Schools Shamokin Folklore The Academy

The Helfenstein Mystery

On the 22nd day of December 1854, an unusual event took place in Shamokin that remains unexplained to this day.  The story is best begun by reprinting here the letter that had been sent by the committee.

Dear Sir:

On Friday, December 22nd at 10 o’clock A.M. At this place, Judge Helfenstein proposes to dedicate forever a valuable and productive coal estate in the Shamokin Coal Basin for the benefit of the destitute poor of New York, Philadelphia, Lancaster, Carlisle, etc.  And also the laying of the corner stone of a free collage at Shamokin to be endowed with the proceeds of another coal estate; and also the dedication of a coal estate for the benefit of African Colonization.

Kimber Cleaver
Wm. Fagely

D. M. Bird
Wm. H. Marshall
Wm. Atwater

A description of the two estates shows that one laid immediately south of the town and was estimated to hold enough coal to produce 300,000 tons per year.  The other was purported to be a short distance east and was capable of producing 150,000 tons per year.  This estate was already leased for a royalty of 25 cents per ton.

The then Governor of Pennsylvania, William Bigler, was present at this auspicious occasion and after a short tour of the estate, laid the cornerstone of the free college.  Speeches were made by several men including the Governor and Judge Helfenstein.

It has been ascertained that this was the beginning of the “Academy” which stood where the present Shamokin Middle School now stands.  However, what happened to the free coal estates has not been learned and thus is still a mystery today.

People Shamokin Folklore

The Tragic Death of Martin Gross

Martin, son of Ludwig Goss, was a stout handsome man, full of fun, who lived in Gosstown (Uniontown) halfway between “Spook” bridge and the Rock Cut.  His life had seen no great feats unless you consider raising six sons and several daughters in a log cabin an accomplishment.  His eerie death accomplished what his life could not; he became a celebrity.

The social event of the year for these pioneer folk was a frolic on the first day of January 1830 at the house of Mr. Dunkelberger in West Shamokin.  People came in two-horse wagons, carts, and some even came riding oxen.  At such frolics, an abundance of coarse victuals and applejack, which all imbibed freely, was served.  Usually fiddling and dancing continued past midnight.

Upon getting dark on the night referred to, Martin Goss being about 75 years old, insisted on going home.  His wife being years his junior, declined to go.  So the old man left alone and, in order to save distance and time, traveled over the footpath that ran through present-day Uniontown.  This compelled him to walk over a makeshift footbridge near his home.  This temporary bridge was made of slab benches.  In crossing these slabs, he slipped and fell, face down, into the rushing water of Shamokin Creek. 

Soon after, his body was discovered and the word was relayed back to the house of mirth.  Everyone there left immediately for the scene of the tragedy.  They sent someone several miles for the acting coroner, who later reported as follows:  “When I came I found the woods illuminated by the bright blaze of log heaps that had been put together and fired, and the dead man still lying in the water.  I ordered him brought out to the bank of the creek, but no one would obey.  I then repeated my request but no move was made and all stood as quiet as a Quaker meeting.  I then walked along the slabs to where the dead man lay and took hold of the collar of his coat.  As soon as this was done, a dozen man rushed into the water, without regard to cold or wet, and carried him out where we held the inquest.  I then asked some of them why they left him lay in the water for so long and refused at first to take him out.  Their answer was that if they had touched the dead man before the magistrate did, he could spook them throughout their lives.” 

Thus, from this accident, the red bridge erected near the point of the drowning some years later was called the “Spook Bridge.”  It was said that for many years afterwards, older residents could not be induced to cross the bridge after nightfall.