When I was a boy, I used to hear the train in the distance in the middle of the night. It broke the stone silence of my world like a knife, a long, lonesome whistle from over the hill next to the Aroostook River Valley, where the tracks ran. It was a sign of life, the Bangor and Aroostook. I never knew if it was headed north or south. I never saw the night train – I only ever heard its wail. It was reassuring. Even though my neck of the woods was lonely, there were train tracks connecting that loneliness to the wider world, somewhere out there. I had never been on a train. My parents had taken the B&A to Bangor for their honeymoon, but by the time I was a kid, no passengers rode the rails. Trains were a mystery to me, and I loved them.
Once, my father took me to the Allagash to see something strange and wonderful – the ghost trains. In a place with nothing but untamed wilderness as far as the eye could see, we walked a path into the dense forest to discover two steam locomotives just sitting there rusting away as time ticked on. These are mighty machines from the golden age of steam and must have been worth a fortune in their day and yet, at some point in their history, someone left them where they sat, two behemoths of iron nearly a hundred tons each, a hundred miles from any discernible tracks. I think they serve as a reminder that once, real trains broke through the dense forest, intruding into a wild place that eventually shut them out and left them for dead.
Sometimes trains can intrude upon our lives. We’re trying to get somewhere in a hurry and the lights start to flash and the blockade arms go down and we’re waiting for ten minutes while a freight train crosses our path. It’s huge, longer than a skyscraper is tall, and it takes a long time to crawl past us so we can be on our way. The train I heard as a boy intruded on my sleep. But there are trains, some say, that run on their own tracks, on tracks that aren’t even really there, on tracks that were abandoned years ago. These trains shouldn’t even be there, and they intrude upon our reality, our perception of what is possible. I’ve never seen one, but they’ve been reported for well over a century, nearly since the invention of the train itself.
From The New York Times, 1886
“An old story, which may be of interest to the students of psychical research, comes from Old Orchard. Before the Boston and Maine Railroad was extended to Portland, visitors reached Old Orchard by a branch of the Eastern Road. Since the building of the former road’s extension the branch had been abandoned, and no trains have run over it for years. The rails are up, and in many places the roadbed destroyed.
Last Summer, as a party of Canadian gentlemen, three in number, were walking along this deserted road, they heard distinctly the rumble of an approaching train. It came nearer and nearer, and yet nothing was seen. As it came close to them, they all involuntarily jumped from the track, and the invisible train passed them, going toward the beach, the sound growing fainter as it went on.
The gentlemen were much frightened, and one was quite overcome by the occurrence. He could not shake off the impression that had been left, and declared that he knew something terrible was to happen. That very afternoon he received a dispatch from friends in Montreal telling him that his wife and only child had been killed by a railroad accident that very forenoon.”
What are we to make of this tale? Given the lack of specific information it’s likely it was one of the small stories buried in the New York Times in the late 1880s designed to give the reader a bit of a fright, to appeal, perhaps, to their appreciation of the unknown. Modern journalism isn’t much better and often is written to appeal to emotion rather than to only relate the facts of a happening. It frankly defies belief, but then again, doesn’t every ghost story, everywhere, at any time? Ghost trains are by no means a local New England phenomenon. In fact, anywhere railroads have been laid down, stories of phantom trains have been reported from all around the globe, from South Africa and India to South America and Canada.
The Maine Woods, even today, are thick and cover a vast area. Maine retains the title of the most forested state in the country, surpassing even the states in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. For many, the Maine woods were a green spot on the map, a place they would never quite venture into, a no man’s land of bog, thick undergrowth, sweeping vistas of tall trees, wild animals, and perhaps, something more. Perhaps there was something about the Maine woods that made them different, special in ways other woodlands were not. For thousands of years, the only people who lived here were the indigenous “People of the Dawn,” the Wabanaki Confederacy of many tribes with the Penobscot being the largest. They have their stories of beings who inhabit the woods, ancient beings of power and magic. They do not report to us anything like a phantom locomotive in their lore.
The trains came to Maine almost as soon as they were invented. The lumbermen were already here, first looking for tall pines to use as masts for the tall ships and then the timber needed to build the great cities rising. These men were intruders and those who spent enough time in the deep woods had a respect for those places where no one ever goes. But they went to those places, nevertheless. The first train tracks laid in Maine were from Bangor to Old Town in 1836, only seven years after George Stephenson created the first viable locomotive in England in 1829. Though only 12 miles long, it was the first railroad in the state. From there, tracks were laid through forest and fen, areas were harvested, and then the men left, abandoning the tracks and taking the train to new areas, leaving them to be reclaimed by the woody root and forgotten to the memory of people. But something remained.
A story is told of a Bangor and Aroostook train running on the Canadian Pacific’s track near Moosehead Lake in the early 1900s. Those tracks cut across Maine running east-west, providing the quickest rail route connecting Montreal with Saint John, New Brunswick and Halifax. One spring night, a phantom train appeared and it seemed to have a purpose. The early spring is a time of ice breaking and flowing down the rivers, lodging in places, and often causing destruction. Late one night a B&A train was making its way up a grade near the southwest of Moosehead Lake when they heard the sound of another train’s whistle in the distance. This wasn’t all that strange. Passing trains, especially this far from civilization, often saluted each other as they approached and they reasoned that was what was happening. But the chief engineer looked behind and saw a light behind his own train, growing brighter and larger as it approached. Clearly, the following train’s speed was great. The chief engineer had his mate telegraph ahead to the next siding so the attendant could throw the switch and allow them to get off the track so this train didn’t run into them. In the meantime, the two railroad men increased their own speed so they would not be overtaken, but it was touch and go. For a few desperate moments, the trains sped into the night with the rear locomotive gaining on the front locomotive with every passing minute. Their anxious shoveling of coal into the firebox must have been accompanied by desperate shouting – was this train following them a special and if it was, why hadn’t anyone told them? Closer and closer the rear train gained and it was only at the last minute that the two engineers successfully turned their train into the siding. As they did so, they watched as the following train passed them by. It was only an engine and its tender car – no other cars attached. They could see the cab, well-lit, was empty.
The switchman ran to the two engineers whose train was now stopped and asked, “How did you fellas know to stop here? Did you know the bridge collapsed up ahead? The ice from the break up bound up against the supports and took her down! I just found out. How did you two know to stop?”
The two engineers looked at each other in amazement, their faces white with fear. “We didn’t,” they replied. “We pulled over to get out of the way of that damned special that was tailing us. Nearly ran us off the tracks!”
The switchman gave them a puzzled look. “Special? What special? You’re the only train on the tracks tonight.” He had neither heard nor seen the train that caused the two men to stop their own locomotive before they made it to the bridge.
Not every example of a phantom train has occurred on an actual railroad. Many tales told by those who worked in the deep woods described phantom trains that ran amidst the trees themselves, far from any ‘ribbon of steel’ upon which to ride. Sometimes, it’s an entire train, but other times, it is merely a light. Ghosts usually are described as haunting a place, a static location that can be pinpointed on a map, but ghost trains are a different kind of apparition altogether. They move through the world and their purpose is unclear, though it seems that they might be a foreteller, a harbinger, of sorts. Lincoln’s funeral train, the Lincoln Special, has been reported to appear on April 21st somewhere between Washington D.C. and Springfield, Illinois, near the anniversary of his death. There is a small train that precedes it, with a band playing silently as it passes by slowly. Then there’s the train carrying the body of the president, all bedecked in black crepe with ghostly figures staring blankly into the night as it moves along toward a destination it never achieves.
Whatever a phantom train is, it certainly is a part of the folklore of the modern world. We don’t have as many tales of phantom planes, although some exist. So far, we don’t have phantom spaceships climbing the skies, though we do have strange objects in the skies. We have stories of phantom cars, but that is fodder for another tale. It seems that moving from place to place has become an essential part of the human condition, something humans do as part of simply being alive. Alive? Perhaps we need to keep moving, even after we’re done living?
A poet from Orono, Maine wrote a poem in 1886. We only know him by his initials, B.B. In his poem his details seeing something otherworldly and wonders about its meaning.
“The Railway” by B.B.
(originally published in the Gospel Banner, Augusta, Maine 1850)
I went one day, when very young
Upon a railway ride,
I thought there was another train
Went with us, side by side.
The shadow of our own went on
Beside the railway track,
And noiselessly and rapidly
Kept on, and never back.
I wondered at that other train
That went so swift and still,
And leapt o’er chase, lakes and streams,
O’er valley, gorge and hill.
And while I saw it gliding on,
Forever by our side,
Meseemed it was a phantom-train
Went with our railway ride.
My merry comrades laughed, but I
In horror held my breath;
I thought ours was the Train of Life
Chased by the Train of Death.
Since then, a very many years
Full rapidly have sped,
Yet with them all have I beheld
The Railroad of the Dead.
Death – Life’s grim shadow – through them all
With life has kept its pace,
And I have sorrowed sore to see
We gain not in the race.
The world around me laugh at me
Because I am not gay,
And yet I know that in their glee
They hurry all away.
“Ghost Train”. Wikipedia.org. Retrieved 22 Jul 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_train
“Lincoln’s Phantom Ghost Train: Night Switchman Describes Eyewitness Account in 1872”, Unmasked History Magazine, October 22, 2019.
Michaud, Al, Fortean Forest, 2020.Antlerian Press, pp.11-30
Stansfield, Charles A., Haunted Maine, 2007, Stackpole Books.
“The Phantom Train”, The New York Times, May 16, 1886, page 3