By David Hoes - Astor is a town of about 1500 residents that has a rich, but sometimes violent history. It is also the focal point for a remarkable variety of paranormal phenomena. The following is a list of some of the strange events in and around Astor:
- The ghost of an Indian chief and a French Huguenot Monk have been seen in the area
- A dinosaur-like river monster known as "Pinky" has been sighted by numerous witnesses
- UFOs have frequently been spotted in local skies
- Skunk Apes, a Florida version of Bigfoot, are said to inhabit the surrounding forest
- The town's lighthouse-keeper and drawbridge-tender were mysteriously murdered
- The leading citizen and largest property owner died on the Titanic
- A Transylvanian Count served as newspaper publisher and local historian
Astor is located almost due north of Orlando and due west of Daytona Beach, on the west bank of the St. John's River. The lands around Astor were originally inhabited by Timucua Indians. There is a large shell mound just north of town where in the 1880s archeologists uncovered a number of relics and human remains.
French Huguenots escaping religious persecution settled at the present site of Astor in 1562. However, the entire colony was wiped out by Spanish troops in 1566. Later, the Spanish were driven out by the British.
The next European to settle in the area was James Spalding, who established a trading post at the present site of Astor in 1763. By that time, there were only about two dozen Timucua still alive. The rest had been killed by disease or war.
In 1822, a Jewish immigrant, Moses Elias Levy, raised oranges and sugar cane at the future site of Astor. During the Seminole wars, several forts were built in the vicinity. While some battles took place, more US troops died from disease than from combat. By 1870, the area was largely deserted.
However, in 1874, William B. Astor, Sr., purchased 12,000 acres of land along the St. John's river and established the town of Manhattan. When Astor died twenty years later, the town was officially renamed Astor in his honor. His son, John Jacob Astor IV inherited his father's estate and continued to promote the town. John Jacob Astor IV is remembered for his heroism during the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, when he gave-up up his place in a lifeboat to another passenger.
A more recent but somewhat less famous resident of Astor was Count Albert Wass de Szentegyed et Czege, (known as A. Wass de Czege) a Transylvanian nobleman and author, who came to Astor following World War II. He was the publisher of the local newspaper and a local historian.
In his book, The history of Astor on the St. Johns, Astor Park, and the surrounding area, Count A. Wass de Czege tells of several local legends.
The first is the story of Oklawahumpka, the Indian chief who could not die. Spanish troops killed all of the members of an neighboring Indian tribe except for the chief, a large, powerful man.
Oklawahumpka took the tribe's totem pole to an island in the center of a desolate, forbidden swamp. A hawk, the symbol of the tribe, was carved in the top of this pole.
Years later, a group of Spanish soldiers led by Don Huerta explored this territory. He left some of his men with the boats while he and the rest of his troops explored the island. Neither Don Huerta nor the men with him were ever seen again. The soldiers who stayed with the boats reported hearing the cry of a large bird, possibly an eagle or hawk.
Over the years, others also vanished. Pirates who tried to escape justice by hiding in the swamp disappeared without a trace. Jonathan Higgins, manager of the Spalding trading post, also vanished here. His wife reported hearing the cry of a hawk coming from the swamp. In 1838 and 1863, US troops also disappeared here.
The last documented disappearance was in 1904 when a young surveyor failed to return. Searchers found a large footprint with one toe missing close to where the surveyor was last seen. According to legend, Oklawahumpka lost a toe to an alligator when he was a child.
The forbidden swamp still exists, somewhere northeast of Alexander Springs. From time to time, fishermen report seeing large footprints in the mud on the banks of Alexander Creek.
Another ghost story involves a French Huguenot monk. After the Spanish massacred the French settlers in 1566, they tied the only survivor, a monk, to a tree and tortured him until he died.
The ghost of the unfortunate monk has been seen over the centuries; some say his ghost still haunts Astor. In several on-line directories of haunted places, there are references made to a glowing figure who appears on a densely wooded street called Gobbler Road. Is this the ghost of the monk who died so many years ago?
The Astor Monster
Reports of the Astor Monster, also called "Pinky" and “The St. John's Monster” have circulated for hundreds of years. William Bartram, a famous American naturalist, traveled through Astor and Lake George in 1774. He wrote that his Indian guide kept referring to "the beast of the deep." Bartram later reported seeing "fiery dragons" around Volusia Bar in Lake George. This is where the lighthouse was later built.
The St. Francis Gazette of August 24, 1896, reported that "something dangerously large" overturned a fishing boat in a nearby lake. A week later, there was a report that the steamer "Osceola" was struck by something large near the same location.
Quite a few reports surfaced between 1949 and 1956. In 1949, a Jacksonville paper published a sketch of the "Astor Monster" as seen by a river guide. In 1956, strange footprints were found in the mud along the river. They were described as being about 10 inches long and reptilian, with three toes pointed to the front and two to the rear. Descriptions of the creature varied greatly, with some claiming it looked like a dinosaur and others describing a creature more like a manatee. According to one report, the creature had a single horn in the center of its head.
During the 1950s, over a dozen witnesses claimed to have seen the Astor Monster. Several individuals claimed to have shot at it but missed.
In his book Florida's Unexpected Wildlife: Exotic Species, Living Fossils, and Mythical Beasts in the Sunshine State, Michael Newton reported that in the late 1960s, fishing guide Buck Dillard and two clients encountered a beast 'the size of an elephant' while trolling on the St. Johns River near Lake Dexter. "Dillard says the creature walked along the river bottom, thus presumably eliminating possible confusion with a manatee."
The last reported sighting of the monster was in August of 1987, when two young men claimed to have struck it with their boat. Reportedly, it was about 35 feet long, greenish-gray, and had spikes on its back.
Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman mounted a 2008 expedition to search for Pinky, but was unsuccessful in learning more about the creature.
One newspaper reporter suggested that Pinky was a hoax. In a 1995 article in the Orlando Sentinel, Ormund Powers recalled a conversation he had with Count A. Wass deCzege, the former publisher of the newspaper in Astor.
“When I asked the Count to help me trace the origin of the Astor Monster, he let that question go by and instead told me a story about the Loch Ness Monster of Scotland.
'I knew the two men who invented the Loch Ness Monster,' he said.
'That thing was invented?' I asked.
'Out of whole cloth. They got together one day in Europe and decided they would invent a monster,' the count said. 'That was many, many years ago, you know. They just made him up from their overactive imaginations.'”
UFO Sightings near Astor
Astor has the unusual distinction of being near a Navy bombing range. The Pinecastle Range is the only live bombing range on the East Cost of the US. Does the close proximity of Pinecastle draw UFOs to the area? In September of 2010, former Air Force officer Robert Salas and other veterans claimed that UFOs are attracted to military installations. In any event, two UFO cases near Astor are especially interesting.
The first case occurred in the late 1950s. Jay Mallet, a navy pilot, was making dry runs at a target on the bombing range when he suddenly encountered a dozen small silver disks at about 10,000 feet altitude. It was approximately 9:30 am; visibility was good, and there were few clouds.
He described the metallic disks as being about the size of large garbage can lids. They had no lights, windows, markings or other features. "They simply looked like a squadron of flying saucers", he later reported. As he followed them they dropped down to about 1,000 feet.
Mallet was ordered to take photos using his gun cameras, but was never shown the film from the cameras. He was later sworn to secrecy about what he had seen.
In May of 1978, a widely reported Radar-Visual sighting also took place near Astor. According to the Ocala Star-Banner, on May 14, 1978, three UFOs were sighted over the U.S. Navy’s Pinecastle Range.
“The lights, described as red, white and green and about the size of a star, were sighted about 10 pm and tracked for several minutes by radar.
‘All I can tell you from here is what’s in the log,’ said Pinecastle’s Lt. Commander John L. Sullivan. ‘From what I can gather, the radar picked something up and it departed the area very quickly.’”
Timothy Collins, the radar technician who tracked the objects, said “I've never seen anything like it. And I don't want to see anything like it again.”
Master Chief Thomas O’Neal was reported as saying that the Warfare Range also had a rash of UFO sightings one or two years before the May 14, 1978 incident.
At the same time the Navy was tracking the UFOs, two women were driving south on Highway 19, just northwest of Astor, when they saw a bright light and a craft that resembled "tinker toys." Following their sighting, they experienced a period of missing time.
In the years since 1978, UFO reports have continued to come-in. In 2001, retired Air Force Major George Filer documented some of strange events on his website. According to his source, goats were found dead with their rectums removed and blood drained. Rabbits were found dead with puncture wounds on their necks. A horse was found dead near the top of a 15 foot Palmetto tree, where it could have only been dropped from above. Numerous disc-shaped UFOs were also seen in the vicinity. Even as recently as 2010, there have been other newspaper and Internet reports of earth-shaking explosions and UFO sightings in the area, even when Navy planes weren't using the range.
-Two Strange Unsolved Murders-
The Murdered Bridge-tender
Highway 40, the main road through Astor, was paved in 1926. A drawbridge was built across the St. Johns River, joining Astor on the west bank to Barberville on the east bank. Although the bridge was mostly made of steel, on the Astor side it was partly covered with wood and included a house for the bridge-tender. McQueen Johnson, who used to operate the ferry between Astor and Barberville, was hired as the first tender.
In 1935, while on the bridge, Johnson was shot in the back. He fell across the middle of the bridge, with his head in Lake County and his feet in Volusia County. Not only was Mr. Johnson's murder never solved; it was not even investigated. Neither county sheriff claimed jurisdiction, and both refused to investigate.
A new bridge was built in 1978, and the old bridge house and covering were moved to the Barberville Pioneer Settlement, where they remain today.
The Murdered Lighthouse Keeper
As railroads replaced riverboats, the light was removed 1916. It was replaced with a bell-type foghorn which remained in use up to 1943.
A.J. Anderson served as one of the last keepers of the Volusia Bar Lighthouse. However, in 1938, his body was found floating face down in the river. Local mariners had become concerned when they noticed that the lighthouse was unattended for more than a week. An autopsy was performed on Mr. Anderson, and it was found that his neck had been broken. To this day, Mr Anderson's killer or killers remain unknown. Investigators found that the dwelling had been ransacked. It is thought that either Mr. Anderson attempted to fight off his attacker(s), or that his attackers were searching for valuables.
After it was taken out of service in 1943, the Volusia Bar Lighthouse served as a fish camp and briefly, as a family dwelling. However, someone set fire to the building in 1974, destroying everything but the pilings.
Reports of Hauntings
No one that I spoke with would go on the record to say that either of these structures was haunted. Since victims' relatives still live nearby, there may be a reluctance to discuss it. However, there are rumors of unusual occurrences connected with both the lighthouse and the bridge-keeper’s house. I have visited the bridge-keeper's house on two occasions, and on both occasions I felt very uneasy there.
Tales of the Skunk Ape
Florida is said to be home to a smaller version of Bigfoot known as the Skunk Ape. The name derives from the creature's horrible smell.
The Astor area, along with much of Lake and Marion counties, has a long history of Skunk Ape sightings. Many of the sightings have occurred just south of Astor near Alexander Springs. In an article for The Daily Sun newspaper, Gary Corsair wrote of several sightings near Astor:
"A 67-year-old Baptist minister who says he hasn’t had a drink in 40 years tells how he stood eyeball-to-eyeball for 30 seconds with a great, hairy creature in the Ocala National Forest. The Rev. S. L. Whatley, pastor of the Fort McCoy Baptist Church, said he spotted the thing out of the corner of his eye while he was cutting wood with a chain saw three weeks ago. Whatley recalled Monday. 'It was standing upright, in the middle of some palmetto bushes, and that sapsucker was at least 7 1/2, maybe 8 feet tall.' The minister said the creature 'had dark, lighter-than-black hair on its head and chest, not much on its arms, and none on its face. It had kind of a flat face, a flat nose, its eyes were sunk in its sockets.' Whatley said he quickly went back to his truck to get an ax because 'me and that creature was going to mix it up,' but by the time he returned from the truck the creature had disappeared. He hastened to add that he hasn’t had a drink in 40 years."
July 2, 1980:
"Lake County Sgt. Dee Kirby, made casts of the half dozen 17-inch-by-6 1/2-inch footprints found near a bulldozer in the vicinity of Camp Ocala, a federal job training site. He said the prints showed a definite arching of the instep. five distinct toes and even some wrinkling along the instep. “(The prints) had a full four feet of distance between each of one,” he said, speculating that if they were real the creature that made them must be 10-to-12 feet tall and weigh close to 1,000 pounds. The prints were discovered by a private contractor doing roadwork for the U.S. Forestry Service."
Jim Bliss claimed to have seen these prints, which were in the Ocala National Forest about five miles northwest of Alexander Springs. “When I saw the footprints, I was just flabbergasted. These prints were six feet apart. This thing was huge,” he said.
Bliss also made plaster casts of prints the deputies overlooked. Although future searches for the skunk ape were unsuccessful, Bliss believes that the Skunk Ape exists.
“I believe it wholeheartedly. There’s something there,” Bliss said. “I know where he lives, but I can’t convince anyone to go there with me. He lives in Billy’s Bay, back behind Alexander Springs. There’s no doubt in my mind there is one. There’s been tons of people that’s seen them.”
Numerous other local sightings are listed on the Bigfoot Field Research Organization website, including the following:
- In 1986, a man camping near Astor reported that at 3:00 am he smelled something similar to a skunk, and sighted a large creature walking on two legs. In the morning, he found his coolers ransacked.
- In 1974, a man camping in the same area sighted a large bipedal creature at about 10:00 pm
- In March of 1994, a family camping in a secluded part of the forest heard unusual screams while camping in the forest.
- In 1996 a woman and her father were driving down a road in the forest when they sighted a hairy bipedal creature about 5 to 6 feet tall.
Future Investigations In Astor
When I began investigating stories about Astor, I worried that I wouldn't find enough material for an article. I now feel that more stories have yet to be told. There are vague reports of a fkigure in a black cape who wanders the forest; tales of campers hearing childrens' laughter from deep in the woods; rumors of the ghosts of Indians around the Volusia Bar; stories of haunted ghost towns deep in the forest; and other legends. I plan more investigations into this unique location, and hope others will share their stories.
*The author, David Hoes, has previously submitted articles and sighting reports to Phantoms and Monsters, including The Haunted Smallwood Store - Chokoloskee, Florida. I want to thank him for this well-researched offering.
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