8. The Legend of Death Curve, and other tales of Cool Hollow House

I recently joined a facebook group called “Our Old House”, and am humbled by the wonderful responses to the photos I posted of Cool Hollow.  I am excited to announce that this month and next, a series of major projects are going to take place (as soon as Mother Nature decides to let winter go). 


1.       A new standing seam roof in the historic manner with no ridge caps is going to be installed as the existing one was put on around 1930.  The roof is nearly 90 years old, and has served its guard over our wonderful home and is time to retire.  The roof will be done in matte black. 

2.       The 2nd floor public bath is sorely in need of work, and will also begin.  I will be looking for advice so stay tuned!

3.       The exterior will be freshly painted, and the shutters taken down, restored, painted and re-hung.  The chosen color for them is Sherwin Williams Historic Rookwood Shutter Green.  Darker than the current color chosen by the previous owner. 

4.       The old forge or “River House” as our family calls it, will be re-pointed, and the crumbling walls in places re-built. 

5.       The two large front bedrooms are extremely dated in their decoration, and the plaster on the ceiling badly cracked from age and settling.  These also will be done along with the bathroom renovation. 

6.       A few months back we saved 4 incredible mid-19th century Doric columns with plans to build a Greek Revival inspired pavilion at the creeks edge.  With the help of our good friends Paul (an amazing carpenter) and his wife Lily, we have set this for the spring as well.  Here is a sketch I made of what it will look like.

pavilion idea

pavilion idea


*stay tuned for the pictures of all of these projects coming up this spring.  We are excited to share them with you and get your feedback and thoughts. 

A little follow up from the previous post.  We decided to paint the fence out front black, as so many of the fences in this area are as such.  Virginia wine/horse country is just across the Potomac, and we sit in the middle of Maryland horse country, and black fences are standard.  Here are a few snap shots of what it has turned out like, and the exterior lighting we installed on it. 


Now onto some legends.  Within days of buying the place, and meeting neighbors and other locals, we started to hear “haunted” a lot.  It wasn’t something that we paid much attention to, but it was interesting just the same.   The first and most famous (locally) of these is “The Headless Man of Cool Hollow”.  Wanting to find out the story, we starting digging….here is the tale.


Death Curve

On a summer evening in the 1800s a doctor was called to a patients home that was quite ill, hearing of the grave situation the doctor rushed to put together his bag and hopped in his carriage and sped towards the ailing person.  As the doctor urged his horse faster and faster, worrying he would not get there in time, he descended into Cool Hollow and around the treacherous stretch known as Death Curve.  The evening shadows and cloudy night caused poor visibility and as he sped around the corner just past Cool Hollow House the carriage overturned, he was flung from the rig, and a tire crossed his neck, severing his head.  Over the next 100 years on cloudy, dark evenings  travelers on the road would come upon a well-dressed man walking along the roadside near the old house, and coming closer noticed him to have no head, sometimes causing more accidents, giving the area it’s now infamous name, Death Curve.


An article from a July 3, 1830 newspaper states that a man by the name of John Todd was walking alongside a cart laden with stone when he tripped and fell beneath the wheels.  His head was nearly decapitated, and it was evidently a gruesome sight.  This rather sad series of events was no doubt the beginning of the headless ghost legend.  As many things the years go by and facts become a story, and a story becomes legend, and thus the birth of a ghost story.  In 1976 a book of ghost stories titled “Haunted Houses of Harpers Ferry” was published and you will find an entire chapter devoted to Cool Hollow. 


The Retreat from Gettysburg

During the days of July8-July 13th, 1863 General Lee was desperate to get his army back across the Potomac and into Virginia after a loss at Gettysburg.  There had been a series of hard rain storms, causing the roads to become difficult, and the river to swell, preventing them from crossing without constructing pontoon style boats.  This of course would take time, and time was of the essence.  General Meade was marching on them from the south with orders from President Lincoln to “end this for good”.  Battle was joined on the farm and casualties were inflicted.  Over the course of 4 days, first the south, then the north would occupy the farm and surrounding properties, construct entrenchments, and use the house as quarters for the officers.  Such guests would include Major General George Custer, later killed at the battle of Little Bighorn, and Major General Judson Fitzpatrick.  Many artifacts have been pulled out of the ground surrounding the house, and lands.  Cannonballs, muskets, bayonets, bullets, buckles, and coins are among the many items retrieved.  The “Cool Hollow Musket” remains in the house, as it was a gift from a previous owner which renders it an heirloom.  However, the rest has been donated to historic institutions. 


These facts as relayed to us, were proven to be true, accounts of battle and writings of the soldiers found in the War of the Rebellion archives.  https://archive.org/details/cu31924097311744


Battle of Boonsboro, and Lookouts during battle from attic.

Underground Railroad

The builders of the house were Dunkers, a progressive leaning church of pacifists that opposed slavery.  Their name was Emmert, and the father of Cool Hollow’s builder founded the Washington County, MD chapter.  Lore has it that a large Spruce or Hemlock tree in the front yard served as a landmark for slaves that had escaped the terrible oppression they had left behind on the plantations.  The tree would have been marked somehow providing safe haven along the turnpike road, whether a lantern, or quilt hung in its branches, we will never know.  Unfortunately today many of the locations and names of the people that helped are lost to time.  Whether this is just another Cool Hollow legend or it bears truth, more than likely will never come to light.  It must be known however, that a family of such wealth, education, progressive views, and location on a known route for the Underground Railroad could, and possibly did aide in the help of these people.   


The Spirit of Magdalene

The last story of the post is a very personal one.  By 1851 the house and holdings had passed from the builder (Benjamin Emmert) to his sole surviving child Magdalene, and her husband David Schindel.  Benjamin was an extremely wealthy man, having left almost $100,000 (millions today) to her, and all of the land holdings and business dealings.  This included a distillery, the largest in the state at the time, several mills, nearly 1000 acres, and of course Cool Hollow.  The Schindel’s were married nearly 50 years, had 10 children, several they lost young, and endured the Civil War, right in their very own home.  When Magdalene died in 1887 David was truly heartbroken.  A touching epitaph on her tombstone reads “She was a kind and affectionate wife, a fond mother, and a friend to all.”  He passed just a few months later.  Magdalene’s own mother was taken from her very young, during the Cholera outbreak of the 1830s while administering to the sick, her mother Mary Catherine Emmert also took ill and died at the home along with her son, Magdalene's brother John, and grandfather Captain Yost Harbaugh, a hero of the American Revolution. 

In the years since her death many stories of seeing a woman in a black old time dress around the house as circulated around the community.  While the kitchen was being renovated the contractors, very concerned with the old home would check often on the upstairs rooms to make sure no damage was being done while stabilizing the ceiling below.  During one of these visits upstairs it was observed that an antique sewing table had been moved to the middle of the room, all the drawers pulled open in a graduated fashion, and the top lifted open.  Assuming it could have been vibrations it was returned.  A few hours later, it was back to the same position.  Again it was moved back.  The next morning upon another look, the table had been moved back into position again for the 3rd time.  I like to think that Magdalene was letting them know that she still looks over the house that her family built and owned for more than a century, and in which there was so much love and loss.  We celebrate her every spring with daffodils from her Cool Hollow and place them at her stone.