Broken glass and scattered piles of wood litter the ground of the Moonville tunnel. Night-time travelers hold bonfires and graffiti the stone walls as high as they can reach.

Dusk began to set on brick letters spelling out Moonville which poked out of the top of tunnel. Some letters, that is. The M and V are now missing.

Brick letters spell out Moonville at the top of the tunnel. Photo by Lauren Schneider.

Dozens of homes used to line those tracks, tucked away in Zaleski Forest, miles away from any other community. Moonville, a secluded group of coal miners and iron workers, was the archetypal southeastern-Ohio village in the late 1800s.

Now, it’s a ghost town.


I first found Moonville by accident. Searching area counties for a summer fair to visit, I came across Vinton County’s Wikipedia page. The largely uninhabited county features no towns or communities. Scrolling down, I paused at the listings of several ghost towns.

“Seriously? Ghost towns?”

The search for county fairs forgotten, my girlfriend and I packed our bookbags. It was time for an adventure.

View Moonville in a larger map

The story of Moonville’s rise in the 19th century resembles that of dozens of other villages throughout what is known as the Hanging Rock Iron Region. A stretch of land from Hocking County, Ohio, down to the Ohio River and into parts of northern Kentucky, the region had rich deposits of limestone and iron ore. Soon, the area became Ohio’s first chief industrial center.

“The ‘Hanging Rock’ iron…is everywhere celebrated for its superior quality,” J.S. Newberry wrote to then-Ohio governor Rutherford B. Hayes in an 1870 geologic survey.

Soon, iron furnaces towered all over the wild, forest-inhabited landscape.

An Ohio Historical Marker rests at the steps of the Hope Iron Furnace. The year it closed in 1874, it was one of 65 furnaces in the Hanging Rock region, according to a geologic report of southern Ohio by T. Sterry Hunt, a 19th century Massachusetts Institute of Technology geology professor.

Moonville residents walked miles to work at the Hope Furnace, now an Ohio Historical Landmark and part of the Lake Hope State Park. Photo by Lauren Schneider.

“The charcoal iron industry was responsible for the rapid development of southern Ohio,” a Ohio Historical Marker reads.

A hundred years before, residents of Moonville and other villages walked miles to the flat-topped clay pyramid that was the Hope Furnace, producing iron for the growing railroad system throughout the expanding United States.

Moonville’s iron production expanded rapidly when the Marietta-Cincinnati railroad built its southeast Ohio rail line through the village’s forest, according to the Ohio Exploration Society. In the geographic cross-hairs of the growing railroad and mining industries, Moonville thrived.

* * *

When I first visited the abandoned tunnel last summer, I was aided by an existing drought.

A bridge used to connect the rail line over Raccoon Creek, a waterway at the base of the hill.

By the late 1980s, when the line ended and the tracks were pulled up, the trestle was removed, OES explains.

Fortunately, the rainless summer meant I could cross by foot and climb up the other side.

The existing stone path of the rail line dug itself through the forest. Suddenly, there it was.

The Moonville tunnel lies deep within the Zaleski Forest. Photo by Lauren Schneider.


The Moonville tunnel thrusts its surface into the landscape, as if swallowed by the surrounding mountainside. Even in the daylight, the deep recesses of the tunnel are nearly pitch-black, its length reaching into infinity.

I had heard the tunnel was haunted. If ghosts loomed in the shadows, I never saw them as I traveled in the daytime.

Soon, however, I would learn that Moonville was haunted in a much different way. I couldn’t get the ghost town or the tunnel out of my mind.

In the weeks and months that followed, I read everything I could find about Moonville. My mind was insatiable—I needed to learn more.

With Ohio University in close proximity, I contacted more than a dozen of geology, geography and history professors, to no avail. None had ever heard of the ghost town or knew much of the area’s geologic history. The Lake Hope State Park surrounding the Zaleski Forest provided similarly disappointing results.

Modernity was evidently no help for my historical exploration. The history was deep, and my search became even deeper.

I had to go back to the tunnel.


What was a ghost town like before it earned its distinction?

In 1856, a man named Samuel Coe offered parts of his land for free to the Marietta and Cincinnati Railroad company. In exchange for the railroad being routed through Coe’s land, the line would haul coal and clay off his property, according to OES.

In searching through a resource database for information regarding Moonville, I stumbled on a true historical relic—a genealogical tree of Robert Coe, a prominent New England Puritan of the 17th century. Of the dozens of Samuel Coes in the family’s lineage, one listing stood out.

Samuel Coe, born in 1813, “became a farmer and in early manhood settled at Rue, Moonville Twp., Athens Co., Ohio…” the listing read. A seventh generation descendant, his reported home in “Moonville Twp” matches the OES description.

Most notably, his being a farmer fits the motive of the railroad arrangement. A 43-year-old in the back woods of Zaleski Forest wanting coal and clay shipped off his land would certainly make planting crops significantly easier.

Other than the tunnel, the only remnant of Moonville is the village’s cemetery, located on a hill down the road from the tracks. Scattered around the open grass were a dozen tombstones, many unmarked, worn down by a century of erosion and decay.

Unmarked graves fill the Moonville Cemetery, which rests on a hilltop down the road from the tunnel. Photo by Lauren Schneider.

Beside one stone, a small American flag was dug into the nearby dirt. Someone saw fit to honor a Civil War veteran of generations past, despite the cemetery’s location in the heart of the forest and the fact that its most recent burial was in 1914.

“30th Ohio Infantry, Wellington Coe,” the stone read, the flag waving erratically in the sharp February wind.


My mind was spinning. The plot thickened.

“Who was this man?”

Several online databases of Civil War soldiers found a “Coe, Wellington C.” who had served in the 30th Ohio Infantry for the Union Army. The soldier was 38 when he was discharged in 1862, according to one report.

The Coe family tree lists two Wellington Coes, neither of which match the age or the plausible location.

I felt stuck, as if I were wandering around the forest fruitlessly searching for any other existence or remains of the ghost town.
Suddenly, like an abandoned house in the forest, I found it.

A third Wellington, not listed in the database’s index.

It was Samuel Coe’s brother, Lewis Wellington Coe, born in 1824. Lewis Coe would have been 38 years old in 1862 (as described in the Civil War database).

Of the thousands and thousands of names, hundreds of pages of over 500 years of family lineage, the only other connection to the name “Wellington” just happens to lie so close to the man responsible for Moonville’s creation.

“Lewis Wellington Coe…[died] in Ohio, Feb. 28, 1870. History untraced.”

Can forgotten history of 132 years ago ever be traced? It certainly appears so.

If he were the man buried in Moonville Cemetery, he sure never went by the name Lewis. Neither the stone nor civil war database gives that name.

But if this man, hobbled by his “discharged for disability” in Virginia in 1862, decided to travel north 100 miles to his brother Samuel in Moonville rather than at least 700 miles to his home of Windsor, CT., it would seem reasonable. His decision to travel to Ohio rather than return home would also explain why his history was left “untraced.”

The more I looked into Moonville in trying to find the explanation for its decline, the more research took me in a different direction. Searching for southern Ohio environmentalism of the 19th century led to a nightlong quest of finding Wellington Coe as I dug through pages of family records, civil war databases and tried to piece together this historical jigsaw puzzle.

What I thought was the story, the rise and fall of a ghost town in the Hanging Rock Iron Region, turned out to be much more, an expansive search and understanding of our geographic history.

My unquenchable thirst for the truth revealed an unbelievable, historical domino effect.

As I’d learn, Moonville may have been a product of the same theme of unintended consequences.


How, perhaps, did one man unwittingly transform the United States?

Samuel Coe, new to southeastern Ohio, wanted his Zaleski Forest farm to provide for his wife and three children. But his land’s coal and clay got in the way, so a lucrative deal with a railroad company, so he thought, would solve everything.

Suddenly, with the addition of a rail line through the area, towns like Moonville sprung up like iron ore being mined to the surface. Iron furnaces were being built everywhere in the region, and with rail traffic increasing, demand for the area’s resources grew as well.

Then came the nation’s Civil War. Hanging Rock iron makers provided resources during the war for canons and other military equipment, according to the Ohio Historical Markers Committee.

And who used such equipment? The Union Army, the one Samuel’s brother Wellington may have served under in the Ohio 30th infantry, which won the Civil War and dramatically changed our nation’s history.

By the early 1900s, coal mines around Moonville were drying up. The war was over, the mines began to close, and the industry demand lessened significantly, according to OES.

Hope Furnace had been closed since 1874, and by 1916 the Hanging Rock Iron Region industry was dead.

Samuel Coe died in 1883, never knowing that soon, the village of Moonville he created through his farm, would reach its end.

The last family moved away in 1947. Only the tunnel, cemetery and the occasional ghost story remain.

If a ghost town disappears in the forest, does it make a sound?

The history lies somewhere deep in Zaleski Forest. With nothing else left, perhaps it exists mainly in our fantasies.

I’ll return someday for a third trip to the Moonville tunnel, and maybe I’ll even see a ghost or two.

The darkness of the tunnel surrounded me, even with up daylight ahead. I thought I had figured the story out, when in reality the mystery had its grips on me the whole time.

In that sense, Moonville truly is haunted.

This trip, a cold, February journey into the forest, I walked back out the tunnel as the darkness hastily settled over Vinton County. A now-filled creek forced me through the forest towards Moonville, as if I were heading home after a long day at the furnace.

Trudging through the path alongside Raccoon Creek, I noticed footsteps lying below me in the mud.

Either they belonged to fellow tourists, or a tired villager on his way back from the mines.

Even in daylight, the tunnel's darkness encompasses its path. Photo by Lauren Schneider