Friday, October 14, 2011

All Down The Line: Trains to High Strangeness

All Down The Line: Trains to High Strangeness
By Scott Corrales

“Everybody hears the sound of a train in the distance; everybody knows its true.” – Paul Simon

The lonely whistle of a train plowing its way through the darkness of the countryside conjures up many romantic images, to be sure, but the chronicles of the paranormal in many nations are filled with stories involving high-strangeness events and those giants of the rails. Everything from ghosts to hairy monsters and UFOs have claimed their place in railroad lore, which is complicated enough without the added elements. But is there something about trains, especially train accidents, which brings about that paranormal element? Or is it merely the human mind trying to sort out the details of a disaster?

One of the worst railroad accidents in North America took place in October 1972 in northern Mexico. Pilgrims were returning to their homes after having made a pious journey to the shrine of St. Francis of Assisi in Real del Catorce, state of San Luis Potosí. They excitedly bought tickets for the first train out of the area: a nameless convoy of sixteen superannuated passenger cars pulled by a five hundred ton diesel. The returning pilgrims quickly overwhelmed the eighty-passenger capacity of each car, and standing room only became the order of the day. Authorities believe that well over a thousand passengers were on the train that night.

The diesel bravely pulled the overloaded railcars toward the appointed destination, but the steep downward grade was more than the engine could handle. It would later be learned that the sixteen cars had been slated for the scrap yard due to their age and obsolete equipment, but that knowledge would have not helped the engineer and brakemen at the time. As the train reached Puente Moreno, the overloaded cars smashed into each other and into the locomotive. The jumble of rolling stock and rails was engulfed by flame as passengers people tried to escape from the wreckage.

It was later said that the authorities administered beatings to the surviving rail crew, forcing them to take the blame for the incident, accusing them of inebriation while on duty. The fact is that the government buried the wreckage, and a good part of the unclaimed bodies, on the spot where the disaster occurred.

An article in El Diario de Coahuila ( mentions that Ivan Escamilla, a local paranormal researcher, has endeavored to make electronic voice phenomena recordings at the disaster site with surprising results – screams, sobs, voices asking for help, conversations and laughing children. Unexplained lights and shadows are reported in the area of Puente Moreno – the restless shades of the accident victims.

Even more compelling is a story posted to a paranormal website by the grandson of a survivor of the accident. But the lucky survivor did not escape from the flames and ruin thanks to the hard work of rescuers, or even his own wits: an unknown man told him to get off the train as soon as possible.

The nameless survivor had boarded the death train and fallen asleep in his seat. The person told him that it would be best if he got off the train immediately, “as something very serious was about to occur.” Seconds later, as the train began its inexorable forward motion, the stranger hollered to everyone that they should get off the train, “because something was amiss.” So insistent was his tone that a several passengers jumped from the train, leaving their luggage behind. Only later would they hear of the grim fate they had escaped....

Listen To The Train Whistle By

Millions of people worldwide have seen the shades of the departed, both human and animal, and no society on the planet has a dearth of lore on the subject: what to do when they appear, how to appease them, how to banish them (if necessary) or simply, how to honor the dead and assure their peace.

In the industrial world, it is not uncommon to learn of cases in which the living have encountered ghostly images of non-living things, such as ethereal houses, automobiles, and in some rare instances, entire "ghost" villages which, like Brigadoon, are not "there" the following morning. Therefore, the case involving a phantom locomotive should not cause us to raise our eyebrows. Or should it?

After the completion of the coast-to-coast railway system at the end of the 19th century, the United States boasted one of the busiest rail systems in the world. Enormous trains like the Mikado hauled vast numbers of coal cars to feed the industrial appetite of the budding world superpower. Pittsburgh, in particular, needed coal to fuel the blast furnaces of its titanic steel, glass and iron works, and was serviced by a number of criscrossing railways.

The building of the interstate highway network, the decline of commerce by rail and the advent of the postmodern era led to the obsolescence and eventual abandonment of many railways and their tunnels, blasted through the hearts of the Appalachians.

One such train track ran through tunnels south of Pittsburgh, near the city of Canonsburg. It retains a ghostly memory of its heyday, as two young Pennsylvanians were able to discover for themselves.

While driving along the back roads running of Donaldson Rd., they came upon the long-abandoned rails, rusted and interspersed with weeds. The pair of tunnels further down the line caught their attention--particularly the fact that one of the tubes was barricaded by a gate that swung aside as they approached, as if beckoning to them.

Discretion prevailing over valor, they chose to forgo the dubious distinction of venturing into the darkened tunnel's nether reality and return by day, which they did, only to discover, in the best horror-film fashion, that the gates were no longer there: in their place now stood a wall of old bricks, the work of decades earlier judging from their poor condition. This disconcerted the youths even further.

Unable to ignore the site's enigmatic attraction, they returned to the tunnels one night of full moon in May 1993. Any plans they may have entertained about exploring the abandoned tunnels were thwarted by the sudden appearance of a phantom locomotive, pearly-white in color and almost solid, which caused them to lose their resolve and quite literally, run away.

They bestowed the name "Hell" upon the peculiar patch of backwoods they had discovered, and set about to learn as much about it as they could. A quick check of their local library revealed nothing, at first. But they gradually pieced together the story of a massive train wreck, with considerable loss of life, which had taken place along that section of track in the 1930's. Even more ominously, their research uncovered a subsequent derailment along the same section of track, which resulted
in the collision of a train carrying the bodies of Vietnam War veterans in the late 1960's.

"Hell" had a personality of its own, they discovered. It allowed some to enter its unhallowed confines while chasing others away, availing itself of a bright yellow Chevy Camaro or else, an equally garish pickup truck, that would pursue unwelcome arrivals back to the main road, turning aside down a dirt track just as soon as the trespassers had been warned off.

Before discarding the teenagers' narrative as a lively amalgam of Freddy Kruger films and Stephen King novels, we should reflect upon the fact that acts of violence tend to leave an indelible imprint upon the areas in which they occur. The late British psychic, John Pendragon, discussed an event which took place in London during World War II: While seeking shelter in a bombed out mansion during an air raid, a man came upon a "monster", which he described as being horned, goat-like, and filled with evil, sitting on the stairs leading to the upper floor. The nightmarish beast ran up the stairs, the man claimed, vanishing into one of the bedrooms, where it proceeded to make loud noises. Pendragon speculated that the hapless man had witnessed an elemental, a creature "prone to frequent places where a tragedy has occurred." Subsequent investigation revealed that a manservant had committed suicide on the premises by hanging himself from a banister, and many people had since reported the horned, bestial apparition on the steps. Enigmatic three-toed footprints were found in the vicinity of Mars, Pennsylvania in February 1975, at the site of a railroad tunnel that had collapsed, a fact that lends some weight to the "tragic event" suggestion.

The Canonsburg, PA region falls loosely under the general zone comprised by the Laurel Highlands--well known for its UFO and Bigfoot sightings. Other railroad mysteries exist in the area, which oddly complement the teens' story. During the completion of the track leading down from Pennview Mountain, two gangs of railroad workers, sparked either by the hot summer weather or a real or imaginary slight, stopped driving spikes into the ground and instead, chose to drive them into one another. By the time the situation was remedied, two men lay dead, and were promptly buried on the site. According to locals, voices arguing in rage can be heard on certain evenings.

Nancy Roberts recorded a situation parallel to the Canonsburg situation in the book Illustrated Guide to Ghosts. Pat Hayes and her husband Larry were driving through North Carolina in the early morning hours when their car broke down. When Larry went to get help, Pat heard a screech of metal in the darkness and ran out of the vehicle: she soon witnessed the derailment of a passenger train over a tall bridge into the waters of a creek below. Explosions, fire and screams rent the darkness. To add to her bewilderment, she found herself standing beside a thin, uniformed man who asked her for the time, yet seemed unconcerned by the calamitous situation playing out before them.

Her husband returned to find her distraught, convinced that there had been a terrible accident in the woods. The following day, they visited the local train station, where they learned that there had been no derailment that evening... but there had been one on that very same evening fifty years before: On August 27, 1891, a train had left Salisbury for Ashboro, NC and had reached Bostian's Bridge at 3 a.m., plunging ninety feet into the dark water below.

The stationmaster was even able to show the confused and frightened Mrs. Hayes a clip from the Charlotte Chronicle recording the terrible event: "Hurled to death, 30 Killed, Many Injured. At Three o'Clock in the Morning, Bridge near Statesville the Scene of the Wreck." Baggagemaster H.K. Linster was killed in the disaster. His description matched that of the man she'd spoken to at the crash site.

Even more dramatic are accounts of the "headless track walker" who carries out his duty at night to this very day. As one variant of the story has it, a trackwalker was on his way back to Derry, PA after checking certain sections of track in the vicinity of Burd's Crossing when he was slain by a westbound train. The fact of the matter is that the unnamed man's headless corpse was found on the tracks the next day. Ever since, those taking shortcuts across the track have stumbled across the path of a headless man carrying a lantern before him.

While we should not allow the charm of folklore, no matter how colorful, to distract us from the underlying truth of the matter at hand, places like "Hell" exist not only in the U.S., but around the world, many of them even involving railroads as well. These so-called "Dead Zones" have increasingly attracted the attention of researchers bent on unlocking their secrets. Their existence has been explained in terms of "psychic saturation", a concept that presumes that matter is quite capable of recording impressions of diverse natures, much like a blank strip of magnetic tape. When an event produces an intense outburst of mental or spiritual power from an individual or a group of persons, surrounding matter (the tunnels, train tracks, etc. in this case) picks up the outburst, storing it for "playback" (for want of a better term) by a person or persons capable of doing so. While neither of the two percipients of the strange phenomena taking place at "Hell" tried to test the solidity of the gate at the tunnel entrance, for instance, or that of the phantom locomotive, much less, the phenomenon has entered "playback" mode whenever they have returned.

An alternative theory -- psychic contagion -- could be invoked to explain the goings-on in this community off a major interstate highway (Rt.79) and less than forty minutes from Pittsburgh. The events playing out at "Hell" are nothing more than a hallucination suffered by someone at a particular time--perhaps during the collision in the 1930's, or during the derailment of the 1960's--which has repeated itself at the site and expanded until it developed into a sort of localized mental disturbance, infecting those entering the area and spread by them to others, fueling the phenomenon's existence. While eminent American and European parapsychologists have discussed such situations, their sheer complexity leads one to choose the possibility of a bona fide haunting.

In all fairness, one must point out that other train accidents have occurred in the Keystone State and have left no haunting tales for posterity: In 1856, for instance, an excursion train filled with Sunday schoolers crashed into a regular train, leaving 66 children dead. The engineer was reportedly so distraught that he committed suicide upon returning home. In 1943, a wheel bearing froze on the seventh car of the Congressional Limited as it sped through Philadelphia. The train ground to a halt and the seventh car jumped the track, slamming into the embankment. Other cars left the rails and piled up, with a death toll of 79.

A Phantom Conductor

Even stranger details accompany one of Europe’s worst train wrecks. On January 3, 1944, a mail train and a freight train collided -- inside a tunnel -- with a third locomotive used for maneuvers.

Rosa Santizo, editor of Spain’s Revista Avalon, says that Mail Train 421 left Madrid on January 2, pulling twelve passenger cars and a spare locomotive. Like the Mexican train thirty years later, the Spanish train also carried nearly a thousand passengers returning to La Coruña after having spent the holidays in the capital city.

The 421 reached the city of Astorga in León the next day at noon, and it was running late. The reason for the spare locomotive was to insure breaking power the convoy, but during this stop it was learned that the spare was also damaged, requiring it to be decoupled. The 421 now had to continue its trip through the mountains of northern Spain despite its own shortcomings.

Everything went wrong when – as in the case involving the Mexican train in decades to come – the train faced a steep downward grade and began gaining speed, to the extent that it was unable to stop at the next station. Startled onlookers said that the train sped past the platform like a runaway horse. A call was placed to the stationmaster at the next stop, instructing him to place crossbeams on the track to assist in slowing down the out-of-control train, but by the time the conversation had ended, the stationmaster watched helplessly as the 421 zoomed past his stop, straight into a tunnel where railroad personnel serviced an idle locomotive. In an age before two-way radios, there was no way of informing them of the doom that was barreling toward them.

The 421 collided against the idle locomotive, sending its crew flying. Now firmly jammed in the tunnel, the runaway train’s passengers and crew did their best to recover from the shock, unaware, as Santizo writes, “that the worst was yet to come.”

A 27-car freight train now headed toward the tunnel at full speed, unaware that the signals were now broken. One can only shudder to think about the ensuing impact, the fire from the freight locomotive’s shattered boilers and the screams of the injured and dying occupants of the passenger train in the tunnel.
Spain’s authoritarian government at the time underreported the losses. Nearly a thousand lives were lost in the tragedy. And, much like the Mexican accident at Puente Moreno, the Spanish case also had a paranormal component.

A respected citizen of the city of Astorga went to the authorities to report that three days prior to the railroad disaster, a railroad inspector had boarded one of the passenger cars, staring squarely at the passengers and saying that a serious accident had just taken place at the Torre del Bierzo tunnels and that many travelers heading to Galicia had perished. He did not wait for any response or questions from the startled passengers: he turned on a heel and got off the train.

Santizo’s article reports that others soon came forth to corroborate the presence of the “phantom conductor”, as he was quickly dubbed. The courts launched an unsuccessful search, suspecting that he might have been a saboteur, but no evidence of foul play was ever discovered.

Readers will recall John Fuller’s “The Ghost of Flight 401”, a report on the 1972 crash of an Eastern Airlines L-1011 Whisperliner in the Everglades, and the manifestations of a ghostly pilot in subsequent flights, who tried to tell others about what brought about the disaster. Separated by time and space, were the “phantom conductor” of 1944 and the “unknown man” of 1972 survivors of previous accidents? Guardian angels? Friendly djinn? Time travelers? Or merely figments of the imagination?