Mystery at Mountain Lake
Who was the person whose final remains -- and possessions -- finally came to light again on Saturday, amid the muddy clods at the bottom of a dry lake?
Photo courtesy of the Giles County Sheriff's Office
A pair of McCreery wingtip shoes lie embedded in the dried muck where they were found. The shoes have Sullivan's Safety Cushion heels held in place with six nails.
The Roanoke Times | File 1938
This partial view of Mountain Lake was taken from a small boat landing at the lower end, with Bald Knob rising in the background.
Justin Cook | The Roanoke Times
This photo, taken Monday, shows the condition of the lake today and the site where human skeletal remains were found in the dried muck.
Photo courtesy of Richard Cobb
Officials work inside a cordoned-off area in the dry bed of Mountain Lake, near Pembroke, on Sunday. A man discovered bones there Saturday while collecting old bottles with his son.
PEARISBURG -- He wore a belt with a silver buckle and carried a fancy silver cigarette box, both engraved with elaborate cursive initials that appear to be "SCF."
His old McCreery wingtip shoes had Sullivan's Safety Cushion heels held in place with six nails.
His gold class ring carried the initials "MC" on one side and "CA" on the other, above images of trees carved into the metal. It bore a date on top that appears to signify that it is from the Class of '04 -- most likely 1904, Giles County sheriff's investigators say.
After his bones were discovered Saturday afternoon in the dried-up bed of Mountain Lake, investigators, forensics experts and anthropologists are trying hard to determine who "SCF" was -- if, of course, those were his initials and if the bones indeed belonged to a man.
"It is quite an interesting mystery and a unique case," said Donna Boyd, a Radford University anthropologist who is one of many people trying to piece together bits of information to learn who the person was and what happened to him or her.
One thing is certain: The remains that Timmy Dalton stumbled across as he searched the lake bed for treasures Saturday afternoon did belong to a person.
"There's nothing that looked like a body laying there," Giles County Sgt. Tommy Gautier said Monday. Only fragments of bones, including a rounded piece that appears to be part of a skull, were found, he said. A medical examiner confirmed that they were human, he said.
Dalton said he didn't realize what he had found at first, either.
He and his 14-year-old son, Chris, were combing the lake bed Saturday afternoon for old soda bottles to collect, something they have been doing about once a week for the past couple of months.
Chris called to his dad and told him he had found a pocketknife, a wallet and some shoes.
Dalton said it isn't unusual to find shoes and other items of clothing in the muck. He didn't think much of it until he turned over some dirt and found what he thought was a turtle shell. He then realized it looked a lot like part of a skull.
Chris and Timmy Dalton kept digging around, finding the class ring, the belt buckle, a dime from 1910 and a tooth.
They took some of the items home. But later that day, it nagged at Timmy Dalton that he might actually have found a person and that person's belongings. He called the sheriff's office and handed over to them all the items he had found.
"I just hope that it helps somebody," the still-stunned Dalton said.
Like Giles County investigators, Dalton has been searching the Internet for information about the clues he has, trying to find out more about McCreery shoes and what the initials "MC" and "CA" might stand for on the class ring.
In their Pearisburg office Monday, Giles County investigators were also searching online, but without much luck. They were focusing their efforts on dating the items that were found near the remains so they can narrow their search for missing persons reports.
Some of the items they found were buried underneath chunks of dried mud 6 to 8 inches thick.
The items were all found in an area of about 10 square feet, Gautier said. Based on what they have found, he said, investigators think the person died between 1920 and 1960. Coins found near the remains dated from 1907 to 1920 and included a wheat penny and a half-dollar.
They contacted four dentists to ask about the metal stud that protrudes from the end of the tooth they found. They learned it was a crown, the kind that would have been made in the 1950s or earlier.
Investigators cleaned a key found near the body by placing it in a little foam cup filled with hydrogen peroxide. They were able to make out lettering that signified the key was made by the Norwalk Lock Co., a company that dates to the 1800s.
They've also looked into the history of Mountain Lake and its hotel.
The first hotel, a wooden structure, was built at Mountain Lake in 1855 by Henley Chapman, Giles County's first commonwealth's attorney.
It was bought in 1869 by Herman Haupt, a Union general. He built an addition and had the railroad extended from Christiansburg to Pembroke so his friends wouldn't have to travel to the hotel by horse.
The hotel changed hands a couple more times before it was torn down in the late 1930s. Its owner at the time, William Moody of Galveston, Texas, built the stone hotel that stands today.
When Moody died in 1954, he left the property to his daughter, Mary Moody Northen. She bequeathed it to the Mary Moody Northen Endowment when she died in 1986.
The hit movie "Dirty Dancing" was filmed there the same year.
Mountain Lake has been filled with water for years but is now almost completely dry. The lake periodically dries up, then refills itself.
According to core samples taken by Virginia Tech biologist Bruce Parker and his former students, Mountain Lake has dried up at least six times in the past 4,500 years and at times remained dry for decades.
Investigators said they are grateful that the lake is dry now, giving them the chance to uncover the mystery that could have been mired forever in the bottom of a full lake.
It could take months to determine who the person was, Giles County Sheriff Morgan Millirons said.
"We're turning over every rock that we can find to try to find some information," Millirons said.
Boyd said she will conduct a basic forensic analysis to determine the person's age at death, sex, ancestry and stature in the next week or so.
Millirons said one doctor told him that the bones appear to have been at the bottom of the lake for 30 to 40 years. That number was based on their condition, he said.
Investigators asked hotel officials if they recalled any reports of missing people, but there were none.
"We're going to have to go back to old newspapers and check with some of the elderly people around to see what they remember," Millirons said. "We're just trying to figure out who it is, how long it has been there. And why."
Staff writer Tim Thornton contributed to this report.