About thirty miles northeast of Chattanooga, on the Hiwassee River, sits the little town of Charleston. Nowadays it’s famous mostly as the site of a giant Bowater plant. On days when the air hangs close to the ground like a wet blanket and the wind is just right, you can smell the sickly sweet scent of wood pulp being made into paper products all the way over in my county, some thirty miles farther east. If you drive by the plant itself, it burps great stinking clouds of white smoke. If there’s fog on the river, smoke and fog can turn into a deadly soupy mess of low visibility and agonizingly slow traffic–if you’re lucky; if not it can turn into a chain reaction wreck, as it did some years ago, when several people were killed.
There was no Bowater plant in Charleston in 1867, though. Then it was more or less just one of the small towns that sat on the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad. In 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War, Union sympathizers burned the railroad bridge at Charleston to keep the Confederate army from using the tracks to move soldiers and materiel. The bridge was rebuilt after the war, and all was fairly quiet until 1867.
That year was a flood year. The rains came and did not stop. The waters of the Hiwassee rose and rose. Most dangerously, the flood undermined the roadbed under the railroad bridge. One train did not make it much beyond the bridge before sections of the roadbed gave way under the heavy train, and one by one the engine and cars tumbled down an embankment and into the swollen river.
The citizens of Charleston worked heroically to save as many people as they could. There were many dead, and many injured. A temporary morgue was set up in the depot so families could come and hopefully locate their dead, only to load them on another train for their sad last journey home.
Charleston had only one doctor in 1867. He nearly worked himself into his grave in the couple or three weeks after the wreck, and once the crisis was past, he was forced to spend some time at one of the spas, or “watering places” where the sick (or sometimes hypochondriacs) went to get well. No sooner had he left town, though, when a family arrived from Baltimore seeking their brother, a Catholic monk who had been on the train, on his way to New Orleans.
Survivors from the train remembered seeing and even talking with the young monk, but he had simply vanished in the aftermath. The family hung around Charleston for a few weeks, waiting for the doctor to return, hoping he might have treated their brother or at least seen him, but they had to return to Baltimore without knowing what happened to the young monk.
When the doctor came home, he was well and ready to go back to work, and he brought with him a new piece of office equipment, you might say: a fully articulated skeleton, something he’d always wanted. The skeleton remained in his office as long as he was in practice.
Some years later, when the doctor retired (taking the skeleton with him), a younger doctor bought his practice and set up his office in the same building the old doctor had used. From the earliest days of his tenancy in the building, the new doctor was plagued by sightings of a robed figure that always disappeared before he could turn to speak to it, and most annoyingly by a sound that reminded him of beads clicking against each other. It was not until a patient told him the story of the monk who vanished after the 1867 flood that the young doctor realized that he was hearing the click of rosary beads, and that the robed figure was the ghost of the monk–and surmised where the old doctor had gotten his skeleton.
In 1932, so the story goes, the doctor’s office building was torn down. The workmen found, in a space between the interior and exterior walls, a brown robe and a rosary hanging from a nail.
For perhaps the best version of this spooky tale, see Kathryn Tucker Windham’s 13 TENNESSEE GHOSTS AND JEFFREY (1977).