The train tracks curve from northwest to west — or east to southeast — as they brush by the tiny town of Republic, Ohio. You can see it on a map. It was along this curve that a crowded Baltimore and Ohio passenger train, running from New York to Chicago, collided with an eastbound freight train. The tragedy happened on January 4, 1887, several hours before sunrise on that very cold night. The passenger train was late and moving fast — the freight train had stalled. The collision was so great that the engine “telescoped” into the baggage car behind it while the other cars piled on top of one another and caught fire. About nineteen people died, either from the impact itself or from being trapped in the flames.
Exactly what caused the wreck was uncertain, but the freight train’s crew was the target of blame. They should have been waiting on a siding for the passenger train to pass, and that’s exactly what the conductor, F. Fletcher, had intended to do. His mistake, though, was trying to wait at Republic rather than farther west. One report says that the bitter cold caused the steam train to stall on the curve, and by the time the conductor had gotten out to signal the passenger train, it was too late to do anything. Another report claims the freight engine wouldn’t have stalled at all if its engineer hadn’t been “hilariously intoxicated.”
A Ghostly Signal
Regardless of why the freight train stalled, a couple of months later, Ohio newspapers — such as this one, this one, and this one — reported on a signal light seen by the engineer running a train on the same route and same schedule as the one that had wrecked. It was a red light, meaning danger. The engineer put on the brakes and came to a stop at about the very same stretch where the disaster had occurred. By then, the light had vanished. The fireman (who oversees the steam) had seen the light, too, and both workers agreed that it had been held by a woman in white. They got out and searched the tracks, but found no woman. No one wearing white. Nothing at all to explain what they had seen. They even returned to the station in Republic, but the agent there said that no danger signal had been issued.
And this ghostly light was seen on two other occasions.
A “posse” of ghost hunters from Republic was organized, but I haven’t found anything regarding their findings. The only follow-up I’ve found comes from well over a century later: a phantom train is sometimes witnessed on those tracks. Here’s a personal account from a Republic visitor, and here’s a more general report.
The Lucky Coffin Salesman
I found another story associated with the wreck that has nothing ghostly about it, but it’s still fairly unsettling. It appeared in the Springfield Daily Republic a bit more than a week after the disaster. Charles St. John was a travelling sales representative for the Ohio Valley Coffin Company. On the night of the train wreck, he was in “a small country town called Fort Washington, a short distance above Republic.” He had intended to catch that doomed train, but — since it was so cold — he told the clerk where he was lodging that he wouldn’t mind staying in a warm bed instead. And that’s what happened. The clerk never gave him a wake-up call, the train he would have boarded crashed, and St. John wound up assisting in the terrible rescue efforts. The report ends with this line: “Mr. St. John’s firm furnished the coffins in which the bodies were buried.”
I wonder if there’s a historical marker somewhere near the crash site. If so, that might be a good spot to start some ghost hunting. If you don’t see the woman in white carrying a red light, perhaps you’ll witness the phantom train. Who knows? Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to glimpse lucky Charles St. John still trying to make a living! Please let me know whatever you do or don’t see in the comments below. As always, when exploring train tracks, be very, very careful.