Something there is – the poet Robert Frost once almost said – that loves an urban myth, and in the case of the Pope Lick Monster that now faded love has lead to a 16-minute independent movie, a well-received play, thousands of teenaged memories and at least three deaths.
In its simplest terms, the monster was described in The Encyclopedia of Louisville as “a half-man, half-goat that has been rumored to live under the Norfolk Southern Railroad trestle across Pope Lick Creek and S. Pope Lick Road near Fisherville in eastern Jefferson County.”
“Stories of encounters,” the encyclopedia said, “ have abounded for more than three generations and have served as a mood setter for multiple romantic encounters between teenage boys and girls, many involving tests of “bravery” that require climbing out onto the trestle.”
“According to the legend, the creature hypnotizes trespassers into venturing out onto the trestle, thus luring them to their death before an oncoming train. Several people have been killed either on the trestle, or by falling from it, and many more have been injured.”
Various overwrought descriptions have given the monster the grotesquely deformed body of a man, fur-covered goat legs, an alabaster face with an aquiline nose, wide set-eyes, sharp horns protruding from his forehead and long greasy hair matching the fur on his legs. Other descriptions had him looking more like a sheep – with “Sheepman” the name being given to the beast.
Either way the creature is also said to be able to mimic familiar voices – luring people up onto the tracks – and if all else fails he dispatches his victims with a rusty, blood-stained axe.
The supposed origins of the beast include a local farmer becoming much too familiar with his goat, and a circus sideshow freak being freed when lightning struck the circus train. Other stories had the beast being an old chemist who became a recluse after his face was horribly burned in an explosion, or just a strange hermit living in an old shack.
All in all a totally incongruous tale set in a still peaceful but rapidly developing area just a few hundred yards off of Taylorsville Road and near where Pope Lick empties into Floyds Fork.
When viewed from a distance the skinny, rusted, and still heavily-used trestle seems inadequate for the job. Built in the late 1800s, it rises 90 feet above Pope Lick. It spans a distance of 772 feet. Much of this is covered by fields, brush, and small trees.
The trestle has no railings and no places to hide from trains. Photos taken at the top show the gleaming rails stretching off into the distance with only a few feet of black-brown railroad ties on each side – then only space and an abrupt, nine-story drop.
No one, of course, has ever seen the beast; actual sightings would only get in the way of the myth. Psychological studies tell us that such myths – or urban legends – are often rooted in some long-forgotten basis in fact. Exaggerated stories are repeated so often that they begin to bear the patina of truth. The associated movies, plays, television shows, and websites cater to our primal needs to believe and to follow.
Those needs in this instance became attached to a teenage rite of passage of facing up to the Pope Lick Monster, even walking across his trestle – particularly during Halloween. The activity became popular primarily among students from nearby Jeffersontown, but other high schools and even local colleges were well represented. To quote long-time Fisherville resident Martha Williams:
“There would be just mobs of kids out there near the trestle and climbing up on it. It used to be a favorite thing to do…the boys would con the girls into it. Most of the ones that came out here were no locals. The locals sort of knew better.”
In recent years this teenage bravado has also created tragedy. In February, 1987, Jack Charles Bahm II, a 17-year-old Spalding University student, was struck and killed by a train while walking on the trestle. In May, 1987, 19-year-old David Wayne Bryant died of injuries suffered a year earlier when he jumped from the trestle to avoid getting hit by a train. In November 2000 Nicholas Jewell of Mount Washington, 19, died after falling from the trestle. Four friends who were with him told police that Jewell had attempted to cross the trestle and was about halfway across when a freight train approached. Police said that Jewell had moved to the side and attempted to hold onto a railroad tie, but the train’s vibration eventually shook him off.
In the late 1980s the ongoing legend led to a 16-minute film, “The Legend of the Pope Lick Monster,” which was shot at the trestle by Louisville native and independent film producer Ron Schildknecht. The movie, which quickly drew anger from parents and railroad officials believing it would only draw more teenagers to the site, depicted a youth caught on the trestle hanging from a railroad tie to survive- a physical impossibility.
The Norfolk Southern Railroad also issued a statement, read at the movie’s premier, warning both of the trestle’s danger and that anyone caught on it would be prosecuted. Soon after the movie’s debut at Louisville’s Uptown Theatre – and the deaths of the teenagers – police security increased, a tall chain-link security fence was erected at the base of the trestle, and “Danger”, “Private Property”, and “Keep Off” signs were put up. Someone would later paint “JC, I Love and Miss You 3-16-76” across the concrete base of the trestle in tribute to Jack Charles Bahm.
The trestle would later find its way into a play written by Prospect, Kentucky poet and McArthur Foundation “Genius Award” winner Naomi Wallace called “The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek.” The complex and well-received play, which has been staged all over the country, is set in the late depression days of 1937. It features a scene in which two “horrifically confused” teenagers race across a trestle as they hear a train approaching, knowing they can only make it to safety if they don’t trip or look back. The play was originally produced at Louisville’s Actors Theatre. Courier-Journal theatre critic Judith Egerton called it “a complicated, interwoven play that moves back and forth in time between past and present, with layers of meaning that overlap and build on each other.”
It is a little bit, then, like railroad tracks.