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A River Tale: Capt. Mike Gore and the stories of ‘tortured river souls;’ looking for ghosts

(Captain Don Sanders yields his space this week to Captain Mike Gore. Captain Don will return next week)

By Captain Mike Gore
Special to the NKyTribune

“Here, take these binoculars and carefully look up on that high hill,” said Captain Owen “Red” Childress one night on the towboat M/V RAYMOND E. SALVATI in 1969. We were southbound coming down on Beeler Landing Light (Ohio River, Mile 619.3).

Capt. Michael Gore ‘behind the sticks’ of a towboat in his younger days.

“Just look where all I put the searchlight,” he said as he was cranking that yellowish carbon arc beam up in the air and swinging it around to the high hilltop.

“What am I looking for?” I remember asking.

I was 11 years old and was riding on a round trip from Owensboro, KY, to the Clifty Creek Power Plant at Madison, IN, where we had delivered our tow of 15 loads of Green River coal earlier that morning.

“Ole man Captain McHarry’s ghost,” Captain Red said even more slowly than his typical deep crawling drawl.

“Really? I’m not sure I believe in ghosts,” I remember saying and wondering about the potential for a prank about to happen.

The towboat M/V Raymond Salvati (Photo by Michael Gore)

Captain Red said matter-of-factly, “Well, seeing is believing! He was buried up there in a tomb looking out over the river. He was a ferryman in the 1800s, and he hated steamboats. Said he would curse them all when they go by. Some nights his ghost is out, and you can catch sight of him up there shaking his fist when towboats go by. Now, you look carefully where I shine the light. He may well be out tonight.”

Sensing that this could be true, I focused on where the searchlight was and scanned and looked through the ghostly trees with their moving shadows scattered thickly everywhere. I remember thinking that I almost caught a movement…but maybe I didn’t. Then the carbon light sputtered and flared, and I about yelped. My imagination was running wild.

Captain Red was moving the beam very slowly along the high hilltop, and I followed it in the binocular’s field of vision. Then, finally, he said, “His tomb is right about there. What do you see?”

I strained my eyes to catch anything that stood out from the trees and their shadows. I remember finally saying, “I don’t see him so far.”

Captain Red added, “He’s a sneaky one, that old McHarry. Sometimes you catch a glimpse, and then he’s gone. Keep looking.”

Ferryman McHarry’s tomb — ‘He was buried up there in a tomb looking out over the river.’

I continued straining my eyes and imagination and remember seeing so many moving shadows. It seemed that an irregular movement in the pall would catch my eye, but then it was gone instantly.

“Captain Red, I think I see movement, but it goes away so fast. So I’m not sure what I see,” I said.

Captain Red proceeded to pump high-octane fuel into the story with, “That’s him! That ghost is fast! Just a shadow moving many times.”

With our tow of empties moving right along, we looked sternward fairly quickly, so the ghost hunt ended. I was amazed that maybe, just maybe, I had just seen a for-real ghost.

“He’s not the only ghost up and down this old river, boy. Next, we’ll check out Haunted Hollow down below Brandenburg. We should get there by watch time,” Captain Red announced.

When we came abreast of Haunted Hollow Light (mile 650.9) close to midnight, Pilot/Captain Henry Dixon had just come upstairs to relieve Captain Red.

“Henry, what can you tell Mike about the ghost at Haunted Hollow?” Captain Red asked as I scanned among trees and shadows for this next ghost. Captain Dixon must have caught the cue, so he quickly spun his tale,

Capt. McHarry was a ferryman in the 1800s, and he hated steamboats.

“Why, that ghost is headless! The danged thing stands right beside the light and day boards. And, you know what? He’s got a bucket with him every time. Do you wonder what’s in that bucket? Green bananas! If he sees you watching him, he will hold a banana up for you to see, then he just shoves it down his neck and eats it. Can you believe he doesn’t even peel it?”

With that incredible description, Captain Dixon and Captain Red both went into a round of guffawing laughter. I kept searching, but there was no such apparition out that night. “I don’t see him, but I sure wish I could,” I remember saying somewhat truthfully. “You keep looking at these places whenever you go by, and you will eventually see them,” Captain Red affirmed. “Hell, they’re even out in the day sometimes,” he added. That brought another round of guffaws from the pilot house personnel.

On another night, we were coming down above Grissom’s Landing Light (mile 765.4), and Captain Red came up with another ghost’s tale, this time at the old Wilson’s Ferry Landing.

“It was a night a long time ago. Two drunks got into a fight, and one pulled a knife, cut the other’s head off, and threw it in the river. Since then, the poor man’s ghost has walked up and down these banks looking for his old head. Tortured soul even wanders across the fields! But he can never find his head! Now, follow the light and observe carefully. This one’s out the most.”

When we came abreast of Hauanted Hollow Light (mile 650.9) close to midnight, Pilot/Captain Henry Dixon had just come upstairs to relieve Captain Red.

I strained at every detail in the moving illumination of the searchlight. Once more, my imagination shipped up to near full ahead. Once again, the spirit was off-task for those finite moments of inspection.

Finally, Captain Red said with noted resignation, “Well, wouldn’t you know it. He’s out almost every time. So you’ll see him some night.”

Nearly a decade later and beyond, I would be standing watch as a pilot or relief captain.

On many trips by McHarry’s Tomb, Haunted Hollow Light, and Old Wilson’s Ferry Landing, I would smile and remember a child’s curiosity and trepidation to search for an other-worldly presence at these storied places. And, I confess to occasionally picking up the binoculars, swinging the much brighter xenon searchlight onto those ghostly environs, and scanning for the still missing spirits.

But, the smile I would feel on my face, and the chuckle in my ears in that dark and safe pilothouse was just a hint, a faint echo, of long-ago laughter from my Captain’s enjoyment of starting a kid in a’learnin’ the river; a river both real and imagined.

Captain Mike Gore was bitten by the river bug at an early age on the banks of the Ohio River at Owensboro. His first riverboat ride was aboard the DELTA QUEEN in 1968. Many other rides followed until his first paid job at age 17, working as a deckhand on the HARRY M. MACK. He got his second-class pilot-operators license at age 19 and soon stepped up to pilot and relief captain. He had become a modern-day Mark Twain. Given a growing family, he needed to stay closer to home so he became a tug operator, did some training and maintenance and eventually left the river in 1988. He trained to be a machinist and ultimately taught in the local vocational school and earned the degrees to become a full professor at Owensboro Community and Technical College. He will retire on July 1, after 23 years. So perhaps the river will call again.

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