Sunday Legends- Riding the Long Black Train

I was born in Newfoundland and every few years I get this…urge to start reading up on the island of my birth. I’ve been thinking off and on for years that I should go back, now that I’m old enough to remember more than fishing for cod fish with my dad and the few random moose.

One Saturday last summer I was poking around online and reading ONTDCreepy’s FFA. Chances are, if it’s Saturday night and I’m home that’s what I’m doing. Anyway, I was reading up on Newfoundland folklore and two things stuck out at me- we are an insanely superstitious bunch and we have a thing for trains.

It makes sense. Newfoundland isn’t exactly the best climate. And it’s sort of a wide-open, blank type place. Both train travel and death are common. I think I would be more surprised to find out that the culture wasn’t sort of…creepy (in the best way possible, no insult intended). I know people who have been there that are convinced that they’ve seen the ghost trains.

I think that it isn’t surprising that trains have such a rooted place in American folklore (and Canadian, for that matter). In fact, I think that trains have such a strong presence that it would be silly for me to even do my normal pop culture part of this column. Prior to the rise of the automobile, trains made transcontinental travel possible for a great number of people, and the amount of freight moved is staggering.

The legend of Casey Jones is still such a large part of American thought that children are taught it in elementary school. At the very least, I was taught it in 3rd grade. Casey Jones made it a life’s mission to ensure that his train would arrive on time, literally. While speeding towards the depot, he discovered a crash on the tracks. Forcing everyone else off the train he rode the engine straight into the disabled train and to his death.

The hell train is another common image. The train picks up riders, who may or may not be aware of the train’s destination. As the trip continues the riders becomes aware of the destination, if they weren’t aware before, and realize that they can’t leave. In some variations the Devil himself is the conductor and in others the rider has the ability to either convince or trick the conducter to either take him or her to heaven or let them off the train. A variant from the Twilight Zone suggests that the train just loops repeatedly as the train picks up more dead riders.

Train tracks are common in train lore. If you drive over train tracks, as long as you aren’t actually driving, pick your feet up so your soul doesn’t get trapped in the ties. It’s a fairly common motif for ghosts to be present at the site of crashes to push cars out off of the tracks to prevent more fatalities. Sometimes the ghosts simply wander the tracks they were killed on.

Frequently it’s the train itself that’s the ghost. One of the most common examples of ghost trains in American folklore is Lincoln’s death train, which was spotted moving along the viewing route Lincoln’s casket took. The presence of the trains are sometimes a harbinger and sometimes simply a marker of tragedy, such as a haunting of a crash.

More Reading

Railroad Folklore

Ghost Train

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