Almost every town in the United States—and much of the world, for that matter—has two strips of steel secured in place by a plank of lumber that connects it to other communities. It’s the railroad. And every town with a railroad line, or an old train station, or a piece of railroad infrastructure (like a tunnel or a bridge) seems to be connected by another more supernatural line: railroad ghosts.
As I collected stories for my book, Haunted Rails, I wondered why these ghostly legends and paranormal accounts seem to attach themselves to what—to me, at least—is just an innocuous piece of industrial history. I continue to mull over that question: What makes railroads so haunted?
Here are a few of my best guesses.
First, the obvious connection is death. Railroading was—and still is—a dangerous, deadly business. My investigations into the history of railroad hauntings dug up incidents of train wrecks, explosions, fires, accidents, and even examples of workplace violence and murder that led to numerous deaths…and multiple ghost stories. While writing other books on university and music ghostlore, I found that ghost stories are often passed orally, from person to person, to preserve the memory of an individual or event, as well as to serve as a warning. It’s possible that railroad ghost stories do just that: they pay homage to a victim of a tragedy, for example, but they are also trying to tell you that, hey, maybe you want to avoid the same track (as it were) as this poor soul.
I also noticed in prior research that consciousness-raising activities boost supernatural experience. Music offers a good example. Music and rhythm are intimately embedded in spiritual practices and worship. Tales of ghosts, spirits, and other supernatural phenomena are unmistakably rampant in music history, from Robert Johnson’s deal with the devil to the ghosts of long-dead music stars haunting old music venues. You might think my theory would jump the track when it comes to railroad spirits, but I disagree. Railroads altered our consciousness by changing our notions of time and space. Journeys that once took days now took only hours. Loved ones who once lived faraway were now just a ticket away. Need more proof? Time zones became a thing because of the railroad.
Finally, maybe for some of the reasons discussed above, railroads have become mythologically linked to our own mortal journey. We talk about, “coming to the end of the line” and, “arriving at our final destination.” And, we can easily equate the passengers seated next to us on a train to our fellow passengers in this mere blip of time and space that we call life.
Whatever the reason for this freight train load of frights that railroading has inspired, I know that after Haunted Rails, I will never look down that railroad line that bends around the corner and disappears into the twilight of the morning, or the dusk of the evening, the same way again.
Our thanks to Matt for his guest post! For more from Matthew L. Swayne, read his article, “The Top 5 Weirdest Haunted Railroad Stories.”