What's Historic About Brookville, Pennsylvania?

The Legend of the Burning Well

U.S. Rte. 322 has many names throughout its long history. It has been called the Lakes to Sea highway. The Corsica Road and old Stage Road.

The road follows a lazy course, across hilltops and dipping into shady hollows. It is in one of these little valleys alert travelers can see a dim light in the distance. The faint glow is actually the vent to a natural gas test well but it is also a marker of another kind. The area is known as Burning Well.

Back in 1831 the road was a stagecoach route between Clarion and Brookville. The 15 mile journey would take most of the day if the weather was fair but if the weather was poor the trip could take much longer. The road was dirt and rain or snow would turn it to mush. Often travelers would only get as far as the village of Corsica, midway between the two towns. Other enterprising people had erected inns along the route hoping to catch some of the trade going by their door during a storm.

During the late summer of 1831, a sudden, severe storm came up. People in this area are familiar with how violent these storms can become. High winds, hail and lightning can knock down limbs that will damage homes and block roads.

Joseph Clemens was at his inn, near Burning Well when a terrible storm blew up. The skies opened and a hard rain began to fall. A quick look at the sky told Clemens this was going to be a bad storm. He was somewhat surprised then when he heard the familiar pounding of the eight horses pulling the large-wheeled stagecoach.

The old driver reigned up at Clemens Inn and asked him if he had his passengers could take shelter inside. Clemens was only too happy to oblige to the driver's request.

One of the passengers had a very different opinion. He knew he was very close to Brookville and he wanted to push on. He said his wife and child had urgent business in the county seat that could not wait for the storm to pass. The driver and the passenger got into a shouting match that embarrassed Clemens. The driver was known to be a hard-drinking, foulmouthed man, and he used every word in his vocabulary to press his point. The whole argument raged, the sky grew darker.

The passenger won the argument by accusing the driver of only wanting to stop at Clemens so he could drain a few glasses of whiskey. Now this terrified Clemens because, although everyone knew he sold spirits he made himself, he was not a licensed establishment and could get into trouble if the law heard about his operation.

Clemens, looking out for his own interest, took side with the passenger and urged the driver to push on to Brookville.

Feeling betrayed, the driver climbed back on the box and with a curse grabbed the reigns and fixed Clemens a hard glaze. "If anything happens to me or my rig in this storm, Joe Clemens, you'll never be rid of me!" and with that he whipped his team down the road.

The coach had not gone far when it came to a hill top crowned by a single large oak tree. The tree's branches spread across the lane providing shade for weary travelers on warm days. This day it was a trap.

Just as the stage approached the solitary tree, almost within sight of Brookville, a huge lightning bolt struck the tree with a loud crack. The tree caught fire and one branch, overhanging the road was broken off. The stagecoach driver could not stop and the large branch fell right on the stage, pinning the driver beneath it.

The terrified passenger and his family bolted from the coach and ran as best as they could in the ankle deep mud to Joe Clemens Inn. Breathlessly they told Clemens what happened. Clemens grabbed his coat and went to aid the driver. When he arrived, he saw the driver was dying.

As Clemens leaned over, the driver suddenly lunged at him, grabbing the lapel of his duster and fixed him with a glaze. "I told you what would happen, Joe Clemens. I will haunt you from the depths of hell," and with that he died.

Clemens was shaken but soon put the sad incident behind him. The man was dead and buried, no doubt taking the road to eternal damnation for all of his sins.

It was in the fall of 1831, Clemens noticed something odd in the woods behind his home. It was a flicker of light that had not been there before. Cautiously he investigated the light. He moved ever closer until he could see a flame coming from a rock pile where he had seen no flame before.

To Clemens it could only be one thing, the stage coach driver was sending him a message from the depths of hell. Terrified, Clemens ran from the scene never to return.

Word spread through the area and the braver souls sought out this flame of eternal damnation for themselves. To the well-reasoned it was obvious, it was a natural gas leak that had somehow been ignited.

But other things were happening. A few months later another stage driver swore someone had thrown a hatchet at him. He said the hatchet looked like the one the old stage driver had carried to cut away limbs or harness. He immediately quit his job.

And as always, off in the distance was the faint glow of the burning well. Is it the curse of a dead man or just a monument to poor judgement?

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