Wander the woods off MacArthur Boulevard at night, and legend has it you'll see the fiery eyes of the tommyknocker burning into your soul.
Laurie DeWitt/The Gazette
Beverly Litsinger of Randallstown, Maryland Ghost and Spirit Association, checks the temperature and electromagnetic fields in the graveyard at Potomac United Methodist Church Friday, looking for a ghost.
A type of spirit linked to mining, Potomac's tommyknocker sprang from a deadly explosion in 1906 at the now-abandoned Maryland gold mine located near the entrance of the C&O Canal's Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center.
Sightings of the ghostly man with fiery eyes crawling from the mine at night, dragging a long tail behind him, drove night watchmen and miners from the property in droves, said Kathleen Kelly, a National Park Service ranger who has researched the mine's history.
"A ghostie-looking man with eyes of fire and a tail 10 feet long crawled out of the shaft and disappeared in the forest," Kelly read from an historical account of the night watchman credited with telling foreman Edgar Ingalls about the first known sighting of the tommyknocker. "Mr. Ingalls, I ain't doin' that job no more."
The mine closed in 1908, reopening briefly when the price of gold rose in 1913, 1915 and 1935, Kelly said. Today the abandoned property, pock-marked with sink holes, a decomposing water tower and buildings, lies behind a chain-link fence yards from the intersection of Falls Road and MacArthur Boulevard.
We didn't find the tommyknocker when your reporter and photographer visited the site Friday with Beverly Litsinger of Randallstown, founder of the Maryland Ghost and Spirit Association.
But we did find a particularly friendly ghost named Charles.
Armed with two types of electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors, an infrared temperature scanner, notepads, cameras and a tape recorder, the three of us trekked to the property, owned by the National Park Service, in search of ghostly activity. Litsinger often leads such investigations, and has visited a variety of schools, cemeteries, battlefields and statues in Maryland that are said to be haunted.
After a brief hike through the woods, which is accessible by the C&O Canal's Goldmine Loop trail at Great Falls, we reached the abandoned property. Signs behind the property's chain-link fences caution, "Stay Out! Stay Alive!" and warn of collapsing mine shafts, dangerous fumes and remaining dynamite.
But Litsinger, who says she has been able to see and communicate with ghosts since childhood, was far more concerned with other aspects of the mine.
"It caved in and people died," Litsinger said, approaching the chain-link fences that rim its perimeter. "So it's probably got an energy there."
According to survivors' accounts, miners were preparing to set a blast in one of the mine's 500-foot tunnels at 10:45 p.m. on June 15, 1906. Before lighting the dynamite, they gathered in the mine's "hoist house" -- a building covering the pulleys that lead into the mine -- for a drink.
Miners put a box of dynamite on a bench while they sipped from a "Georgetown bottle," liquor purchased in Georgetown during a trip down the C&O Canal. While drinking, one of the miners placed his helmet, with a lit candle mounted on top, next to the dynamite.
The dynamite's fuse caught fire, sending miners scrambling from the building. The explosion collapsed the hoist house, killing miner Charles Eglin.
Strange occurrences began to happen immediately after Eglin's death. First, a horse that worked at the mine refused to set one hoof through the property's gates and would instead rear, snort and paw the air.
Then the suspicious noises started.
"Supposedly, people started hearing footsteps behind them and strange noises especially at night," Kelly said. "The night watchmen said he could hear footsteps come up the gravel path right up the office door. There would be knocks on the door, but when he would open it, no one would be there."
Soon after, the night watchman reported his first sighting of the tommyknocker. "I started to shoot, but I remembered the tommyknocker could throw the shot back in my face," the night watchman told his foreman.
After the night watchman quit, it was impossible to fill his position, Kelly said. The cost of running the mine, coupled with the ominous legend of the tommyknocker, led to its permanent closure.
At the site Friday, Litsinger produced two EMF detectors and began waving them in the air by the property's fence. Immediately, the levels of one detector spiked from the normal "green" range of zero to three to a "red" range of between eight and 10.
"Yes, here," Litsinger said, smiling and gesturing toward a corner of the fence where a ghost lurked.
"We know you're here," Litsinger told the ghost. "I've been wanting to come here for some time. We're here to visit and learn about this place because it's a historical site."
Litsinger switched to a digital EMF detector, which breaks readings down into decimal points.
"Are there any other ghosts with you?" she asked, grinning as the meter jumped from .02 to .10. "See? That's a yes," she added, turning to us.
Litsinger encouraged your reporter and photographer to ask questions of the ghost as well. Recalling the name of the miner who died in 1906 explosion, your reporter asked whether his name was Charles. The meter again jumped from .03 to above .10.
"Hello, Charles," we said in unison.
Charles did not return the greeting.
Lunch with Charles
Ghosts may be linked to land where they died, a building, loved ones, or even a particular object, said Litsinger, who is writing a book about Maryland ghosts. She tracks hauntings statewide through the Maryland Ghost and Spirit Association, which she founded two years ago, posting them by county on the group's Web site.
Litsinger said she learned at a young age that discussing the specters she routinely saw meant being labeled "crazy" by peers, family members and friends. Her daughter, Jennifer Litsinger, 30, who also sees ghosts, prompted her to overcome that fear and found the association.
In two years, the group has grown to include more than 800 members, Beverly Litsinger said. "I just thought it would be a little thing I did for my daughter, but it grew," she said.
Spirits continue to visit their home, including Beverly Litsinger's father, who died in 1985 but visits as a friendly poltergeist, rattling spoons and moving furniture to make her laugh, she said.
After death, souls often don't realize that they are dead and remain close to where they lived or worked, Litsinger said. Others remain to look after loved ones or may feel guilt about a wrong committed during life, she said.
"One of the miners may think he caused the mining accident and may be here trying to fix things," she said.
If possible, Litsinger tries to help the ghosts move on from their past lives. "You don't have to stay here," she told Charles on Friday. "You can move on and try to find your loved ones. I'm sure they've been looking for you."
Wandering farther into the property, Litsinger and your photographer, who also carried an EMF detector, found two other ghosts near the crumbling foundation of what once was the mine's office.
Your photographer primed her camera, but as she pushed the trigger to take a picture, the battery suddenly drained -- a normal occurrence, Litsinger said.
"Always ask permission," Litsinger cautioned. "[Ghosts] will mess up your batteries. I always treat them with respect, as I would any person."
Cameras can often capture images of ghosts the human eye could not see, Litsinger said. Her scrapbooks are filled with pictures of orbs and ectoplasms, globule-like forms out of which the images of ghosts emerge, she said. Ghostly faces peer from the background of some of her pictures, while glowing orbs and foggy shadows fill the background on others.
None of your photographer's shots showed any sign of the ghosts. But a quick EMF scan during lunch at Old Angler's Inn -- which, built in the 1860s, is old enough to have ghosts of its own, Litsinger said -- showed your reporter may have picked up a paranormal souvenir of the day's adventures.
"Looks like you've picked up a ghost," said Litsinger, who added that ghosts often follow her home from her visits to cemeteries and other haunted locales. "You may remind him of someone he knew in a past life."
Litsinger instructed your reporter to send the ghost away by firmly asking it to leave and explaining why its company is not desired. But, feeling sorry for the lonely ghost who could be named Charles, your reporter decided to let it stay for lunch.