By Scott A. Yeager for GANT News
As is the tradition in many rural regions of Appalachia, the industries of timber and coal brought prosperity to those in the tiny communities where farming and trades associated with civility had sought a foothold.
In the early 1800’s in north-central and western Pennsylvania, there was an influx of Welsh and Cornish people whose specialization was in high demand in the region now known as the Pennsylvania Wilds.
As miners, these new immigrants came from a long line of Old World communities where their craft had been mastered for thousands of years, reaching as far back as the end of the last Ice Age when miners sought metals like tin and copper that helped shape the Bronze Age in Europe and in parts far beyond.
These miners knew the earth and how to extract its wealth, and so they did for many small communities throughout the Pennsylvania Wilds before being called west for the promise of gold and silver.
Along with their unique skills, the Cornish and Welsh miners brought with them a healthy respect for mythical spirits that can still be heard in our hills to this day – the Tommyknockers.
Throughout small villages like Tyler, Hollywood, Helvatia, Horatio, Eriton in Sandy Township or Glen Fisher in Jay Township, you can still learn a great deal about the old mines within our region, their legacies and their lingering communities granted, many of these locations are ghost towns that will require some navigation, but there are still those within these tiny villages who can help guide you along your journey.
A point of caution is to be attended to here; do not seek out the old mines. They are fraught with dangers and have been reclaimed by both the Wilds and by the Tommyknockers who reside therein.
The Cornish and Welsh miners had a mixed reaction when speaking on the subject of these spirits to many miners, even to this day, the Tommyknockers are malevolent spirits – bad news.
As legend has it, the Tommyknockers would haunt the mines and they could constantly be heard from deep within the shafts, knocking and chipping away at the earth and the supports within the old shafts.
The Tommyknockers were tireless in their efforts to destabilize the mines, causing the mines to collapse and claiming many hard-working lives in the process.
They were also mischievous in their quest to lure miners to their doom; often, the Tommyknockers would steal tools and personal items, causing unsuspecting folks to search deeper and deeper within the mines, only to their peril.
Consequently, there were those among the early miners who viewed the Tommyknockers as familial spirits – the benevolent spirits of miners from long ago – those who sought to warn their more modern counterparts of impending doom or collapse. For some, these spirits were akin to guardians and were to be attended to with the utmost respect.
On quiet nights in small villages throughout the Pennsylvania Wilds, if one’s mind is quiet, you may hear the occasional tap or knock of these spirits.
But not everything that knocks in the stillness of the night is a Tommyknocker, as there are also Duende in our hills and hollows. Duende are spirits known the world over for their dangerous allure.
The Duende love nothing more than luring people deeper and deeper into the forest. Their goal is a simple one – they want to get you lost.
They feed off of the fear of a human being that has lost their way. One may think that this is something of the past in our modern age of GPS and global tracking; but alas, the Duende still thrive, especially in the autumn and winter.
Ask anyone who spends a great deal of time in the forests of north-central Pennsylvania if it is still possible to get lost, and the answer will come as no surprise.
Our forests are deep, they are vast and even the most seasoned of hikers can still find themselves hip-deep in nowhere faster than you can say, “Hey Google, where am I?”
The Duende are perhaps the most formidable of woodland spirits; they are not merely found in the jungles of South America, East Asia or the Iberian Peninsula.
Like the Tommyknockers, the Duende will lure you over the next hill or into a deep valley simply by knocking, whistling or making some other oddly-familiar sound.
The prevailing advice – explore the Pennsylvania Wilds – but be mindful of your path, your knowledge of the forests and know your way home.
The Pennsylvania Wilds has both a rich history, majestic natural vistas and unique communities. We have our share of ghosts, folklore, myth and things that go bump in the night.
Autumn is a beautiful season in our region; frankly, many of us would live nowhere else on earth for the joys that excite us each year when the colors explode and our mountains transform.
Yet, like so many other sacred places, we owe it to ourselves and to those who visit our region to be aware of and respectful towards the Wild spirits that share our land.