I have fallen in love with American names,
The sharp names that never get fat. . .
Stephen Vincent Benet’s poem celebrates the names of American places, ending with that ringing epitaph I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass./Bury my heart at Wounded Knee. He hit on a central truth; many an American place name comes not from a desire to honor the famous, although many of them do; they commemorate some event that occurred on that particular spot of ground. In Oklahoma, for example, there’s a place called Dead Woman’s Crossing. The scene of a murder in the early twentieth century, it was for many years haunted by a ghost light. And I could not count the number of little towns that have a curve—some on highways, some on back roads—anointed with the name Dead Man’s Curve, in memory of lives lost there.
There are stories behind the names, if we search them out. One such is given to a little stream not too awfully far from my home in the knobs of East Tennessee. Called Dead Man’s Run, it’s not identified by name on most maps; it’s too small, really, to warrant the naming.
Hikers know the place well, though. There’s a grave marker nearby that anchors the name in place and time.
About ten miles south of here, in the mountains, lies the little town of Tellico Plains. Tellico was once a boom town, based on the logging industry. The two biggest companies that came in to log out the mountains in the area were Babcock’s Lumber Company and Heiser.
Some of the loggers lived in town; others lived in logging camps, like the mining camps out west. It was from a camp on the Tellico River, at the mouth of Sycamore Creek, that two Heiser employees named Andy Sherman and Paul O’Neill set out on December 11, 1899, bound for Robbinsville, North Carolina, where they apparently were planning to spend Christmas before returning to their jobs. Sherman and O’Neill were young men, native Pennsylvanians. Before they left, though, they had already been drinking a bit, and took a jug with them. (There has long been a tradition of good moonshine-making in the area.)
They apparently made it safely across the state line into North Carolina. But in the high mountains at the southern end of the Appalachian chain, snow can and does sweep in at any time. And snow did come. Already more than slightly drunk, Sherman and O’Neill missed the trail, along Hooper Ridge between Hooper Bald and Horse Pen Gap, that would have led them into Robbinsville. Lost, and with the snow coming down fast, the wind blowing it about in white disarray, they finally lost the battle, near a little nameless stream.
In the logging camp, where there were always more workers in need of employment, their jobs were quickly filled. Sherman and O’Neill were, however, reported missing.
It was not until the following September that their bodies were found, some three quarters of a mile from the place where Andy Sherman now lies buried. The sheriff and coroner of Graham County were notified, and they took a coroner’s jury with them to investigate. The two sets of remains were close together, and a jug of whiskey found nearby led to a verdict; lost in the snow while intoxicated, the two had died of exposure in the remote area. Andy Sherman, whose remains had been badly mangled by wild animals, was buried in an initially unmarked grave on Big Huckleberry Knob, some three quarters of a mile away; Paul O’Neill’s skeleton, in better condition, was given by judicial order to a local doctor as a medical exhibit.
Andy Sherman lies there to this day, at 5560 feet elevation, his grave now marked by a copper cross and a copper plate embedded in a concrete block that tells the story of his and Paul O’Neill’s deaths. The plate was placed there by a man named Robert B. Barker, from Andrews, North Carolina, who placed many markers on graves and historic spots in the western part of the state, preserving their stories; hikers who came to the area yearly donated the cross.
The little stream where Sherman and O’Neill lost their battle with the snow and wind has been known ever since as Dead Man’s Run, the singular probably paying tribute to the fact that only Andy Sherman lies buried nearby. No one knows what became of Paul O’Neill’s skeleton. It may still be in use as a medical exhibit, or some merciful later owner may have given it Christian burial.
I once asked my brother, who has hiked in the area often, if he’s ever heard any stories of ghosts along Dead Man’s Run. He says, as far as he knows, there are none. But I can’t help but wonder if, when the snow comes down in mid-December, so high up and far from civilization, Andy Sherman, or more likely Paul O’Neill, may not walk again. . .still trying to find the trail to Robbinsville and safety.
I first heard the story of Dead Man’s Run from Bill Landry of WBIR-TV, Channel 10, Knoxville’s THE HEARTLAND SERIES: A CELEBRATION OF A PEOPLE AND THEIR LAND, which filmed a segment on Dead Man’s Run in 1988.
Additional information came from contributing writer Marshall McClung of the GRAHAM STAR.