When someone tells a ghost story, there is usually an implication that the spectral subject or subjects of the tale constitute spirits of the dead, perhaps trapped in limbo between our world and the Great Beyond, perhaps unable to move on due to some unusually powerful ties to or unresolved business on Earth. Consciously or not, these spirits are said to attract our attention by presenting our senses with distinguishing features reminiscent of their prehumous selves, visibly appearing to us as they did in life, speaking to us in their old earthly voices, or manifesting as aromas evocative of perfumes they once wore or cigars they once smoked before the final guttering of what the Bard called their “brief candle”.
It is more difficult to rationalize ghost stories in which the subject is a vehicle crewed or occupied by several souls, such as a phantom ship, a ghostly automobile, or a spectral carriage. With the exception of Stephen King and a few over-zealous auto-mechanics, most of us Westerners scoff at the idea of a lifeless machine like a car or an airplane possessing a soul capable of living on after the final sputterings of its engine have consigned its metal frame the scrapyard. Nevertheless, sightings of ghostly ships crewed by ghostly sailors, phantom carriages pulled by phantom horses, and other vehicular apparitions are staples of regional folklore. This disturbing reality begets uncomfortable questions. Is it possible that old ships really do have souls, as some schools of maritime superstition have long contended? Could the spirits of railwaymen who lost their lives in a train wreck, lest their tragic ends be forgotten, collectively project a visual portrait of their last moments on earth onto our mortal plane?
In this piece, we will take a look at one of Canada’s most interesting types of vehicular apparitions: the phenomenon of the ghost train.
The Ghost Train of Medicine Hat, Alberta
Readers of this author’s work may already be familiar with the phantom train of Medicine Hat, Alberta, a strange story first written down by columnist Ken Liddell of the Lethbridge Herald in the spring of 1966, and immortalized in Albertan Senator F.W. Gershaw’s 1967 book Saamis: The Medicine Hat.
“Andrew Staysko,” began Liddell in his original article, “who retired in 1955 after 48 years in Canadian Pacific train service, pulled his treasured engineer’s watch from his shirt pocket, where he has carried it since vests went out of style.
“It was time for us to catch the phantom train.
“You can believe or disbelieve the story Mr. Staysko told but he produced documented evidence that something mighty strange happened on two occasions amid cutbanks on the line between Medicine Hat and Dunmore in the summer of 1908.”
Liddell went on to explain how, in the early 1900s, an engineer named Bob Twohey and a stoker named Gus Day worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway out of the city of Medicine Hat, Alberta, in the southeastern corner of the province. One night in May 1908, these two associates were tasked with bringing a train from Medicine Hat to the easterly town of Dunmore, coupling with a passenger train called the Spokane Flyer, and continuing west beyond Lethbridge and into the Crow’s Nest Pass.
At a point about two miles outside of town at that time, where the Canadian Pacific Railway climbs out of the South Saskatchewan River Valley and onto the open prairie, the Canadian Pacific Railway wraps around a cutbank fronting a stream called Ross Creek. This cutbank obstructs the view of the tracks on both sides, preventing both eastbound and westbound trainmen from seeing what lies around the corner. On that fateful night, while they were making their way around the cutbank, Bob Twohey and Gus Day heard a sound that made their blood run cold: the warning whistle of an oncoming train fast approaching from the east. Moments later, a train’s headlights appeared around the cutbank, heralding an imminent head-on collision. Before Day had time to leap from the gangplank or Twohey the opportunity to crank the brake lever, the approaching locomotive glided laterally off the tracks and sped past, floating on the air.
“Day stood at the cab doorway and Twohey’s hand remained suspended for the brake valve,” Liddell wrote, “as a string of phantom coaches sped past. The coach windows were lighted and crew members waved a greeting from places where crew members would be expected to be found waving greetings as trains passed.
“And then the phantom disappeared. Twohey and Day, each fearful of what the other may have thought had they expressed feelings, said nothing. They continued to Dunmore, coupled to the Spokane Flyer and finished the night without further incidents.”
Two weeks after the strange event, Twohey and Day encountered each other on the streets of Medicine Hat. Both men had spent the interim consumed by thoughts of their bizarre experience and found the courage to ask what the other had seen that night. To their relief, Twohey and Day found that their recollections of the event were identical.
Twohey proceeded to explain that the apparition had spooked him so thoroughly that he had gone to see a fortune teller, who predicted that he would die within the month. In an effort to forestall his upcoming appointment with his Maker, he decided to take a few days off work. Day, on the other hand, could not afford that luxury, and was compelled to remain on the job.
A few nights after his conversation with Twohey, Day found himself working on the same engine, this time alongside an engineer named J. Nicholson. “At exactly the same spot,” Liddell wrote, “the phantom train again appeared, headed toward them with whistle blowing and headlight burning. And again it simply evaporated into the darkness as its crew members again waved greetings from their positions on its engine and cars.”
On the morning of June 8, 1908, Gus Day was assigned to yard service, and a stoker named Harry Thompson took his place in the engine room.
Thompson’s crew, led by engineer J. Nicholson, was to take their train from Medicine Hat to Dunmore, couple with the Spokane Flyer, and travel east to the town of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.
“They left Medicine Hat and headed into the hills,” Liddell wrote. “About 100 yards from the spot where the phantom train had been seen on two different nights and by two different crews, another train appeared around a curve, headed straight for them. This time it was daylight and it was for real. It was No. 514, the passenger train coming in from Lethbridge. And the man at the throttle was Bob Twohey, who had overcome his fears and had returned to work.”
A front-page article in next day’s issue of the Medicine Hat News explained what happened next:
“The collision took place on the elevated piece of track just in front of the Pruitt brickyard property. One of the workmen was just about to cross the track from the west side and was in such a position that he could see both trains, which each was blocked from view of the other by the high cutbank around which the track makes and abrupt curve of this point. He waved frantically to Engineer Twohey, and the latter apparently realized the danger as he sprang back and reversed his engine. Just as he appeared at the cab door again the two engines met and a dense pall of steam and smoke settled over the wreck for some minutes. When it cleared away the sight presented was one which will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. Engine No. 702 (Spokane Flier) was forced back off its front truck and the whole front of the boiler head was torn off. The express car on the Crow train had been partially telescoped through the mail and baggage car and a tourist car. All three cars rolled into the ditch with the locomotive…
“Engineer Nicholson was quite dead when drawn forth from the wreck, as was Howard Gray, fireman of the Crow engine. Baggageman Archambault was also instantly killed when his car telescoped. The two passengers which were also killed were Messers. Jas Shaw and Duncan McEachran of Bow Island…”
Three more men were seriously injured in the crash, and were taken to the Medicine Hat hospital in precarious condition. One of these was Bob Twohey, whose leg was broken, and whose body had been battered. True to the fortune teller’s predicitions, the engineer soon succumbed to his injuries.
The Ghost Train of Texas State Highway 36
In retrospect, Medicine Hat’s phantom train, if Gus Day’s story can be believed, appears to have been some sort of omen portending the crash of June 8th– a sort of locomotive doppelganger. This same sentiment appears in another prairie ghost story from the American state of Texas, which appeared in the October 1962 issue of the magazine Fate. The witness, Mr. Thomas Phillips of Pasadena, Texas, claimed to have left the city of Bellville, Texas, on the evening of January 10th, 1960, bound for the southerly city of Sealy. Phillips was on a multi-day business trip, and as it would be too late for him to do any work in Sealy, he decided to take it easy and drive slowly.
The Texas State Highway 36 was almost deserted at that time of night. At one point, while driving down a slight grade, Phillips spotted the lights of two oncoming cars far in the distance. As he gazed at the headlights, something in the ditch about 300 feet before him caught his attention. “There seemed to be a cloud of fog moving slowly toward the road,” he wrote. “As I approached, I saw an old style locomotive emerging from the very midst of the cloud and moving into the road in front of me. Being very close I applied my brakes.
“As I watched the engine move across in front of me, I realized there was not a light of any kind on it. Nor were there any crossing lights, signs or signals. I became very angry and from the bottom of my heart condemned anyone who would be so stupid as to run a locomotive across a State Highway without any warning. Then I noticed that even though my car had excellent lights they were failing to light up the engine. I could see very clearly the road between the front of my car and the engine, but when they should have [shone] upon the engine they just didn’t. The engine seemed to be lighted from a source entirely apart from the lights of my car. But as it moved across the road it came between me and the cars in the distance and I could not see their lights [anymore].
“The engine slowly passed and was followed by freight cars. As I sat there watching them go by I could see the light from the horizon between them but I still could not see the lights from the automobiles in the distance. As freight car after freight car passed I kept waiting for the caboose but it never came; the last was just another box car.
“Then suddenly the lights of the automobiles reappeared in the distance. And my great surprise came when I realized that there was no sign of a railroad bed, not even a break in the pavement where one ever had been.”
Shaken, and eager to share his unnerving experience, Phillips pulled into the nearest establishment- a late-night roadside restaurant. Inside, he struck up a converstion with the restaurant owner and told him about the phantom train. The businessman affirmed that there weren’t any railroads in the area, let alone any that crossed the highway. When Phillips asked his opinion on the matter, the restaurant owner, clearly reluctant to discuss the subject, muttered, “It’s a warning,” without offering any further explanation.
The Ghost Train of Wellington, PEI
While the spectral subjects of the previous two stories were supposed to be premonitions of disaster, another ghost train spotted in December 1885 appeared in the wake of a tragedy, almost as if to lament the event, or as if to carry the soul of the boy who lost his life therein to a brighter place.
This story appears in the 1966 book Legends of Prince Edward Island, written by folklorist Frank Harold MacArthur. As the book’s title would suggest, the tale is set on Prince Edward Island (PEI), Canada’s smallest province, located in the Gulf of St. Lawrence along the borders of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. About twelve miles east of the PEI city of Summerside, on the unofficial border separating the more populous eastern half of the province from the more wild country which Islanders affectionately refer to as “Up West,” lies the quaint Acadian village of Wellington, situated at the head of the Grand River. It is in this rural community that our tale is set.
“Going back to December of 1885,” MacArthur began, “we find the Island sleeping under a blanket of snow. The day of December 6th dawned bright and the air was heavy with hoarfrost. At a place called the ‘Mill House’, a large frame dwelling, great preparations were going forward for a wedding supper that night. The bride-to-be was the miller’s daughter, beautiful Janett Crosby; the groom, one of Charlottetown’s gay young blades by the name of Hilbert Coates.”
While the newlyweds’ sixty-something guests made their way towards the wedding reception, a group of local boys were trying out primitive pioneer ice skates called “woodstocks” on a pond within sight of the Mill House. Vying for a prize put forward by the local blacksmith, who invented the skates, the boys partook in a speed skating competition across the pond.
At the height of the contest, one of the skaters broke through thin ice and began to drown. The boy’s elder brother, named John, dove after the flailing child but was unable to rescue him from the frigid water. A local woman named Mrs. Davis, who had been walking by the pond at the time of the accident, managed to help John from the icy hole. Tragically, by the time John’s brother was pulled from the water, he was alread dead. The young boy’s body was subsequently carried into the Mill House, transforming the reception hall into a funeral home.
“Come midnight,” MacArthur wrote, “a train was heard in the distance. All wondered at this as the regular train had passed some hours before. Suddenly the whistle shattered the stillness of that December night, followed by the ringing of the train’s bell, as the iron horse rounded a curve in the railroad, not half a mile away.”
Wedding guests and mournings alike watched the mysterious locomotive fly over the railway bridge near the Mill House and disappear around another bend. Some witnesses claimed to have seen the silhouette of a solitary passenger walking down the aisle of a coach car. Others reported seeing a lady sitting in one of the coaches, clutching a dog which barked as the train flashed past. All recalled the eerie light that poured from the train’s headlamp.
“Among the wedding guests,” MacArthur wrote, “was a section man, James Ferguson, of Summerside. He and a couple of pals had arrived by trolley car as far as Wellington Section; so on hearing the train, they rushed to the station to retrieve the trolley before the train struck it.
“Soon the young fellows returned to say that they’d removed the trolley, stepped aside to let the train go by, but to ther amazement it just melted from view before their eyes.
“On enquiries at Summerside it was learned that no train was despatched that night.”
Mirage in Manitoba
Not all phantom trains are messengers or harbingers of disaster. An excerpt of a letter written from a son to his father, which appeared in newspapers across Canada, the United States, and England throughout the summer of 1898, described one locomotive apparition which the letter writer, at least, attributed to some mysterious but natural phenomenon.
The anonyous author began his story at a desolate train station at a place called Shanawan- now a community called Domain, Manitoba, located about 20 miles south of Winnipeg. While waiting for his train to arrive, the writer watched the weather quickly degenerate into a bone-chilling winter storm, complete with howling wind, swirling mist, and and icy sheets of wind-blown snow.
Shivering next to a telegraph pole, which he used as a windbreak, the writer was delighted when his ride suddenly emerged from the snowy haze. He enthusiastically grabbed his bag and waved his handkerchief in the air, only to watch the approaching train stop about fifty yards from the station. Not wishing to spend one more moment than necessary exposed to the harsh Manitoban elements, the man ran towards the locomotive “when it mysteriously and suddenly disappeared.”
The writer stopped dead in his tracks, unable to reconcile his mind what his senses had perceived. For several minutes, he stood beside the tracks in stunned amazement, when the train broke through the wintery gloom a second time. This time, the locomotive glided off the track and ran across the prairie before melting into the haze from which it had emerged. “It gave me quite an eerie feeling,” the son wrote, “and I began to think that the cold had got into my head, and I cast superstitious glances around me to see if there were any more trains frolicking about in the snow, and suddenly I bethought me of what I had heard about the mirage.” The writer went on to hypothesize that both of his phantom train sightings were contemporaneous visions of the actual train, which arrived a few minutes later, projected by some curious action of the wind and the cold.
The Ghost Train of Medicine Hat, Alberta
- “Ken Liddell’s Column,” in the March 19, 1966 issue of the Calgary Herald
- “Awful Railway Wreck This Morning: Head-On Collision a Mile East of the City this Morning Between Crow Train and the Engine for Spokane Flyer: Several Men Were Killed and a Number Injured in Accident,” in the June 9th, 1908 issue of the Medicine Hat News
- Saamis: The Medicine Hat (1967), by Senator F.W. Gershaw
The Ghost Train of Texas State Highway 36
- “The Phantom Train,” by Thomas Phillips in the October 1962 issue of Fate
The Ghost Train of Wellington, PEI
- Legends of Prince Edward Island (1966), by F.H. MacArthur
Mirage in Manitoba
- “Mirage in Manitoba,” in the June 4th, 1898 issue of the Morning News (Wilmington, Delaware)
- True Canadian Ghost Stories (2003), by John Robert Colombo