in any way shape or fashion. There was never a baby drowned in the pool nor was a baby ever killed inside or on the tunnel grounds. The part about Edward Sensabaugh is also untrue; he never chased a murderer and he certainly never killed his family. By all accounts, he was a friendly family man who was a good neighbor and a hard worker. His family and descendants are alive and well and having spoken and interviewed his family at length, I can say the stories of him being a killer are absolutely false. The story about the woman is also untrue. There are so many other local myths about Sensabaugh Tunnel: That the road tunnel isn’t the REAL tunnel, that the REAL one is actually Sensabaugh Ridge Tunnel, a train tunnel not far from the road one. Then there’s the myth of the Five Caves, a haunted cave system that was tied to the legends that has never been found and lastly, a second tunnel, which is actually a river culvert just before you reach Sensabaugh Tunnel, called River Tunnel, associated with demons, drugs and devil worship all untrue (except the drugs).
(The Crybaby Pool, where the baby was supposed to have drowned.)
Despite the legends of him being a murderer not being true, Ed Sensabaugh does have a strange connection to the tunnel his family gave its name to. In the 1950s and 60s, Ed, as stated really did live in the white house on the opposite side of the tunnel with his family. And as stated, teenagers would often park in the small spot just before the tunnel’s mouth and cause all kinds of trouble. Ed had a particular talent, one his descendant Jack Sensabaugh described to a reporter for the Kingsport Times in 1995. Ed was a talented mimic and could replicate almost any animal sound with eerie accuracy. Back in Ed’s day, the local teens would also get inside the tunnel and throw parties, making all kinds of noise. This noise would wake up Ed’s kids since the noise would carry through the tunnel which is like an acoustic chamber. Irritated, Ed vowed to put a stop to it.
When the teens would show up to party and cause a scene, Ed would sneak off to the meadow not far from the tunnel itself and begin to make sounds, imitating a baby’s cry and women screaming. The sounds would carry directly into the tunnel and become amplified. Terrified out of their wits, the kids would make haste to carry themselves away from the tunnel and probably also needed a new pair of shorts.(Kingsport Times, 1995). Slowly the tunnel’s legend began to grow and without finding a cause for the sounds that they heard, the teens came up with their own theories and those theories warped and mutated into something grand and terrifying. Most likely, the local parents knew that it was Ed and were probably having a good laugh at the expense of their kids as well.
Many paranormal blogs, sites and local investigation groups have often repeated these stories as absolute truth, posting recordings and pictures and even full blown experiences relating to the legends about the tunnel always linking them to the dead baby or woman or the evil ghost of Ed Sensabaugh.
But if those stories were untrue, is it just psychology that has made the legend grow? What does that say about us as ghost hunters who have knowledge of a location beforehand going in hot to a place, collecting recordings and fitting the evidence to the established story? In other words, could all the evidence collected be a worthless result of confirmation bias?
Perhaps but in the case of Sensabaugh Tunnel, the story is still more complicated and sadly, tragic.
As I said before, the tunnel was blasted into the side of a hill, cutting a V for the roadbed. During the early and mid-1900’s, immigrants were making their way in droves to our shores, and many of them found work on the railroads. One such immigrant was Colisco Francisco Anatonio. Hailing from Sicily, Anatonio was on the run from Italian authorities who wanted him for the murder of his wife’s lover, whom he shot in cold blood. He arrived in 1905 in New York City and gradually over the course of the next twenty odd years moved many times until he finally settled in Clinchport, VA and began to work with the labor gangs for the C.C.&O. He later married a woman named Jenkins and had seven children with her, six boys and one girl (Essin, 1975).
Anatonio was one of the many Italian migrant workers, along with some Chinese men, who helped build Sensabaugh Tunnel. During the cutting of the roadbed and the blasting to make room for the construction there was an accident with dynamite. The horrific explosion killed seven of his closest friends, leaving a bloody mess of twisted bodies and wreckage. As per the custom for Catholic workers, the men were buried in unmarked pauper’s graves in the Ross Campground Methodist Church cemetery near the tunnel. Luckily, the custom of the day wasn’t followed. A popular habit of foreman during that time, was to bury killed construction crew alongside the construction site itself or perhaps, even inside it, to save money and time. As far as can be told, the worker’s really were buried in the church cemetery, though only a detailed analysis with equipment far more expensive than most ghost hunting crews possess would be able to confirm if they were really were. Migrant workers during the time were underpaid, worked in horrible conditions all just to survive and often times, their lives were cut brutally short and the world kept turning, uncaring and cold to their struggle.
Could it be the case, that all the sweat and literal blood that went into the construction of the tunnel left behind some kind of eerie residue that under the right conditions flashes awake and alive with a frightening speed to lash out and refuse to be forgotten? Is that what ghost hunters are hearing in the tunnel, layered with the emotional fear of teenagers scared silly and the determination of a man trying to drive them off? It very well could be. It could very well be the case that Sensabaugh Tunnel is itself insane with history and the sacrifice of humanity paid for in life itself for profit and the muddying effects of time and word of mouth.
Many locals are still afraid of it and steer clear of it at night so naturally after spending six months studying it inside and out with my research team, digging through papers and books and stories of the family involved, talking to descendants and the populace, I went there with my group. We spent night after night, in the freezing cold and the burning heat taking measurements, readings, recordings, trying to get to the bottom of the stories, the real source.
We did record some interesting audio files but nothing that I could present as evidence to any theory or story. Walking through the tunnel, there are no feelings, no fear, nothing jumps out and says boo. What I thought about when I walked through was the seven men who died building it for progress, to make white men richer while their migrant families lay in poverty. Their sacrifice is constantly forgotten in the retellings. I’ve never seen a single blog or group ever tell it. The silence in the tunnel is real horror; pressing, heavy and somber. Otherwise, as far as paranormal activity is concerned, there is nothing of note.
Do I think Sensabaugh Tunnel is haunted, is it insane, as Stephen King suggested that haunted places are?
Yes. I do think it is haunted by not by ghosts or ghouls. Rather, it is haunted by the sheer power of human attachment to scary stories to explain the unexplainable. Human nature does not like a void and will do anything to fill it in, even if what is brought in to fill the gaps is more outrageous than any reality or history combined. In this way, insanity is built as insanity is a detachment from reality and thus, our being afraid of something we created in our fear, controls us. It won’t allow us to walk through such places without feeling a shiver of fear or wondering, “what if?”
Is that not a form of insanity if we allow such things to hold us prisoner to our own illusions?
Perhaps, in the end, Sensabaugh Tunnel and places like it aren’t haunted.
Perhaps, rather, we, people, are the ones who are haunted.
“It’s astounding…time is fleeting…madness takes its toll…..”
——-Rocky Horror Picture Show.
——A.J. October, 30, 2015.
Essin, E. (1975). Aliens in Appalachia: The Construction of the Clinchfield Railroad and the Italian Experience. In Appalachia: Family Traditions in Transition (p 85). Johnson City, TN: [Research Advisory Council, East Tennessee State University).
Price, C. (1999). Sensabaugh Tunnel. More Haunted Tennessee: A new collection of spine-chilling ghost and monster tales from the Volunteer State (pp.76-79). Johnson City, TN: Overmountain Press.
Sensabaugh Tunnel. (1995, October 29). Kingsport Times.