When you travel widely, you become acquainted with trains. You may never step aboard one, you may never get within 20 feet of one, but you are bound to cross paths sooner or later.
It has been my fortune to spend months at a time in the company of the same set of train tracks. I have heard them come, heard them go and bid farewell to more sets of steel rails than I care to enumerate. The sound of a train horn is one of many sounds I have learned to sleep through. One time, however, I heard a type of horn I had not ever heard before.
We had been in town for four days. Like most towns in the rust belt, it was a place that had lost its purpose. The town was mostly populated by the sentimental children of people who had lost their jobs in the 1980’s. The stores in downtown were a disjointed collection of tax offices, closed video rental establishments, the odd dance studio, bars that set feet apart, and consignment shops that were never open. The streets were disturbed by the sound of police sirens maybe once a day. It was a place trying to carry on despite the fact that its legs had been ripped from beneath it.
At the end of town was a big, sturdy train bridge. It was built of very large cut stones which had been treated with something that made them black in color. It crossed a creek which was practically smothered in weeds and then arched over the road out of town, meeting its end on a hillside.
I loved this bridge. It was a beautiful thing, built in a time when people built things to last. It was something solid in a world of thin walls, plastic windows, and laptops with a three year life expectancy. But it was not being utilized.
We had passed under it and through it over and over again since we had arrived and never had one train crossed it. Weeds grew up on the tracks and ivy spilled over its sides to dangle in the arch like bangs. The small forest it wound through was quiet, still, and undisturbed.
We had taken up residence in a house with a century or so beneath its belt. It was in good repair and recently renovated it seemed, but not exactly in any condition to provide us with heat, running water, or electricity. Really, we played the parts of ghosts for a few days. Despite the dark we kept at night, it was beautiful by daylight and perhaps two miles from the beloved train bridge.
It was 60 degrees that night which was, for December in a northern town, oddly warm. We were settled in a back bedroom upstairs. Our well-worn deck of cards was probably still warm from our hands, but had been retired for the evening and my companions had already closed their eyes. I was studying a newly painted ceiling and prepared never to fall asleep at all when I heard it.
I heard it only once, just enough to wonder if I was sane. It was too familiar and solid to be a figment.
“That was a train,” I said quietly to myself and paused a moment to process the thought. “That was a train,” I said louder as I sat up and looked around as if I could see the train from that dark room.
My companions did not sit up, but I could see their eyes shining and moving side to side in the black.
I stood and padded across the wooden floor to one of the naked windows and looked out.
“Did you hear it?” I asked.
“Yes,” one said.
“Yes, but only once,” said the other.
I bit my lip and listened as hard as I could for another blast from the horn. I did not hear another sound.
We quitted our temporary residence a couple days after the event. The moment I had access to my electronics, I researched until I found an answer. Until I found a death date for my new ghost.
I studied the area and the distance between our little house and any operational railway. The nearest ones were about 25 miles away, beyond several groups of hills and down by a river.
The abandoned tracks had not seen service since 1984. It was part of a railroad that had been chartered in 1887 primarily for the purpose of transporting coal. The portion with the bridge was not completed until 1901.
The train tracks were not the only remnants of the town’s coal days. Outlying buildings for the mine itself still stood here and there in their crumbling glory.
My computer provided me with more artifacts. There were scanned images of yellowed record books. Employee names for the railway were barely legible and written in cursive with pencil. There were pictures of men in overalls standing by the engine and holding lanterns. Happy history enthusiasts traded eBay links back and forth on forums for tools, signs, hats, little notebooks; they wanted anything and everything they could get their hands on that related to that railway.
I showed my companions my evidence and we all agreed that we were either all mentally unstable, or that this train was the culprit. We had had ourselves a little visitation.
In my research I did not bother to discover whether or not the ground was limestone or if there was a high concentration of quartz in the tree studded hills of the rust belt town. In my experience, it never mattered. What I did know was that the hills and tracks, the bridge and buildings, the streets and maybe even the panes of glass in the house we stayed in, remembered the sound of the train. And that warm winter night, they remembered it loud enough for us to hear.