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In The Country

Creature Features - The legends of Snallygaster & Dwayyo

Tim Iverson, Seasonal Naturalist
Cunningham Falls State Park

(10/2012) This is the time of year the air begins to cool, the days get shorter, and when the spirits start coming out! Sure Sleepy Hollow may have the "Headless Horseman", and Transylvania is home to Dracula, but here in Frederick County we have our own notable ghost stories. Maryland is home to two crypto-zoological critters, the Snallygaster, the Dwayyo, and the very real Ghost Owl!

The Snallygaster is a beast that is said to have terrorized the greater Frederick area, with sightings as far away as New Jersey, Ohio, and West Virginia. The name ‘Snallygaster’ comes from the German word "Schneller Geist" meaning "quick spirit", because it was said to have beset early German settlers in the area. This beast began resurfacing frequently in newspaper reports beginning in February 1909. The first reported sighting came from James Harding, and he described it as having one eye, large wings, a sharp beak, claws like steel, and made loud shrill screeches. As the monster made various appearances throughout the area it was said to have laid an egg near Sharpsburg, and later near Burkittsville (which is also supposedly home to the Blair Witch, but we’ll leave that story to Hollywood). With sightings and reports coming from all over hysteria began to rise. It is said that such a commotion was caused among locals that President Theodore Roosevelt considered cancelling a trip to Europe to lead a hunting party for the Snallygaster. After reported sightings and clashes with residents of Frederick and Washington Counties the last reported sighting of the Snallygaster occurred here in Emmitsburg in March 1909 and then mysteriously disappeared for 23 years.

After lying low until 1932 the Snallygaster again began making appearances to local residents. The beast that was seen flying over the area "was as large as a dirigible, with arms resembling the tentacles of an octopus". It was believed that this Snallygaster was possibly hatched from one of the eggs laid back in 1909. Unfortunately, the Snallygaster was eventually killed and all evidence of his existence destroyed. This area, not unlike many other areas of the United States, had secret distilleries and moonshine operations during prohibition. While flying overhead near Frog Hollow in Washington County it was attracted to the smell of a 2,500 gallon vat of moonshine. When it flew overhead it was "overcome by the fumes and dropped into the boiling mash". Shortly after that federal revenue agents, after receiving a tip off about the secret still, went to investigate the location. While they did find the illegal moonshine operation they also stumbled upon the dead Snallygaster, imagine their surprise! The agents then placed 500lbs of dynamite under the still and destroyed the Snallygaster along with the moonshine. While the Snallygaster remains a memory in our collective conscious another beast is said to have roamed our parts more recently.

The woods adjacent to Gambrill State Park, our sister park, is home to a beast called the Dwayyo. In November 1965 John Becker went to investigate noises coming from his backyard where he saw something moving towards him. He claimed, "It was as big as bear, had long black hair, a bushy tail, and growled like a wolf or dog in anger." As it approached him it stood on its back legs and began to attack him. He claims to have fought the monster until it gave up and ran into the woods. John Becker filed a report with the Frederick City Police, where the report got picked up by the Frederick News Post. Articles began appearing in several other local newspapers which began a wave of public interest and outcry. A woman in Jefferson claimed to have seen "a dog-shaped animal about the size of a calf chasing some cows on a farm near her home". Meanwhile, several hunters saw a strange black beast roaming the woods nearby. However, by December of the same year the sightings mysteriously stopped and as suddenly as the story started it began to disappear.

Both the stories of the Snallygaster and the Dwayyo are now local legend, and the information in this article was compiled from a book called Ghosts & Legends of Frederick County written by Timothy Cannon and Nancy Whitmore. While these tales are entertaining and have struck fear into the hearts of residents for decades there is one local creature known to have some monster credentials.

If you drop by the aviary here at the park you can meet an owl who has been inspiring ghost stories for centuries. The Common Barn Owl, or sometimes known as the "Ghost Owl", is one of the most visually striking birds we have. Barn Owls are in a family of owls all to their own, while all other species of owls belong to a different scientific family classification. With radiantly white feathers, and solid black eyes, they call out into the night with a shrill piercing shriek instead of the common "whoo whoo" of other owls. The "ghost owl" also exhibits some odd defensive behaviors. When encountered in close quarters this owl will begin "toe dusting", a side to side swaying maneuver with out-stretched wings. In addition, owls may also lower their heads and shake it back and forth in a "No, No, No" fashion to embellish the tactic. Among other things that make this owl an incredibly fierce hunter they have been gifted with unrivaled hearing. Their ears are asymmetrical, placed almost diagonally from one another on opposite sides of the head, which amplifies hearing to an incredible degree. With such acute hearing, enough to hear the sound of a heart beat or the pitter-patter of mouse feet, they don’t require any light to successfully hunt!

To see the ‘Ghost Owl’ in action and to learn more about this owl and our other raptors stop by the aviary in the Manor Area of Cunningham Falls State Park. So while the chill in the air settles in, and things go bump in the night remember that the Snallygaster and Dwayyo haven’t been spotted for decades so keep your eyes peeled for the ‘Ghost Owl’ or our other species of flighted specters.

Read other articles by Ranger Tim Iverson