Halloween is upon us, which seems the perfect opportunity to revisit one of Denton’s most legendary ghost stories. There are many Denton ghosts that have haunted our fair city over the years, but a few stand out as truly haunting. One of the most famous local ghost stories though, and one of the more terrifying, is the legend of Goatman's Bridge.
Denton’s most famous spectre is a story handed down for generations with a few variations, and that’s the haunted Goatman’s Bridge. Travelers to the Old Alton Bridge, built in 1884 as a busy thoroughfare, have long reported frightening encounters and ghostly experiences with supernatural creatures that have made it a legendary spot for Texas ghost hunters and a topic for numerous books.
According to the most circulated version, an African-American entrepreneur named Oscar Washburn and his family tended a farmstead goat herd near the bridge that was renowned for quality meat, milk, cheeses and hides. When the popular businessman proudly hung a sign on the Old Alton Bridge directing “This way to the Goatman,” it infuriated local Ku Klux Klansmen who plotted violence. On a dark night in the late 1930s, a lynch mob of Kluxers stormed Washburn’s shack and dragged the screaming Goatman to their noose waiting on the bridge, tightened the rope around the begging Oscar’s neck, then mercilessly flung him over the side. But when the Night Riders stumbled down to the dark river’s edge to confirm their murderous handiwork, they were shocked to find only an inexplicably empty noose dangling over undisturbed waters.
The panicked Klansmen frantically searched the area unsuccessfully before rushing to Washburn’s shanty, setting it afire with the Goatman’s family shrieking inside, perhaps to bait a desperate rescue attempt by the vanished Oscar. Washburn was never seen again, they say, but a vengeful spirit has haunted the Old Alton Bridge ever since.
Local legend says if you knock on the steel bridge three times at midnight, or perhaps- turn off your car lights and honk three times in summons, then you dare a visitation from the vengeful Goatman that’s preceded by the stench of decaying flesh. Numerous reports tell of unholy glowing eyes that burn red from the darkness, eerie glimpses of a large snarling Goat-headed man-beast stomping in the wooded shadows, or a frightening apparition of a maniacal Satyr carrying the heads of goats or humans in his hands.
The terrifying encounters and reported vanishings have been so frequent as to warrant numerous investigations by paranormal groups. But like I said, there’s more than one version that attempts an explanation for a century of recurring frights and sights encountered at the bridge.
Some attribute the work of Satanists who opened a portal for a hellspawn demon, while others say the Goatman’s wife is eternally searching for her murdered children.
There is also another variation that predates the bridge itself. In an account that may go back as far as the 1860s ”Texas Troubles,” some Copper Canyon cowboys lynched a Creole slave goat-herder named Jack Kendall from a tall creekside tree near where the bridge now stands, but ineptitude separated the runaway slave’s head from his body. The slavers then watched in horror as the headless body raised itself from the creekbed mud, animated by voodoo, and ripped off the head of a nearby goat to replace his own, still dangling in the noose!
Regardless of which origin gets told, old timers warn that knocking three times on the trusses of the bridge is an invitation to judgment, since the ghastly Goatman only spirits away those with the bloodlines of Klansmen or slaveowners into the woods for his terrible revenge.
You won’t find the names of Oscar Washburn or Jack Kendall in any historical records. Most ghosts are given names because we need to feel like we can know them. As a mentor once wisely advised, never let the facts of a story obscure the truths in the tale. If history is the self-congratulatory narrative of a community written by its victorious elite, then our ghosts will often problematize and haunt such tidy romanticisms of back in the day.
A handful of states have a Goatman tale, with Texas having a few itself, but each expresses unique reminders of threats from a forgotten past. Liminal areas of crossing can be full of possibility and danger, present injustices are informed by past prejudices, and there are critters – like snakes or gators – down in the creek that young’uns might outta be leery of. The Goatman isn’t just a haunting campfire tale, it’s also a reminder that an ignorance of our history is no protection from its everlasting consequences.
Back in The Day is an ongoing WDDI contribution from Shaun Treat, founder of the Denton Haunts historical ghost tour. Treat has written about numerous local places and personalities at his Denton Haunts blog, and is forever indebted to the great work of the fine folks with the Denton County Historical Commission and local keepers of history like Mike Cochran and Laura Douglas at the Emily Fowler Library for their tireless work in helping preserve Denton’s intriguing past.