Between Ohiopyle and Dunbar, PA in Fayette County is a belt of brooding rock-crested ridges, tumbling streams, and abandoned hill farms known to local folks as the Dunbar Mountains.
In earlier times the rugged land demanded rugged inhabitants, an independent lot who could carve out a life where more timid souls would scarcely visit. Since the 1700s they dragged a living in the form of timber from the hollow, dug narrow veins of coal from the dank, watery mines and hoed corn and buckwheat on hillsides so steep that, according to grinning old timers, seeds were planted by blasting them uphill from shotguns.
Naturally, such a place spawned its share of local folklore. Most of the stories told of the struggles of various colorful individuals against the hardships of mountain life. Miles walked, tons loaded, acres cleared and game trapped or killed are common themes.
Some of the stories survive now only in the dimming childhood memories of the oldest residents. One story will not die. That story is the legend of Betty Knox.
Betty Knox was born in 1843 on a rough mountain farm at Kentuck Knob overlooking the Great Gorge of the Youghiogheny in what is now known as Ohiopyle State Park. Deadly sickness came often and early among the mountain families. When Betty was three years old, her mother died. Leaving the little girl to be raised by her father.
Betty grew into a strong and willing worker and her father depended on her to help with the heavy work as if she were a son. The work was hard and never ending, a daily and seasonal cycle that had to be completed. There was clearing, plowing, planting, hoeing and harvest. In the fall and winter wood was cut for building, fuel and cooking.
Betty became skilled at handling livestock and daily drove their team of oxen in the fields and woods. When she was 17, her father was killed in a timber cutting accident. Betty buried him on Kentuck Knob and was all alone on her mountain.
Being an uncommonly beautiful young woman with long auburn hair and sky blue eyes, she was pursued by all the young men who lived in the lonely hollows surrounding Kentuck. But Betty resisted all their advances, perhaps in hopes of someday meeting some special stranger from far away.
To make a living for herself, Betty began to haul grain on ox-back for other farmers around Kentuck and Ohiopyle. She led the ox northwest, over the mountains to the grist mill in Ferguson Hollow, just outside of Dunbar.
She began each journey at daybreak and soon established a well worn path still discernable to this day. By nightfall she had completed her 25 mile round trip and returned with the grain as flour. Other evidence of Betty’s life still exists. A level piece of bottom land where her route crossed the Dunbar Creek is still known as Betty Knox Park. And nearby, still usable, is a spring she improved by deepening it and lining its sides with creek stones. Its crystal clear waters offered refreshment on each trip over the mountains.
One evening in 1862, during the second autumn of the Civil War, she met along the trail a soldier who had deserted the Union Army in West Virginia (still Virginia and officially Confederate territory at that time).
The young man was badly wounded and racked by fever. Delirious, he had wandered north to this lonely spot in the forest. Betty took the soldier to her cabin, hid him from the Army and nursed his wounds.
She became completely devoted to her soldier, to the point that she began to fear his recovery lest he leave her alone once more. His wounds and their complications proved fatal, and after more than a year of being tirelessly nursed, the soldier died.
Betty buried him on Kentuck Knob near her father. Not too long ago there were old timers who knew the appropriate whereabouts of the graves.
After his death, Betty and the ox returned to their trips over the ridges, transporting many tons of grain and flour. Their travels became quite familiar to people of the settlement growing up around the mill, especially during the peak of the grain harvest, when Betty and the ox, loaded down with grain sacks, would emerge from the woods every day.
Though she was a frequent customer at the mill, she never socialized. She kept to herself, speaking only enough to accomplish her errand before heading back into the forest. Still, the locals felt fondly toward the woman. They admired her independent way of life and respected her physical stamina.
Sometime during the year of 1878, Betty Knox’s trips came to a sudden halt. Grain piled up in the log barns and the folks around the mill quickly noticed the absence of the long haired woman and her ox. Some feared she was ill, resting at her cabin, but when a group of farmers failed to find her there, search parties were formed.
Her neighbors combed the wooded hills between Dunbar and Ohiopyle, looking for Betty or some clue to her disappearance. They found neither. A few said that she had been killed by wolves or a panther, still plentiful at that time. Others maintained that she had simply grown weary of her lonely routine and left the area.
The mystery grew stranger still the following spring when some children gathering wild ramps and morels made a ghastly discovery. Chained to a tree near the spring that Betty improved was the skeleton of an ox. The find was especially strange because the intense search of only a few months before had centered on that very place. No trace of the ox had been seen at that time, and stranger still, Betty had never been known to use a chain to lead the beast.
To this day, no other clues have been found and the fate of Betty Knox has never been revealed. The legend is an old one and like the rest of the mountain stories, it isn’t told as frequently as it once was. Sometimes years go by without any direct mention of the stalwart young woman who hauled grain along through country avoided by most men.
But always it seems, when the legend grows so dim that it nearly vanishes as sure as the woman who inspired it, strange occurrences are reported. Visiting deer hunters, turkey hunters and fisherman from all over have told of a pale feminine form flickering through the trees before daylight.
Young couples out for a late night drive have claimed to have heard the mournful lolling of oxen miles from the nearest farm. And strangest of all, on some dark nights when a damp breeze oozes out of the heart of the mountains and stirs the boughs of ancient hemlocks standing along Dunbar Creek, the pained voice of a young man can just be made out whispering,”Betty Knox, Betty Knox.”
To find Betty Knox Park on a starry, quiet night, travel past Stefano Printing toward Ohiopyle. Turn right at the Game Commission Shed onto the dirt road bearing right for less than 1/8 mile. Stop, and listen carefully!
“County Chronicles, A Vivid Collection of PA Histories: Vol. I, 2nd Edition,” by O’Hanlon-Lincoln, Mechling Bookbindery, Chicora, PA, 2004
(The story originally appeared in the Connellsville, PA newspaper The Daily Courier, August 9, 1919, pg 1)