Local Haunts: the chilling history of Shelby County

Published 9:41 am Wednesday, November 3, 2021

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By MICHELLE LOVE | Staff Writer

Walking through the Shelby Springs Confederate Cemetery, a feeling of claustrophobia surrounds you. What starts as a normal stroll, slowly becomes more uncomfortable the deeper into the cemetery you walk. That is when you start to feel in the tense history that lies there.

The haunted rumors of a historic Shelby County careen across its 808 square miles, and while none of the tales are proven, they all at least date back to historical moments in the county, providing a dive into what shaped the county.

Founded in 1818, the county had several railways, steel factories and homes that were important during the Civil War and beyond. Those followed with cemeteries and destruction of historical monuments due to fires that continue to carry stories to this day.

Best Haunts of Shelby County

 Kim Johnston’s book “Haunted Shelby County” covers some major landmarks throughout the county that range from mild, friendly hauntings to more sinister presences. Her book was first published in 2013, and since then, it has garnered a large following with fans of the supernatural. Johnston founded the organization Spirit Communications and Research, or SCARe, which works to collect research on haunted land and to communicate with spiritual beings.

One of the most popular sites in Johnston’s book unfortunately no longer exists. The Old Shelby County Hotel was an abandoned building next to the Shelby Iron Works that burned down in 2019. Throughout its history, the building caused many a stir with people claiming to see spirits or other unsettling figures around and inside the historical hotel. Though the building is gone, Johnston said that does not necessarily mean the spirits have disappeared as well.

“A lot of the hauntings that we investigate, the haunting or the people seem to be tied to the land, not so much the house or the structures that are on it,” Johnston said.  “It seems to be the land. My guess is that it would still be haunted but the structure wouldn’t be there anymore. The spirits could still communicate with you or some other strange things may happen if you visit.”

Those same strange things, Johnston said, depend on the person’s sensitivity level to the supernatural, and even depend on knowledge surrounding the area.

“Some people don’t feel anything at all, but some of us are more sensitive to it,” she said. “I think if something terrible happened somewhere, you’ll feel a terrible energy. You may be sensing what happened or maybe you’re sensing an evil presence…I don’t know which it is, but it does affect what you’re interpreting and how you feel when you’re there if you’re one of those sensitive people.”

Johnston’s first time experiencing what she says was direct contact with a spiritual being was in the Shelby Springs Confederate Cemetery.

“It felt like an electrical jolt to my arm, and that kind of physically hurt,” she said. “How do you explain that when you’re just standing there with nothing around you that can cause that response? And then later on, I learned that’s what being touched by a spirit can feel like. It feels like an electrical jolt or a tingling sensation.”

In her travels, Johnston definitely encountered a few areas that stick with her to this day.

“The Devil’s Corridor, that’s an area I still don’t like to visit,” she said.

The Devil’s Corridor is the name given to Shelby County 32 through the city of Chelsea. The road has several legends behind it, according to Johnson, and residents living in the area have said to experience sinister supernatural haunts like hearing the sound of invisible children playing and a phantom hitchhiker who walks along the side of the road.

“My friend that shared some of her stories in my book, about growing up in a house near there and being harassed and haunted, it was traumatizing and upsetting for her, but she was really open and willing to show me the places she talked about,” Johnston said.  “I knew that just from her own reaction of having to visit these places again that what she experienced was very real to her, and it was not a good thing. And the stories that she shared really concerned me to the point I’ve avoided that area completely. I try not to drive through that area.”

Johnston does have some favorite haunt spots that are less scary and more fun.

“The Aldrich Mining Museum near Farrington Hall in Montevallo,” she said. “That’s an awesome place you can go and visit that we’ve had plenty of weird experiences there. I really enjoyed investigating it.”

Even though The Old Shelby Hotel has burned down, Johnston encourages people to visit the Iron Works next door, and of course, she has recommended the Confederate Cemetery in Shelby Springs.

The Haunts of Montevallo

Charlotte Speake grew up in Montevallo, and though she doesn’t live there anymore, she is more than happy to divulge information about one of the most haunted areas of the county, according to many legends.

“The whole town,” she said, laughing.

Speake is not the only one familiar with the town’s rich history of spooky ghost stories. In Brierfield State Park, it’s said you can see ghostly figures of men riding horses at night. The entire campus of the University of Montevallo has a ghost story for almost every building and even used to host ghost tours.

“If there’s not [a ghost story], we’ll create one,” joked University of Montevallo alum and staff member Marion Brown. Brown has been at Montevallo for 34 years, either as a student or as an employee. She said in her time at the school, every generation covers the ghost stories a little differently, but they all are rooted in foundational stories.

The most famous Montevallo ghost is that of former student Condie Cunningham, who, according to stories, haunts Main Hall.

“She was a student at Montevallo in the early 1900s, and at that time, the rules were really strict for girls, so there was a lights out time,” Brown said.  “Well, the girls had started making some homemade fudge in their room, and they were doing it on an alcohol-based burner. In their rush to clean everything up, the fuels spilled and it ignited and it caught Condie Cunningham’s night gown on fire. Well, when it caught on fire, she ran out of the room and ran down the hallway. Now, they were able to put out the flames, but she died about three days later.”

Cunningham died in 1911, but soon after, many started reporting sightings of her still in the building.

“There is an image that appeared on a door that appears to be a woman’s face and around the face it looks like flames emanating,” Brown said. “It started a stir amongst the girls, and they believed it to be the face of Condie Cunningham.”

According to lore, the door was replaced multiple times, but the face continued to reappear until finally they moved the door. It is now in the university archives, and they replaced it with a metal door. Brown said Cunningham’s family has even come to the campus to tour Main Hall, and see where the incident occurred.

It’s stories like this that cover every inch of the Montevallo campus.

“Montevallo is an unusual place,” Brown said. “It’s great because it’s this little place in the middle of Alabama that you find so much diversity there and people from so many backgrounds, and you find a lot of curiosity and open mindedness.”

Brown said she thinks it’s that open mindedness that has allowed the ghost stories to continue to grow and stay alive all these years.

“I think it makes it a little bit more special,” she said. “There are people who are of course afraid of it. You know, I know grown men who absolutely will not go into King House, but for all the stories and all the ghosts, I’ve never seen or heard of an incident of a ghost being malevolent. They’re more tricksters than anything.”

Built in 1823, King House, named after Edmund King, has one of the more famous recorded ghost stories that happened at the turn of the century at a wedding that was being held at the house, according to Brown.

Brown said there have been sightings of a confederate soldier in the corner of the house, while psychics who have visited King House in the past along with the King family members all saw a woman in yellow.

Brown also said that the ghost of King is said to be seen outside roaming around his orchard where it was believed he had money buried money to hide from Union soldiers.

“If there is any place on campus where the hairs on the back of your neck stick up, it’s that building,” said Brown. “I think it and King House have seen so much history, especially during the Civil War, and that has to leave some sort of impression.”

Columbiana Courthouse

Jennifer Maier, the director of the Shelby County Museum and Archives of the Historical Society, is the first to admit she does not believe in ghosts. It’s something she repeated several times, but Maier also admits in her time at the old Shelby County Courthouse on Main Street in Columbiana, she has felt some things she cannot explain.

“There are stories having to do with the ghost opening and closing the blinds, which I have experienced blinds to be adjusted when I come back into a room,” she said.  “That has disturbed me a little bit, but in general, I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t think God would let any of our energy linger here after death. But there are things that do give me pause.”

Maier said the building’s age comes with a series of bumps and noises that will easily freak anyone out. She recalled a time when paranormal investigators actually spent the night in a backroom to investigate what was causing a crashing noise throughout the house, and it very “anti-climactically ended up being the ice maker.”

There are other instances, however, that she cannot really explain.

“When I first started, there was a back storage room, which is now where my office is, but whenever I would do my walkthrough inspection every morning just to make sure everything was OK, whenever I would open that door, it would feel like something had just been there but is now gone,” Maier said.

She said she experienced a kind of energy in the room as if someone or something was there. The feeling continued for quite a while but eventually stopped.

“Like I said, I don’t believe in ghosts, but if there had been one, I’m guessing it just got used to me opening that door every day,” she said with a laugh.

One of the more recent ghostly encounters in the building involved a man who wanted to pursue a supernatural investigation, telling Maier there was “a woman entity that is maybe in the 1940’s type of wardrobe in a yellow dress who resides in the corner of the kitchen.”

“I believe he said that she likes to read, and she wants me to put a table with a lamp next to the back corner window so she can sit and read,” Maier said. “For some odd reason, I will probably honor that request in the future. I haven’t gotten around to it yet, but she’s been waiting this long she can wait some more.”

The building’s history is impressive in length and in its diversity. It’s served as a boarding house, hotel and even a place where young men came to register for the draft. This last bit of history speaks to Maier more about some supernatural business.

“This building has seen men come in that never returned home from war,” she said. “Also, clearly, it’s the former courthouse, so any of the court cases that went into use would have been tried here in this building. I can see where some things have happened here and some decisions made that could linger, but once again I can’t believe such a thing exists. I’ve never seen anything, I’ve only felt stuff.”

The tales that live throughout Shelby County range from harmless to downright scary. Shelby County has been around for a long time, and in that time some wonderful and some devastating things have occurred. To Brown, Shelby County’s history, including time during the Civil War, definitely plays a part in the county’s active ghost stories.

“To me, it almost leaves a residue,” she said. “When you talk about those powerful moments in history, how deeply people were emotionally affected and how tragic some people lost their lives, and yet conversely how many great and wonderful things happened as well.”

Brown said ghost stories survive due to the feeling of a “collective history” people share when they tell ghost stories.

“It’s almost a right of passage to pass that information down to the next generation,” she said. “I think it has to do with identity. I also think that we as humans are fascinated by what we can’t understand or see. That holds some sort of willing suspension of disbelief in us that we want to believe because we want to be part of that collective that does believe.”