This Town Is Myth…Iron Bridge and the Deadly Withlacoochee

This post is part of the This Town is Myth Project which looks to examine a lost town named Pemberton Ferry, Florida, that history has all but forgotten. Most of the material is my way of wiggling out the different aspects of the unexplained, the deep history, and several conspiracies and theories related to the town. As such, there will be mistakes, misidentifications, and misunderstandings. This has always been a part of Tripping on Legends as we know we are not always getting the best information when it comes to folklore and legends, but it is even more so with this. I am an outsider to the area in many respects, and my information comes from different sources and is the best information I have at the time. Mistakes come from a genuine place and not from a desire to be a poor researcher.

Please contact me with any corrections, additions, or clarifications. This project begs for it…

It takes a moment to realize it, but the birds never feed in the middle of the water.  You can see them dipping into the little puddles made where it has receded and circling in the sky above as if hunting fish they’ll never chase.  They seem to know something outsiders don’t about what lies below the surface.  They have some hint of the history and the mysteries that the local people whisper and nod to each other about, something they have shared for as long as anyone around can remember.  There are some plain truths like this in most small towns, known by citizens of the zip code and hidden, maybe even unreasonable to visitors.  All along the Withlacoochee River people talk about the oddness in the water, and in what was once Pemberton Ferry, everyone knows you try to swim near Iron Bridge. 

The Withlacoochee River, or Crooked River, is a bit of an oddity even without the deaths that are drawn to it.   The 70-mile waterway starts in the Green Swamp, an area well known for its own creepy legends, and then travels north instead of south, like it’s larger brother the St. John’s, to the Gulf of Mexico.  The water levels are fickle and shifting, sometimes overflowing and causing damage to the surrounding areas and other times being reduced to nothing more than a swamp.  The development of the river directly mirrors the growth of Florida.  A natural waterway, over the years people have moved its natural path, damned off parts to develop, and changed the depth as the transportation of the time needed.  These changes beg for folklore to be born about them.  In fact, in other parts of the country changes like this are almost always associated with starting curses or angering the forces that call for balance, like disturbing some Feng Shui which demands to be corrected.

Maybe that explains why so many of the towns that pop up along the banks fail.  From the perspective of history, there is nothing unusual about this.  They are places born of boom and easily depleted natural resources such as phosphate, turpentine, and produce crop where a freeze can mean a town goes under.  They rely on river travel and trains which have been replaced by highways and developed backroads.  But other towns with a similar history find a way to adapt and strive.  While people live all along it, many of the existing names have changed over the years as town were born, failed, and were paved over for new ones.  The New Deal and U.S. Land Resettlement Administration days allowed for the federal government to take control of many of the land and ghost towns, and with each new owner and each new mini-boom, the past was carefully forgotten, and the weirdness reduced to whispers.  It was all just something that happened everywhere sometimes.

Many of the places it traverses through are areas of known weirdness.  Towns like Dunnellon and Brooksville and Dade city tend to appear on every Web site dedicated to ghosts.  The Withlacoochee State Park State Forest, like its brother the Ocala State Forest just an hour away, is home to its own haunted legends, most notably the story of the Swamp Witch of Hog Island.  The odd thing is, however, that the stories are contained to the areas around the water while the river, known to have taken hundreds of lives over the years, inspires almost none.

According to Best Backroads of Florida: Volume One, the river has long been a dumping ground for the misdeeds of the people who live near it.  One of the spots author Douglas Waitley refers to is the town of Dunnellon.  The town was the very definition of frontier life, at one time having 16 saloons in the small, somewhat isolated municipality.  Patrons were often killed in these violent establishments, and their bodies were thrown into the Withlacoochee.   The worst incident, however, occurred in November of 1895.  Two white shopkeepers were killed and two black suspects were hung on the spot.  A third was caught and jailed, but when the mob arrived at the jail that night to exact justice, Sheriff Bill Stephens, a mammoth of a man and a confirmed racist, allowed them to take the accused without a fight.  The suspect was hanged, stuffed in a sack, and thrown in the river.  The miners who worked the town, all of them black, stormed the town but were beaten back by Stephens and his men.  However, they did not let the insurrection go unpunished.  They stormed the miner camp and killed many of the people there, throwing their bodies into the Withlacoochee as a warning to others who doubted who was in control of the area.  Later, when some of the people asked for a different lawman to Stephens due to his methods and possible retribution for the massacre, he pistol whipped his replacement until he was near death and maintained control of the town. 

All along the river are spots where similar deaths have occurred, but one spot more than the others has been the direct source of tragedy and ask anyone about the area and they will immediately cite Iron Bridge in Bushnell as a place where you just don’t go in the water.  Originally the site of a bridge between Croom and Pemberton Ferry, as well as a bridge connecting the two counties, it acted as one of the main roads between Sumter County and Brooksville.  The original road designation was Road 214.   Early on the site, which serviced foot traffic, ferries, and other vehicles became known for having things go wrong.  Later deaths became common and the reputation of the crossing grew in the minds of both towns.  Eventually, as each town failed, the bridge was torn down so that only a few rusted pilings remain, but the idea that you do not swim in that part of the river was forever cemented in the minds of the locals, something that continues to be reinforced every time a new fatality is reported there.   

Thumbing through old editions of the Savannah Morning News, one of the only sources for information on Pemberton Ferry, is like a catalogue of the strange on the banks of the Withlacoochee.  It reported of a mysterious death in September of 1879.  A man named Henry Keller drowned as he was working the area near Iron Bridge.  A chain across the river had become loose and he and a coworker entered the water to free it and reset it using a series of jerks.  Keller, who was known to be a fair swimmer, slipped and fell in the water, but his companion did not immediately respond because he felt Keller was not in jeopardy.   He never came out of the water, a few furious bubbles rushing to the surface the only sign there was anything wrong.  He was never seen alive again.  People searched for the body, but nothing was found until 2 days later when the body was discovered minus a head.  Some locals accused the coworker, or at least questioned how the man could have died and lost his head, but someone else had threatened him before the accident and then bragged about it after.  There is no evidence anyone was ever brought to trial or convicted of the crime.

The reports do not end there.  The same paper reported a series of incidents only a few months later.  The April 29, 1890, edition talks about how four people had mysteriously drown in the previous few weeks.  This included a man identified only as Abrams.  He and some others were treasure hunting for phosphate and other underwater riches.   He dove down as he had many times before, but this time he did not come back up.  After recovering the body it was found that, “he had struck head first a huge elephant’s tusk that was standing on the riverbed in an upright position.  It had pierced his brain causing instant death.”  It was later revealed the tusk in fact belonged to a mastodon and not an elephant.    

Tragedy struck again that September.  Tom Brown and Maggie Roundtree were sailing on the Withlacoochee with a third friend.  As a joke and knowing their unidentified friend was a good swimmer, they threw him overboard.  He heard their laughs as he made his way back to the shore, but when he arrived he looked back to find the boat had capsized.   By the time he made his way back to help them, they were dead.

These historical reports are not just a snapshot of something that only happened back in the day.  Ask citizens in Bushnell about it and their response is immediate.  You don’t swim at Iron Bridge.  Most can cite a person they know who suffered an accident there.  Either that or they know a friend who had someone they know die, and this continues as you ask people from the surrounding towns.  Ask someone in Webster or St Catherine and the trend is the same.  No one knows how many people have actually drowned in the river there, but the reports of dozens of victims in modern times is not hyperbole.  This is the single most deadly spot in Florida, and when someone challenges it, which they do from time to time on a dare or in a moment of bravado, the results can still be fatal.

The idea of unsafe bodies of water isn’t new.  There are places throughout the world that seem to have more deaths related to them than the others around them, and there tends to be legends that develop around them due to a simple misunderstanding of how currents actually work.  Most beaches, especially in Florida, have signs posted about the hazards of riptides and how to react when you’re caught in one, but most unsuspecting swimmer don’t think these can happen in smaller sources of water. 

These, however, do not account for all of the deaths.  A few hours across the state Lake Istokpoga was considered cursed by the Seminoles.  Even its name, which means “place where people die” relates the history of losing people inexplicably while crossing.  Horn Pond in Woburn, Massachusetts, more a water reserve than an actual pond, and Assawompset Pond in Lakeville both associate the missing and drowned people there to evil spirits trapped in the water after a long battle.  There’s also Lake Ronkonkoma in Long Island, New York, and its long history of unsolved murders and unexplained deaths blamed on something dark and cursed in the water. 

One of the most intriguing water legends might be in Ormond Beach, Florida.  Among the odd lights and reports of mysterious death is a lesser known tale known and spread by old timers.  Back in the day when slavery helped to build that area of the state, an overseer was killed by those he looked over.  There are variations that he drowned and they refused to help or that they had intentionally gotten him drunk and threw him in, but the dead man is said to return to the place of his death to replay his last moments.  People in the location have even reported feeling lightheaded and even intoxicated when visiting that part of the park. 

The odd thing about the Withlacoochee is that there are no legends to explain what happens there.  Like so many things associated with Pemberton Ferry, the past is known but not spoken of.  It is as if people need to be warned about the danger and people nod their heads in agreement whenever Iron Bridge and the river is brought up in conversation, but no stories are told.  When they are, they are contained to the reality of the danger rather than trying to provide a rationalization for the mystery.  It is just accepted.  No water monster or angry ghosts.  No revenge from beyond the grave or disturbed spirit unable to find peace.

Instead, totally in character of Pemberton Ferry, there is just a shrug of the shoulders. 

Follow all social media at #ThisTownIsMyth.

You can contact us with questions, comments, and your favorite legend or tidbit of folklore at spookytripping@gmail.com.

Feel free to call our new phone number during our lives shows to get involved or whenever just to share a legend you’ve heard to ask a question at ((813) 418-6822. 

Keep visiting the site for the trip log of our travels and other urban legends at: www.trippingonlegends.wordpress.com

Follow us at: www.facebook.com/trippingonlegends

Twitter: @SpookyBalzano

Instagram: @SpookyTripping

10 Bloodthirsty Creatures From Global Folklore – Page 3

Just when you thought folklore was all rainbows and fairytales…
— Read on whatculture.com/offbeat/10-bloodthirsty-creatures-from-global-folklore

Tripping on Legends Live: Ghosts of Christmas Past

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TRIPPING ON LEGENDS LIVE: GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST

In what is becoming a new holiday tradition, Tripping on Legends brings you a host of Christmas Ghost Stories and asks you to decide which is true and which is only a White Christmas lie.

We’re changing the date this year and doing it on Christmas so Ella, who has been furious with her research and writing, can join in the fun.

Snuggle up this us this Christmas Night when you’ve finished opening up the presents, finished the goose, and when you need time away from the family. Join in the fun and call in with your holiday ghost story or just sit back and see if you can tell when we’re pulling your stocking.

Listen to last years show on the history and tradition of ghost stories and Christmas:

Listen to last years show:

…or watch the video…

You can check out the This Town is Myth page at: https://www.facebook.com/This-Town-is-Myth-106533630840134/

Follow all social media at #ThisTownIsMyth.

You can contact us with questions, comments, and your favorite legend or tidbit of folklore at spookytripping@gmail.com.

Feel free to call our new phone number during our lives shows to get involved or whenever just to share a legend you’ve heard to ask a question at ((813) 418-6822. 

Keep visiting the site for the trip log of our travels and other urban legends at: www.trippingonlegends.wordpress.com

Follow us at: www.facebook.com/trippingonlegends

Twitter: @SpookyBalzano

Instagram: @SpookyTripping

Episode 62…This Town is Myth

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EPISODE 62…THIS TOWN IS MYTH

Sometimes a single message and a onetime meeting can open a can of worms you can’t walk away from.


With the research for the new This Town is Myth beginning, Christopher Balzano takes to the air to introduce and try to explain the spark and the inspiration for the new project. He’ll also talk about some of the odder things he’s already discovered and the direction the story might take.

Visit the petition to save Wild Cow Cemetery

You can check out the This Town is Myth page at: https://www.facebook.com/This-Town-is-Myth-106533630840134/

Follow all social media at #ThisTownIsMyth.

You can contact us with questions, comments, and your favorite legend or tidbit of folklore at spookytripping@gmail.com.

Feel free to call our new phone number during our lives shows to get involved or whenever just to share a legend you’ve heard to ask a question at ((813) 418-6822. 

Keep visiting the site for the trip log of our travels and other urban legends at: www.trippingonlegends.wordpress.com

Follow us at: www.facebook.com/trippingonlegends

Twitter: @SpookyBalzano

Instagram: @SpookyTripping

This Town is Myth…It All Started at a Denny’s and a Cemetery

Cemeteries are markers.  They are a way for the world to know that those lost once walked among us, that they stood and loved and lived for whatever time they were alive.  The honored dead had an impact and importance to the people who were left to remember and mourn them.  Markers in stone are flags in the ground that we were once here and a way for the past to take the hand of present and pass down the names and stories so we do not forget.

The question becomes, what happens when the present looks to trample over the past, to wash it away as if the dead and the history they hold never existed?  What if the ground the cemetery stands on almost wants it, like the it’s conspiring with the people and something bigger to raise a finger to its mouth and give a collective shush so no one remembers?

The Florida National Cemetery rests in Bushnell, Florida, and marks a time in Florida when the government swept in and took over the land they once gave freely to any man willing to lift a gun to defend it.  It shouts.  Anyone who has been there will tell you that it’s a peaceful place, almost intimidating in its size and organization, but that there is an odd feeling there, like a monument to great men on a land that doesn’t want it.  It its shadow lies a different kind of resting place visited by almost no one and cared for by only a few who know it exists. 

Della Daughtry does remember.  Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery is not just a place where her grandmother would walk the rows and discuss their family history.   It was a place to find peace; the history was an afterthought but always present, always an important part of their relationship.  It’s a connection that still exists in Della today, years later.  Even in those early days it seemed odd to her that no one ever seemed to talk about the town the cemetery stood in, but it was a name her grandmother said often; Pemberton Ferry.

Her journey began when she was child but reignited when she arrived at the cemetery recently and discovered it was going to be paved over to make room for an RV park.  She immediately began researching ways to protect the place which had been such a crucial part of her past, and which represented a part of the county’s history she felt needed to be preserved.  Then she found out something odd.  She had trouble finding anyone who had even heard of Pemberton Ferry and almost no reference to it in city and county records.

This cemetery is the cornerstone of This Town is Myth, but it’s so much more.


It’s a symbol of those parts of our history that can be washed away so easily if we’re not careful…how diligence is the enemy of apathy and the present is the guardian of the past for the future.


Please read and sign and share.

But my journey with the cemetery began much later and continued because of a mistake.

In November of 2018, Tripping on Legends journeyed to Withlacoochee State Forest, which we believed was in Hog Island, Florida, to investigate reports of a swamp witch who was said to be hassling local campers after being hung from a tree in the forest.  It was one of our most enlightening trips as we immediately noticed something odd about the area and found a rope with a noose still hanging from a tree, one that mysteriously disappeared when writer and weirdness explorer Mark Muncy visited a few weeks later. 

We also left understanding that there was a dark history in the swamp no one wanted to talk about, and that the legend had developed to maybe cover some a part of their history they wished to wipe away; the forest and swamp had been known as a lynching ground.

There was something more though.  The ghost town of Croom, Florida, was somehow linked to the legend as well, but we couldn’t wrap our hands around exactly how.  Then there was a question of what the history of Hog Island was.  Where was it exactly and what had it been before Hog Island?  What county was it even it?  This year as I spoke at libraries and events throughout the state, I amped up the mystery of the location, as if there was something eerie and mysterious and supernatural about the land itself that fed the legend and the creepiness of the location and its neighboring town Brooksville.

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Listen to Episode 48…There’s More Than a Swamp Witch at Hog Island

At the tail end of those events, I received a message:

I am an amateur historian and have so much information for you and to be honest you are not even citing the right town or county.  Also, there is SO much weird stuff you missed out there.

The driving force behind Tripping on Legends, and the play on words most people don’t get, is that in dealing with legends and folklore it is almost impossible to walk in a straight line and navigate that mixture of history and ghost story without making mistakes.  As a folklorist, that’s part of the allure, sifting though all of it to bring meaning to the chaos and even celebrate the confusions.  There is no bruised ego when it comes to correction.  I agreed to meet her and her husband one night at a Denny’s to hear what she had to say.

As she spoke, something clearly was not right.  It was also clear there was something more going on than just a whitewashed hanging, an overactive imagination, and a town suffering from collective amnesia.  Pemberton Ferry, a town which had once bragged a booming train industry, a hotel, hundreds of citizens, and was the site of multiple historic events that shaped the state, was not a ghost town but a town that never existed.

The town is myth.  Only not in the memories of those who chose to remember.

What should be an insignificant patch of land, one which still lays claim to the wild cows the Spanish left behind, is in the middle of a convergence which behaves like a slow leak, unnoticeable to those who just glance but seething to those forced to slowly watch.  Stand in the middle of the Pemberton Ferry today and you’ll be in the middle of the woods, part forest, part swamp, and every dent or bump of land may be a natural occurrence or the location of what used to be someone’s living room.  Nature has taken back the land, and in the same way the moss and weeds and tangled trees have covered over an important part of the area’s history. 

This is not just the narrative of another lost town in Central Florida though.  As Della spoke and the puzzle pieces were placed on the table, patterns started to emerge.  No beginning and definitely no end, but designs that had been repeating themselves for hundred of years, connected perhaps to the oddness coming out of the Ocala National Forest which I have been exploring, but with its own living, breathing, evolving story.  Forget a puzzle.  Every Christmas my grandfather would be given all of the tangled and twisted chains and jewelry which had plagued the family over the course of the year.  As we exchanged gifts and ate and joked and yelled, he would sit there at the table with two toothpicks and slowly unravel each piece, carefully drawing one out and turning it over and placing it to the side as he worked.

This Town is Myth will look to do the same thing with the story of Pemberton Ferry.  To understand the full story, each part must be drawn out and examined and then placed back into context.  This is the story of a boom town and a haunted river, a nearby town nearly infamous for its embracing of racism and another one conspiring to hide it.  There is a patch of the Withlacoochee River which may be the most murderous place in Florida and locations of massacres which molded the face of modern Florida.  There are lost town names like Croom and Fitzgerald and Dragem and Massacre and Abraham and lost villains and heroes.  Then there’s the friendly company promising a golden age filled with all of your dreams which is slowly and methodically digging into and washing away the foundation of what used to be, mortgaging the past of the locals for the dreams of the outsiders.

It’s a ghost story and an examination of local legends, but there is more to it.  It’s a dusty history book waiting to be opened again and a story of greed that’s as modern as the front page of today’s newspapers.  There’s crime and tales of the unknown and a mystery waiting to be solved so another one can be looked at. 

The first question really is what the first question is to ask.

This Town is Myth has a starting point.  Me at a Denny’s and me at a cemetery, but that is not really the beginning of the story.  Even more unnerving, there is no clear end, no known solution or picture on the box to complete.  I have to go where the story takes me, and I ask you to come along for the journey.  This blog will be used to talk out loud, to hold what we have found up to the light and see what comes of it and hope history steps forward and people searching find us and offer us their voice.  There will be mistakes and missteps and misidentifications along the way, much like that first message which told me I was wrong.  That’s all part of the story in a place more defined by what people don’t know about it than what is clear-cut. 

If you have any information about Pemberton Ferry or the surrounding area, contact us and follow the story as it unfold on all of our social media at #ThisTownIsMyth.

You can contact us with questions, comments, and your favorite legend or tidbit of folklore at spookytripping@gmail.com.

Feel free to call our new phone number during our lives shows to get involved or whenever just to share a legend you’ve heard to ask a question at ((813) 418-6822. 

Keep visiting the site for the trip log of our travels and other urban legends at: www.trippingonlegends.wordpress.com

Follow us at: www.facebook.com/trippingonlegends

Twitter: @SpookyBalzano

Instagram: @SpookyTripping

Tripping on Legends Live: Famous Case, Highway 50

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TRIPPING ON LEGENDS LIVE: FAMOUS CASE, HIGHWAY 50

An origin story based on a famous legend which people claim is fact and not folklore.  A television show responsible for creating and spreading urban legends.  Two nights with a guitar, a candle, a book, and an idea.


Tripping on Legends explores the famous case of the Woman of Highway 50, a story once told on Unsolved Mysteries, remembered a decade later by a songwriter, and remembered two decades after that when this whole Legend Tripping gig got started. 

Who was the woman who saved her son after her death, and why does the story refuse to die.

You can contact us with questions, comments, and your favorite legend or tidbit of folklore at spookytripping@gmail.com.

A new project is starting and will be announced next week, so if you have any information on odd stories or lost history from Lake, Sumter, Pasco, or Hernando County, let us know and follow the progress at #ThisTownIsMyth.

Feel free to call our new phone number during our lives shows to get involved or whenever just to share a legend you’ve heard to ask a question at ((813) 418-6822. 

Keep visiting the site for the trip log of our travels and other urban legends at: www.trippingonlegends.wordpress.com

Follow us at: www.facebook.com/trippingonlegends

Twitter: @SpookyBalzano

Instagram: @SpookyTripping

Episode 61…Ghost Kids and Their Peepers

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EPISODE 61…GHOST KIDS AND THEIR PEEPERS

Which came first…the haunting or the horror movie?

Join Tripping on Legend as they look into a typical roadside ghost in Dunnellon, Florida, that may be as far from typical as you can get. On a stretch of road in the middle of nowhere, with the Ocala Forest looming nearby, there are reports of ghost children walking alone and into the woods. Are they just imagination, something darker like Black-Eyed Children, or the remains of the spookiness of a film shoot?

And what does any of this have to do with Suzie and the Banshees?

And are all the filming locations of the horror movie Jeepers Creepers haunted?

Is there something to the darkness of the Ocala National Forest? Listen to our Astor episode where we first start to think something is up.

Here’s our episode on The Woman in White, another movie connected to urban legends in Florida.

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Episode 33…Why Are all the Women in White

You can contact us with questions, comments, and your favorite legend or tidbit of folklore at spookytripping@gmail.com.

Feel free to call our new phone number during our lives shows to get involved or whenever just to share a legend you’ve heard to ask a question at ((813) 418-6822.

We’re still knee deep in the #hauntedlove project, so we’re especially looking for ghost stories with a love twist.

Keep visiting the site for the trip log of our travels and other urban legends at: www.trippingonlegends.wordpress.com

Follow us at: www.facebook.com/trippingonlegends

Twitter: @SpookyBalzano

Instagram: @SpookyTripping

Standing at the Crossroads…