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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Pittsfield Ghost Train

[late posting this here...]

Thursday, November 23
My interest was aroused last week by debate over the cause of a mysterious noise heard by a number of Berkshire county residents.

The Berkshire Eagle reported that numerous locals had complained of a horrible sound emanating from the vicinity of the railroad tracks running through area. The noise was first reported by Christine McAllister of Pittsfield, who lives about a mile from the nearest tracks.

"It sounds like a UFO landing," McAllister said.

How could that not pique my interest?

Following the first complaint, other reports came in from every town in the central part of the county. Theories included a jet engine, construction equipment and a malfunctioning siren. From my secret bunker far away in Arizona, I, of course, pondered more esoteric possibilities.

In the end, the awful racket was found to be the result of a broken bearing on an engine belonging to the CSX Railroad. The engine was pulled and the necessary repairs made. So came to an end the mystery of the pernicious cacophony that had plagued the senses of citizens in almost half the county.

Meanwhile, the drama surrounding these complaints reminded me of an older, more curious phenomenon which has plagued local rail lines in the past - that of the Pittsfield Ghost Train. The story of the Ghost Train and its brief, but vivid, appearances has made its way into several magazine articles and a number of books on ghosts and hauntings, but for all the repetition and discussion in such circles, very little is known about it.

The story begins, as nearly as I can tell, in February 1958, at the Bridge Lunch, the diner which formerly occupied the corner of North Street and Eagle. John Quirk, then proprietor of the diner, along with his lunch customers, watched a steam locomotive come barreling down the tracks at a shocking speed, headed east. From his vantage point, Quirk could see the train in vivid detail, despite its extreme speed. He said the engine was pulling a baggage car and five or six coaches, and he could even see the coal in the tender.

When the strange train was reported to railroad officials, however, the residents were informed curtly that no train had passed by at that time. Furthermore, officials pointed out, no steam engine had operated on that line in many years.

About a month later, in early March, the mystery locomotive came rocketing under the North Street Bridge again, this time around 6:30 in the morning. It was witnessed this time by diner employees Steve Strauss and Timothy Koutsonecolis, along with a smattering of early-morning customers. The description matched the first sighting precisely: a steam locomotive hauling east at high speed, with a baggage car and half a dozen coaches trailing.

That was the last time anyone has formally come forward to report the mysterious train, as far as I've ever been able to ascertain. I've heard vague rumors of other sightings of a phantom steam engine along that line over the last few years, hazy allegations by friends of friends of friends, nothing worthy of investigation. I've also walked alongside that very same stretch of train track probably more than a thousand times in my youth, and I've yet to see anything that resembled the description given by the folks at the Bridge Lunch in '58, although I and others have observed that there often tends to be a far higher proportion of dead animals under the North Street bridge than under any of the parallel bridges in town.

Stories of phantom trains in general have been relatively common since the 19th century. As a class, they are sandwiched into an awkward and difficult to comprehend category of paranormal conveyances, including phantom ships (several of which have been alleged to roam the Bermuda Triangle), phantom planes, cars and even phantom covered wagons in the Old West. Some toss into this mixed bag the black Cadillacs driven by the Men in Black who plague UFO witnesses, and the mysterious vanishing vans mentioned in connection with worldwide sightings of "phantom clowns" as well as many cattle mutilations.

The phantom train phenomenon has often been said to be confined to the United States and Britain, suggesting it may have some specific cultural significance as folklore. However, international cases, though rarer, do exist. In the same year that the Pittsfield ghost train was reported, stories of a phantom locomotive over the fallen bridge on the River Kwai circulated in the international press. Another spectral engine is said to run in St. Louis, Saskatchewan, and in recent years the Stockholm metro system has been plagued with reports of the Silverpilen ghost car. In Eurasia, researcher Paul Stonehill has documented a number of phantom train legends throughout Russia and other eastern European countries.

Still, America retains the lion's share of these legendary paraphysical vehicles - perhaps appropriate, considering no other country ever so effectively built an empire on the backs of railroad travel. Of the phantom train accounts in my files, nearly 40 come from the United States alone, and from every region of the country.

The most famous such railroad haunting is "Lincoln's Death Train," the astral recollection of the train which carried the body of America's assassinated president. Stories of this train have circulated since just after Abe's death. It is said to be sighted at various times throughout the month of April rolling along the New York Central Railroad, with a particular affinity for April 27. On that day, so the stories go, clocks and watches all along the route are found inexplicably behind several minutes, evidence of the mysterious passage of Lincoln's Death Train. Curiously, this is also the date that a phantom train wreck is said to appear each year on the tracks near Ashville, N.C., reenacting the worst railroad disaster in the history of the state.

As for Pittsfield's ghost train, it could be a spectral reincarnation of the Boston & Albany passenger train that met with disaster in Chester in 1893, killing 14 people. That's the worst nearby train disaster I'm aware of, but if that's the case, why has it only been seen in Pittsfield, heading toward its inevitable sudden stopping point? Are people in Dalton, Hinsdale, Washington, and especially Chester, simply not paying close enough attention?

Perhaps, as I had briefly hoped last week, it will one day make another glaringly public trip through Pittsfield or the surrounding area, so someone can get a better look at it.