Ravenwood Revisited, Part 2 [world building]

Revealing the Dragon.

They had met in August at Ravenwood High School while he was preparing the art room for another year of teaching. She was the new English teacher and had been touring the maze-like building with an entourage from the welcoming committee when she walked into his room and sent him back to when he had been a fumbling adolescent with a heart-skipping crush on her.

Ravenwood is based on my Pennsylvania hometown and a nearby lake. I butted the two places together to form one municipality. Ravenwood is located somewhere in western Pennsylvania, more than a hundred miles north of Pittsburgh and at least twenty miles west of the Allegheny River.

In 1702, long before the municipality was officially named Ravenwood, French fur hunters and trappers constructed the village Amity as a trading post and traded with Native Americans and settlers migrating west along the Allegheny valley. Amity remained a trading post until 1747.

Myers County was then formed from parts of Allegheny County on March 12, 1800. In 1829, one Frank Wood renamed Amity to Raven Wood after his mother’s lineage: Raven, and his father’s lineage: Wood.

Raven Wood grew into a sizable railroad town when oil was discovered in northwestern Pennsylvania in 1859. On May 27, 1861, tracks owned by the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad intersected with those of the Sunbury and Erie Railroad and was called the “Atlantic and Erie Junction.” Land at the junction was owned by Frank Wood, who sold a portion to the Atlantic and Great Western in October 1861. The railroad constructed a ticket office at the junction and, through a misspelling, it became Ravenwood.

The combination of railroad growth and the discovery of oil in northwestern Pennsylvania contributed greatly to Ravenwood’s development. The town went from a population of six hundred in 1861 to nine thousand in less than six months. Many surrounding forests were stripped of almost all of their valuable hardwood. Mills and farms sprang up on almost every conceivable spot.

This boomtown was chartered as a borough in 1863 and designated as a city in 1865.

Myers Ridge.

His wife Nancy returned to the house that night, drifting from room to room looking for a locket she had left behind. He did not tell her about Lisa and offered no conversation to her during her visit. She asked him if he missed her. He told her yes, but he realized his love for Lisa had broken the bond of husband and wife that had stayed with him since Nancy’s death almost ten years ago. He pretended to grade school work as she searched the house. When she found the locket, she left him and the house as silently as she came.

Myers Ridge is an end moraine, which is a ridge of unconsolidated debris deposited at the snout or end of a glacier during an ice age. Pushed into existence by great sheets of ice more than ten thousand years ago, Myers Ridge is being destroyed by erosion. It is now a craggy remnant of the mountain it was those thousands of years ago. Its limestone bowels of tunnels and caves are eroding and caving in, making topside areas dangerous places to live and travel on. Its once populated farm community has almost disappeared. Developers from New Cambridge (a city north of Ravenwood) tried to put in a ski slope in 1975 and 1983, but citizens familiar with the hill know the area is populated with sinkholes—the kind of thing people don’t want to be falling into while skiing. Both attempts were abandoned and the ridge remains a hill of mostly woods and derelict farmland.

Myers Ridge is center stage for many of my stories because of its eerie history dating back to when it was called Haute Colline (French for “high hill”). It seems there may have been UFO activity during 1745 to 1747. Eyewitnesses claimed of seeing strange lights traveling the hill during the darkest nights. Many reports said those lights left the hill and gathered at midnight over the center of Lac Petit-Miroir (Alice Lake), then whirled like “dust devils” for several minutes before they vanished into the lake.

This phenomenon continued for two years until another unexplained event—this one vicious and horrifying—befell Amity (now named Ravenwood) on the night of July 7, 1747 when the lights swarmed over the town, hovered in the sky for an hour, then exploded into flame that vanished into thick ash that settled upon the town like tarry soot.

The lights were never seen again after that night. However, fever, madness and death seized most of the three-hundred-and-fifty townspeople for the next five days. Many of the afflicted suffered slow, agonizing deaths. Of the few who lived outside of town and were not afflicted, one was 19-year-old Ezekiel Wood. He recorded a grisly account about a fur trader who murdered his wife and two children while they slept, and then stuffed their corpses inside the belly of a slaughtered cow. Ezekiel also wrote of madmen setting fire to the town. Nearly all the homes destroyed had both dead and living inside. Ezekiel, who was attending the sick, managed to escape the inferno by submerging himself in the local river. He was the only known survivor of the blaze, and he became great-grandfather to Ravenwood founder, Frank Wood.

Fifty-four years later, the ridge received its official name in 1801 when Jonah Myers purchased the property from the state. Jonah Myers and his family were sheep and goat farmers during a time when the wool industry was strong and the farms there were stately oak and marble buildings. (Some of those buildings still stand, though the state has sold much of the land to corporations and developers.)

In 1891, Jonah’s great-grandson Norman Myers found gold and other precious metals on his property. He and his family hauled out ores, became wealthy, and occasionally squabbled over mining rights until, according to legend, Norman’s mines dried up in 1901, on the very anniversary of his discovery. Soon afterwards, Norman disappeared. Some suspected James McCoy, an angry business partner murdered him inside one of his three abandoned mines. Since no body was ever found, McCoy was never charged. He left town a year later and family claimed to see Norman’s ghost haunting the hill that very night. To this day, some people claim that his ghost guards a secret treasure, while others say he haunts the hill until his body is found and given a proper burial. His mines have since collapsed and the property bequeathed to the county by the few and scattered surviving heirs in lieu of payment of delinquent taxes and bank loans owed by Norman. In 1971, the Ravenwood Historical Society purchased the only standing entrance to one of the mines and turned it into a monument. They also purchased Jonah Myers’s home.

The tale of Norman Myers is not the only ghost story to come out of Myers Ridge. Norman’s only son Joseph Myers was a famous playwright who became even more popular writing blockbuster screenplays for Hollywood. He and his wife Emma “mysteriously disappeared” from their estate on Myers Ridge. There have been sightings of Joseph’s ghost at the site of his old mansion.


2 thoughts on “Ravenwood Revisited, Part 2 [world building]

    1. Steve Campbell

      I believe every story contains bits of history from the author’s past, with names and places changed, of course. Just as Ridgewood is based on actual places, some of my characters are based on real people … mostly relatives. I grew up with cousins who spent nights staying awake because they believed ghosts appeared between midnight and 6 a.m. Those events were the basis for Night of the Hellhounds. I think I write about children because my memories of childhood are so vivid, not because I wanted to be a writer of young adult stories. There are plenty of creepy adults in my stories, as well, like the nose-picking rapist in Trespassing and the sourpuss tow-truck driver in III, who are based on real people I met while growing up in a small town in northeast USA. Every community has them.

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