I literally stumbled upon the story when I visited the town of Republic, in Seneca County, Ohio during my brief stay in the United States of America. The story, it turned out, had an eerie history.
I visited the United States in 2015 and during my five-and-a-half month’s stay in the big country, I hopped around several states spending time with close relatives and friends including my elder daughter, Smriti, in Georgia.
The last stretch of my sojourn happened to be the city of Findlay, Ohio at my younger daughter, Preeti’s, for a little over two months. That was my first visit to the States and Preeti’s. She is married to an American fellow, Jimmy Gates, no relation to Bill Gates (excuse the pun).
Findlay is the second largest city in northwest Ohio, and nearby Columbus is the capital. Findlay, contrary to my expectation, appeared to be a modest looking city (less than 50,000 population) with no high-rise buildings (the tallest being 9 floors). On the other hand, bigger populous cities in Ohio such as, Cleveland, Toledo and Cincinnati boast tall skyscrapers as high as 57 floors.
It goes without saying, during my stay in Findlay, my in-laws graciously invited me for dinner at their house in Republic, showing courtesy to their new in-law from Nepal. Maybe they had never heard of Nepal before.
It was Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday when Preeti drove me to the dinner party, an hour’s drive east of Findlay.
For Jimmy, something came up and he could not join until dinner time. That was to be my first ever typical American Thanksgiving dinner. I was pretty excited at the thought of it.
Contrary to my flights of fancy that we would be speeding along a busy highway through bustling cities with high-rise buildings, snazzy malls and fancy billboards, the drive traversed vast swathes of country farmland intercepted by thick woodlands, farmhouses, and sparse suburban townhouses.
We sped past a sprinkling of diners, fast-food joints and gas stations including the ubiquitous, McDonald’s or the Big Mac and Burger Kings, mainly at the intersections. It took a little less than an hour to reach Republic where Preeti took the by-lane to cruise through the town. Another five minutes and we were greeted by my in-law at her house.
We were a little early–around four in the afternoon; the dinner would not start before seven in the evening. After the customary exchange of greetings and best wishes for Thanksgiving, I still had almost two hours to kill.
So, I decided to go for a walk, alone. Preeti stayed back to lend a hand to Bridgette, her mother-in-law, preparing the dinner. “Hey guys, what if I take a stroll in the neck of the woods?” I asked the women, their hands full in the kitchen.
To my daughter’s somewhat quizzical look, “Yeah, why not,” my in-law answered in support. “But please do not wander off too far ‘cuz you are new to this place.”
“Don’t worry, it’s safe around here, but do carry your cell phone, just in case,” the mother-in-law, added. “Wow!” I said to myself and hurriedly stepped out fearing someone might have other ideas.
There was a pronounced chill in the air as I sauntered down the street that went east. I immediately felt that Republic was more like a quaint village than a town.
Occupying a humble 0.86 square miles, Republic, surprisingly, had a population of fewer than 600 people than with fewer than 300 houses scattered around a quiet neighbourhood. The entire community seemed to be surrounded by wide spaces of lush turf, woods and scattered healthy green foliage.
As I proceeded, I watched in awe the brightly painted typical American small Chalet, Folk Victorian and Sacramento type bungalows that lined the streets with every house having trees and greenery to match.
I must have walked almost a mile and a half feasting my eyes on the beautiful ambience, enjoying the crisp autumn air, the strong smell of fallen leaves, the amazing colours of the foliage and slipping into the peace and solitude of the place.
Curiously, the absolute peace and seclusion struck me as strange. I virtually met no one. Except for the occasional car that cruised by and the crunching sound my shoes made on the fallen dry leaves, literally, no sound could be heard. Strangely, I could not even hear the birds. It was kind of spooky.
I took the lane that appeared to circle back to the place I started. And then in a small clearing, I spotted the railway track. I was just wondering about it when I heard a distant wail of a train whistle and within seconds saw the huge train coming my way. In a flash, it streaked past with a deafening ground-shaking rumble. I had just enough time to click a photo of it with my I-phone.
The dinner proved lavish, the ‘chef d’oeuvre’ being the whole turkey roasted to a golden brown. After dinner, I told Jimmy about my little adventure. He, in turn, recounted an incident that took place in his bachelor days at the same railway tracks.
Jimmy with his two friends, Corey and Josh, were watching a baseball game on the TV. It was the annual inter-league baseball rivalry between the Cincinnati Reds and the Cleveland Indians. The Cleveland contingent narrowly led 49-41 at the closing time and although the Cincinnati boys put in their best at the dying moments of the game, they lost 55-49. “Darn it, the Cincinnati boys could have done better,” Josh snorted in disgust. They were his favourites.
Jimmy and Corey supported the Cleveland Indians. After staying glued to the TV for over three hours, the boys decided to take a walk and enjoy some fresh air. “It was like six in the evening,” Jimmy began. “We aimlessly walked east towards Rock Creek next to the railway track. Josh was still grumbling about his favourite team for having lost the game.”
At the creek site, the trio whiled away their time swapping jokes and talking about the afternoon’s baseball game. It was already dark and there was a slight chill in the air. “Hey guys, let’s get back home, I’m feeling kind of cold,” Jimmy said.
Just then, Jimmy heard the faint sound of an incoming train. He looked at his watch. It was 6.30pm. Funny, he said to himself because the usual time of the freight train was only after 7pm. “Hey guys, do you hear the sound of a train or is it that my ears are playing tricks on me,” he asked. Both of them cocked their heads to listen. “Yeah man, I can hear it, too,” Corey responded. They were on their feet, still wondering when all three saw the train coming from the westerly direction.
Within seconds the train thundered past. Still mystified, they whirled back to look at it…but the train was nowhere to be seen. It had vanished into thin air.
“I’d a close look at the train, but it was nowhere close to the freight trains that made runs on those days. It looked like one of those classic steam locomotives from the Western movies. All three of us looked dumbly at each other. I began to shiver, goosebumps exploding all over my body,” said Jimmy, and wound up the story.
That was Jimmy’s story and, frankly, as he finished, I felt goosebumps. Then he spoke about the great train crash that took place 130 years ago.
Spellbound, I listened to Jimmy’s anecdote and my mind flew back to the spot where I saw the train that afternoon. Jimmy told me that the wreck site was located close to the spot I visited. It was not the phantom train, but I had some funny feelings at the moment when I saw it.
The next day, back in Findlay, I decided to delve deep into the details of the train wreck Jimmy mentioned, occurring some 130 years earlier. What I dug up from the Internet made a fascinating story as true as I am writing here.
On the bitterly cold night of January 4, 1887, an ear-splitting thunderous sound that could be heard for miles shook the residents of Republic awake from their deep slumber. Soon massive flames and billowing smoke could be seen from the source of the noise. A deadly mishap had taken place.
On Jan 3, 1887, the B&O (Baltimore & Ohio) express, a steam-operated passenger train, Engine #726 with two sleepers, a smoker car and 65 people aboard, left the New York City carrying passengers bound for Chicago. Traveling at 60 miles an hour, the westbound B&O was scheduled to arrive at the Republic train station the next day, the 4th of January, 1887, at two o’clock in the morning.
On that fateful day, a freight train loaded with barrel staves, 16 loaded freight cars, two empty gondolas and a caboose pulled away from Tiffin and chugged along eastbound towards Republic on the same tracks.
The freight train had to report at the Republic station well ahead of the passenger train where it would pull on to a siding to allow the B&O to pass by safely. But something went grossly wrong that night–a misguided judgment by the freight train engineer–a human error. The merchandise-laden train still rolled on the tracks as the B&O hurtled down the same tracks.
At a little past 1.15 am, as the B &O Express, minutes away from Republic, rounded a bend, the train’s engineer, Lem Eastman and fireman, William Fredrick, suddenly spotted the headlight of the freight train heading towards them, a red warning lamp signalling danger.
In a frantic attempt, Eastman reversed the engine but it was already too late. He threw himself out the window of the engine cab and was saved but the fireman did not live to tell his tale. In a flash, the massive locomotive smashed head-on onto the incoming freight train. In all, 23 people perished, many were injured, heavy assets lost and those who survived suffered the painful agony of losing their near and dear ones.
“At least three of the cars of the passenger train telescoped into each other, including the smoker car where at least 15 people were seated. Witnesses said a fire was sparked after the crash and there was little hope for the men women and children inside the car. Many were burned beyond recognition as the car caught fire”, reported a daily from Tiffin, 11 miles west of Republic.
Frightened farmers rushed to the spot, a half mile east of Republic. What they witnessed in the wee hours rooted them to the spot as they watched in horror through a billowing thick grey smoke and massive fire what remained of the two trains in a mangled heap.
Strangely, only weeks after the tragic train wreck, it was rumoured around Republic that a “ghost train was witnessed at the site of the crash. Its lights glowed in the night as it raced along the tracks and over the trestle, reenacting the events leading up to the accident.” The news spread like bushfire. It hogged the headlines of the local newspapers.
As it turned out, “It was not one of those ghost train stories where someone had a little too much to drink.” More sightings of the ghost train started recurring at the scene of the disaster. Time and again, the tabloids ran the stories of the haunting.
After repeated sightings of the ghost train and the apparition in the white by the train workers, a newspaper ran this story:
“The engineer saw a red light, the danger signal ahead, and applying the brakes and reversing the engine, the train came to a standstill on almost the exact spot of the great wreck. Strange to say, when the train came to a stop, the light had disappeared, and could nowhere be seen. Before stopping, both the engineer and fireman noticed that the light appeared to be carried by a woman wearing white. Puzzled by the disappearance of the signal, the conductor walked over the track for some distance ahead but could discover nothing. Workers witnessed the same ghost on three separate occasions.”
It has been 130 years since that ghastly incident, but many local residents of Republic still believe that on certain nights the phantom train appears on the tracks tearing its way through the dark of the night and flashing past the Farewell Retreat Cemetery on S Madison St., Rock Creek, Republic, where the unnamed crash victims rest in their graves to this day.
Published on November 17th, Friday, 2017 2:31 PM