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Staff Photo by Olivia Ross / Jim Farmer talks on May 9, 2022, about finding a this casket in mid-April with his wife Susie Farmer during a paddling trip on South Chickamauga Creek.

Chattanooga residents Jim Farmer and his wife, Susie, have paddled area creeks, rivers and lakes for years but it's not often they find something so odd they had to tell somebody.

The couple in mid-April found two caskets along South Chickamauga Creek on two paddling trips and are flummoxed as to how they got there.

What's even weirder, another one was found at Booker T. Washington State Park on Webb Road near Champion Road April 11, a few days before the Farmers spotted their two.

The count of extremely similar unoccupied caskets stands at three as the mystery deepens.

PADDLE TALE

The Farmers have lived in Chattanooga since the early-1990s. They are used to seeing all kinds of stuff floating in area rivers and creeks, especially after heavy rains, but one recent day was a bit out of the ordinary, Jim Farmer said.

"We're paddling upstream, and we're kind of working our way up, and we're staying off to the side of the creek while we're going upstream because it creates an eddy, and you're not in the major flow and it's more efficient," Farmer, 53, a Brooklyn, New York, native, said in an interview.

"We see something kind of stuck in the trees, and so immediately we start going, 'What's that?' And to me it looked some sort of cart," Farmer said.

As they closed in, the "cart" started looking more like a desk, maybe upside down.

"As we get closer — it's just one of those, 'Ah!' moments — and the realization hits of what it is, and I see the kinds of cushions and whatever are inside the coffin," he said.

The coffin was tangled in low-hanging trees, partially floating, Farmer said.

"The top is off, and it's kind of exposed, but from the angle we're coming at it, we couldn't quite see in it yet," he said. "As any normal person would wonder, we were thinking 'Is there anybody in there?'"

If there had been an occupant, it looked like it was gone now, so the Farmers paddled closer to inspect.

"So now we're kind of curious," he said. "We kind of paddle up to it and we don't see anything in it."

The casket looked new and had no scratches or any indications it had been buried, he said.

After they finished checking out their find, the Farmers continued upstream and found a piece of the top and other assorted pieces and posted a few photos on Facebook.

SECOND CASKET

The next week, the Farmers took a second paddle up South Chickamauga Creek, this time further upstream, starting out from Sterchi Farm, he said.

As they approached the Bonny Oaks Road bridge over the creek, they spotted something. This time, it was familiar.

"'Ah! It's another coffin,'" Farmer said he and his wife exclaimed on the second sighting.

"Over on the side of the creek, there's pretty much a full coffin with most of the top and pretty much everything else on it," Farmer said. "So, two in two weeks."

(READ MORE: Mystery graveyard emerges in Coffee County man's yard)

The Farmers were not yet aware of the third casket found earlier at Booker T. Washington State Park on April 11, upstream of the Chickamauga Dam, so he started sleuthing from his starting point on the South Chick, below the dam.

Farmer, a software developer for a local company, studied the path of South Chickamauga Creek on online maps and the only cemetery he found anywhere near the discovery was Lakewood Memory Gardens on Shallowford Road.

"I called and got the guy on the phone," Farmer said of his call to Lakewood Memory Gardens. "Just kind of curious, you guys missing anything?"

Farmer said the man chuckled at the question and said Lakewood doesn't have wooden coffins on site. The manager didn't want to comment on the record but was shaking his head with a smile at the casket mystery.

On Monday of this week, Farmer trekked to the coffin site on foot and found it still lying in the same spot on the bank under the Bonny Oaks bridge.

As Farmer described, it appeared unused and relatively new if a bit battered.

"I'm shocked it's still here but, of course, we didn't have any gully washers yet," he said, standing beside his haunting find.

Photo Gallery

Casket discoveries on South Chickamauga Creek

The creek was about 3 feet lower Monday than where the casket came to rest on the leeward side of the bridge. Farmer figured it had gotten caught in an eddy during flooding and snagged on the slightly higher ground as it spun beneath the bridge.

According to U.S. Geological Survey water data for April 2022, the first day the creek level rose significantly started with rainfall April 14, the day before the Farmers went on their first South Chick trip April 15. Then rains April 16 drove creek levels even higher before receding back to normal by the end of April, the federal data shows. National Weather Service data for the same period shows Chattanooga got 0.81 of an inch of rain April 14 and 0.9 of an inch April 16.

(READ MORE: Beck Knob Cemetery, Chattanooga's first Black cemetery, nominated to National Register)

The coffins seen by the Farmers appear to be identical or nearly identical models, Jim Farmer observed. But there were no makers' plaques or branding immediately visible to lead to a manufacturer.

Farmer speculated that some mischievous youths found or took the coffins to test their seaworthiness. He shuddered to think the caskets were occupied and now are not.

SUSPICION OF THEFT

South Chickamauga Creek's headwaters flow north mostly out of North Georgia's Catoosa and Walker counties, where they enter Tennessee as west and south variations of Chickamauga Creek, while East Chickamauga Creek flows from a small area in Whitfield County and combines with South Chickamauga Creek, according to a 2012 South Chickamauga Creek Headwaters Management Plan description.

Those creeks in the three counties flow through towns, communities and local and national parkland in Georgia, but the streams are significantly smaller so far upstream.

Walker County Sheriff's Office detective Lt. Billy Davis has a hunch that is not far different from that of the Farmers.

Walker County and neighboring authorities have had no reports of missing or stolen coffins or erosion issues in any cemeteries, and the fact that all of the found coffins appear to be the same model raises suspicions of burglary and theft, Davis said Monday in a telephone interview.

Davis speculated a funeral home or casket manufacturer somewhere in the region probably suffered a break-in at a storage facility, and they had yet to learn of it.

The casket found April 11 at Booker T. Washington State Park was fully intact sitting on the shoulder of a road on Booker T. Washington State Park property, according to an email containing a photo of the casket he received from the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Crime and Intelligence Analysis Unit that same day.

Photos of the other found caskets show that the casket is a near-dead ringer for the others found in the days that followed.

NO INVESTIGATION

Oddly, despite Davis' copy of a Hamilton County Sheriff's Office email and photo of the casket from its Crime and Intelligence Analysis Unit, the spokesperson for the Hamilton County agency, Matt Lea, said Tuesday in an email the department's captain and lieutenant over investigations contend they have no information to offer and said park rangers handled the probe.

Tennessee State Parks spokesperson Kim Schofinski, however, said Tuesday in an email that park rangers didn't investigate the find either.

Chattanooga Funeral Home President Gene Pike said Tuesday in a telephone interview the casket found at the state park appears to be a Chinese-made model that could have a retail value of around $2,000.

"It looks like it's either cherry or mahogany, and the interior had been torn out," Pike said of the casket at the state park. "It looks like it's a very expensive piece of merchandise with the urn shell and swing bar hardware, which is extra," he said.

He suspects if the caskets were stolen, they'd be very difficult to resell.

Under strict state laws, a used casket must be destroyed unless the interior is completely replaced and its original manufacturing information remains intact, Pike said. If reselling was the thieves' plan, they probably discovered the hot caskets couldn't be easily sold, he said.

The Farmers are now more watchful of what they see along the way when they go paddling.

"Now it's disappointing when we go out on the water and we don't find one," Farmer said with an uncomfortable laugh.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.

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