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The Legend Of Wild Tom Skelton And The Ghost Of Packsaddle Gap

Updated: Nov 14, 2022

Old-time railroaders from western Pennsylvania would often tell stories about the ghost of Tom Skelton who would frequently stand on the tracks as the thundering steel horses bore down on him, he would lean on his gun with a defeated look in his eyes, while cursed for all eternity to search for his love Maria.

Pack Saddle Gap Tom Skelton
The rail tracks at Pack Saddle Gap, Pennsylvania

The legend of Tom Skelton is one of love and heartbreak on the wild frontier of present-day Indiana County, the story has been passed through generations and still remains strong to this day.

We wanted to take a look into the true origin of the story of Wild Tom Skelton and his unsettled spirit which is known throughout western Pennsylvania as the Ghost of Packsaddle Gap.

The earliest record of the Ghost of Packsaddle Gap dates back to 1851, when the tale was first written about by Dr. Frank Cowan, who was a physician from Greensburg who served as personal secretary to President Andrew Jackson.

Dr Cowan may well have based his version of the story on tales he had heard previously from local residents about how the Pennsylvania railroad trains rounding the horseshoe curve along the Conemaugh River, just east of Blairsville, had been forced to stop on three different occasions because of reports of a man whose figure was illuminated by the headlamps of locomotives passing the gap cut through Chestnut Ridge.

According to Dr Cowans's story, the trainmen were convinced that they had hit the unknown man walking on the tracks and went to search the mountainside and river bank for his body.

"But the light of the lantern has not revealed to the engineer, nor the light of day to the laborer, the mangled body of Wild Tom Skelton, the weird old man that haunts the Packsaddle Gap," wrote Dr. Cowan.

A long time before the white man settled in this region, an old Indian trail ran along Chestnut Ridge. When the first settlers arrived, they used this trail to push their way westward, and in the years that followed, the towpath of the Pennsylvania Canal followed the same course. When freight trains supplanted canal barges, the Pennsylvania Railroad laid its tracks over this ancient Indian trail.

Going back to when the trail was used by pioneers, there was a family by the name of McDowell who travelled to settle in the region. Donald McDowell, who was the patriarch of the family was a sickly man who lived with his wife and their daughter who was blind, Maria, in a small cabin at Packsaddle Gap.

Maria was renowned for her striking beauty, so much so that the local Indians began to call the young woman "New Moon", this newly inherited name would stick with her throughout her life.

It was Mr Tom Skelton, who was a handsome and strapping young frontier hunter, who helped Donald McDowell to construct their wooden cabin, it was during this period that Tom Skelton met Maria and quickly fell madly in love with her.

Donald McDowell's health continued to decline at a quick rate and his death didn't seem like it would be far away, Tom made a promise to the sick man, he assured him that he would look after his widow and his daughter Maria. When McDowell actually passed, Tom went on to dig his grave and made sure that he got a proper burial.

Tom knew that the promise he had made would not be easy to keep; the illness that had left Maria blind had also made her extremely frail and weak, and McDowell, who learned how to make medicine from the Indians, had a daily routine of gathering snake-root and pipsissewa to treat her intense coughing fits. Unfortunately for Tom, the only place where pipsissewa grew was in the shadow of a lone cedar tree that stood high upon the craggy sandstone cliffs on the other side of the river.

Donald McDowell's widow was too frail and old to go and gather the required herbs, Tom quickly volunteered himself to start collecting them, but it didn't take long before the plants that they needed came into short supply. Tom ended up disappearing for days at a time with a rifle and his axe in search of the ingredients needed for Maria's medicine as well as hunting game to feed them.

Although she was Blind, Maria explained to her mother that she thought she knew where she could find snake-root and pipsissewa, armed with a hoe, Maria waded across the Conemaugh and hiked into the dark hollow of Packsaddle Gap.

Tom was descending Chestnut Ridge on his way back to the cabin when he heard a rustling noise coming from the bushes near the lone cedar tree, Tom thought that this must be a deer and fired his rifle, quickly running to the spot where the animal he believed he had just shot had fallen.

For Tom Skelton, horror quickly ran through his body as he found not a deer, but the fatally wounded Maria, he had shot the love of his life straight through the chest. When he found her, Maria was still clinging to life, but Tom knew that the gunshot wound would be fatal. Riddled with anger and unbelievable grief, Tom screamed to the heavens, vowing to take his own life.

"No, Tom," pleaded the dying young woman. "Don’t take your own life," she gasped in a weak voice. "Twas only God’s will. Go tell my mother that I’m gone, and give me one final kiss. Though I could never be yours on earth, I’ll always love you in heaven."

The sky quickly darkened as Tom attempted to make his way back to the cabin, and by the time he had told Maria's mother the tragic news that her beloved daughter was dead the rain was pouring down and a storm was in full swing. Tom was concerned that the storm would soon make it impossible to cross the river, so he waded across the Conemaugh as quickly as he could, determined that he would retrieve Maria's body.

Tom Skelton and the Ghost of Packsaddle Gap
Locals believe that this boulder, unearthed in 1971, shows the footprints of Tom Skelton

By the time he finally reached the other side, he was so exhausted that he just collapsed on the banks of the river, only to be awoken by a huge clap of thunder, when he woke his gaze caught the top of Chestnut Ridge, where he noticed that the lone, tall cedar tree had been split by the powerful lightning.

Tom's situation would only get worse, the water level of the Conemaugh continued to rise at a rapid rate and he scrambled up the ridge to get himself to safety, only to watch on, completely helpless as the McDowell cabin was swept away, taking Maria's mother with it.

Tom would finally make it to the top where the cold and lifeless body of Maria was still slumped. When he reached his beloved's body he was astounded to discover that a rock slide had exposed a strange outcropping of rock that, when viewed in profile, bore a remarkable likeness to the old pioneer, Donald McDowell.

For generations, this sandstone rock formation could be seen by travelers along the old Indian trail and, later, passengers on the Pennsylvania Railroad. Then, in September of 1903, the railroad detonated 250 charges of nitroglycerine and collapsed the side of the mountain in order to make room for two additional tracks and to straighten out the deadly "horseshoe curve" where so many engineers claimed to have encountered the ghost of Packsaddle Gap.

And what a mighty explosion it must have been; the September 28, 1903 edition of the Latrobe Bulletin reported that it was "the greatest blast that ever echoed through the Allegheny Mountains."

After this alteration of the landscape, sightings of Wild Tom Skelton’s ghost diminished greatly, though some veteran railroaders reported having seen the apparition well into the 20th century.

By the 1950s the story of the ghost of Packsaddle Gap had become largely forgotten, until a peculiar event rekindled interest in the legend. In June of 1971, the landscape was once again altered, this time by the Penn View Mountain Railroad.

During the excavation, a large sandstone boulder slid down an embankment, and workers were astonished to discover two crystal-clear moccasin imprints embedded in the rock.

Could these be the footprints of Wild Tom Skelton? Perhaps it was on this boulder Tom stood when he watched the McDowell cabin being swept away by the raging waters of the Conemaugh River.

Or perhaps these were the moccasins worn by Maria McDowell on the day of her tragic and unfortunate death. And perhaps the answer to this riddle is still waiting to be found in the rocky hollow of Packsaddle Gap.

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