This story begins with a legend — that of "Old Thump." As the tale goes, folks in the neighborhood of Codger Town, which now lies beneath a lake in southern West Virginia, were haunted by a thundering rumble, the origins of which were attributed to a ghost they called "Old Thump."
Historian Reuben Mitchell heard the sound himself as a boy in the '60s. "I'll never forget it. One night I was walking along the river when I heard it coming like horse's hooves down the road, though nothing was there. It would send chills up your spine to hear it."
Like Mitchell, now curator of the Gilbert Museum at nearby Gilbert, West Virginia, other witnesses described the thump as the sound of horses trotting along the road — others as a rhythmic thunder or a deep rumble at the threshold of sound.
In her blog "Haunted History of the Tri-State," paranormal investigator Teresa Racer relates that inhabitants of the valley came to believe the sound was supernatural in origin:
"It was quickly theorized by residents that these ghostly sounds, which were dubbed 'Ol' Thump,' must have been the result of an early pioneer family that was killed by Indians or died while they tried to ford the river with their wagon. No one was really sure what was causing the strange sounds, but witnesses kept coming forth with identical tales."
Construction of a dam on the Guyandotte River commenced in the late 1960s, and residents of Codger Town moved while R.D. Bailey Lake slowly filled the valley.
But the legend didn't drown beneath the rising waters. It transformed and grew to include the lake and the land itself. Some now attribute the rumble to a subterranean source.
According to Mitchell, historian Ralph Justice in the 1948 book "The Ghost of the Guyan," made perhaps the first references to an underground river that ran beneath the Guyandotte River, possibly giving rise to many tales that came after.
"If you can find that book," Mitchell said, "and I've only ever seen one copy, Justice wrote that there was a cavity beneath the river, and when something moves around down there, the rocks or whatever it might be, the sound comes to the surface, though I doubt you could hear it now, because of the lake."
Mitchell says natural gas that bubbles to the lake's surface may well have something to do with the cavity or some other geologic source.
"Years ago I used to keep a boat that I'd run up and down R.D. Bailey Lake, and I'm telling you, that lake's got more gas in it than you can shake a stick at. You can just sit there and watch bubbles coming up, which happens on other lakes, true, but R.D. Bailey Lake is full of bubbles."
Rumors of the underground river have resurfaced repeatedly through the years. "Only in Your State," a perennial source of quirky and often-dubious information, recycled the story as recently as 2016:
"It was discovered that the dam had redirected an ancient underground river that had flowed under Codger Town. The ghostly horse and carriage sounds were probably rocks and sticks being swept away underground."
I recalled having heard whispers about the underground river in the early 1990s when I was an editor for The Coal Chronicle, a mining-industry magazine that often covered stories in the region, but I can't recall who told me the tale.
Then last year I grew interested in the legend again while looking for a good hiking trail in the area. I found mention of a "Salt River Trail" mapped in the wildlife-management area that surrounds the lake. However, the "river" appeared to be only half-a-mile long!
R.D. Bailey superintendent Brian Morgan confirmed that the Army Corps of Engineers maintains a trail to the swift-falling stream that is mapped as the Salt River, though he had never heard the tale and didn't recall anything about the origin of the name.
By chance, I turned to Erin Ellis-Reid, community-outreach director for Active Southern W.Va., an organization that encourages active living in West Virginia's south-central counties. Erin shares a love for the outdoors and grew up nearby.
I asked her if she'd ever heard of the Salt River, when she reminded me of Old Thump. Her grandmother Lila Ellis lived on a farm near Codger Town, and Erin grew up hearing the tale.
All of this said, it turns out there's little scientific evidence to support the idea of a cavity or of an underground river, according to geologist Mike Spore, who studied the area during the development of the dam. Such a feature would surely have been discovered by engineers.
However, there's plenty of geologic wonder to discover, Spore said, and the origin of the name "Salt River" likely has a source in possible salt springs or seeps that may well up in the region.
"It is a very unique dam, and we brought in people from the Snowy Mountain projects in Australia to work on it because of the seep-and-spring conditions in the abutments and foundations," he said.
Geologic wonders such as brine springs and burning springs, fueled by natural gas, are not unheard of in southern West Virginia, Spore said.
"We encountered those certainly at Burning Springs, near Charleston, at the old Dickenson Salt Works. And the Smithsonian in the 1840s investigated burials and earthworks here as well as areas where you had brine seeps and springs and natural gas discharges at the surface.
"So the presence of salt springs and gas sources — it's certainly possible. You encounter brines typically in the area of R.D. Bailey at depths of 120 to 270 feet, so to think that you'd have a fracture zone that would intercept a brine of Pennsylvanian age, which would be twice the seawater concentration of today, is very likely."
So, it's as likely as not that brine and gas trapped hundreds of feet beneath the lake may rise up through fractures to feed springs and bubble up into the lake bed. Whether that bubbling might have caused the rumbling known as Old Thump, only future research can tell.