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Home Features Horse trail passes site of Big South Fork tragedy

Horse trail passes site of Big South Fork tragedy

The grave of George Owens, a 10-year-old boy who died in 1900, is nestled against a moss-covered log in the midst of a thicket in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area backcountry. (Ben Garrett/IH)

To the average person — unaware of the history of the territory that is now called the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area; just here to visit and ride their horse in the scenic backcountry — it’s just a trail. It follows an old wagon road, which was later used by automobiles that we would consider relics today before being abandoned altogether, traversing the Station Camp Creek valley to link Charit Creek Lodge with the BSF river crossing some four miles down the creek.

The towering ridge lines on either side of the valley — Hatfield Ridge to the north, the plateau lands around Bandy Creek to the south — are easy enough to pick out, as are the hemlock trees and beech trees that stand tall along the stream’s edge. But hidden in nature’s cloaking undergrowth — out of sight, out of mind, for the most part — are the remnants of civilization in this valley.

Station Camp was once alive with the activities of hearty settlers who carved out a subsistence lifestyle there. Those families have been gone for decades, and time has erased much of their footprint on this land. But for those who are hiking or riding along Station Camp Creek and know where to look, and what to look for, a stark reminder of just how difficult life was in those times still remains.

It isn’t visible from the trail. A faint foot path leads away from the old wagon road and up the hill, but it’s hard to see if you don’t know it’s there. It can just as easily be mistaken for a game trail. But if you leave the road behind and climb the bank to a small point that overlooks the creek, you’ll stumble across it — mostly hidden in the undergrowth, but there just the same: a family graveyard.

This is no ordinary graveyard, at least in the sense most of us think about a graveyard: a scenic setting, usually behind a church, where members of the community who have lived out their lives and passed on are laid to rest.

This is the Owens cemetery, a place where William Wesley Owens and his wife, Susanna Slaven Pennington Owens, buried their children. And it underscores their troubles.

The Owens and their 10 children lived on a farmstead here, about 1.5 miles west of the river crossing. You wouldn’t know it by surveying the landscape now, but it was once a large farm, and Wes Owens operated a water-powered grist mill on the creek.

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If you stumble through the undergrowth to a natural bench along the hillside, you’ll find some fieldstone that served as part of the foundation for the Owens home. That is the only reminder of their life here now that the grist mill has been torn down and nature has reclaimed the fields — the only reminder, that is, except for the single row of gravestones.

The stones, some carved by hand and some commercially prepared, tell a story of hard times and heartbreak on Station Camp Creek in the 1890s.

At about this time, Yellow Fever was sweeping through what is now the Big South Fork NRRA. It’s uncommon in America today, due to vaccination, but Yellow Fever was once feared. Spread by mosquitoes, it caused typical viral symptoms: fever, headache, chills, muscle pains. But many of those infected saw the disease turn toxic just as they seemed to be improving. The second phase caused liver damage that resulted in jaundice and vomiting. It caused bleeding from the mouth, eyes and gastrointestinal track, followed by kidney damage, delirium, and, often, death.

Life was different in the remote settlements of the Big South Fork River Gorge. When illness visited, home remedies were applied. There were no doctors. And when someone died, they were often buried, simply and without fanfare, on the family homestead. That was the case here, on the Owens farm, where Wes and Susanna buried seven of their 10 children as they passed away from illness.

The first to die was 13-year-old Samantha. She passed away on Feb. 22, 1888, just four days before her 14th birthday. She was buried near the family’s home and her father chiseled her head stone out of field rock.

On the day Samantha died, little James Owens was celebrating his first birthday. But just five months later, he, too, died, and was buried next to his sister.

In between Samantha and baby James, their brother, Ebbin Owens, is buried. The exact date of his death isn’t known; the field stone on which his epitaph was chiseled is too eroded to be legible. He would’ve been around 10 years old at the time.

In a span of just months, three of the Owens children had died. But the tragedies were just beginning. At some point in 1889 — the exact date isn’t known — little Sarah died. She was just five. It had been just over a year, and four of the family’s children had passed away.

The deaths stopped with Sarah’s passing. In fact, there were brighter days ahead. In 1890, just a year after the four children died, a new arrival came to the farm. Baby Electa was born. But the happier days wouldn’t last. In 1892, illness visited the farm again. Ten-year-old Lawrence — who the family called Larry — died. And four years after that, Electa died at the age of six, and was buried alongside her brothers and sisters.

Susanna had been pregnant again in 1892, the year Larry died. Their son, George, was born that same year. But in 1900, eight-year-old George died as well.

Finally, in 1903, William Wesley died and was buried alongside his children. He was 78. Susanna and her three surviving children — 17-year-old Willis, 15-year-old Cordelia (called Cordy by her father) and nine-year-old Bailey — eventually moved away from the farm. Bailey was the longest-surviving member of the Owens family. He died at Scott County Hospital in 1975.

It’s easy to hike or ride into the BSF backcountry and romanticize how life must have been for those who carved out an existence here. But that life was a difficult one — as a row of long forgotten graves on a small ridge above Station Camp Creek are left to illustrate.

This story is the November 2017 installment of “Our Back Yard,” presented in by First National Bank on the first week of each month as part of the Independent Herald’s Back Page Features series.

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Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.
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