In the 1800s, construction crews cut through mountains, soared over rivers, twisted around bends, and drove straight into towns and cities to build railroad lines that swept across the land like an iron and steel wildfire. On May 10, 1869, a seminal moment in railroad history, a golden spike was pounded into the final tie to officially commemorate the completion of the transcontinental railroad.
Railroads would connect states and nations, forever tying people and business together. Something else swept along with this marvel of construction and transportation, however, something that remains embedded in our collective psyche: railroad ghosts.
Haunted railroad lore runs the full line of weird paranormal activity, from spooky, but well-documented, levitating light—or orbs—phenomena to apparitions of people appearing in train engines and cars. It includes tales of the wandering souls of long-dead railroad engineers and even accounts that trains, the machines themselves, have rolled down the tracks of mortality and into the spirit world.
This article will take us to some of these haunted railroad destinations. Arriving at our first stop on the itinerary through the five weirdest tales in haunted rail history is the tale of an assassinated president destined to live among the immortals—and his funeral train that took him there.
1. Abraham Lincoln's Funeral Train
On a particularly melancholy morning of April 19, 1865, Abraham Lincoln's funeral train drifted out of a Washington, DC depot to visit hundreds of thousands of grief-stricken citizens in four hundred communities, who had lined up to pay tribute to the assassinated Great Emancipator. Legend has it, though, that just because you were born more than a century too late for the spectacle of Abraham Lincoln's funeral train, you aren't too late for its specter. The ghost of this funeral train is said to retrace its route annually, on the anniversary of its inaugural trip. Some say that if you're out along the rail lines that were once part of the funeral train's itinerary, which meandered through several mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states, you might see a black steam engine with fire belching from its smokestack glide eerily down the line. In case there is any doubt that what you are witnessing is an actual supernatural sight and not being fooled by some type of historical reenactment, witnesses say if you look through the window you can see that the president's coffin is laid out and an ever-vigilant group of Union soldiers—which some describe as ghosts and others as skeletons—keep watch over the coffin.
2. The Dangers of Working Overtime at a Railroad Museum
The staff and volunteers at the Railroaders Memorial Museum in Altoona, Pennsylvania are a lot like the people who the facility memorializes: the hard-working, loyal people who helped turned the small city of Altoona into a world-famous railroad hub. And one hard-working finance director at the museum found out just how loyal railroad spirits can be. I mean, they just don't want to leave. According to a now-legendary Altoona ghost story told by multiple sources, the director walked from his office to the building's elevator after a long day of hard work. The director, who said he was usually the last one in the office, waited until the elevator door eventually swung open, and in he walked. But, shockingly, the director found that he wasn't alone on the elevator; a man stood on the other side of the elevator with his back to him. The unexpected guest casually looked over his shoulder at the dismayed finance director. Then, the man's body started to shimmy electrically—and, eventually, completely disappeared.
Later, the director noticed a railroad worker in a picture on display in the museum who looked similar—one might say hauntingly similar—to the man who shared his elevator ride into haunted railroad weirdness. He assumed this was the ghost of the man that he bumped into on his elevator ride into spooky railroad history.
3. Stamp of Spooky Approval
Not many paranormal phenomena earn a royal stamp of approval, but an elite group of spooky happenings in the Great White North—or, better, the Great Fright North—were immortalized as Canadian postage stamps. Among them, the St. Louis Ghost Train stamp became highly sought-after when the post released the stamp to the public in 2014.
The stamp celebrates a ghostly railroad tale that's been creeping out of the small, quaint village of St. Louis, Saskatchewan for decades. Witness say that eerie lights often dance along a stretch of railroad tracks outside of town. Some say that there is a white light and a red light; they believe that the white light represents the headlamp of a train, while the red light looks like a light that used to flash from the back of a caboose. Believers say that the lights are either from a ghost train that was part of a deadly train robbery, or the ghost of a conductor who died in a horrible work accident along that section of track. Debunkers have other reasons for the phenomenon; mainly, they say that the phenomenon is nothing more than a combination of automobile headlights and over-active imaginations.
But, the sightings continue, and continue to be vexing and spooky enough to be immortalized in stamp collections across Canada—and stamped in the time-space continuum that surrounds the village of St. Louis, Saskatchewan.
4. Ghost Trains: Nonfiction, Fiction, or Science Fiction?
Philip K. Dick, one of the world's most famous and talented science fiction authors, had some unorthodox views about reality. In his nearly half-million word Exegesis, the writer conjectures that reality is everything from a computer simulation to a vast gnostic revelation. Dick had no trouble believing in another piece of weird phenomenon: ghost trains. According to several sources, including Anne Dick, his former wife who was living with him in Point Reyes Station at the time, Dick claimed to hear the phantom cry of a train as he tried to sleep. The trouble was that there were no trains around.
Years before, the railroad had ceased functioning in that area. However, Dick's account did match up with a local ghost story that told of an angry engineer who haunted the old railroad line that once criss-crossed through Point Reyes Station. It is said the engineer once drove his train through the night trying to find the man who wronged his daughter. The wail of his whistle woke the sleepy community. Townsfolk said that the train's whistle still pierces the night during the engineer's vengeful run. Many witnesses have stepped forward to say that they have heard and seen the ghost train and, it just so happens, we might count one of the world's most lauded science fiction writers as one of these lucky, or—depending on either your lack of sleep, or fear of the unknown—unlucky witnesses.
5. Murder, the Spirits Wrote
Skeptics charge that railroad ghost stories are just that—stories, spooky tales that, while may impart some cultural or historic wisdom, aren't really true. But, these doubters may have some trouble explaining the next story that takes place in Duffy's Cut, a section of railroad near Malvern, Pennsylvania. Since the late nineteenth century, dozens of people have claimed to see weird, floating orbs dancing around a trench near the railroad tracks. There were so many reports of what people said were the ghosts of Irish railroad workers that the railroad company began to collect and archive the stories. Two men, who had heard the stories from their grandfather who worked for the railroad company, decided to investigate whether there was any truth to these legends. With help from university-trained scientists, these amateur anthropologists dug roughly where the ghost sightings occurred and found remains from what seemed to be a mass grave. More startling, the men found evidence that it wasn't a disease that killed the workers and their families, but, apparently, gun shot wounds.
Thanks for sharing this ride through the five weirdest railroad stories with me. Feel free to share your own haunted railroad stories with me, too!