On December 15th, 1967, the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant, WV collapsed, killing 46 people. However, the story is preceded by months of weird sightings, ominous meetings, and events that some would consider unusual.
November 27th, 2015 Micheal Whelan
It seems like every other day I read a story involving eyewitness testimony, and the faults behind it. Police investigators and psychologists have insisted that eyewitness testimony is not a guaranteed thing, and that the human mind is perceptible to being influenced. By what, exactly, depends on the person and the position they find themselves in.
But when we hear about many people seeing the same thing, we tend to believe them. Many police cases, normally left adrift without the aid of physical evidence, can be guided or even driven entirely by the support of witnesses. As a species, we tend to believe when multiple people claim to have seen the same thing.
However, what happens when a large group of people claim to have seen something too outrageous, too ridiculous for our minds to comprehend? What happens when an entire town sees something that nobody else has ever seen? Do we believe them? Are they victims of mass hysteria, simply buying into whatever their neighbor was selling?
Or... is there something more mysterious afoot? Something paranormal? Something otherwordly?
This is the story of Point Pleasant.
Point Pleasant is a small-town situated alongside the Ohio River. Originally established as a military fort in 1774, Point Pleasant gained notoriety for the battle that took place on its grounds. At the time, the area was unsettled by white Americans, and became a point of contention between the reigning Lord Dunmore and the local Native Americans.
Many would go on to consider the Battle of Point Pleasant a part of the Revolutionary War, but it stands as a major tipping point in Lord Dunmore's War. The leader of the Native American army, who went by the name of Chief Cornstalk, would later go on to be betrayed and murdered by Virginians under the guise of peace talks, and buried in what is now Point Pleasant.
Many would consider the later events of Point Pleasant to be Chief Cornstalk's curse upon the area, but there's no proof that he held any ill will towards the citizens of the area.
The mysterious events surrounding Point Pleasant began on November 2nd, 1966. At this point, Point Pleasant had grown into a small town of just a few thousand people, a town steeped in history and the type of place where everyone knows one another.
Woodrow Derenberger was a travelling salesman that lived in Mineral Wells, another small-town about an hour northwest of Point Pleasant. Point Pleasant lies on the Ohio River, across which Woodrow was working in on this particular night. He was driving down Interstate 77 when the mysterious events began to unfold, and I think I'll just let him explain it for you.
That was Woodrow Derenberger himself retelling his version of events from November 2nd, 1966. He claims that at around 7:30 PM, while travelling home, he was stopped by the bright lights of a car-like vehicle which hovered inches above the ground. According to Derenberger's testimony, this vehicle passed him on the road, before pulling in front and causing him to slam on his brakes.
This is where the suspension of disbelief goes out the window for most people. The claims that there exists a human-like alien being named "Cold," who speaks to Derenberger telepathically, is just too unrealistic to believe. It's something that many ascribe to the time period itself, which was fraught with claims of UFO sightings and extraterrestrial-driven flying saucers.
But Derenberger was in full belief of his claims on this clear November night. He believes that this alien shaped like a man, named Cold, visited him and talked for a few minutes before departing, leaving their conversation with the parting words of "we'll be speaking again." Derenberger noted that this man, Cold, never broke his smile. Because he was able to speak telepathically, he was always grinning, thus earning him the future moniker of "The Grinning Man."
It's interesting to note that this sighting was reported the night of the supposed encounter, which is when you hear this interview taking place. This just so happens to be when things start to become weird for the area of Point Pleasant.
It's easy to look at a claim like Derenberger's and easily dismiss it as fiction. In fact, that's what almost everyone has done in the decades since.
Woodrow Derenberger was a 50-year old sewing machine salesman, who was married with multiple children. Judging him with most metrics, he was living the American dream, and had no record of making claims like these. By all indications, Derenberger was just an average guy you could expect to find in West Virginia in the mid-1960s.
But these claims brought his reputation, his name, and even his sanity into question. His claims, however ridiculous-sounding, were big news in this small area of the American Northeast, and he found himself put in a spotlight for public scrutiny. Many began to camp outside his house, hiding in trees or in the shadows, hoping to find some trace of these UFOs. Others began to criticize him for losing his mind, threatening to tear apart his family.
People who lived in the area where he claimed to have had this encounter reported similar sightings. None had claimed to encounter the telepath-speaking man named Cold, but some had seen bright lights in the sky on the night of November 2nd. These lights supposedly moved far quicker than any man-made craft known at the time, and seemed to stop and go, occasionally floating, in a manner that would seem impossible to this day.
Derenberger claimed to communicate with Cold again, just days afterward, but these communications took place solely in Derenberger's mind. He claims that Cold was able to communicate with him despite not being nearby, and he learned some more information about Cold and his homeworld, named Lanulos.
Derenberger would later go on to write a memoir about his encounters with Cold, titled "Visitors From Lanulos," which would go on to be published in a very limited manner in 1971. However, Derenberger would spend the rest of his life defending his sanity and his livelihood from claims of insanity. He never claimed anything further, his supposed conversations with Cold drawing to a close in 1966. Unfortunately, these few weeks of fame would cause him to lose his job, his marriage, and even custody of his children.
However, despite his entire life falling apart over the next few years, Derenberger would never recant his claims. He personally considered his claims to be his version of the truth, that he had communicated with the Grinning Man, an alien presence he claimed never brought good news.
The local area was full of claims supporting Derenberger's timeline of events: people claiming to have seen bright lights in the sky. But on November 12th, things took an interesting turn.
There were five men working as gravediggers in the nearby town of Clendenin, about an hour southeast of Point Pleasant. These five men claimed to see a large winged creature emerge from a nearby patch of trees, taking flight. This creature, which was shaped more like a man with wings than a type of recognized bird, quickly flew over atop the five of them, coming close enough to either scare or intimidate.
This would be just the first sighting of the creature known as the Mothman, but it wouldn't be the last.
Three days later, on November 15th, a man named Newell Partridge was sitting at home, watching television. The time was approximately 10:30 in the evening, so all was quiet and dark around him in the small town of Salem, West Virginia. For reference, Salem is about two hours away from Point Pleasant, further northeast than Woodrow Derenberger's home of Mineral Wells.
Suddenly, a loud whining noise breaks out from outside Partridge's farm-house. Immediately, his TV screen cuts to static, weird patterns and figures emerging on the screen. Partridge would later describe the loud, metallic, whining sound as being similar to the sound of a generator starting up.
Partridge's dog, a German Shepherd named Bandit, began to bark and make his way to the door. Partridge opened the door for Bandit and himself, hoping to investigate the cause of the sound and television interruption.
Armed with only a flashlight, Partridge follows an eager bandit to the barn, which is located about 500 feet away from the house. Partridge shines the light to the barn, finding only big red eyes staring at him in return.
Newell Partridge ran back to his house, hoping to grab his gun, but by the time he had it, he realized that he was too terrified to go back outside and face whatever had been looking back at him.
According to the rumors that have persisted to this day, Newell Partridge never saw his dog, Bandit, again.
That wasn't the only sighting that would be seen of the supposed Mothman on this night, however. He would be spotted back in Point Pleasant, over a hundred miles away, just hours later.
During World War 2, a section of the woods outside of Point Pleasant became home to the West Virginia Ordnance Works. This organization was in charge of manufacturing and storing explosives for the war effort, and stockpiled many of the explosives in steel bunkers known to the locals as "igloos."
However, in the decades after the war, the explosives remained in the bunkers and the area was reclaimed by nature. To this day, many of the bunkers remain untouched, and has become known as "the TNT area" to many of the people in the Point Pleasant area.
On this night, November 15th, two young married couples, Rodger and Linda Scarberry and Steve and Mary Mallette, were visiting the TNT area. We can all guess at what these two couples were there for, but they were young and it reasons that young people enjoy going to places like this. The TNT area was located in the heavily wooded wildlife area, which itself was starting to become known as the local lover's lane.
But a short time after Newell Partridge's encounter with the Mothman hours away, these couples would have their own.
While they were driving towards their destination, the couples in the car spotted a large presence just outside a power plant. By their descriptions, he stood well over the height of an average man, with great bat-like wings folded behind his back. All four of them had similar recollections, but made extra note of the creature's large red eyes.
The couples then sped off, frightened by the sight of this mysterious creature. Heading back to Point Pleasant, the couples apparently reached upwards of 100 miles per hour on the freeway, the creature easily keeping pace with them. According to them, the creature flew alongside or just above them, his red eyes haunting them most of the way home.
When the Scarberrys and the Mallettes began to draw close to the town of Point Pleasant, the creature seemed to back off. The two couples, still fearing for their lives, raced to the nearby courthouse, where they encountered Deputy Sheriff Millard Halstead.
As I've mentioned before, Point Pleasant is the type of small town where everyone knows one another. Halstead was familiar with the two young couples, and knew that whatever was panicking them was something to be taken seriously. He listened to their recollection of events, and surprisingly, took it as truth.
This is when the legend of the Mothman was born, and the area of Point Pleasant would never be the same again.
Following the panicked story from the Scarberrys and the Mallettes, the town of Point Pleasant held a press conference to assure the citizens of their safety. After all, these sightings were nothing more than modern ghost stories, explainable by hysteria getting the better of some impressionable young people.
At this press conference, the leadership introduced the likelihood that the creature these couples had seen was none other than a Sandhill Crane. Sandhill Cranes are large birds, with skinny legs but a wingspan that can span up to six feet. Sandhill Cranes are also noticeable for their amber-ish red eyes that can appear much darker in certain light. These cranes are known to frequent many areas in North America throughout the year, so it's a valid explanation for this phenomenon. The Sandhill Crane is also used as an explanation for the popular Jersey Devil myth, in addition to others.
However, the Scarberrys and Mallettes reiterated how much the figure they had seen looked like something else. They described him as having the arms and legs of a man, with bat-like wings and red eyes that were so large they distracted them from seeing anything else of his head. The two couples described this creature as an abnormally fast flyer, with a somewhat clumsy running motion.
The night of the press conference, a group of armed men went into the woods nearby the TNT area, hoping to find or hunt this alleged creature. The local press, making light of the situation, decided to mockingly name this creature "Mothman," as if it were a villain on the Adam West "Batman" television series.
Despite the best intentions of Point Pleasant, the abnormal stories coming from this area of West Virginia began to attract people from around the nation. Among them was renowned UFO-ologist John Keel.
That was author John Keel being interviewed by a very young David Letterman over a decade later.
During the 1960s, John Keel was an up-and-coming writer who specialized in writing abstract, abnormal stories. A former Army veteran who served in the Korean War, Keel was no stranger to facing the unknown. He had begun to specialize in writing stories about the weird and the peculiar, even writing teleplays for a number of TV shows in the 60s.
But in the fall of 1966, Keel was focusing on the burgeoning UFO phenomenon that was sweeping the nation.
While he began to write about these UFO sightings that were happening daily all over the globe, he decided to focus on one hot-spot of activity, thus leading him to Point Pleasant, West Virginia.
Over the next year, Keel interviewed over one hundred witnesses of the Mothman, with all of the supposed sightings occurring in or around the Point Pleasant area.
Most of the stories remained the same: that this creature was incredibly large, in the shape of a man with a colossal wingspan, and had large red eyes that either entrance or intimidate to a dangerous degree.
One of these sightings occurred just a day after the Scarberry and Mallette sighting, on November 16th. On this night, a bright red light was spotted in the sky above the TNT area, close to the home of the Ralph Thomas family. A neighboring friend of the Thomas family, named Marcella Bennett, drove to the Thomas family's house to try and find out the cause of the glowing red right.
When she got out of her car, she went to collect her child from the backseat but was startled by the movement of something on the ground next to her. "It seemed as though it had been lying down," she would later recount. She continued: "it rose up slowly from the ground. A big gray thing. Bigger than a man with terrible glowing eyes."
Apparently, this Mothman began to walk towards Marcella, and she froze. According to her, she even dropped her young child for a moment, before recovering and racing towards the nearby house, which let her in.
The story continues, in that both Marcella Bennett and the Thomas family hid inside, even as the Mothman creature paced around their patio, peeking into windows with his large, red eyes. It wasn't until the police arrived that the creature had finally disbursed, leaving the entire Thomas family terrified and Marcella Bennett legitimately traumatized.
Marcella Bennett would spend the next few months going through some extensive therapy sessions, apparently so traumatized that she had problem functioning normally in her own home, which was rather isolated on the edge of Point Pleasant. She was so terrified of what she had seen, and the unfortunate part is that very few would actually believe her. Many in the Point Pleasant area considered her just a part of the hoax, despite her very real health and well-being concerns that would follow.
She wasn't alone, though. The Thomas family she had been visiting backed up her claims, reiterating exactly what she had claimed to see. And they were just two of the hundreds of alleged witnesses to the Mothman creature, many of whom would be interviewed by Keel over the next year or so.
John Keel would stay in the Point Pleasant area for about a year, diving further into the case than he ever could have imagined. He began to connect the local UFO sightings and the Mothman creature to a number of animal mutilations that had been happening in the surrounding area, making this one of the focal points of his writings.
In 1967, Keel was also the one who began to popularize the term "Men In Black," referring to the alleged government boogeyman that began to visit Point Pleasant in earnest.
Keel began to take note of weird occurrences happening to himself and others connected to the story: mailed documents changing overnight, phone lines going dead or being tapped, UFO witnesses feeling threatened, etc. He began to attribute these sporadic events to the alleged "Men In Black," believing they were trying to silence the story or at least the witnesses.
These "Men In Black" would remain a constant part of the Mothman story, but would become much more relevant later on in the story.
Throughout his months in Point Pleasant, one of Keel's main acquaintances was a reporter named Mary Hyre. Hyre worked for the Athens Messenger, a local newspaper for Athens, Ohio, a town about 40 miles directly north of Point Pleasant.
The Athens Messenger had a sister newspaper in Point Pleasant, and that's how Hyre became involved in the reporting on the Mothman. She was just as interested in the Mothman and UFO sightings as Keel was, but was coming at it from a much more localized, mature point of view.
In the latter half of 1967, the interest in the Mothman case was beginning to die down, so Keel began to spend less and less time in Point Pleasant. He would return occasionally to get an interview with a new witness or two, but wasn't spending as much time as he had in the first part of the year.
During one of these return trips, it was Mary Hyre that picked Keel up at the airport. She told him that on a night shortly before his return, she had had a terrible nightmare, of people drowning among Christmas presents. It was easy to excuse that as a silly nightmare, but John Keel was sure to take note of this for his later writings.
Just a few weeks later, after returning to his home in New York, Keel began to have strange premonitions of his own. He would claim that he personally began to get messages from the long-forgotten Indrid Cold, delivered through his telephone, warning him to stay away from Point Pleasant.
Thankfully, Keel was away from Point Pleasant during the final weeks of 1967.
On December 15th, 1967, tragedy struck Point Pleasant. At around 5:00 in the evening, amidst rush hour traffic, the 700-foot Silver Bridge crossing from Point Pleasant over the Ohio River collapsed.
Dozens of cars collapsed into the freezing cold river below, ultimately killing 46 people, two of which were never found. Multiple others suffered injuries or trauma at the hand of the bridge collapse, many of the victims having been witnesses of the Mothman creature.
Constructed in 1928, the Silver Bridge had long exceeded its expected lifespan without any serious upkeep, having been used to carry loads much heavier than originally anticipated.
Regardless of any paranormal happenings, the Silver Bridge collapse was a serious tragedy that brought to light just how seriously maintenance is needed to maintain human safety.
But in the days and weeks following the bridge collapse, news media was all over the scene and Point Pleasant once again. Buying into the myth that had been established over the past year, the narrative began to spread that the Mothman was himself responsible for the bridge collapse, or that he had been spotted by certain witnesses the day of the bridge collapse. Many claimed to have seen the Mothman earlier in the day or the morning of the tragedy, an omen of things to come.
However, the Mothman was never spotted in Point Pleasant again by any sum of people. It was if, on the evening of December 15th, the presence of the Mothman had died along with the victims of the Silver Bridge collapse.
Despite the bridge collapse marking an end to the Mothman sightings, the town of Point Pleasant wasn't entirely done with weird happenings.
Mary Hyre, the reporter for the Athens Messenger that was now acting as the Point Pleasant correspondent, saw her workload increase drastically in the weeks and months following the bridge collapse.
Originally enticed by the sightings involving the Mothman, Hyre turned her focus on those involving the dancing lights in the sky, which continued even after the bridge collapse. On one weekend, shortly after the bridge tragedy, she recalled getting over 500 phone calls from local citizens who reported seeing these lights in the sky.
But on one evening in January of 1968, weeks after the collapse drew attention to the area, Mary was visited by a strange man in her office. It was late at night, and Mary's office in the Point Pleasant courthouse, didn't really receive any visitors. This man, who was described as very short with an oddly-shaped long-haired bowl cut, wore thick glasses and had what Mary would describe as a hypnotic gaze.
The man terrified Mary, as he spoke in his low voice full of stutters. He wasn't interested at all in the bridge collapse or the Mothman sightings, but was very interested in finding out who exactly had spotted the lights in the sky. During their brief conversation, this man kept inching closer and closer to Mary, who was beginning to feel very threatened.
She called out for her boss just before this man turned to leave, however he paused and picked up a pen from her desk. Laughing, he kept it and ran out of the office.
Rumors claim that this same man visited many houses in the area, homes of those that had spotted the lights in the sky. According to these rumors, he made all of them uncomfortable, claiming to be a reporter from Ohio. However, he apparently knew nothing of the Ohio area, and just simply disappeared as soon as he had arrived.
We can only guess at the identity of this man, or whether he even existed. But, it goes without saying that this was another weird event that unfolded in Point Pleasant, West Virginia.
Point Pleasant would never be the same again. The tragedy had a major impact on the town in the following years, changing it overnight. Gone was the wild-eyed optimism of the 1960s UFO craze, instead replaced with the town's somber icon of tragedy, the Mothman.
In the following years, the Mothman would become a thing of urban legend, a dark omen of things to come.
In 1971, more than three years after the tragedy, an investigation into the bridge collapse came up with the reason. A small defect to the bridge's suspension eyebar, less than a tenth of an inch deep, had been the culprit of the collapse itself, setting off a chain of events that would eventually take the lives of 46 people. This would eventually lead to an overhaul of the maintenance standards for states all around the country.
In 1975, John Keel brought the Mothman legend back to life with the release of his book, "The Mothman Prophecies." It detailed his descent into madness as the events of 1966 and 1967 unfold, and can be seen as a book about one man's paranoid delusion. It has become the main reference source for many who believe in the Mothman myth, but even I will admit that it is incredibly hard to read without a truly open mind.
Point Pleasant would mourn and eventually recover from the terrible tragedy that left dozens of their neighbors dead, but it would forever be changed. Over the years, the city began to recover and reclaim their town from the paranormal claims that had taken it over, but the whispers of the Mothman or UFOs would never truly leave. The town of Point Pleasant is now synonymous with the Mothman legend, with several museums and stores selling Mothman merchandise in the town itself.
In 2002, a generation after the tragic bridge collapse, the town of Point Pleasant began to celebrate its annual Mothman Festival. This happened to coincide with the release of a movie titled "The Mothman Prophecies," loosely based off of Keel's book. Starring Richard Gere, the movie was a fictionalized look at events surrounding the Silver Bridge Collapse, and went on to do modest work at the box office.
Talk of the Mothman would never fade away, eventually leading this supposed creature to become a part of West Virginian lore. Many have claimed to spot the Mothman before other similar accidents or tragedies. The most notable of these is known as the Chernobyl Blackbird, a creature allegedly spotted hours before the major nuclear meltdown in Russia.
Neither the Mothman or the extraterrestrial Indrid Cold can be proven to have existed, which is why this story is, and likely always will be, unresolved.
Sources and further reading
- Wikipedia: Point Pleasant, West Virginia
- Wikipedia: Silver Bridge
- "The Mothman Prophecies" by John Keel
- "Visitors From Lanulos" by Woodrow Derenberger
- IGN - "The Real Story Of The Mothman Prophecies"
- Gods And Monsters - "The Mothman Legend"
- Chasing The Frog - "The Mothman Prophecies"
- Real Unexplained Mysteries - "The Mothman Indrid Cold - The Grinning Man"
- Forteania - "The Case Of Indrid Cold" (Blog)