Find out why these ghosts are haunting Chattanooga’s natural treasures
SPRING FROG CABIN
Despite its haunted history, Grabowski says most people who visit Audubon Acres feel a sense of calm. Until they get to the cabin. Built in the mid-1700s as evidenced by the Native American construction techniques used, the now-restored Spring Frog cabin at the front of the property has been home to Cherokee Indians, pioneers and the family of Robert Sparks Walker, the naturalist who set aside the former farm in conservation in 1948. Though these generations have come and gone, the cabin is said to still be home to two restless spirits: Walker’s father and son.
The Pervy Grandpa: Rumor has it Walker’s father was a tad bit grabby, and apparently, old habits die hard, even in the afterlife. Women exploring the cabin alone at night have reported feeling someone touch, poke or pinch them, and even Grabowski admits she’s felt someone in the empty dwelling grab her butt. Silly as his antics may seem, Gramps isn’t just out to cop a feel. People who knew the man supposedly said he didn’t like women, and his posthumous activity seems to back up their claims. Investigators in the cabin have picked up electronic recordings of someone grumbling nasty five-letter words like “whore” when ladies were present, and one woman’s arm was recently yanked hard enough to leave finger-shaped bruises.
The Peeking Boy: If you’re around the north-facing side of the cabin on any given day, you might see a little boy peeking at you from the second-floor window. The catch? No one’s allowed on the cabin’s upper levels; the flooring is too unstable. But that doesn’t seem to be a problem for Audubon’s youngest ghost. In 1915, just five days after his eighth birthday, Robert Sparks Walker Jr. was killed in one of the first recorded automobile accidents in history. Some say his body was laid to rest somewhere on the property, but with no burial certificate to confirm, their only proof is his ties to the land.
Grabowski says Robert Jr. is, by far, the most reported spirit visitors see, and his description is always the same: around age 9 or 10 with light brown hair. Unlike his grandfather, the young Walker seems to be a friendly, playful spirit. When he’s not peeking from the upstairs window, where the family’s children once slept, he’s peeking from behind nearby trees, and people in the cabin have reported feeling like someone was reaching out to hold their hand. While listening to someone talk about spiders on the second floor, Grabowski’s recording device even picked up something she didn’t hear at the time: the voice of a young boy giggling, “Hehehe! They’re gonna get cha!”
There are several conflicting beliefs about the whirlpool that silently swirls within the flooded portion of Hales Bar Dam’s powerhouse, but none can deny its eerie nature. Before the dam was constructed, there was a larger whirlpool upstream that the Native Americans called “The Suck.” Some say the Indians believed it was a gateway, granting the spirits of their ancestors access in and out of this plane of existence, but the majority believe it was more of a one-way trip.
Legend has it that the Native Americans who lived on the land could see the souls of their ancestors being sucked into the massive whirlpool, and anyone who ventured too close to The Suck would be grabbed by the lost souls and dragged down to share in their misery — and their watery grave. In her book Ghosts of the Southern Tennessee Valley, Georgiana Kotarski says many fell victim to the “spiraling trap,” from the first recorded white baby born in Hamilton County to a few large commercial steamers. One man, she writes, even survived being pulled into the vortex, but not before seeing the multitude of souls on the river’s floor reaching up to grab him. When locals finally realized the whirlpool was a hazard, they built the dam, which quelled the vortex and improved navigation. But something that powerful does not simply vanish.
Years later, when the failed dam was demolished in 1968, the lower three floors of the powerhouse flooded. Since then, that space has been filled with mud, silt, wildlife and a new whirlpool, quietly spinning and patiently waiting for new souls to acquire.
THE SHADOW AT THE DAM
Many of Hales Bar Dam’s paranormal residents are not quite fond of visitors, so when investigators from the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures show dropped by the cursed dam in 2011, they were met with the chilliest of greetings. While scoping out the balcony over the powerhouse’s whirlpool, one of the investigators felt something grab him just as a thermal camera spotted a dark figure moving behind him and his recorder picked up an eerie message: “Yer [screwed].”
Though he says people always ask, Weaver had never seen the dark figure — at least not until about eight months ago. While giving a group of teenagers the tour, one of the girls in the group grabbed his arm and screamed, “What the hell is that?!” When Weaver turned to look, he saw what he describes as a dark cloud slowly tumbling along. After getting up close so he could get a reading with his equipment, Weaver turned to the group to confirm they had seen it, but when he turned back, the dark cloud had disappeared.
Come now, readers, ’round the embers,
Hear our tale today, which centers
On the ghastly ghouls and lurking dead who haunt our lands and shores.
In these pages, sure to frighten,
Are the spirits, souls we’ve sighted,
But are these ghosts the bitter dead, or purposeful in core?
Turn the page and you’ll know MORE…
IN THE SHADOWS OF THE ACRES
When two pale, frightened boys approached Lynn Grabowski late one October night, she immediately knew what they had seen, and she had only one question: “What did you do wrong?”
The teens had been building sets and creating costumes for Audubon Acres’ annual Haunted Trail when they spotted a couple turkeys. Abandoning their work, the duo snuck off to chase the fowl, following the birds into an empty meadow.
That’s when they heard it. The sound of crisp leaves crunching underfoot.
The boys turned toward the sound just in time to see a dark figure vanish behind a tree in the surrounding woods. Thinking the sound to be an animal or perhaps just their imagination, they continued their hunt, chasing the turkeys farther into the meadow. Then they heard the footsteps again, closer this time.
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
The boys turned and saw the dark figure again, but this time, it did not vanish. With inhuman speed, the shadow zipped from tree to tree, getting closer and closer.
Crunch! Crunch! Crunch!
Forgetting the turkeys, the boys turned tail and ran, but the shadow did not let up its pursuit. They were the ones being followed now. From the corners of their eyes and brave glances over the shoulder, the teens could just barely make out their pursuer. It was tall, looming, shaped like a man, but nothing more than a shadow.
By the time the figure vanished and the boys tracked down Grabowski, Audubon Acres’ education director and self-proclaimed paranormal expert, they sounded like they had just about lost their minds.
“They were rightfully freaked out,” Grabowski says. “I don’t think they’ve chased turkeys out here since.”
Though anyone else would have been skeptical of the boys’ story, Grabowski knew better than to disbelieve.
This was not the first time she had heard reports of the shadow figure roaming the trails of Audubon Acres, and she knew it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Since joining the Chattanooga Audubon Society in 2012 after conducting a series of investigations of the wildlife sanctuary with her paranormal research group, Grabowski has listened to multiple visitors recount their run-ins with the tall, barely visible being, and over time, she has noticed a pattern.
Despite its malicious form, the shadowy figure seems only to target people hurting the land. So far, that has ranged from innocent offenses like antagonizing the local wildlife, to more serious offenses like vandalism and cutting down trees. Even people just trying to use mechanical tools like chainsaws for maintenance on the property have felt like something was pacing them through the woods.
Based on these reported sightings, Grabowski believes the shadowy guardian is not an evil, greedy entity trying to scare visitors from its resting place, but instead, a Native American spirit sent to protect the land.
Native American history runs deep through Audubon Acres. Long before Chattanooga’s hikers traversed its five miles of trails, the property was inhabited by Napochie Indians. In the 1990s, archaeologists from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga found old fire pits, pottery shards and even evidence of clay-covered buildings — relics of the Little Owl Native Village which was once located on what is now the southeast corner of the 132-acre property, just off Little Owl Village Trail. Though the village was burned down by a rival tribe around 1560, some believe the prehistoric Native Americans never really left the land — at least, not in spirit.
Many hikers at Audubon have reported hearing chanting and drumming coming from the direction of the old village during seemingly random hours of the day. Grabowski, who has also heard the paranormal powwow, says it’s almost like being transported back in time. For a moment, everything quiets down. The whine of airplanes overhead fades, the bugs cease their buzzing. Then the Indians of old share their song with those lucky few. Almost like a reminder that they’re still here and that they’re doing everything in their power to protect the land — even if that means sending shadow spirits after offenders.
“It’s almost kind of nice that if there is a dark shadow figure [and] if it is a protective type-thing, that the land is doing its part to protect itself, too,” Grabowski says. “I think this property’s meant to be protected — it’s just supposed to be here. And I think if something tried to build on here, it might not go well for them.”
A CURSED LAND
Hales Bar Dam was always doomed to fail.
Legend has it the dam was built on what was once sacred Native American land — land that the early settlers wanted. In 1775, settlers convinced the Cherokees living on the land to sign a treaty stipulating they would leave their land in exchange for guns, ammunition, beads and blankets. But Cherokee War Chief Dragging Canoe opposed the trade.
As the story goes, Dragging Canoe cursed the land, dooming all its future inhabitants, but according to Jeff Weaver, general manager at Hales Bar Tours & Paranormal and lifelong investigator of the supernatural, the real story is much more chilling.
“What [Dragging Canoe] actually said was that no one should want this land,” Weaver says. “That it is soaked in blood. That it is a sacred place and it is cursed. And that no good would ever come of it.”
Those words rang true as early as 1905, when the Chattanooga and Tennessee River Power Company made the mistake of breaking ground there to build a dam — construction of which was riddled with difficulties. The dam, which was supposed to be finished in four years, still sat incomplete in 1910 after four different contractors failed to build on the limestone bedrock beneath the planned structure, which was too soft for a solid foundation. When the project’s managers failed to take a hint, Weaver says the curse began taking lives.
A number of workers fell from high ledges, Weaver says, and according to different lore, that number ranges from 20 to 200. Some say a few tumbled into wet cement. Unable to pull themselves from the cement, their bodies sunk deeper into the concrete walls, where they remain forever encapsulated in the structure.
By the time the completed Hales Bar Dam finally opened in 1913, it was four years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget. On its first day in operation, the dam began to leak and it never stopped. Workers tried to plug the holes with rags, hay bales, old mattresses, chicken wire and even corsets, but to no avail. Once they stemmed one leak, another would sprout nearby. It was almost as if Mother Nature was trying to reclaim what was rightfully hers.
“Dragging Canoe said no good would ever come of this land, and it was almost as if they were proving it daily,” says Weaver, who’s spent countless hours reading up on the sinister history and talking to others who’ve experienced it.
The Tennessee Valley Authority took control of the dam in 1939, but not even TVA’s best engineers could stop the leakage. After spending almost 30 years combating the curse, TVA realized Hales Bar was a lost cause. In 1968, TVA demolished the dam and began construction of a new one six miles downstream at Nickajack Lake.
Today, all that remains of Hales Bar Dam is a series of tunnels and its large powerhouse. Once filled with turbines, cables and pipes, the empty structure now sits as a glorified boathouse for Hales Bar Marina.
At least, until night falls.
When darkness covers Marion County, it is said the land’s dead roam the forgotten dam’s narrow tunnels and wander the abandoned powerhouse. Some believe they are the souls of the fallen workers forever trapped in the powerhouse’s walls, others believe they are Native American spirits entering this world through a whirlpool spinning in a flooded section of the structure, but all can agree on one thing: The ghosts don’t like visitors.
Weaver says those who’ve dared to trespass on the cursed ground at night have been pushed, pinched and scratched hard enough to leave bruises, and he has seen the presence of otherworldly entities make guests feel nauseous while hosting tours.
“Not everything in here is nice,” Weaver says. “It’s just not.”
While the spirits seem to still be running visitors off the land, Weaver appears to be the exception. The tour guide, who is of Cherokee descent, says he has gotten inadvisably close to a shadow cloud he and a group of teens spotted while patrolling the powerhouse earlier this year. Through ghost-tracking technology, he has even had conversations with many of the spirits, some of whom he refers to on a first-name basis, like Linda, the playful office worker who often toys with the powerhouse’s equipment.
“They don’t scare me a whole lot. That is not good, I’ve been told,” Weaver laughs.
Despite his better judgment, Weaver is not afraid of what lurks in the night. Nor should he have reason to be. He recently discovered the dam’s damned are actually quite fond of him.
It started with footsteps. While at home one evening, miles from the dam, Weaver heard the thump thump thump of something — or someone — walking on his roof. He climbed up to investigate the noise but found nothing. When the footsteps persisted over the next few days, Weaver wrote the sound off as an animal stomping on his home — until his lights started to flicker and he felt like things in his home had moved.
Days later, Weaver was at the dam with one of the mediums who regularly visits. While channeling the spirit of a Cherokee man, the woman unexpectedly turned to Weaver and said, “By the way, he says to tell you he’s the one who walks on your house.”
“I was floored,” Weaver says. “I was just completely floored.”
Weaver hadn’t mentioned the noise on his roof to the medium, and her comment to him had come up randomly. When Weaver asked the spirit why he was walking on his home, the answer surprised him. He was not being haunted or targeted by the spirit. He was being protected by it.
“He checks on me,” Weaver explains. “He comes to the house, he sees that I’m OK, then he goes back.”
According to the medium, the spirit watches over Weaver because Weaver watches over the land. To the spirits anchored there, he is their caretaker — or their crypt keeper, as Weaver jokes — and though they will stand back and watch all manner of hell break loose on those trying to develop the land, they will allow no harm to come to those who care for it.
“That’s not entirely correct,” laughs Weaver, who claims to have also been pinched in the powerhouse. “But it makes for a good story.”