On the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, you will come upon a marker at the top of Bluff Mountain. The marker states that a little boy was found dead at the exact spot over a hundred years ago. His name was Ottie Cline Powell. He was 4 years old.
Punchbowl Shelter is just 1.6 miles from where Little Ottie was found. The shelter and the surrounding campgrounds look like any other shelter in Virginia. However, hikers have reported sightings of a little boy while camping there.
No one knows for sure what exactly happened to Ottie. The following account is based on a true story but has been fictionalized to understand what might have happened to Ottie Cline Powell.
Miss Gilbert – Teacher
Ottie Powell – Student, Son of Rev. Powell and Mrs. Powell
Harry and Joseph Powell – Older brothers of Ottie
Monday, November 9, 1891 – 1:00 pm
Miss Gilbert sensed her students were restless. She decided to take a break from the lesson in the McGuffey Readers.
“Everyone, let’s gather some firewood for tomorrow,” she said.
Miss Gilbert liked having enough firewood in the schoolhouse to get through the entire week.
She asked her youngest pupils to gather kindling in the schoolyard while she asked the oldest pupils, Harry and Joseph Powell, to find larger pieces of firewood.
The grounds near the schoolhouse had been plundered earlier that fall, so the children had to go farther into the woods in search of it.
Ottie was just 4 years old, but he wanted to gather firewood with his older brothers. He had reached the age where he wanted to help even with things he wasn’t quite big enough to do yet.
He was more adult-like than his siblings had been at that age. His father, Reverend Powell, had noticed his helpful nature and his ease of being around adults. He thought Ottie was developing qualities that would be good for the ministry.
His mom, Mrs. Powell, found Ottie helpful around the house. He fetched eggs from the hen house every morning and swept the front porch in the evening.
His older brothers, Harry and Joseph, didn’t mind when Ottie tagged along with them. As they headed toward a large branch that had fallen in the woods, they asked Ottie to look for kindling nearby.
While Harry and Joseph started chopping away at the branch, Ottie took to picking up handfuls of twigs and placed them in a bucket.
After a while, Ottie wanted to show his brothers how much he had gathered. He saw that Harry and Joseph were busy trying to split their log. Ottie walked towards them.
As he got closer, Harry and Joseph stopped what they were doing. They warned him not to get near while they were swinging the axe. A few times the old axe blade had slipped off the handle. They asked Ottie to go on the opposite side of the hill to collect more kindling. They told him it would be important to have enough kindling to burn their large branch.
Ottie swelled with pride. He could do it. He walked along the path that led away from the schoolhouse and searched for more kindling. Then he spotted it – a large branch like his brothers had found. Forget the kindling. He thought another log would be even better.
He ran down the hill towards it. When he reached it, he removed his mitt and rubbed his hand along its side. It felt dry and he knew it would be a good piece for burning. He tried to pull on it, but some brambles had grown around it and held it in place.
Ottie got to work tugging away at the brambles until he freed the dead branch. Surprisingly, he was able to pull it out easily. With both hands, he began dragging the branch up the hill.
Ottie dragged the branch for quite some time. He was tired and needed help carrying it the rest of the way. He would ask his brothers for help. He looked up the hill and wondered if that was the direction of the schoolhouse. He left his branch and started up the hill. He glanced back to mark its place.
As he approached the top, he couldn’t find the path to the schoolhouse. He went back to his branch. He looked around and tried to imagine where he came from. He was frustrated that he couldn’t remember.
He called out to his brothers, “Joseph!” He listened. He only heard a light wind and rustling leaves. “Harry!” He got no reply.
He walked farther up the hill to searched for the path to the schoolhouse, but he could not find it.
Ottie was lost.
After a half hour of roaming, he was nowhere near the path. He had traveled a mile away from his branch and farther from the schoolhouse.
By this time, Harry and Joseph realized that Ottie wasn’t back and told Miss Gilbert. She asked Harry to search the nearby forest for him and Joseph to run back home to see if he was there.
Meanwhile, Ottie was beginning to feel a little uneasy. The forest had no familiar landmarks. He had explored the forest around his house many times, but the forest now seemed different. He felt more like a guest than at home in them.
To add to his uneasiness, he kept hearing a crow that sounded strangely human. He thought about how he and his brothers would make crow calls on the walk home from school. Maybe they were playing around with him and hiding behind the trees?
He paused for a moment. “Is that you, Joseph?”
Ottie kept moving. He looked through the bare trees trying to spot the schoolhouse but saw nothing familiar. Then, further through the forest, he spotted a large mountain. It was Bluff Mountain and it called to him.
“I’ll go there,” he declared.
The mountain was at least somewhere. He thought it would be better to go somewhere than to be lost here at nowhere.
To this little boy, the enormous Bluff Mountain looked like it was a short walk away, but it was actually several miles from his location.
As Ottie walked, he kept sight of the mountain. He walked at a brisk pace for a small child, but he wasn’t feeling tired yet. He was just anxious to get to this mountain.
The wind swirled around the trees and produced sounds similar to a voice. He stopped and looked around to see if anyone was near.
“Anybody there? Hello?”
No one answered him. He wanted to hear one of his brother’s voices calling for him.
“Hello!” he cried. He listened to the stillness.
“Hello!” he cried even louder.
The sound of his own voice screaming like that combined with the feeling of loneliness caused a panic to set in. Ottie broke down and cried.
After a few minutes, he wiped his tears with his mitts. He noticed how rough the wool felt against his cold cheeks.
He pushed on.
He thought, “What if this was a test from God?” His father had told him of stories of men whom God had tested. In most of the stories, man had failed God’s test. Ottie didn’t want to fail.
But he didn’t understand this test. How does he pass? Perhaps if he walked more quickly and had a pure heart, he would make it to the mountain. Maybe then he would please God. He imagined God watching him from the sky.
He also thought that God might be punishing him. Last week, he took an extra biscuit from the breakfast table. Harry had gone without that morning. Ottie now regretted having done that.
He decided that he would say a prayer when he got to the mountain. It would be a good prayer, like one his father would say, and he would mean every word.
Ottie was beginning to get hungry. He looked at the ground, which was covered with acorns. He kept an eye out for chestnuts. He planned to take them home and roast them.
At home, a small group of men arrived to help Reverend Powell search for Ottie. Harry was told to stay at the schoolhouse with some other men and to keep a fire going. Joseph was to stay at home with the family.
The search party started at the school and spread out from there. Within minutes, a few men on horseback found Ottie’s branch and could see how he had dragged it up the hill. They circled the area calling for him.
At 5:00 pm, with no sign of Ottie, the men gathered at the schoolhouse to regroup. They decided to shoot a round of bullets in the air to help Ottie find his way back.
Meanwhile, Ottie was making his way towards the mountain. It never occurred to him to go towards the sound of the gunfire. The booming in the forest frightened him. To him, the sounds were ominous. Guns were used for killing. He didn’t want to be killed.
It was getting dark by the time Ottie reached the mountain. He started the ascent. As he hiked, he saw his breath in the air. He imagined he was a train with puffs of steam billowing out. He pushed harder.
After several minutes, he finally reached the top of Bluff Mountain. He looked around and could see the silloutte of the mountains far away. He took a few minutes and caught his breath. Then, as loud as he could, he announced his presence, “I’m here!”
Breathless, he sat down and bowed his head in prayer. He asked God for forgiveness for taking the biscuit and for all of his other sins. He also asked God to help him find his way home and to please watch over everyone in his family. Then he said each family member’s full name and added Miss Gilbert.
He finished with the Lord’s Prayer. He knew all the words, but he only understood the part about the bread. He was earnest though.
Then he opened his eyes.
It felt colder up on the mountain compared to the valley. The air sounded different too. It was more still and lonely. He found a tree with a large rock next to it. He hunkered down between them. The ground felt unexpectedly cold and hard. He pulled his wool cap down over his ears.
Then he simply waited. He had already cried, and he did not feel the hunger he had earlier. He was just worn and tired.
Ottie closed his eyes tight like he did every night. He didn’t want to see the last of the daylight fade. The coldness started to set in as the darkness surrounded him.
At home, Mrs. Powell and her other children were gathered at the fire. They were taking turns praying aloud. As Mrs. Powell listened to her oldest son’s prayer, she felt a deep sense of loss but tried to bury such feelings. She wasn’t going to give up hope.
The men kept up the search but had lost daylight. At 10 pm, they returned to the Powell farm to regroup and plan for the next day.
Ottie, in the dark, shivered as he laid on his side, curled tight. His thoughts were fragmented as he began to fade into sleep. He thought about home with his family and being warm, the flickering fire, his mom putting a warm blanket over him, his tin cup filled with stew. It was all about the little things and his mom that he now missed.
Ottie whispered for his mom and went to sleep.
It is believed that Ottie died this night as a freezing rain covered the area.
In the months that followed, the Powell family continued their search. Hundreds of people participated. The family hired a private investigator, ran stories in the newspaper, and offered a reward for their son’s safe return.
In April 1892, hunters crossing over Bluff Mountain found Ottie’s body.
A cross was erected in this spot to mark the location. Decades later, it was replaced with a concrete marker with the inscription:
THIS IS THE EXACT SPOT.
LITTLE OTTIE CLINE POWELL’S
BODY WAS FOUND APRIL 5, 1891.* AFTER
STRAYING FROM TOWER HILL SCHOOL HOUSE
NOV. 9. A DISTANCE OF 7 MILES.
AGE 4 YEARS, 11 MONTHS.
Ever since, people have claimed to see him or to feel his youthful spirit on Bluff Mountain and Punchbowl Shelter. For recent sightings, hikers can check the entries in the shelter’s registry.
*This year is a mistake on the marker. He died in 1891. He was found in 1892.