Ghost Trains

Although it's been nearly twenty years since my grandfather died I vividly recall the evening after the funeral, when many of my relatives gathered at my grandmother's house to share stories about the man we buried that afternoon, a man who had been a coal miner before he enlisted in the army at the outbreak of the Second World War.  Toward the end of the gathering, as we made our way outside, my attention was captured by the mournful wailing of a train whistle in the distance, coming from somewhere beyond the edge of town where the old Scott Colliery once stood.  The reason why this moment stands out in my memory is because the railroad tracks which used to run past the colliery had been torn out years before, the colliery was torn down decades earlier, and the last time a train had passed through our humble little town was many years before I was even born.  As far as anyone knew, the nearest tracks that were still in use were located over twenty miles away.  I had spent my entire life up until then living in a house across the street from my grandparents and had never once in my life heard a train whistle.

"Must be a ghost train," surmised one of my older relatives, an uncle who claimed that whenever an old miner was laid to rest, his soul was carried away to the Great Beyond by a train from the spiritual realm.  "I hear that whistle every time I attend the funeral of an old miner or a railroad man," he said with a wry smile, making it impossible to tell whether he was joking or being dead serious.  Since that day, the topic of "ghost trains" has always intrigued me, so it was only a matter of time until I decided to blog about it.

Bostian Bridge wreck, 1891

It seems that America, as well as Canada, has its share of legends about ghost trains.  Perhaps the most famous is the legend of the Bostian Bridge near Statesville, North Carolina.  On August 27, 1891, a passenger train jumped the tracks on a tall bridge near Statesville, sending seven rail cars into the abyss below and 30 people to their deaths.  Legend has it that the ghostly train makes an appearance every anniversary of the disaster, complete with screeching wheels and shrieking passengers.

Dozens of ghosthunters flock to the Bostian Bridge each August in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the phantom train.  In 2010, an amateur ghosthunter named Christopher Kaiser was standing on the trestle at around 3 a.m. on the 119th anniversary of the disaster when a train approached.  Unfortunately for the ghosthunter, it wasn't the phantom locomotive on the tracks, but a very real Norfolk-Southern train, comprised of three engines and a freight car.  Kaiser was killed instantly.

Bostian Bridge as it appears today

The fame of the Bostian Bridge ghost train was rivaled only by that of the St. Louis Ghost Train, near the tiny village of St. Louis in the province of Saskatchewan.  For several years, mysterious lights have been seen moving along the abandoned railway, stumping scores of paranormal "investigators", including the producers of the television show Unsolved Mysteries.  It wasn't until two teenage girls- students at a high school in La Ronge, duplicated the phenomenon as part of a science fair project that the St. Louis ghost train was proven to be nothing more than the diffraction of headlights from highway traffic.

Train wreckage caused by the Johnstown Flood

However, not every ghost train or phantom locomotive can be explained by tricks of light.  For instance, there was the Johnstown ghost train that was seen in western Pennsylvania by dozens of witnesses in September of 1892, three years after the famous flood which claimed 2,209 lives.  Since there were only a few hundred automobiles in all of America at that time, headlights couldn't possibly be the culprit.  Diffraction, refraction, or reflection also fail to explain why the apparition was that of an entire train, and not just moving balls of light or howling whistles.  According to some newspaper reports of the era, the transparent train appeared to be hovering above the tracks.

Aftermath of the Chester bridge collapse

Pittsfield, Massachusetts, is also home to a ghost train which has been seen only twice, both times in 1958.  That was the year John Quirk, the owner of the Bridge Lunch diner at the corner of North and Eagle streets, watched an old-fashioned steam locomotive barreling down the tracks.  Even though the eastbound train was moving with blazing speed, Quirk recalled that he could see every detail of the train, right down to the pile of coal in the tender.  He stated that the engine was pulling a baggage car and a half-dozen coaches.

Quirk reported the speeding train to railroad officials, but was told that no train had passed through Pittsfield at that time.  The officials also pointed out that steam engines hadn't operated on that line for several years.

About a month later, the speeding locomotive came rocketing past the diner again, this time witnessed by several diner customers and two employees, Steven Strauss and Tim Koutsonecolis.  The mystery train seen on that day was identical to the one seen by John Quirk- an old-fashioned steam locomotive with a baggage car and a half-dozen coaches, speeding eastward.

In a 2006 article about the Pittsfield Ghost Train, writer Joe Durwin points to an accident in late August of 1893, when an express passenger train headed from Chicago to Boston wrecked near Chester, approximately 30 miles east of Pittsfield.  Thirteen were killed (though some reports list the number of dead as 14 or 15).  Durwin, however, takes a position of skepticism, writing:

That's the worst nearby train disaster I'm aware of, but if that's the case, why has it only been seen in Pittsfield, heading toward its inevitable sudden stopping point? Are people in Dalton, Hinsdale, Washington, and especially Chester, simply not paying close enough attention?

A very interesting question, indeed.  Are ghost trains confined to the area of the crash, or can they appear at other points along the line?  Lincoln's funeral train has allegedly appeared in numerous places along the New York Central Railroad line.  Of course, the train carrying the body of President Lincoln never crashed, but what about the Pittsfield ghost train?  Could it be the ill-fated Chicago limited express that met its end near Chester, Massachusetts?

Chester bridge collapse.  Is that smoke coming from the last car, or something ghostly?

Newspaper articles from late August and early September of 1893 state that the train crashed approximately one and a half miles below Chester while crossing a weak iron bridge.  Two sleeper cars, a buffet car, and a dining car fell into the river.  By looking at maps of the area, we can see that this could only be the crossing over the Westfield River- nearly thirty miles away from the diner in Pittsfield.

So what gives?  Why did the "ghost train" only appear to people inside the diner?

I can think of only one explanation, and it's rather far-fetched (and that's saying a lot, since this blog revolves around the far-fetched).  According to newspaper articles, such as the one that appeared in the September 2, 1893, edition of the Roanoke Times, the bridge was in the process of being upgraded to support the weight of heavy locomotives, but the work crew had gone to dinner before finishing the work.  The train crash occurred while the workers were eating.   

The train's passengers were also eating dinner when the bridge collapsed, evidently.  Newspaper reports state that the survivors were those in the two coach cars, while the victims were those who were in the buffet, dining car, and two coaches- the four cars that went into the river.  Interestingly, the report of the accident which appeared in the Ohio Democrat stated that the train was running seven minutes behind schedule, and was probably speeding to make up time.

On Sept. 8, the Vermont Phoenix reported that the construction workers were to blame for the disaster.  At a hearing held in Boston, the foreman of the bridge company testified that the rivets had been taken out of the bridge's upper chord and were not replaced with drifting pins, and this allowed the bridge to collapse beneath the weight of the locomotive.  The crew apparently was going to finish the job after returning from dinner.

Since the nearest town with a restaurant would probably have been Pittsfield, maybe the reason why the phantom train only appeared to those inside the Bridge Lunch was because it was the site of a restaurant where the lazy bridge workers had gone to for dinner, and maybe the ghost train was intended to be a ghastly reminder of their negligence?

I'm inclined to believe that the ghost train, if it existed at all, was indeed the Chicago limited express bound for Boston.  The train was speeding eastward, as diner owner John Quirk reported in 1958.  Newspaper reports indicate that four cars, plus the engine, fell into the river while two coach cars and a smoker car remained on the tracks.  That makes a total of seven cars plus the engine.  All who witnessed the ghost train described a speeding steam locomotive pulling half a dozen coach cars and a baggage car, for a total of seven cars plus the engine.