The Downingtown Gates of Hell
Near the twin tunnels on Valley Creek Road in Downingtown is Chester County’s entrance to the netherworld. Old tales of the area talk of a pair of red cast iron gates in the vicinity of Saw Mill Road, leading to a long-abandoned mansion. This place was the scene of a grisly gun murder, in which a father killed his entire family. The house lay empty afterwards, left exactly as it had been, right down to the bullet holes in the walls and doors, and all the bodies were buried on the grounds. Rumors have circulated constantly for the past fifty years about the activities of cults, Satanists, and Mafiosi in the mansion and its grounds. Other stories are more supernatural, and talk of a portal for angels to descend to the Underworld. Thankfully, there has been no talk of a revolving door allowing otherworldly residents to visit to the earth.
But most explorers who visit the area nowadays can find no signs of any kind of gate. Chain-link fences surround the likeliest old properties in the area, and the yards look unattended. As you follow the gravel track into the woods and make your way through the trails, no iron gates are anywhere to be found. You see stone ruins of various dwellings, the odd piece of litter, and lots of No Trespassing signs and yellow caution tape. But no gates.
Some of the few people who boost themselves over the chain-link fence to explore the overgrown yard of the larger property in the area where they assume the original iron gate once stood have come back with tales of lanterns glowing in the abandoned building, illuminating furniture covered with dust cloths. Others claim they were chased off by large and very real-looking dogs. (Not mythical hell-hounds, though––just plain Dobermans).
So were the real iron gates in this story the real inspiration for the Gates of Hell? Or did the legend spring from the supernatural portal of some of the wilder stories of the area? At this point, the truth is hidden in a tangle of contradictory stories. But Downingtown thrill seekers do still tramp the woods in their quest. If any of them have found it, they’ve certainly not returned to tell us about it.
The Seven Gates of Hell
For a nice little town in southern Pennsylvania, York seems to be unusually blessed with portals to the underworld. One local legend speaks of Seven Gates of Hell in a wood on the outskirts of a town that some signs call Hallam and others call Hellam (we’re not making this up). If you go through these seven gates, you will go straight to hell, they say, but they insist that nobody has ever made it past the fifth gate.
The gates begin in the woods off Trout Run Road, which was once the scene of a tragic asylum fire. But if, as the church tells us, the road to hell is wide and well-traveled, and Weird PA has some doubts about this York county portal. The first gate is hard enough to see, standing as it does half-hidden by the undergrowth at a bend in the road. As if to confuse the issue, there are two other gates right beside it. But it’s the middle one, a buckled iron pipe affair with a loose, rotten frame, that they call the First Gate. The other two are merely distractions. And the remaining six gates? Well, here’s the catch: Gates Two through Seven are invisible during the day. But by the half-light of night, you can find them by squeezing past the first gate and tramping through the undergrowth of the protected forest behind it. (Of course, in the dark, it’s hard to see even the no trespassing signs liberally posted on trees, so the gates will be an even more obscure goal.) To your left, you find a large circular clearing that at least one coven of Wiccans use for their meetings and ceremonies. The gates stand deeper in the woods.
During our research trek (a daytime excursion, it’s true), we found no gates past the first one, but plenty of felled trees that would look like gates by night—bent boughs that even a closed mind could see as barricades to another world. Despite our doubts, I must confess, we stopped after going past five of these broken-down trees and decided to go back to the car. After all, there’s no sense in being reckless.
Hell Gates and the Toad Road Asylum
There is a mysterious history and a dark underside of York. It is a story of death and despair. It is the story of Toad Road, and it is so heinous that its name has been changed to Trout Run Road. In the 1800s, a colossal mental asylum stood in the woods of York off of Toad Road. Because of its remote locale, firefighters were unable to get to there when the asylum caught fire. Many patients burned to death in the upper floors of the building, and hundreds of others fled into the surrounding woods. Scared by the reputations of the asylum’s inmates, the search party was extraordinarily aggressive, beating some they found into submission and killing others. Hospitals, especially asylums, are places of sadness and pain even under the best of times. The hospital of Toad Road truly experienced the worst of times. The psychic impact of these horrible events forever cursed Toad Road.