“Do you mean to tell me,” I asked the Stationmaster, “that you really believe that a train has a ghost, and that ghostly trains run over actual railways at night?”
“If you were a railroad man,” replied my friend, “you’d see the foolishness of asking such a question? Do I believe in ghost trains? You might as well ask me if I believed in Pullman cars. Why, man! every railroad man knows that ghost trains are liable to be met with almost any night. I don’t say that they are common, but I do say that there are lots of men who have seen ’em, and have just as much reason for believing in ’em as they have for, believing in any regular train.”
“Have you yourself ever seen a ghost train?” I asked.
The Stationmaster chewed his cigar for a moment in silence, and then said: “Seeing as it’s you that asks me, I’ll tell you something that I haven’t told any man for more than ten years, unless he happened to be an experienced railroad man. You see, I got tired of having people doubt my word, and insinuate that I was a lunatic, or had been drinking too much whisky. You’ll perhaps think the same, but what I’m going to tell you is a cold fact, and there ain’t a bit of lying, or poetry, or political argufying, or any of those sort of imaginative things about it.
“You know the road from here to Tiberius Centre? It’s pretty near a straight line, but when I first came into these parts, the trains used to run from here to Tiberius Centre by a mighty roundabout way. The line, as it was originally laid out, ran in a sort of semi-circle, taking in half-a-dozen small towns lying north-west of this place. After a while the company surveyed the new line, and bored the big tunnel through the Blue Eagle mountain. The old line wasn’t entirely abandoned until about two years ago, but after the tunnel was finished, there was only one passenger train each way daily on the old line, and a freight train three times a week.
“I had a brother who lived up at Manlius, a town on the old line, about seventy miles from here. That is to say, Manlius was his post-office address, but he lived in a house that was three miles from the station, and there wasn’t any town of Manlius, except the station-house, and a little shanty that was used as a post-office. I was a kind of general assistant at thishyer station where we are now, and there not being very much work on hand, I got two days’ leave, and took the train up to see my brother. It was just about a year after the new line had been opened, and as the company meant to abandon the old line, they hadn’t put any repairs on it worth speaking of, and it was about the roughest road you ever travelled over.
“I was a little scared myself, though, as a rule, I never trouble myself about railroad accidents, knowing that they’re bound to come, and you can’t help yourself. There had been a terrible bad accident on that very road just before the expresses quit running over it. A train, with a Pullman car full of passengers, went off the track just as she had struck the bridge over the Muskahoot river, and as the bridge was over sixty feet high, and the river was over twenty feet deep, nobody ever saw hide or hair of that train, or of anybody connected with it, from that day to this.
“Well, I got up to my brother’s along about eight or mebbe half-past eight o’clock in the evening, and found him gone away, and the house locked up. I hammered on the doors and tried the windows till I had settled that there wasn’t any one at home, and that I couldn’t break in, and then I meandered back to the station, calculating to pass the night in the wood-shed, and take the train back to Jericho the next day. It had been snowing hard, and there was near a foot of snow on a level, let alone the big drifts that were here and there. I was pretty well fagged out when I got to the station, which, of course, was shut up for the night, and if it hadn’t been that I had a quart flask of whisky in my pocket, I should have come near freezing to death.
“I went into the wood-shed, and got round behind the wood, where the wind couldn’t reach me, and after cussin’ my brother for a spell, on account of his having gone off and shut up his house, I made my preparations for taking a nap. Just then I heard the rumble of a train. This naturally astonished me, knowing as I did exactly what trains were running on that road, and that there wasn’t any sort of train due at that station for the next fifteen hours. However, the train kept coming nearer and nearer, and pretty soon I heard the grinding of the brakes, and understood that the train was coming to a stop. I didn’t lose any time in getting out of that wood-shed, and going for that train. I could see it standing close to the water-butt, about fifty yards down the road, and knew, of course, that the engineer was taking in water. When I reached her I saw that the train consisted only of a baggage car and a Pullman sleeper. I swung myself up on the rear platform of the sleeper, and pushed the door open with a good deal of trouble, for the woodwork seemed to have swelled, and there wasn’t anybody to help me from the inside of the car.
“When I got inside, I looked around for the passengers, but there wasn’t a single one. Neither was there any sign of the porter, who ought to have been there to ask me for my ticket, and to pretend that I was making him a lot of trouble by asking for a bed. The car was lit up after a fashion by a single oil lamp, and all the berths looked as if the passengers had just jumped out of them, and the porter hadn’t been round to make up the beds. I couldn’t think what had become of the passengers, seeing as they couldn’t have gone into the baggage car, and it didn’t seem probable that a whole carful could have distributed themselves at way stations. However, that wasn’t any affair of mine. I opened both doors of the car to let a little air blow through, for it was as musty as a barroom when you open it the first time in the morning; and then I picked out a good berth and calculated to turn in for the night. I soon found that those berths weren’t fit for any Christian to sleep in, for the bedclothes were as damp as if they had been left out in a rainstorm. Where the water had come from that had soaked them, I couldn’t imagine, for it hadn’t rained any for a week, and it stood to reason that the snow couldn’t have drifted into the car, shut up as tight as it was. Then it puzzled me to imagine why the porter hadn’t taken the wet clothes away. The whole business was enough to throw a man off his balance, and I gave up thinking about it, and, going into the washroom, I sat down in the washbasin, which was the only dry seat in the car, and, leaning up against the corner, tried to get a nap.
“By this time the train had left the station several miles behind, and was running at a rate that I knew would have been risky on any road, let alone as rough a road as the one we were on. At first I didn’t mind this, the running of the train not being my business, but pretty soon I found that I could not keep in my seat without holding on with both hands. I’ve been in cars that have done some pretty tall running, and over some mighty rough roads, but I never before or since knew a car to jump, and roll, and shake herself generally as that car did. I began to think that the engineer was either drunk or crazy, and that the passengers had got so scared that they had all left the train. To tell the truth, I would have been glad to have left the train myself, but I never was fond of jumping, aud if there is any man who says that he likes to jump from a train that is doing forty or fifty miles an hour, why I just don’t believe him.
“All of a sudden I thought of the bell-cord, and I decided that I would pull it and stop the train. Then if any conductor appeared I would tell him who I was, and inform him that if he didn’t make his engineer run the train in a decent way, I would take good care that the Division Superintendent should know all about the thing. So I got hold of the bell-cord and gave it a fairish sort of pull—not the very hardest sort of a pull, you understand, but just a moderate pull. The cord broke in my hand as easy as if it had been a piece of thread, and all chance of stopping the train that way disappeared. I looked at the bell-cord and saw that it was as rotten as a politician’s conscience, so I just broke off a piece of it, about two or three yards long, and put it in my pocket, intending to show it to the Division Superintendent as a specimen of the way in which the Pullman car conductors attended to their business.
“All the time the train was rushing ahead at a speed that would have been counted worth noticing even on the New York Central. When she struck a curve—and there were lots of them—she just left the track entirely and swung round that curve with her wheels in the air. And when she did strike the track again you can bet that things shook. Of course, I don’t mean that the train actually did leave the track, but that was the way it would have seemed to you if you had been aboard that car. I went to the forward door to see if there was any chance of getting into or over the baggage car and so reaching the engineer, but it would have taken a squirrel in first-rate training to have climbed over that baggage car without breaking his neck at the rate at which we were running. I went back into the sleeper again, and, holding on to a berth, tried to light up a cigar, but somehow the match didn’t seem to take much interest in the thing. I felt confident that in a few minutes more the car would leave the track and go to everlasting smash, and I remember feeling thankful that I had gone over my accounts just before leaving Jericho, and that nobody could fail to understand them. Just then I thought of the brake. If I should go out on the platform and put the brake on, the engineer would feel the drag on the car and would stop the train, unless he was stark mad. At any rate, the thing was worth trying.
“I got out on the platform, hanging on for all I was worth to the hand rail, until I got hold of the brake wheel. It was as rusty as if it had been soaking in water for a week, but I didn’t mind that. I jammed that brake down good and hard, but the brake-chain snapped almost as easy as the bell-cord, and there was an end of that plan for stopping the train. Of course, I knew that a brake-chain sometimes snaps, and you can’t prevent it, but it was curious that both the bell-cord and the brake-chain on that car should have been good for nothing.
“Well, I got back into the car again, and I took a middling good drink of the whisky, and it sort of warmed up my courage. I never was a drinking man even in my young days, for I despise a drunkard, especially if he is a railroad man. But I hadn’t had above six or seven drinks that day, and I knew that another moderate one wouldn’t do me any harm. I was beginning to feel a little better, when I remembered that I had never heard the whistle of the locomotive since we had started from Manlius station. That showed me that the engineer wasn’t either drunk or mad, for in either case he would have blown his whistle about two-thirds of the time; there being nothing that a crazy man or a drunken engineer finds as soothing as a steam whistle. I couldn’t explain our flying around curves and over level crossings without sounding the whistle, except on the theory that the engineer had dropped dead in his cab. But then there would have been the fireman. Both of the men couldn’t very well have died at the same minute, and if there was anything the matter with the engineer, the fireman would naturally either have stopped the train and tried to get help, or he would have run it very cautiously, that not being his usual business, and would have been very particular about whistling at the proper places. Not hearing the whistle was, on the whole, more astonishing to me than finding a Pullman car without a passenger, or without a porter; and with the bedclothes soaked with water, and the bell cord almost too rotten to bear its own weight.
“There wasn’t a thing to be seen through the car windows, for they were thick with dirt. So, wanting to get some idea of the locality that we had got to, I went out on the rear platform again, and getting down on the lower step I leaned out to have a look all around. Just then we started around another curve, and what with my fingers being a little numb, and what with the swaying of the car, I lost my hold, and was shot off that train like a mail-bag that is chucked on to our platform when the Pacific express goes booming by.
“Luckily I fell into a snow-bank and wasn’t seriously hurt. However, the shock stunned me for a while, and when I came to, and found that I had no bones broken, and that my skull was all right, I picked myself up and started to wank down the track till I should come to a house. After walking, as I should judge, about half a mile, I came to East Fabiusville, where there is a little tavern, and mighty glad I was to see it. I knocked the landlord up and got a bed, and it was noon the next day before I woke up.
“There wasn’t any train to Jericho until after three o’clock, so not having anything to do, I looked up the landlord, and found he was an old acquaintance of mine, by the name of Hank Simmons. When I told him that I had come to Fabiusville by a night train, he sort of smiled, and I could see he didn’t believe me. ‘I don’t say that the train stopped here,’ I said, ‘for the last I saw of it was a mile or so up the road, where I fell off the rear platform into a snow-bank. But all the same, I did come most of the way from Manlius last night in a Pullman sleeper.’
” ‘Then you must have come on what the boys call the ghost train,’ says Hank.
” ‘What train’s that?’ says I.
” ‘Why, it’s the ghost of the train that went off the bridge on the Muskahoot river. The boys do say that every once in a while there is a train made up of a locomotive, a baggage-car, and a Pullman sleeper that comes down the road a hustlin’, and goes off the Muskahoot bridge into the river. I never saw no such train myself, but there’s lots of folks living along this road that have seen it, and you’d have hard work to convince ’em that it isn’t the ghost of the wrecked train. Come to think of it, that there train was wrecked just a year ago last night, and it’s probable that her ghost was out for an airing, as you might say.’
“Well, when I came to think the thing over, I came to the conclusion that Hank was right, and that the Pullman with the wet bedclothes, and the rotten bell-cord, was nothing, more or less, than the ghost of a car. However, I didn’t say much more to Hank about it at the time, for the less a man talks about seeing ghosts the better it is for him, if he wants to be considered a reliable man. But as soon as I got back to Jericho I went to see the Division Superintendent and told him the whole story.
” ‘See here,’ he said, when I had got through, ‘I suppose I ought to report you, but considering that you were not on duty last night, and that you’re not a drinking man as a general thing, I shan’t say anything about it. But if you’ll take my advice, you’ll not tell that ridiculous story to anybody else.’
” ‘Then you think I was drunk and dreamed the whole thing, do you?’ I asked.
” ‘I don’t think so,’ says he, ‘I’m sure of it, I’ve just been over the division reports, and no such train as you describe has been seen at any station. Besides, I know where every Pullman car in the company’s service is just at this identical time, and it’s impossible that a Pullman should have been on the Manlius branch last night. No train of any kind went over that branch between eight o’clock last night, and seven o’clock this morning.’
” ‘Then I wish you’d explain how I travelled from Manlius station to East Fabiusville last night between nine and twelve. I can prove by the conductor of the up train that he let me off at Manlius after eight o’clock last night, and I can prove by the landlord of the Fabiusville Tavern that I put up at his house just before twelve o’clock. A man, whether he is drunk or sober, can’t travel seventy miles in three hours, unless he does it on a railroad train.’
“The Superintendent was a mighty smart man, but this conundrum of mine was more than he could answer. So he only smiled, in an aggravating sort of way, and said, ‘You’d better take my advice and keep quiet. You know how down the Directors are on any man that drinks too much whisky. If you go about talking of this adventure of yours the chances are you’ll lose your place.’
“Just then I happened to think of the piece of bell-cord that I had taken from the car. I put my hand in my pocket, and there it was, sure enough. I held it up, and said to the Superintendent: ‘There’s a piece of the rotten bell-cord that I told you about. Perhaps you’ll say I dreamed six feet of cord into my pocket.’
“The Superintendent took it, and I could see that he was some considerable staggered. ‘You say you got this out of the Pullman sleeper that you dreamed about?’ he asked.
” ‘That’s just exactly and precisely the identical place where I got that cord aforesaid,’ says I, as solemn as if I was on my oath.
” ‘Well!’ says he, ‘I take back what I said about you’re having been drunk. That there cord hasn’t been in use in any car on this road for more than a year. The last car that had a cord like that was the one that went into the Muskahoot river. That’s a cotton cord, and we don’t use anything but hemp nowadays.’
” ‘Then you think that I was on a ghost train after all,’ says I.
” ‘I think,’ says he, ‘that the less you say about it the better—that is, if you care to follow my advice. If you keep on talking about it you’ll have half the trainmen on the division watching for ghosts and neglecting their regular duties.’
“Of course, I promised to do as the Superintendent said, and I never mentioned the ghost train until this particular Superintendent had skipped to Canada with over a hundred thousand dollars. He was a most amazing smart man, and if I had gone against his wishes, I wouldn’t have stayed in the company’s service very long. However, when I did begin to tell the story, nobody believed me, except now and then an old train hand who had seen ghost trains himself and knew all about ’em. I’ve told you the story as straight as a die, and you can take it or leave it just as you choose. As Horace says, ‘There’s more things in heaven and the other place than any philosopher ever dared to dream about.'”
Citation: Alden, W.L. A Ghost Train. The Nashville American, September 11, 1898. Edited by S.E. Schlosser. This story is in the public domain and is part of the cited work.