The Goat Man of Pope Lick Bridge
Stories of goat men are all over the world. Why is the Pope Lick goat man disproportionately famous?
First of all, before we get one more word into this episode, let me clear: By no means do I suspect that a single Skeptoid listener out there has any speck of belief that a goat-human hybrid lives on, under, or around the Pope Lick Creek trestle bridge in Kentucky, and that there is therefore a legend of some kind that needs to be debunked. No, there are other much better reasons to talk about this quasi-famous urban legend. Recall that most such legends themselves are not what's interesting about them: it's the how and why they exist, and the often-surprising lessons we take from that.
Second, before we get any further into this, I want to acknowledge that young people have lost their lives on the bridge, who were allegedly or anecdotally there because of the legend of this creature. That is true, and it's happened multiple times in recent years, and it is a horrible tragedy that no family deserves to bear. Neither today, nor on any other day, will I exploit tragedies for the sake of an episode, in the way most other writers and podcasters will do. My thoughts are with any people who have experienced such an event, and that's all we will say on these recent tragedies.
The Pope Lick Creek trestle bridge is an active train bridge, now, today. There is no room at all to stand aside if a train comes across; it is only as wide as the track and has no railings. It is 28 meters off the ground, a deadly height to jump from should a train come. If you are out on its 235 meter span, you are much too far from safety and you cannot run on the awkward surface of uneven railroad ties. It is unacceptably dangerous, and extremely illegal under federal and state law for very good reasons, to be out on that bridge, ever. Do not do it. If you learn of this urban legend and feel you must see the bridge, do your legend tripping in a safe and sane way: from the ground. The trestle bridge, the area, and the legend can be safely enjoyed from the ground.
The bridge in question is the Pope Lick Trestle, where the Norfolk Southern freight railroad crosses over Pope Lick Creek and South Pope Lick Road, just east of Louisville, Kentucky, an area called Fisherville. It's easy to park off Louisville Loop road, which goes under the tracks, and get a fine view. The structure itself is not especially photogenic nor a marvel of industrial design, yet it's quite dramatic for its height, narrowness, and precariousness.
The goat man himself has a pretty vague origin story. There is no actual historical event that he's tied to. The stories about him are tongue-in-cheek campfire stories: one says that he lures people up onto the bridge into the path of a train, though why anyone would choose to go toward a goat man I'm sure I don't know; another says he runs around killing people with an axe; another that he'll drop onto the roof of your car if you drive under the trestle. Various versions of how he came to be include that he was a circus freak who escaped from a crashed circus train; or that he was a farmer who sacrificed goats to Satan, or something.
Those disappointed in the lack of specificity in the goat man's tale ought not be surprised, for it turns out there are similar goat men throughout the United States (and indeed, plenty more in the world at large), and a vague story is the rule, not the exception. Maryland has had a famous goat man since about the 1950s, with an equally diverse variety of origin stories, descriptions, and claims of what he does. Texas boasts the Lake Worth Monster, a goat man known since the 1960s, when a rash of hoax pranks and a famous terrible-quality photo made it a staple of children's stories from summer camp. In another part of Texas lives another goat man under the historic Old Alton Bridge, who throws rocks at you in vengeance of an apocryphal black goat farmer who was lynched along with his family by Klansmen in 1938. There's even at least one other goat man right there in Kentucky, just a few hours from the Pope Lick one: the Red Hole goat man of Paducah, Kentucky. And these are only a few of the more famous ones. Below a certain threshold of notoriety, there are more goat man legends around than you can shake a stick at.
Stories of goat men go back much farther than you might initially think. In ancient Roman and Greek mythology, they were called fauns, and would run around in enchanted woods and interact with humans in various ways. Later they came to be conflated with satyrs, who were originally part horse or donkey instead of part goat. Having a local goat man is not too surprising; in fact, it would be more surprising if there were fewer goat men out there. I shouldn't be surprised to learn that they had unionized.
This is — allegedly — a science podcast, so we'd be amiss not to at least give a passing mention to goat man science, such as it is. Zoologically speaking, a human-goat hybrid wouldn't work. They're both mammals, but that's about where the similarity ends. You'd need to go back about 100 million years to find a common ancestor, which would have been some nonspecific little creature given the placeholder name of the boreoeutherian ancestor. Since then, bovids and primates have been pretty far apart on separate branches of the tree of life. They can't remotely interbreed or be crossed together in some lab by evil scientists, any more than could a flower and a stingray.
It's not the genetic history of goat men that's the interesting part of this story; but rather how and why a single example sticks out in a whole pen of similar goat man legends. Indeed, one might compare the ubiquity of goat men to that of Bigfoot, and Bigfoot type creatures. They are reported in all 50 United States, and despite being essentially the same creature, many have their own name: the Sasquatch of Canada and the Pacific Northwest, the Florida Skunk Ape, Louisiana's Honey Island Swamp Monster, the Fouke Monster of Arkansas, Arizona's Mogollon Monster, the Blue Ridge Tree Monster of the Appalachians, Nepal's Yeti, China's Yeren, Australia's Yowie, we could go on ad nauseum. Since most of these are all exactly the same thing, it would make little sense to do a Skeptoid episode about each of them individually, or indeed about any one of them specifically. Why not tackle the whole genre with a single episode? We could ask the same question about goat men.
Having goat men under every rock and around every corner in the United States — and indeed in the world — raises an obvious question. Why is the Pope Lick goat man the one with a Wikipedia page, and the one singled out for this episode?
As far as I can tell, the reason is the 1988 16-minute short horror film, The Legend of the Pope Lick Monster, by filmmaker Ron Schildknecht. It's in black and white and is actually quite fun, and unashamedly campy. Three teenagers buy some alcohol and go thrillseeking out on the bridge. One of them has a close encounter with the Sheepman — as it was called in the film — and finds himself caught on the bridge with a train bearing down. He barely survives by hanging from a railroad tie, the thundering train inches away. The film was released on 16mm in 1989, and re-released on video in 2008, and you can now find it on YouTube.
It wasn't the film itself that drew attention, but the resulting dissatisfaction from the Norfolk Southern's attorneys, who feared that the film would attract more young people to go onto the trestle. In particular, they called attention to Schildknecht's own appearance in a prologue in which he encourages "You have to go out there." Norfolk Southern noted that in the past two years, two teenagers had lost their lives when trains caught them out on the bridge, in separate incidents. They also noted that the way the film's character escaped by hanging underneath the trestle was practically impossible for most people, and might wrongly suggest to viewers that it was a safe option. They wanted Schildknecht to make changes to the film, and the version that's on YouTube today includes a brief epilogue in which Schildknecht cautions to "Stay off the damn trestle" — but the original prologue remains as well.
Public anger over the film's glorification of walking the trestle caused a firestorm in the Louisville Courier-Journal newspaper that raged for weeks. Given the uproar and the involvement of the press and the railroad, Louisville's Pope Lick Monster got far more traction in pop culture than any of the nation's other goat men. And so, that version is the one that has a Wikipedia page, and appears under Kentucky on so many lists of each state's most famous cryptid.
If we go back even further and ask why Pope Lick is the one that Schildknecht chose to make a film out of, the answer is simple: He grew up in Louisville, so it's the one he knew. He might just as well have grown up in any city known for any other goat men, and that's the one he likely would have made famous.
So in summary, the Pope Lick goat man had an origin that was little more than the normal background noise level of local urban legends and folklore, 99% of which is soon forgotten. It was no different than the countless other goat men, sheepmen, Bigfeet, cemetery white ladies, men in black, and deformed hitchhikers that color so much of American folklore, that don't have any actual histories or actual events tied to them. It just so happened that this was one of those where the effect worked in reverse: rather than actual events inspiring a legend, it was the legend that inspired the actual events. Sadly they were not the type that we hope will ever be repeated, and as a result, the possibility of the reverse urban legend is one that everyone should keep in mind.
And just as a final word: If the allure of legend tripping compels you to go see the Pope Lick Creek trestle, do not go out on the bridge. Please, do not go out on the bridge. Refrain from climbing the fence festooned with very real warning signs. Be the mature and intelligent example to the people with you: enjoy the place safely from the ground, do not go out on the bridge, and do not allow your companions to, either. The best days out are those when everyone comes home.
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