Haunting tales surround heart of Cuyahoga County

by Charles Cassady

In autumn, people eagerly join “ghost tours,” visiting authentic sites of chilling regional legends and lore. The latest ghost-tour business in Cuyahoga County will commence this year in downtown Cleveland and the Flats, led by local author/geneologist/historian William Krejci. Information is available at strangenspooky.com.

And of course, the nearer to home the scary stories get, the more delicious the fright. For who has time and gas money to go to Amityville, New York? Or the notorious Hans Tiedemann mansion (alias the Franklin Castle) in downtown Cleveland, where Krejci lived, when dark rumors and spine-tingling accounts can haunt you right down the street? 

Here are some of the local rumors. Keep in mind that in the “boo!” business, actual facts are sometimes more tricks than treats, and the rise of the internet has conjured many tall tales just for fun. Still, in the Halloween run-up, any ghostly gazetteer of Independence should know these sepulchral shades:

Hemlock Horrors

“Hemlock Road in the city of Independence is by far one of the most haunted places in Ohio,” states the longstanding website CreepyCleveland.net.

The post goes on to tell a tall tale of early Independence that has materialized in one form or another for generations, that among the original white settlers were two men who cornered and violated the daughter of a local Native American chief.

In the process, however, all three were drowned when their canoe capsized in the Cuyahoga River. The chief, outraged, laid a powerful curse upon the immediate vicinity, which would encompass the later Hemlock Road and bridge (in another variation, the Independence stone quarries that helped build the town desecrated and dug into sacred native burial grounds, thus incurring the wrath of the ancestors).

Auto-related fatalities and other accidents seemed to mark the later Hemlock Road area. A spinoff legend is that in the 1950s, two youngsters, as a Halloween prank, climbed the tree branches overhanging Hemlock bridge near midnight and lowered a faux ghost made of sheets and fishing line. One time, the extra-strength fishing filament tangled around the neck of a motorcycle rider, actually decapitating him. The headless cyclist may be conjured up to this day, the light of his bike seen, if one dares perform the correct ritual at the bridge at 11:57 p.m.

Such “headless motorcyclist” stories are not unique (a renowned one centers on Elmore, Ohio, far to the west). But more often the spirits associated with Hemlock Road are vengeful First Nations people – sometimes even phantom Native American warriors on horseback – whose burial sites may still lie in the woods near housing developments and canal digs.

When the Hemlock Road bridge was closed to automobile traffic, the scare stories only seemed to thrive. Some residents describe hearing strange noises, furtive footsteps and grunting/heavy breathing or even “chanting” among the forests.

Darrow Family Cemetery

William Krejci’s book, “Buried Beneath Cleveland” lists a few of the small cemeteries in Independence and adjacent to the Ohio Valley that served the early families. As the land was developed for commercial buildings and more modern homes, some of the early historic burial plots and monuments had to be moved elsewhere … but were they? Sometimes there seems to be doubt.

Among the still-standing historic graves is the Darrow Family plot on Old Rockside Road, technically over the border in Seven Hills. Headstone readers will note the melancholy detail that young mother Lavena Darrow died in 1860 giving birth to twin girls, who also did not survive, and all three are buried under a single marker.

Internet rumors tell of screams and howls among the seven extant graves, plus unexplained lights, echoing the long-ago tragedy.

Lockkeeper’s/Zimmerman’s Tavern

Lockkeeper’s Inn was the name of a “roadhouse” saloon that had, since the 1870s, long stood near the crossroads of the Ohio Canal and the quarry works of Rockside Road, in what is now Valley View. A divorced woman named Sophie Sarnacki purchased the site and operated the place for years, during a time when the hotspot was Zimmerman’s Tavern.

On May 24, 1956, Sophie Sarnacki was found shot to death, a .38 caliber revolver at her side. It was assumed that she had grappled with an assailant, and in the scuffle all six bullets had been discharged. Zimmerman’s regulars were a rough and shady bunch, and there were several suspects. But police never determined a guilty party, or could even rule out suicide.

Zimmerman’s stayed open, eventually changing its name to Lockkeeper’s Inn, and there were longstanding rumors of Sophie still sighted. Whether the ghost sought justice or just enjoyed the employment is not recorded in the legends.

As the 20th century turned, the old Lockkeeper’s/Zimmerman’s building was torn down, and a deluxe new Lockkeeper’s, named in honor of the past one, became a dining showcase on the opposite side of Rockside Road. Accounts seem to disagree as to whether “Sophie” still manifests or not.

The Ohio-Erie Canal, which passes through Sophie’s domain, has generated many a ghost story, for the numerous workers who perished during its construction (and may have been summarily buried on the banks). Here too, disgruntled Native American spirits make appearances. But most of the cursed Canal locks abide far to the south, all the way to Canal Fulton.

There have also been claims that the old Marycrest School for Girls on Brookside Road, alias Marycrest High School, was haunted. It was maintained by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, and at different times hosted “wayward girls” – young ladies pregnant out of wedlock or juvenile females convicted of minor offenses.

A number of the young attendees were at Marycrest unwillingly, perhaps contributing to longstanding negative … school spirit. ∞