The following is a transcription of the audio from Southern Gothic: “Crossing the Chunky River”
Introduction: Legend Tripping
Folklorists call it legend tripping, the act of venturing out to supposed haunted locations at night. Some do it in search of proof of supernatural tales, others-- mostly teens-- do it to prove their bravery. The locations sought out by these folks vary from abandoned buildings filled with spirits, to decaying cemeteries, haunted caves and treacherous swamps. But one of the most prominent structures to attract the legend tripper are bridges. These rusty old beasts, most often tucked away in the wilderness just outside of the towns they once served, are often the sight of everything from the location of horrific accidents to the homes of mythical monsters and fierce creatures of the night.
Of course in the South, haunted bridges are as common as haunted houses and plantations, they’re remnants of the Industrial Revolution whose decaying bones continue standing today as a reminder of a time before highways and interstates, when travel was difficult and dangerous. But It’s the stories that continue to keep their legacy alive and one such bridge shrouded in infamy sits just Southwest of Meridian Mississippi, where many believe a man was executed for the murder of over a dozen travelers who believed he was offering them a safe place to lay their head at night.
The Chunky River Bridge
On a lonely gravel road in Mississippi, 12 miles southwest of Meridian, is a dilapidated old truss bridge, no longer open to cars or traffic. It spans 112 feet, giving travelers access across the Chunky River, a short tributary of the Chicksasawhy River. This bridge, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988, had been built to replace one erected by early settlers of the region in 1850 which give carriages and horseback travelers a Southwestern route in and out of Meridian. But legend has it that during the reconstruction of this new bridge, workers began discovering bodies on the banks of the river. Bodies of travelers believed to have been murdered by a local innkeeper named Stuckey, and today the bridge still bears his name.
Until 1830, this part of Mississippi was inhabited by the Choctaw, the first of what were considered “five civilized tribes” to be removed from the Southern portion of the United States. On December 27, 1830, the federal government coerced the Choctaw leaders into signing the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit, ceding 11 million acres of tribal land to the United States in exchange for 15 million acres in what is today Oklahoma. It was the first treaty carried into effect by the infamous Indian Removal Act. By 1831, Virginian Richard McLemore became the first settler to lay roots in the newly acquired American territory. After receiving a 2,000 acre land grant, McLemore built a plantation and began partitioning off some of his acreage to attract newcomers. Construction of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad began in 1853 on land that McElmore had sold. The community that grew around the new railway station, built by John T. Ball, would eventually become incorporated as Meridian in 1860. But the decade of growth that came from the railway’s was quickly turned around by the destruction caused during the Civil War.
Union Army General Ulysses S. Grant captured nearby Vicksburg in 1863 and in the process of his campaign burnt Jackson, capital of Mississippi, to the ground. The Union Army began to plan its assault eastward toward Meridian. General William T. Sherman led the campaign, reaching Meridian on February 14, 1864. The troops were ordered to destroy as much of the railroad and military infrastructure of the town as possible, and by the time they left, over 115 miles of tracks were left in ruins, alongside dozens of bridges, storehouses and locomotive engines. The town of Meridian was left in shambles.
Once the war concluded Meridian began to rebuild, turning itself into a bustling post-war town. Its population of approximately 2,000 in 1870 doubled over the following decade to over 4,000, catalyzing a Golden Age of manufacturing and industry, making the once small settlement the largest city in the state for half of century. But it was at this point, when Meridian began to grow with exponential leaps and bounds that legend claims a violent group of outlaws named the Dalton Gang passed through, leaving behind one of their members-- a man that local legend suggests would terrorize the community just as the Dalton Gang would infamously go on to do out west. A man known only as Stuckey.
The Dalton Gang
The Dalton Gang were some of the most notorious bank and train robbers in America at the time. Led by the three brothers- Grat, Emmett and Bob, the Daltons were born in Missouri and began moving west with opportunity. Initially they were a family of law men, but when the oldest brother Frank was killed while serving as Deputy U.S. Marshall, hunting down a horse thief in Oklahoma, their goodwill began to change and due to various reasons-- mostly financial-- the brothers ended up on the other side of the law. In the Old West this wasn’t necessarily a stretch, tales of lawmen turned outlaw are rampant, but the Dalton Gang were a particularly infamous and violent bunch, only preceded in fame by the likes of Jesse James and Bonny & Clyde. Bob Dalton did not like this. He aspired to be the most infamous of them all, boasting he could "beat anything Jesse James ever did—rob two banks at once, in broad daylight." Unfortunately these haughty aspirations and inflated ego would quickly lead to the gang’s demise.
On October 5, 1892 in Cofeyville Kansas, the Dalton brothers and their cohorts attempt to do exactly as Bob had said, target two banks at once. But their plans were quickly discovered and violence escalated rapidly in the streets of the small town leaving numerous dead, including the town Marshall Charles Connelly. Grat and Bob Dalton, as well as their fellow gang members Dick Broadwell and Bill Powers were also killed in the ensuing shootout. Emmett Dalton survived despite receiving 23 gunshot wounds. He was captured and sentenced to a life in prison. Legend says several other members of the gang got away, but on that fateful day in 1892, the violent crime spree of the Dalton Gang would finally come to an end.
The Legend of Stuckey
While the Dalton Gang are an historically documented group of criminals, there is unfortunately no evidence to support the tale that the Dalton Gang ever actually passed through the town of Meridian, or even that a man named Stuckey had been a member of the gruesome bunch; however, their infamy as train robbers would have most certainly made its way to the burgeoning railroad town, igniting the imagination and fear of the locals.
Legend says that after Stuckey was left by his fellow outlaws, he opened a small inn near the banks of the Chunky River on an old dirt stage road that had been cut from the humid pine forests of the Mississippi wilderness. The dirt road was the only southwestern route in and out of Meridian, and as the town began to boom after the war, more and more travelers found their way along the route. Stuckey would trade goods with these folks, offering them a hot meal and a warm bed.
It’s said that once the sun would go down, he would walk out to the the middle of the bridge over the river, which had originally been built in 1850, and call out to travelers floating down the river, many of whom were bringing produce, cotton and other goods to the markets of Meridian. But these folks who were lured in by the light of Old Man Stuckey’s lantern cutting through the dark of night had no idea that the man who greeted them had much more nefarious intentions than merely earning a dollar.
The story goes that once these travelers were safe asleep in Stuckey’s inn, he would sneak into their bedrooms and viciously attack them in their sleep, knocking them over the head and then dragging their bodies out to the river to be buried along its banks; stealing their possessions for himself. But legends claim that it didn’t take long for reports of these missing persons to begin surfacing in town, and without any hesitation, suspicion was turned to Old Man Stuckey. Prepared for the worst, the local sheriff organized a posse of local men to head out into the Mississippi wilderness and confront the violent man. He was quickly arrested, given a kangaroo court and forcibly taken out to the bridge where he had once stood with his lantern luring in his victims. There he was hung for his crimes. The men vengefully left Stuckey’s body dangling over the river’s waters for five days, exposed to the rank humidity and vicious heat of the Mississippi wilderness. And when the rope was finally cut, he unceremoniously dropped into the water’s below, joining those that he had buried along its shores.
The Haunted Bridge
The old bridge where Stuckey was believed to be executed no longer remains. It was replaced in 1901 by the truss bridge still there today, but his soul is still thought to roam, bitter and angry at having been subjected to the same fate of his victims. Over the years, many who have been brave enough to wander across Stuckey’s Bridge at night have claimed to hear ghostly splashes in the water below, echoes of the treacherous murderer’s body dropping into the river after being cut from his noose. Some’ve even claimed to see an eerie blue glow emanating from the spot where legend suggest his executed corpse disappeared for eternity. Others have even reported ghastly apparitions of the man’s executed body still hanging from the trusses of the bridge. But the most widely reported of these eerie hauntings claims that the ghost of Old Man Stuckey still walks across the Chunky River every night, waving his lantern in search of even more victims just as he did in his treacherous life over a century ago.
Abandoned and Decaying
Today, Stuckey’s Bridge is no longer open to traffic. Instead it is used mostly by local teenagers as a nighttime party spot isolated down an old dirt road in the middle of nowhere. Curiosity seekers and ghost hunters also find their way to the old bridge, walking across the Chunky River the same way that Stuckey is said to have, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man who supposedly once terrified the young town of Meridian. But the question as to whether Stuckey is real or not remains. Did this outcast of an infamous gang of train and bank robbers really set up here in the South, sadistically murdering his victims for profit or is the legend of Old Man Stuckey merely a cautionary tale derived from the imagination of the early Mississippi settlers who feared what went on outside the bounds of their city limits in the darkness of the humid pine forests surrounding them.
We may never know.