From a historical viewpoint, Elizabethton is one of the most fascinating small towns in Tennessee. Originally called the Watauga Settlement at Sycamore Shoals, it was the first permanent settlement outside of the original thirteen colonies. In addition, the first majority-rule system of American democracy was established at Sycamore Shoals. A number of prominent legislators, military leaders, and members of the Constitutional Convention came from this area. In 1780, 1100 volunteers, now known as the Overmountain Men, mustered at Sycamore Shoals and started their fourteen-day march to South Carolina, where they fought the British at the Battle of King’s Mountain. The town is also known as the launching point for westward expansion. In the early twentieth century, the name of the town was changed to Elizabethon in honor of Elizabeth MacLin Carter. Elizabethton is home to a number of historic sites, including the Jon and Landon Carter Mansion, the downtown historic district, and a reconstruction of Fort Watauga. For visitors interested in the paranormal, however, the most interesting site in Elizabethton is an old bridge built in the 1920s, the Watauga River Bridge.
The haunting of the Watauga River Bridge is based on an incident that allegedly took place in the 1930s. One night, a local couple whom writer John Norris Brown identifies as Tom Jackson and Wanda Smithson, drove out to the secluded area which had become Elizabethon’s “Lover’s Lane.” They had parked their car on the bridge and were enjoying the moonlight, the cool night breezes, and each other’s company when Tom noticed a dark figure walking in their direction. In one version of the tale, the interloper is a deranged killer, bent on claiming new victims. In another version, he is a robber who steals the couple’s valuables. The stranger’s motives might vary from one tale to the next, but the outcome is always the same. As soon as he reaches the car, he pulls a knife out from under his coat and begins stabbing Wanda. Once Wanda stops struggling, the killer turns his attention to her boyfriend. Tom is stabbed several times, but somehow, he finds the strength and the will to run away. At that very moment, a man was about to drive his car across the bridge. Frantically waving his arms, Tom stopped the car and climbed in, frightening the woman who was sitting in the back seat. As soon as the driver saw the psychotic murderer marching toward the car with blood dripping from his knife, he stepped on the accelerator and drove at break-neck to the hospital. He helped Tom walk into the emergency room, where he was given immediate treatment. Unfortunately, the young man’s wounds were too severe, and he died a few days later. According to John Norris Brown, police immediately returned to the scene of the murder, but no sign of the killer or Wanda’s corpse could be found. Even the pools of blood that had formed on the bridge were gone. Neither Wanda Smithson nor her killer was ever found.
For over three quarters of a century, couples brave—or foolish—enough to drive out to Watauga River Bridge for a little privacy have encountered a terrifying figure. People who have seen the phantom up close claim that he wears a monk’s robe and has a skull for a face. This same menacing presence has been seen under the bridge and near Stony Creek. Some drivers reported that when they drove over the bridge, an invisible presence opened the rear passenger’s door and climbed in the back. Some of the drivers swore that after they drove home, they found the impression of the weight of a human being in the back seat. In Elizabethton, seeking a little time alone with one’s girlfriend or boyfriend can be a very risky venture.