Local history comes to life

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 29, 2007

As night fell, a group of visitors made their way among the tombstones at Woodland Cemetery.

But rather than leaving, these people were coming in. And staying for a while.

The annual Ghost Walk, sponsored by the Lawrence County Historical Society, brought a few thousand people through the gates of the cemetery to hear the accounts of some of the area’s most famous departed citizens.

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Lawrence County’s past is woven with stories of both hardship and immense wealth, love and jealousy, success and sorrow.

Stephen Dale Burcham told the story of George

Bay, a riverboat baron whose family made their fortune in the late 1800s.

Bay, who owned the Huntington-Portsmouth Transportation Co., owned the largest watercraft used on the Ohio River at that time. In Bay’s day, boats were a means of moving a large quantity of goods quickly and relatively easily, something not possible on land.

“If you were to have traveled that route (Huntington, W.Va., to Portsmouth) by horseback it would have been a day’s trip or two days by wagon,” Burcham said. “But on a boat it took a half a day.”

Bay’s sister, Sarah Bay Smith, was the first licensed female riverboat pilot at a time when women didn’t even have the right to vote, Burcham told his guests.

Bay himself once bought a boat for $600 and only a short time later sold it for $1,000. In Bay’s day, boats were a means of moving a large quantity of goods quickly.


Gail Webb told the story of Martha Ellen Blockson Johnson, who was the object of unrequited love and the source of a song sung by soldiers on both sides during the Civil War. The song “Lorena” was written by a minister who wanted to marry the young woman. But her family discouraged the match because the man was not wealthy. She married a lawyer instead but the jilted minister, it seems, never forgot her and penned a poem about her that was later set to music

History Lessons

Most people know how Ironton got its name, but perhaps some did not know that a child was named for the city. Mark McCown told the story of Ironton Austin Kelly, the first male child born in the city. That boy eventually became founder of Ashland Steel Co. He died in 1911 and his grave is marked by a tombstone sculpted in Genoa, Italy. When Kelly’s daughter died in 1999 she left $1 million to various area charities and churches.


“I think it’s kind of sad,” Ruth Collins, of Ironton, said as she walked away from the Osa Wilson grave after hearing the story of the woman’s untimely death at the hands of an abusive husband.

If the onlookers found the stories of the departed fascinating, so did the costumed characters who told their stories. Bob Blankenship told the story of

Thomas Means, who was founder of Second National Bank and a member of the wealthy Means family whose influence stretched from Ironton to Ashland, Ky. Blankenship said the accounts of

Means’ wealth and ability to turn his hard work into financial gain was impressive.

“The whole family was talented successful business people,” Blankenship said. “It seems as though the whole family knew how to make money.”