By Brad Hicks / staff writer
There are some folks in the area that believe something is hiding in this darkness — a being that has ensured for decades that locals don’t come too close to the tunnels it calls home.
This ghastly figure, with eyes ablaze in the night, was given a name — Caleb.
Caleb has resided in the East Bernstadt area longer than any local. Although East Bernstadt native Larry Harris has never personally encountered Caleb in his 70 years, he feels as though he’s known him all his life.
“I’ve never seen or heard him, but I’ve heard stories of him, ever since I was old enough to remember,” he said.
And even though Harris has never crossed paths with the wicked entity, he said one of his coworkers did many years ago. This fellow contractor, now deceased, was camping with friends along the creek that runs alongside the railroad tunnels. However, this pleasant, quaint scene quickly took a chaotic turn as the vile Caleb made his presence known. His fiery, crimson eyes blazed in the darkness brighter than any campfire. These eyes set their sights on the campers.
“They seen Caleb’s eyes and they fired six shots at him,” Harris said. “That didn’t stop him.”
Instinct then took over and the group did the only thing they could — they ran as fast as their feet would carry them.
Harris was unsure of Caleb’s origin, but hinted he may be the incarnation of someone who met an untimely end on the tracks due to the harsher conditions of the early railroad.
“There used to be people killed there pretty regularly,” Harris said. “People thought it may have been somebody’s ghost.”
Joyce Mullins was also born in East Bernstadt. Her job at the Shell service station on Kentucky 490 has likely provided her with many tales from area residents regarding the ghastly Caleb. But, she has an experience of her own to share.
Mullins said she first heard of Caleb from her husband and her in-laws in the 1960s. Their warnings of Caleb were supported by their own dealings with him .
“He chased some of my family in the River Hills community,” Mullins said.
This would hardly be the last Mullins would hear of Caleb. Soon, she would be hearing from him.
“I’ve heard his sound,” she said. “It sounds like a woman screaming.”
Mullins said the blood-curdling, banshee-esque screech approached her rapidly, growing louder and more fearsome as it seemingly got closer.
“It was a scary sound,” she said. “Whatever it was, it was traveling.”
The incident rattled Mullins. Afterwards, merely walking to the residence of her in-laws, no more than 100 feet from her own home, became a horrifying prospect. She was not alone in her hesitance.
“I got to the point where I wouldn’t walk from here to their house,” she said. “None of us would hardly go out.”
There is still much debate as to who, or what, Caleb may be. According to the Web site theshadow
lands.net, Caleb walks the tunnel at midnight, the witching hour, each night. He is referred to as “Caleb red eyes” because his affinity for spirits of the non-ghost variety caused his eyes to be constantly bloodshot. The site states if you can hear him singing, the sound will get closer and closer until he finally reveals himself. This may account for his red eyes being visible as well.
Other say Caleb may have been born from an accident that occurred more than a century ago.
In 1882, the new railroad in Laurel County brought not only prospect of change and new jobs, but entertainment. A circus train was loaded up and on its way to London. Locals camped out, hoping to get a glimpse of the train as it passed through East Bernstadt on its way to town.
The train never made its stop. Brake failure caused the train to overturn, resulting not only in the destruction of seven of the train’s cars, but the deaths of four men. Some believe one of these men could have been the infamous Caleb.
East Bernstadt native Ashley Caldwell said she was discussing Caleb with some of her coworkers recently. The story they gave of the birth of Caleb was that of a late 1800s man who met his end when nature intervened during just another day on the job.
“They said he was a man who rode a horse to check the tracks,” she said. “He was checking the tracks when a panther jumped off the tunnel and ate him. The horse reared its head back when the panther jumped and broke its neck.”
Caldwell said she heard Caleb came in three different forms: a black, shadowy silhouette of the man killed, a mountain lion to represent the bringer of his demise, and a pegasus-like horse to represent the steed that indirectly met its end at the paws of the cat.
Not all who have spent time around the railroads tunnels of East Bernstadt are convinced of the presence of a devious spirit lurking about.
Rance Malicoat, who for more than 30 years has owned the Ape Yard Market, which is located near the tunnels, said Caleb is little more than a cautionary tale intended to keep children away from the tracks.
“Caleb is a made up thing,” he said. “They’d say ‘Caleb will get you,’ but there’s no such thing as Caleb. It’s just a thing old people made up to keep kids from laying out all night. I’m just saying, they had to scare the kids.”
Malicoat also recants the stories of anyone who claims to have heard, or even seen, Caleb. He attributes any sightings of Caleb to concerned parents or other adults trying to frighten children away from the track out of concern or in hopes of obtaining a cheap scare.
“People may have dressed up like Caleb,” he said.
Skeptics haven’t deterred Debbye Allen’s belief that something other-worldly calls the old tunnels home.
“I’m a firm believer,” she said. “I grew up next to the railroad track and all I heard about all my life was Caleb. Caleb’s something we grew up with.”
Both her father and grandfather used to issue warnings of the thing lurking near the tunnels.
“Daddy used to tell us about Caleb,” she said. “Pap used to scare us to death about Caleb. He used to have us scared to death to go across them tracks.”
Allen said she had witnessed supernatural events in the vicinity of the tunnels herself.
“We used to sit outside on my parents porch and you could see balls of fire going down the street,” she said.
While her father and grandfather may have told yarns of the evil apparition lurking near the railroad tracks, it was her uncle who encountered the Caleb. Like a scene from “Frankenstein,” a horde of locals caught up with Caleb. However, they were unable to subdue him.
“My uncle said he cornered Caleb down at the barn,” Allen said. “They cornered him in that barn with dogs and everything. They came at him from all angles. When they got close, he was gone.”
According to Allen, it would have been impossible for witnesses to stare into Caleb’s burning red eyes. She said Caleb is the spirit of man, most likely a train conductor, who was decapitated on the tracks. Now, Caleb haunts the tunnels, searching for the thing he misses the most.
“Every seven years, he comes back to look for a head,” she said. “His soul just roams the tracks.”
Differences in the myth of Caleb are to be expected.
Dr. Hugo Freund, associate professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Union College in Barbourville, and a Ph.D. in folklore, said oral folk legends are bound to change as they are handed down.
“On its surface, I’m not a bit surprised by the variations,” he said. “In the nature of oral storytelling, there is no set narrative to begin with. It’s folklore, so it may change through time.”
He said the role Caleb played in the community should be viewed more through the historical context which may have bore his tale.
“These stories are told to keep folks out that they don’t want in that area,” he said.
Because of the difficult lengths one would have to go to verify the origin of Caleb, Freund said the basis of the story will likely remain uncertain. However, this may also give some validity to it.
“There may be a kernel of truthfulness to that story,” he said. “The folks in the community believe them (the stories) and that’s all that matters.”
Written documentation on the existence of Caleb is practically non-existent. Many of those who would know the true origin of Caleb have long since passed. However, Caleb lives on in stories passed down from one generation to the next.
If there is any accuracy to the story, and if what Allen said about Caleb’s periodic return is true, those deciding to stroll near the tunnels of East Bernstadt may just experience the legend for themselves.
“It’s about his time,” Allen said.
Brad Hicks can be reached at bhicks@the
By Brad Hicks / staff writer