a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Mothman creature is welcome to stay in West Virginia

The Mothman statue by Richard Roach in downtown Point Pleasant, W.Va., where many claim such a winged-monster often appeared in the 1960s.

By Scott Beveridge

POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. – Many people still blame the strange happenings around Point Pleasant, W. Va., on an ancient Indian curse, everything from UFO and the infamous Mothman sightings to a deadly bridge collapse in the 1960s.

The myth involves Shawnee Chief Cornstalk inflicting doom upon this Ohio River region just before he died at the murdering hands of frontiersmen in 1777. He had gone to this land to help forge a peace agreement to stave off another battle between American settlers and the natives only to be shot eight times in anger that spilled over from an unrelated skirmish.

“The Indians had a certain supernatural means and they were blamed for the craziest stuff for hundreds of years,” said Robert Dafford, a Louisiana artist who is decorating a flood wall in this city with paintings of Indians before they lost the land to America’s westward expansion.

The 15-foot-tall mural facing the Ohio stretches for a half-mile and it also includes scenes of pioneer life, but it doesn’t give the slightest nod to UFOs or the Mothman that have given Point Pleasant its real claim to fame.

However, the supposed 12-foot monster with broad wings and glowing red eyes rules the downtown on the other side of the wall that protects the sleepy city where 3,000 people are expected in two weeks for the eighth annual Mothman Festival.

There is a life-sized polished stainless steel statue of the creature in the town square not far from a tourist attraction that bills itself as the world’s only Mothman museum, as if there would be another.

Louisiana artist Robert Dafford in Point Pleasant at work on his sprawling mural, one place the Mothman won't be found in this city.

A black replica of the Mothman, Duct tape holding one foot onto a leg, dangles from the ceiling just inside the museum entrance at 411 Main St. During the festival, this rendition of the monster will be attached to a rope so it can glide across the sky near the river, museum worker Gary Gibeaut says.

Gibeaut, a teenager when the Mothman made its debut in Point Pleasant Nov. 15, 1966, is not among those who claim to have had an eyewitness encounter with the creature.

“I looked in the sky and didn’t seen nothing, not a single thing,” he said Wednesday before pointing to an exhibit containing a handwritten statement for the county sheriff given by a woman who was among the first to attest to seeing the monster.

“To this day she won’t look out darkened windows at night,” Gibeaut said, referring to Linda Scarberry, who said she first saw the monster duck behind an abandoned powerhouse at a former World War II munitions base on the outskirts of town.

“It didn’t run, but wobbled like it couldn’t keep its balance,” Scarberry wrote. Later, the creature flew over the car she and her husband shared that night with another young couple, and it made “loud squeaking sounds like a mouse,” she stated in writing.

Hanging nearby are a few fake chucks of concrete pavement that were used to simulate the collapse of the Silver Bridge for a Hollywood movie. They are among the collection of props used in the 2002 movie, “The Mothman Prophecies,” starring Richard Gere that was filmed here and also in Washington County, Pa.

Also on display is a mannequin wearing a black suit, white shirt and thin black necktie to represent the “men in black” who almost always seem to be appear following UFO sightings, believers claim.

Gibeaut suggests a visit with Carolin Harris, who owns Harris Steak House a block away, because she insists to having seen men in black while the Mothman wreaked havoc in town for a year.

Carolin Harris stands behind the counter of her vintage restaurant where she often tells the story about her seeing men in black while the Mothman once troubled these hills of West Virginia.

The monster captured national headlines then, but there were many other bizarre simultaneous occurrences that put this town on edge. Residents claimed they saw dancing lights in the night sky, spaceship landings, unexplained animal slaughters, their neighbors developing red eyes and their telephone calls oddly interrupted by weird voices, static or clicks.

These troubles came to an end not long after the Dec. 16, 1967, collapse of the Silver Bridge connecting Point Pleasant and Gallipolis, Ohio, a tragedy that killed 46 people, including Harris’ husband and son. The span was lined with pre-Christmas rush-hour traffic when it fell apart and dropped a number of cars and heavy rigs onto the ground or into the icy, 30-foot-deep river.

A story soon surfaced about a Mothman appearance near the bridge prior to the catastrophe, giving the creature even greater attention in the chronicles of strange-but-true publications.

Legend still has the monster responsible for the bridge deaths, even though Thomas E. Stelson, head of the civil engineering department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, would cite overloading as the cause of the collapse. A March 1968 article about the bridge in Popular Science quoted Stelson’s findings, and went a step further by offering evidence that the two-lane bridge built in 1928 had severe design flaws that made it impossible for it to bear the load of modernized traffic.

Harris grows teary-eyed at the mere mention of the bridge as she stands Wednesday behind the counter of her restaurant whose interior has barely changed since the Great Depression. She said she attended the premier of the Gere movie in town, but left her seat before the bridge scenes were shown on the screen.

The movie soon brought new attention to the Mothman along with much-needed new business to the struggling downtown of Point Pleasant.

“They said, ‘After the movie, get souvenirs or they’ll take your signs down,’” Harris said.

She is charming in a floral apron and bearing a sweet, honest grandmotherly smile. She speaks convincingly at a rapid pace about the Mothman’s existence when she was in her early 20s.

“It flew over my sister,” she said.

While Gibeaut says there are folks who believe the monster was a mutated bird that developed out of toxic cesspools at the munitions plant, Harris leans toward the speculation it dropped out of the sky from a UFO.

“Why so many (UFOs) were seen?” she said.

Her brother, Ed Sayre, even told her that he saw a bright UFO land in his backyard at the time.

“It came and touched down and left,” said Harris, who sells Mothman T-shirts along with this day’s lunch special of a grilled cheese sandwich and bowl of potato soup.

Harris said she saw the men in black arrive in a black car with tinted windows. They stood on the sidewalk, arms leaning on parking meters, leading her to believe they worked for the federal government.

“They are a little whiter than we are. They don’t bat their eyes,” said Harris, a civic leader and organizer of the Mothman Festival.

“Since the festival, more and more come out and say their stories,” she said.

Enough time has passed since the original Mothman frenzy that had residents seeking medical treatment for shock over the wicked sightings.

The creature now is more than welcome in this town because the downtown would otherwise be dead without the curious who are still hungry for the story. And, some say the monster still makes an occasional live appearance in the area.


MJ said...

Great story, Scott. I ate at Harris' diner in 2006 while on assignment for a different story with the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail. Regardless if the stories are true, it certainly is a fascinating tale. Good job.

Angel(carpenter) Wooten said...

Carolyn Harris!!! Oh my!! I remember you from my childhood. Lucy worked for you many years ago. She was my aunt. I hope you remember who I am. And I would like to visit sometime. I live in Ohio. So maybe I can get that way soon.