|Photo Credit John Norris Brown, Ghosts and Spirits of Tennesse.
|Photo Credit: John Norris Brown, Ghosts and Spirits of Tennessee.
The Sensabaugh Tunnel Mystery: The Truth Behind The Myths.
All of these play vital roles into the folklore
surrounding one of our most popular "spook" areas, here in the foothills of East Tennessee. In fact, few locations inspire
such fear and dread as the name Sensabaugh Tunnel.
Many local residents feel the tunnel is a place of great evil and
is to be avoided at all costs. Usually, these individuals belong to the younger generations and in fact, the story is strongest
amoungst the teenagers of our area.
Sensabugh Tunnel long ago entered our folklore in our region as a
place where demonic apparitions appear, where car engine's die and the screams of babies and women trapped for eternity echo
forever within its concrete walls and dark spaces.
Now, for the first time, we will present to you the truth behind the
infamous Sensabaugh Tunnel, and we will reveal why the mystery of Sensabaugh Tunnel, is far more perplexing than any urban
First, what is the urban legend about Sensabaugh
What are the reported phenomena? What is the story?Here, pulled from
Ghosts and Spirits of Tennessee, which is a very good local website containing encyclopedia like entries on local ghost stories and collections
of folklore, are the most popular legends concerning the tunnel:
".....Sensabaugh Tunnel is located just off Big Elm Road in Kingsport, TN,
not far from Rotherwood Mansion. It was constructed in the 1920s, and today it sits in a state of disrepair. There are cracks
in the cement, and graffiti is everywhere. The road that passes through it is only used by locals, and not often by them.
The tunnel is most notorious for a murder that occurred there many years ago.
There are several versions of how the murder transpired. All of them involve
a baby. One version is that many years ago, a hobo wandered to the home of a fairly prominent family named Sensabaugh. They
welcomed the hobo into their home. The hobo, however, started to steal jewelry from the family, so Mr. Sensabaugh grabbed
The hobo then grabbed the couple's newborn baby, which he used as a human
shield, and ran. The hobo was able to outpace the father, and ran into the tunnel. He didn't know what to do with the baby,
so he drowned it in the stream that runs through the tunnel.
The other two versions do not involve a hobo. According to one, Mr. Sensabaugh
lived with his family in a house near the entrance to the tunnel. One day he went crazy, and murdered them all, including
his newborn baby, and threw their bodies into the creek in the tunnel. Other account says a young pregnant woman was kidnapped
and murdered in the tunnel.
If any of these accounts is correct, there's no doubt that a tragedy occurred
here years ago. And that tragedy has found it's way into the lore of the region. Today, the tunnel is a typical "lover's lane,"
where young couples go to enjoy each other's company in private. And of course, the tale of the tragedy always sparks the
interest of those present.
The baby who was killed here is said to haunt the tunnel. It is said that
you can hear the baby cry if you drive into the car, and cut off the ignition. It's also said that the ignition will not start
if you kill it in the tunnel. Other people claim you can hear Mr. Sensabaugh's footsteps echoing in the tunnel, and see him
approaching the car in your rearview mirror. That would be quite unsettling, indeed, if your car won't start! ......"
So, there we have the most commonly
repeated urban legend about Sensabaugh Tunnel. There is one far more obscure legend that is not often heard and one that we
have not been able to validate elsewhere beyond the blog that we found it on whilst research the Tunnel. Here it is, presented
in its entirety. The blog where this can be found at is: http://johnnorrisbrown.com/paranormal-tn/blog/2005/04/sensabaugh-tunnel.html
"....Datkat wrote: Now, here is a really scary phenomena
associated with the tunnel. Terribly mutilated corpses of people who had been attacked by the Long Dog phantom of the River
Road (Big Elm). Zombie-like creatures that are and then are not; who look like previously known victims of the Long Dog.
It wasn't common, of course, for a human body to be found torn to shreds
or the clothing badly torn and the body severely lacerated. However, there were some common threads sometimes, when these
things did happen, when accounts of some such deaths were compared.
If the local police agencies couldn’t solve
the mystery they might offer bear attack or wildcat attack as possibilities. Often the deaths went unexplained, except by
those who knew of the horrible creature said to roam the woodlands of East Tennessee. Those who knew had no doubt about the
meanings of the common threads in the deaths.
And in those deaths, there were indeed common pieces of evidence:
there were very few signs of a struggle; as if the victim had been immediately overwhelmed and unable to fight the attacker
with any prowess.
The scene of the attack indicated that the beast or attacker had slung and dragged and thrown and
whipped the victim around over the ground in the killing, in perhaps a ten-foot circular area, in a violent rage of attack.
the torn body and the attack scene usually reeked of a terrible odor; some say a "sulfur-like", almost acrid stench. Some
say the odor was like that of highly concentrated skunk spray.
Also, if any humans had been anywhere in the general
area, there were usually reports, after the fact, that low, guttural, moaning sounds had been heard, off somewhere in the
woods during the night of the killing. Not screams, not loud wails, but powerful as to be easily heard in the quiet nights.
Grunting as from a wild hog, but maybe more like the low growl of a huge lion, eerily close but at once somewhere off in the
distance. Usually, those who reported hearing the sounds said they had not related the sounds at the time to an attack or
anything like that, but having been told later that an attack had occurred, they suspected the legendary creature had been
in the area and then they began to think aloud that it had done the killing and that that is what they had heard.
common threads of evidence in these killings always matched tales of a mysterious creature sworn to exist and sworn to have
been seen from time to time by most of the people living in the valley, up and down the river along the River Road, now known
as “Big Elm Road”.
The creature was legendary even before the first white settlers moved into the area.
Indians called the creature “Oolonga-daglalla”, roughly translated as “spirit with knife teeth” and
knew it as a ghostly, spirit-like creature that roamed the river valley at night, moaning and bellowing and sometimes killing
solitary natives at random. Over time, the name was corrupted by the white man into “The Long Dog”.
name “Long Dog” was fitting, in the minds of the white people, because of the common description of the creature
by those who had seen it but escaped attack.
The creature was said to lope when it ran, much like a wolverine moves.
That is to say, it’s leaping movement brought its hind legs up under its front legs and its back arched at each stride,
not unlike the movement of an inchworm. The creature moved this way at slow movement or on the run. The scariest, most terrifying
sight was to see the creature moving along in its hideous lope, off to the side, parallel to your path but gaining on you
even as you stepped faster and faster to get home before it caught you.
Also, the creature was quite long; some say
as long as five or six feet long, fully outstretched. So that seemed to fit the corrupted Cherokee name. It had perhaps the
length of a large, stout panther, but did not look like a panther and with a much shorter tail. This creature was said to
have yellowish-red, glowing eyes that were clearly fiery looking, glowing in the night. Its breath, and it’s difficult
to know how someone smelled its breath and survived, was said to have the acrid smell of burning sulfur. Its hair was not
sleek and shiny like a panther; rather it was matted and oily. Tracks found along the riverbank showed great, long, sharp
Yet, even though signs and evidence ascribed to the creature were like those of a living beast, it was known
to appear and disappear; to take the form of the “Long Dog” sometimes and yet sometimes transform into a spirit-like,
ghostly shape; like that of a “living dead zombie”, or vice versa, for lack of a better description.
a person would come up missing and never be found except that a smelly, torn-up attack scene would be found. Legend told in
stories by the people along the River Road said that some victims were transformed into zombie-like creatures that also roamed
the night, although that was probably just local folklore. They said that when someone encountered and somehow escaped the
clutches of one of these zombie-like creatures, they sometimes reported that the spirit or zombie had a face very familiar,
sometimes resembling that of one of the missing victims. Also, many reported sightings of these “things” often
matched descriptions of sightings reported in and around the Arch (later named Sensabaugh Tunnel by area ghost story thrill
Reports of these transformed “zombie-like” creatures were rare, however. Most reported sightings
described the oolonga-doglalla, or Long Dog creature.
We knew of the Long Dog’s existence when we lived on the
River Road in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I had heard the sounds of the creature at night; my older brother Ed had told
me what it was and the sounds scared me so badly that I would cover up my head in bed and shudder and cry, even get sick from
the fright. I know that local adults were terrified by its possible nearness too, but my parents would seek to comfort us
and assure us that it was just the pigs rooting out in the hog lot but we were never allowed to be outside the yard after
dark and we were kept inside when the sounds or odor were sensed.
Ed was either brave enough or crazy enough to walk
home from Kingsport late at night sometimes and often told of having seen, heard or even been confronted by the Long Dog.
He swears he barely escaped the creature one night as he ran home.
Ed was a teenager, about sixteen years old. He
was a bit of a rambler and out of the house lots of days and evenings. We had lived many places before we moved to the River
Road, including the Long Island neighborhood, downtown Kingsport, Cherokee Village, Old Kingsport, Howard Hill, Bear Town,
Nelson Town and other areas. He could easily walk back to those neighborhoods and pal around with his old buddies all of a
long Summer’s day and, as might be expected, he would often stay too late in the day and be forced to walk back home
as it was getting dark and end up walking all the way up the River Road in the almost pitch black darkness of night along
Sometimes he would go to see a movie at the Gem Theater in Kingsport and if he still had a dime he would
ride the city bus out of Kingsport, out Highway 11W to the Rotherwood Mansion, which was there over the west side of the river
and just south below the highway, where the River Road took off from the highway and led up the river a couple of miles to
It would be dark and tales of the ghosts of Rotherwood would haunt him and make his hair stand on end and
he got off the bus and walked home. He could hear the wailing of long-dead slaves being tortured in the old manse. In his
heightened fear he could swear he was seeing the wisps of the ghost of Rowena Ross approaching him, beckoning him. He couldn’t
run; the graveled road was full of ruts and chuckholes and he would fall down. He couldn’t run because the road was
pitch dark and so he literally had to feel his way along the road.
He said he heard the Long Dog may times, smelled
the sulfur of its breath; even saw glimpses of its undulating form breaking through the trees along the river, and its glowing
eyes, sometimes getting closer and closer to where Ed was trying to rush along the dark road home without being heard of seen
by the creature. He tells about it being after him one such night and almost had him but Ed was close enough to the first
house of our settlement, the Nards, and some of that family had a fire going down by the river and were cooking some food
over the fire and spotted Ed and as Ed ran up to them the creature turned back down the road toward the Arch and Ed made it
in safely that night. Ed was lucky.
Knowing what I do now about the Long Dog, I am stunned that Ed was never one of
But, the creature somehow would not come near homes and settlements but it would get as close as the nearest
woods or where thick underbrush grew and attacks occurred there, not on peoples’ clearings. It came close enough though,
as one of the more notorious attacks is said to have occurred at or not far from the mouth of the Arch (now erroneously called
“Sensabaugh Tunnel” by thrill seekers). Present-day ghost story enthusiasts say that you can hear the screams
of the man who was killed by the Long Dog there, if you stop there just after twilight in the dark stillness.
outside the River Road area made fun of us for our beliefs, and the fact is that county lawmen never believed the tales and
usually would not respond to them, so little or no investigation ever happened.
I do believe that because they were
constantly fearful, that was the reason Mom and Dad moved us away from that settlement and back into Kingsport as soon as
they could sell our house and property.
If you are silly enough to want to risk your life, walk down the River Road
just after twilight some summer night, from Rotherwood and on up past the Arch (“Sensabaugh Tunnel”). See if you
can brave the odd happenings around Rotherwood, and along the River Road, and by the Arch. But don’t stay too long;
maybe that moan, somewhere near but maybe just off in the distance, isn’t a farm animal in a nearby barnyard. That rustling
through the brush and, that feeling of something lightly brushing your cheek … maybe that isn’t the wind. And
that faint figure you thought for a moment you saw approaching; maybe that is more than a warm mist rising from the stream
running through the Arch and maybe that form you see isn’t that of a mortal being. Maybe the Long Dog will get you if
you don’t watch out.
I can tell you that I return to my childhood home in East Tennessee from my present-day
Indiana home, every couple of years. As I have grown older, I have given up the thrill of folklore ghost stories. I don’t
believe ghost stories or in the supernatural, or the so-called “paranormal”. Yet, I often wonder as I travel back
in time and space; “How did the Cherokees know the same creature centuries before we heard sober white men relate its
existence? And, when I do go back, should I ever let myself be alone at night, along that dark, gravel road, along the river,
near the Arch?
Finally, you don’t have to take my word alone, as to the haunts of the River Road (“Big
Elm Road”). Go on the Internet and use such keywords as wordridden.com, then go to the top of the screen and click on
"The Scribe” and go down the page to: “L.D; Scaring Myself as a Kid”. I don’t know who wrote that
article but it sure is about the same creature. Or, go to “Rotherwood Mansion” or go to “Sensabaugh Tunnel”.
At these sites you will see why my brothers and sisters and I still shudder when we remember that, fifty years ago, as small
children, we lived within the haunting.-- DAVO. "
Of course, there are hundreds of subjective accounts of people hearing
voices, seeing shadows and even being attacked, of their car engine dying and not starting and even, of having handprints
appear on their car or seeing a terrifying man sized apparition with red eyes.
So, after six months of research and investigation in 2006, more investigations
in 2007 and yet another one as recent as September of 2008, have we at SSPRS been able to confirm any of these reported events?
But what about all the stories of babies and women and families being butchered
and the red eyed apparition?
Not one single story about any murders, deaths or attacks at Sensabaugh Tunnel
by living people who supposedly died in the Tunnel are true. After exhaustive research both by interviewing locals, spending
weeks at a time at the Kingsport Public libary, pouring over newspapers and periodicals, we found that absolutely not one
of the stories about the baby being killed, or Mr. Sensabaugh going insane or the hobo were true.
There were embellishments and fictional creations of the "friend of a friend"
complex that started years ago as the location became famous as a lover's lane. What unsuspecting girl, told the most horrifying
tales about the location and taken their by her boyfriend, would not scooch a little closer to her lover as he told her bone
chilling fright stories of murders and grisly apparitions.
The facts we found out were that the land was purchased for the contruction
of the tunnel by the Clinch Field railroad from a one Mr. Edward Sensabugh in the 1920s. Mr. Sensabugh lived in a house just
west of the tunnel exit. (That house still stands today and is a white frame house and is currently occupied. The residents
do NOT welcome visitors when visiting about the tunnel).
Mr. Sensabaugh and his family were hardworking people, who spent most of their
days in the fields, on the farms and living a simple God-fearing life. When the Clincfield bought the money for the tunnel,
they carved a V for a road bed to allow cars to pass through the tunnel.
At this time, it was common practice to use migrant labor, specifically, Chinese
and Italian laborers. These laborers were poorly paid, poorly treated and not respected. They labored long hours building
for almost nothing.
There was a man named Francisco Anatolio, a migrant worker, who worked on
Sensabaugh Tunnel, along with seven of his friends during the early construction in the 1920s. There is a record of his account
at the Kingsport Public Library in the local legends folder, which the reference librarian will be happy to locate for you.
According to Anatolio, one morning during some blasting on the road bed, there
was an accident, during which the resulting explosion killed seven men, all of which Anatolio knew and was friends with. The
men died a horrible bloody death in the violent dynamite accident.
Anatolio further notes, that being Catholic, these men were to be buried in
consecrated grounds and he states that the Railroad, buried the men in unmarked paupers graves in the cemetery at Ross Campground
We could find no record of the burials but these deaths are confirmed and
they are the only ones to have occured at the Sensabugh Tunnel on Big Elm Road.
What is curious is the fact that Anatolio stated the men were buried at Ross
Campground Church, when in fact, the common practice of the day for migrant workers killed on the job, because it was too
expensive to cease work, was to bury them along side (or even inside) the construction site. We were not able to confirm if
this was done in this case, but it does provide food for thought.
After the tunnel's completion, Edward Sensabaugh lived well up into the 1950s.
The tunnel quickly became a magnet for vandals and lovers looking for privacy. Ed did not take kindly to these defacers or
eager hormonal lovers.
You see, Edward had a talent for mimicry, so said his relatives, for creating
animal sounds and throwing his voice. So, to scare off these misbehaving kids, Ed would hide in the tall grass next to the
tunnel's mouth, where the sound would enter the tunnel and carry, and would make noises to scare off the intruders or vandals.
It worked magnificently, because if you have visited the tunnel, you are well
aware of how easily sound echo's inside its walls. The whole construction is like a giant echo chamber.
Edward Sensabaugh died an old man and he never once killed anyone, let alone
his entire family or a baby.
As for the hobo story, again, absolutely false. No modern deaths have been
recorded since the deaths of the workers in the 1920s at Sensabaugh Tunnel, baby, hobo, family, woman or otherwise.
Urban legend, as you will know, is a tough thing. It often dies a long hard
death, and the same is true with Sensabaugh Tunnel. Even after the story about the crazy Mr. Sensabaugh nearly died
out, the teenagers of the area came up with another version. That of the woman and her baby who were killed by either a murderer
or a supernatural demonic force inside the tunnel.
The story goes something like this:
During a violent thunder storm during the 1950s (an exact date is never specified,
nor is a first or last name of the woman in question, nor the make or model of her car or anything else specific mind you)
that a woman was driving along Big Elm road and was having car trouble. To seek shelter from the storm, she pulled into the
tunnel, where her car suddenly died.
Frustrated, she put her keys on the dashboard and got her baby out of the
back of the car, and intended to walk the 384 feet of the tunnel to the old Sensabaugh house on the far west side. Apparently,
according to the story, this young mother never made it out and died a mysterious violent death in the tunnel..baby included.
The story goes that she was murdered by a transient hobo and the baby
was drowned in the stream that goes through the tunnel or that the vengeful spirit of Mr. Sensabaugh himself (who was still
alive at the time the story took place, though getting on in years) appeared and..well...you get the idea.
After searching newspaper after newspaper and every record we could reach
in the Tennessee archives at the Kingsport Library, we could not find a single shred of proof this murder or death ever happened.
You would think the sudden violent deaths of a mother and infant would make news...apparently we either have inept news editors
(which by the way, they are very good) or you have yet another fictional urban legend.
So? What about the Long Dog legend?
Again, nothing was ever able to be proven that this is an actual Cherokee
legend that pertains to the tunnels or the areas around them. In fact, we have not yet been able to find a concrete origin
for this story. In fact, the blog entry was the only telling of it that we could find.
But, wait, there is more!
We have noticed that if you debunk Sensabaugh Tunnel, avid believers will
dive immeaditely to the lesser known river culvert known as River Tunnel, which is often mistaken for Sensabaugh Tunnel. It
is a smaller tunnel built also by the Clinchfield to allow the Holston River to drain under the rail tracks above. It
is not passable by car, and only on foot.
It is not as spacious as Sensabaugh Tunnel, but has a far more evil reputation
for demonic attacks and violent supernatural manifestations.
Upon enter the culvert, which at night, does have a very chilling atmosphere
due to the fact that it is absolutely pitch black, one sees that the walls, like Sensabaugh Tunnel are covered in grafitti
and half hearted attempts by teenagers seeking a scare by tagging up their names or incorrectly made Satanic symbols.
The area is known for drug trafficking and drunks. It is also a popular lovers
lane. Absolutely no stories about this tunnel are true as far as the urban legends go and as far as manifestations go, we
have not yet gotten anything from this tunnel to convince us its demonically possessed.
However, Dr. Nancy Acuff, noted folklorist and historian and former FBI profiler
did accompany us on our first investigation and told us a very intriguing story.
She told us that the supposed haunting at the River Tunnel was the true haunting
and that it was caused by slaves who were butchered by a cruel slave master who resided in or near Rotherwood Mansion,
the site of another famous and violent haunting just up the road.
She refused to name the man who supposedly killed these slaves because she
stated the man's relatives still lived in the area, and were ashamed of their family's past. She also mentioned that a Civil
War skirmish had been fought on the land where River Tunnel would later be built and along the shores of the Holston River.
We were not able to confirm this and have not yet found evidence for a battle
on the land near the area of Big Elm Road. If you do have evidence, please feel free to email us below.
She did mention that the Cherokee often fought on this land and held it sacred
as well as nearby Long Island.
Again, nothing concrete,only faint trails and empty leads.
So, what about all the "evidence" teams of "investigators" and thrill seeking
teens bring back from the tunnels?
As far as photos go, we have orbs, and you should know how we and especially,
I, feel about orbs by now. If not, please see the research article section and read "Orbs: Debunked!"
The EVPS that have been captured in the two tunnels by teams are almost nearly
useless due to all the background noise generated in the river culvert and the echo-chamber like sound properties of Sensabaugh
Some have claimed to have captured screams, voices and babies crying; (these
sounds by the way, are most often heard in River Tunnel and are caused by the rushing water hitting the rocks. SSPRS was able
to find one large rock in particular that if moved, changed the quality of the "voices" ). Of all of these claims, not
a single "investigator" or thrill seeking teen has yet come forth with a single shred of proof of these EVPS, nor will they
submit them for detailed analysis. Hmm...sounds awful like no evidence to me.
For those of you who like your local haunts and legends alive and well, do
not fear. There IS evidence of paranormal activity at Sensabaugh and River Tunnel. On our first investigation, we captured
what appears to be an ecto-plasmic mist inside the Sensabaugh Tunnel on Hi-8 video. However, I hestiate to call this evidence
due to the water. It could have been fog.
The last two pieces of possible evidence of paranormal activity at the two
locations are two EVPs that SSPRS recently captured whilst on a trip to the tunnels on September 19th, 2008.
They are both available on this website under the EVP section and we do not understand why these EVPs are here because by all means, nothing
has ever occured at the tunnels for a woman's voice to be there saying "please don't hurt me". The other EVP, collected at
River Tunnel seems to say " We can/will find them". The second EVP is a low class B, a C a best, and not very clear.
The first EVP however, is Class A crystal clear and totally unexpected.
Here is the catch: both EVPs were captured outside their respective tunnels. One was captured as we re-entered Sensabaugh
Tunnel on foot ( yes at night ) from the Sensabugh House side.
The second occurs in the "foyer" area of River Tunnel, where the branches
of the trees overlap and make a shady spot, where people often sit. Any explanation or viewpoint is welcome on these two recordings
is more than welcome. Unlike other teams, we are hard enough on our evidence to be able to present it without fear of having
egg on our faces, because you should always be most strict on your own recordings.
These two recordings suggest that there is some type of low-level paranormal
activity at both tunnels, but the origin of this activity is completely unknown to history.
We have never encountred anything demonic or harmful at the tunnels and we
have debunked the car engine myth over and over and over..please dont get your pants in a wad about that one, oh local teens
of little faith in investigative technique.
So, in conclusion, here is the skinny. All the urban legends about Sensabaugh
Tunnel, the hobo, the woman and the baby, or anything presently told as "fact" about the tunnel's is either entirely fiction
or standing on extremely shaky ground at best in the case of the Indian story and unsubtantiated, in the case of Dr. Acuff's
Whenever you hear these tales, know they are untrue and that the real
mystery of Sensabaugh Tunnel and River Tunnel, yet remain unsolved and beckon for us to probe the dark corners of history,
to find the truth, for here, in the mist mountains and in the land of Haints, we must always know our own past...lest we repeat
the mistakes we made and forget our heritage of myth and wonder.
SSPRS Founder, TAPS Family, East TN.