The Haunting of Avella, PA 

Written by Kenna Hixenbaugh 

What makes a place haunted? Is it the myths that change over time to become the elders’ well-known facts or is it these facts that have become twisted and rearranged into a new one with each generation it touches? Perhaps it is the ghosts themselves that create their own story. Many say that for a place to be haunted, the spot must have a painful significance to the deceased person where they feel tied down too. Since the beginning of time, ghost sightings have occurred all over the world. According to this website, history.com, the concept of a ghost is based on the idea that a person’s spirit lingers in the real world while their body dies (2019). Due to this conception, many people began to have funerals to ensure that the deceased person’s spirit would not be able to linger to haunt the living. One particular spot that is presumably haunted is the small town of Avella, Pennsylvania just south of Pittsburgh. While the small town of Avella is easily looked over by many of its neighboring towns, the ghosts trapped in the town haunt those that have lived there since before the end of the slave trade. 

The town of Avella was founded around the early 1900s, when mining jobs were prominent (History, 2015). Before the steel industry arose, Avella primarily contained farmers. It was not until Italian immigrants came to Avella to work as coal miners that the town was fully established. The name of the town Avella came from a town in Italy. The education back then were one room schoolhouses. Most of the children of Avella would go to school up until eighth grade, where they would be considered adults to maintain the household and farm. The beliefs of most of the town believe in ghosts and the supernatural because of Avella’s old history. Almost all of Avella still has houses from the first time they were built in the early 1900s. The religion is predominantly Catholic in Avella (History, 2015). In the Catholic teaching, the body and soul separate, which leads to the town to believe in ghosts. Most of the stories told in this paper began when the town of Avella was created. Over a century’s time, the hauntings from the 1900s still take place today.  

The first landmark in Avella that is allegedly haunted is a road called Shades of Death. If the name was not a warning sign enough, the story of how the road got the name will definitely be a deterrent. The Pittsburgh Gazette provides an explanation to why the road was named Shades of Death. In the 1800s, Indians supposedly named the road such a morbid name due to the nature of the setting. Lining the road were Hemlock trees, so thick that it caused traveling through the canopy of trees to be so dark that even during the day, one would need light. Hemlock plants are highly lethal to any living organism. If one were to eat this plant, that is often mistaken for parsley, the individual would die. There is no antidote to reverse consumption of this plant. Combining the darkness of the trees and the deadly plants, the name Shades of Death was born. 

 One of the oldest paranormal stories of Shades of Death was in 1922, eight coal miners and a Brooke County sheriff lost their lives to a mining incident. Back in the 1920s, there were many casualties due to the lack of safety and supervision in the mines. Some circumstances were due from the tools used in the mine, cave-ins, and explosions from faulty dynamite. Many of these men suffered from, “a loss of limbs, suffocation, third degree burns, and wounds that quickly became infected”. Not having the technology used today in the modern world to help with these issues, many of the men died from exposure.  

Some say that if one were to stop in the middle of the road and listen, the blood curling screams could be heard from the miners burning alive and the cries of their families listening to their loved one dying. It is said the miners haunt the road because they were buried in unmarked graves without a proper funeral. Some may say the story of the miners is all bluff, but unexplainably, several car crashes have happened in the area. When the victims of the car crashes are questioned on what happened, most of their explanations are the same: “A dark figured darted across the road in front of their vehicle or they witnessed a glowing white apparition that appeared to be in distress and vanished into thin air”. Shades of Death is not the only allegedly haunted place in the small town of Avella. Around the same time, slaves were making their way up north for a better chance of freedom and stayed within a short distance of Avella, in a town called West Middletown. 

Within Avella school district, there is a town called West Middletown. This town consists of less than 200 residents. West Middletown has been linked to a part of the Underground Railroad. In a newspaper article, Mike Hixenbaugh, takes an interviewer through a house he bought to restore and uncovers secret hidden spots for runaway slaves to hide in. During the time slavery was huge, slaves would make way into the northern states to have a better chance of freedom. Long ago before Hixenbaugh purchased the house in West Middletown, a man named Thomas McKeever owned the home. The Observer Reporter provided documentation that McKeever helped over thirty slaves on the run, to safely hide in his home. Of course, not all slaves made it out alive, as pro-slavery groups would soon raid McKeever’s home to find runaway slaves. Hixenbaugh’s house is not the only house in West Middletown that was involved in the Underground Railroad. Soon after the raid uncovered this town was hiding runaway slaves, the town was ransacked. Some say the slaves’ souls are trapped in the town where they struck out of luck with a chance of freedom. 

Cross Creek Lake is one of the biggest fishing spots in Washington County but this place that is surrounded by the woods and nature, that invites families to enjoy the fresh water, playgrounds, and picnic tables is not particularly friendly. It is 1795, and on her second marriage, Mary Leman Stewart, moves to Cross Creek with her new husband, James Ridgeway and young daughter, Isabel Stewart. Where the family used to live, young Isabel could play with her many cousins in a few minutes’ walk but now in her new home area, she could not go far, not with the danger that lurked in the woods. Most of the Indians had been pushed to the other side of the Ohio River and attacks on white settlers were rare. Even knowing that Indian attacks were dwindling down, Mary kept an eye out on the tree line and James always kept his knife and gun close. 

A fellow community member tragically died from a tree falling on him. James and Mary were to attend the memorial just three miles away and decided to leave young Isabel to look after the house. As her parents journeyed to the ceremony, James forgot his tobacco and went quickly to retrieve it. He said that his tobacco was necessary because of the long service. When they arrive at the ceremony, Mary senses something is wrong. Full of anxiety, Mary rose from her seat at the ceremony and decided to leave. Her nephew, John offered to escort her home, but she insisted he stay. As she reached the clearing of the farm, she was shocked to not see her daughter excitedly run to greet her. As Mary approaches the door, she still does not see or hear her daughter. A journalist for the Observer Reporter, Park Burroughs, describes brutally what Mary sees, “She finds Isabel laying like a discarded doll upon the plank floor, the light from the open door reflected in the dark pool oozing from beneath the body”. Mary immediately begins to break down, devastated to see her lifeless daughter, and runs to seek help. She is encountered by her husband and nephew. Mary can barely speak to tell them what has happened and points to the door. James picks up Isabel’s limp body into his arms, and John enters cautiously. John sees his young cousin with her head split into two and her clothing soaked in blood. As he turned away, John saw an axe covered in blood neatly returned to its place in the home. The horrific news spread in the community, and they wanted justice for the little girl.  

The rumor floating around town was that Isabel had been tomahawked by Indians. That rumor was quickly dismissed due to the nature of the marks on her body: bruising and burn marks before the fatal blow to her skull. A scenario began to fall into place. The killer knew Isabel, someone that knew the family kept money in the house and knew the family would not be at the house to protect the innocent girl. Two days after the murder, the Washington Telegraph and Western Advisor named a suspect, James Stewart, a distant cousin to Isabel, who was seen loitering about the neighborhood. The chances of finding this man were slim because his name was quite common during this time. The community was eager to cast blame on someone and James Ridgeway, Isabel’s stepfather, became their target. The reasons that could prove him guilty were that he had returned alone to retrieve his tobacco and that Isabel’s life was all that stood in the way of joint ownership of the farm. But it did not make sense that James Ridgeway would rob his own house and killed his beloved stepdaughter.  

Years later, John was in a barroom along the Ohio River, and he recognized a man. It was James Stewart. John began talking and questioning James about his young cousin, Stewart got up and left never to be seen again. As for Isabel’s stepfather, he died an old age right after Mary did. The head suspect is still led to be James Stewart. Isabel Stewart’s murder could be named Washington’s coldest and oldest case. It is said that if one would go on a hike through the trails of Cross Creek, the sound of a little girl is heard screaming for help and mercy of her unknown killer. 

Despite the evidence provided that the town of Avella is haunted, some believe that this town is like any other town and is in fact not haunted. Some could argue that the stories of each of the different spots in Avella are all made up or true stories that are twisted into ghost stories. This topic is controversial due to the unknown facts about ghosts. However, this may be critic’s opinion, but evidence is undeniably shown that the stories and sighting match up with the history of the town.  

Even though most of the population do not believe in ghosts, there is sufficient evidence that the town of Avella is haunted by ghosts dating back to the late 1700s. After analyzing the cases and stories on Shades of Death Road, West Middletown, and Cross Creek, there is undeniable evidence that the town of Avella is haunted. To refer to the introduction; what makes a place haunted is that the person or people that died in the spot need to have a painful reason to stay in the place they died. Each setting checks off this box. The miners haunt Shades of Death due to unsafe mines and never getting to come home to their families. The runaway slaves are stuck in West Middletown because the pro-slavery groups ruined their chance of a better life of freedom. Finally, the young daughter of Mary Stewart was murdered by an unknown killer, stunting Isabel’s young life, and erasing her future. Most people believe that ghosts are mostly harmful entities that are searching for evil. But if one has the chance to go to any one of these places in Avella, go to show respect and support to these lost souls. Each story is about people who were trying to better their lives and ended up wrongfully failing due to tragic ends. Who is brave enough to take a trip to the mysterious town of Avella? 


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