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Haunted National Parks: The Headless Man (& Other Paranormal Experiences)

Our latest Haunted National Parks trip takes us to a park that has so many spirits, I suspect we'll have to visit it more than once! That park is Prince William Forest Park, located near Triangle, Virginia. I worked in this park between 1994 and 2001 and was responsible for completing the Cabin Branch Pyrite Mine Reclamation Project in 1995. The Cabin Branch Pyrite Mine has an interesting history and is directly related to the first spirit we'll encounter on our visit - the Headless Man.

Cabin Branch Pyrite Mine in Operation (Courtesy: NPS)

Photo 1: Cabin Branch Pyrite Mine in operation- Headframe Structure (National Park Service)

The Headless Man

Local residents that lived in Batestown (now Stafford, Virginia) claimed to have seen an apparition of a headless man walking up and down the Pyrite Mine Road (Park Families Oral Histories, NPS) . Those interviewed had heard from family and friends that they had seen this ghastly site on many occasions just walking steadily along what is now the Cabin Branch Pyrite Mine trail. Where did he come from? The interviewees believed that the headless man was the spirit of a decapitated mine worker. The historic record confirms that this accident did occur - a man working in the mine was decapitated while "grabbing onto a moving elevator" (Cabin Branch Pyrite Mine Historic District 2002 Final Nomination). His spirit now endlessly walks home from work, a trip he never got to make on that fateful day.

Many other apparations have been seen walking the roads near the Cabin Branch Pyrite Mine by local residents, as well. Very little documentation exists on the many lives that were lost during mine operations from 1889 to 1920, however, it's likely that this is one explanation for the number of spirits walking the roads (to and from work in the mine) to this day. But there are a few other "walkers" that are not as easily explained.

The 1970s Couple

A good friend of mine who also worked at Prince William Forest Park had an encounter with what I suspect was a pair of spirits walking on both Pyrite Mine Road and the adjacent North Orenda Road. He told me that as he was leaving the pyrite mine site, he noticed a man and a woman walking along the trail that were dressed oddly. Both were wearing 1970s style polyester jogging suits (a.k.a. tracksuits) - the man in a blue suit with pink trim and the woman in a pink suit with blue trim. The clothing was very much out of place (at least 20 years out of date!). He didn't think too much of it, got into his vehicle and drove up the 1.5 mile road. When he reached the end of the road and turned left onto the park's Scenic Drive, he noticed this same couple walking toward him again as he passed North Orenda Road. In the few minutes that had passed driving from spot A to spot B (a distance of 1.5 miles), it would not be possible for anyone to be seen just a few minutes later in this new location. The couple would have had to hike in the opposite direction of their initial sighting in an uphill loop of about 1.8 miles in just a few minutes (not the 35 or more required)! The mystery of the 1970s couple will likely remain one, as there is nothing know about who this couple might be or why they would walk the trails in the park.

Ruins of the Cabin Branch Pyrite Mine (Sorting Mill)

Photo 2. Ruins of the Cabin Branch Pyrite Mine (Sorting Mill)

How Did We Get Here?

Time rift

To further complicate the idea that the 1970s couple were spirits is the idea that they were real people, but had passed through a portal of some type, is the story of another long-time NPS employee. He recalls being on the Pyrite Mine Road with a co-worker with the assigned task of locating a sample site (a scent station/plot) located between Pyrite Mine and North Orenda Roads. They headed off toward their destination on foot, using a compass to direct them southwest, as was indicated in the site description. They walked uphill to the SW toward the plot, yet somehow arrived a few moments later on the South Valley Trail, due east and quite a distance from where they started. He has no explanation for how two people could start off in one direction with a compass heading, maintain that heading using the compass, and emerge elsewhere, particularly in a different part of the park. He shared with me that another team of employees he sent out to monitor this same scent station had the same experience, getting lost despite being in a well described and marked area. Is this a time slip or rift? Or perhaps related to shifts in magnetism, causing the compass to give false readings? Can the geologic characteristics of the area cause it? (Since this area was mined because of these resources, could there be a scientific explanation?)

Site Geology

As a scientist, I can't help but wonder if there isn't an explanation for the time rift or spirit activity related to the geology of the area. The Cabin Branch Pyrite Mine is located at the northern end of the Virginia Gold-Pyrite belt. According to USGS (2000):

Three kinds of deposits are found in the belt: volcanic-associated massive sulfide deposits, low-sulfide quartz-gold vein deposits, and gold placer deposits. The massive sulfide deposits such as Cabin Branch were historically mined for their sulfur, copper, zinc, and lead contents, but also yielded byproduct gold and silver. ...These deposits are characterized by high concentrations of heavy-metal sulfide minerals, hosted by silicate rocks. Thus, weathering of these deposits and their mine wastes has the potential to generate heavy-metal laden sulfuric acid that can have negative impacts on aquatic ecosystems. ...The heavy metals that are encountered in these deposits and are most likely to cause environmental impacts include copper, zinc, lead, cadmium, and arsenic. In addition, the weathering of pyrite releases large amounts of iron, and the acid generated attacks the country rocks and causes the release of large amounts of aluminum...

Therefore, the site includes numerous heavy metals, including lead, aluminum, iron, copper, zinc and cadmium. Significant veins of quartz are also associated with this formation. An electromagnetic survey completed in 2000 showed high conductivity adjacent to the Pyrite Mine Road/Trail where it intersects with the site. Is is possible that these site characteristics could influence electromagnetic fields in this area, perhaps making it more conducive to spirit activity or paranormal experiences? What comes to mind are all of the western mines that are associated with hauntings and "ghost towns". It would be interesting to conduct similar surveys to determine if there's a correlation. As part of our regular investigation preparation, we do review magnetic anomalies using USGS data. A review of these data for the pyrite mine area suggests that it is naturally high in magnetism. Clearly, I'm not a geologist, however, the high levels of quartz (some believe this influences paranormal activity) and natural magnetism do suggest a few explanations for the many spirits and unexplained phenomena that have been observed here.

Cabin Branch Pyrite Mine Trail sign

Final Thoughts

The fact that time/space displacement happened more than once in a specific location is very interesting. Numerous paranormal sites reference this phenomena and even NASA has been studying hidden portals in Earth's magnetic field (2012). Can this explain why the locals say spirits are known to 'walk up and down the road'? Can it explain how the 1970s couple traveled such a distance in just moments? Or are they spirits like the others that residents and park employees have seen many times over the years? It's a mystery, but an intriguing who's up for a hike in the park?

Carol Pollio, Ph.D. Director and Lead Investigator

Biography: Dr. Pollio has worked and lived in national parks since 1977, when she began her career at Gateway National Recreation Area. Her first experience with spirit was at that park, sparking her interest in and belief of the paranormal. Now retired, she is finally able to tell the many paranormal stories she has experienced and been told first hand as an insider in this incredible organization. Her own intuitive gift made itself known during her pre-teen years through a variety of experiences, including clairvoyance as primary, clairaudience, and clairsentience. Dr. Pollio put those experiences aside and chose instead to pursue a career in science, eventually obtaining her Ph.D. in Environmental Science and obtaining the rank of Captain (O-6) in the USCG Reserve. Dr. Pollio also served as a Professor in academia for more than 20 years. She now chooses to write about, investigate, and help others using her inherent psychic abilities. She currently serves as a member of Maryland Paranormal Research team and is the Director of Intuitive Investigations, LLC, serving Delaware, Maryland, and D.C. She currently lives in Milford, Delaware.

Disclaimer: National parks and refuges are federal property. This series does not approve nor give permission to anyone to enter national parks or refuges without any required permits or permissions. Many parks also include hallowed ground, such as battlefields, memorials, cemeteries, and sites of mass casualties. It is not this author’s intent to encourage unprofessional or unethical behavior on these sites or to suggest visiting them in any other manner than by legal and ethical means.

Cited Sources and Interesting Information:

NASA. Hidden Portals in Earth's Magnetic Field. 2012.

National Park Service, Cabin Branch Pyrite Mine Historic District 2002 Final Nomination.

National Park Service, Park Families Oral Histories. Online:

USGS. A Ground Electromagnetic Survey Used to Map Sulfides and Acid Sulfate Ground Waters at the Abandoned Cabin Branch Mine, Prince William Forest Park, Northern Virginia Gold-Pyrite Belt. U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 00-360. 2000. Online:

USGS. Magnetic anomaly maps and data for North America. Online:

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