Those long snaky fingers. Those long, dark snaky fingers of track that cross farmlands and woodland streams, that tie industrial cities up in knots, that carry everything from blackened coal from the guts of the earth to the farm produce for the dinner tables of Park Avenue…the tracks. You can stand on them and feel the vibrations of travel and industry. You can lay your cheek against them and hear the screams of roaring engines and sense the tears of departing loved ones. The tracks.
These tracks go everywhere, have seen everything, have connected our country from east to west and strengthened this incredible nation we call home….but they have also been the source for much tragedy, much mystery, and much death. They have taken an incredible toll of lives taken in the construction of these iron fingers, as well as lives taken in accidents upon and around these tracks.
This story centers around the death of a particular railroad lineman…
On a bitterly cold night near the water tank just outside of Chapel Hill, Tennessee, a lineman for the L & N railroad – the same line that runs right through downtown Cleveland – was working his midnight shift at the water tower on the southern stretch of rail. He checked his pocket watch one more time before climbing that straight up ladder to the top of the tower because it was deathly cold. Low hanging clouds were beginning to spit sleet. And as cold as it was on the rail, the temperature seemed to drop 47 degrees on that skinny rim of walkway around the tower.
“Yep, it’s time”, he thought to himself. He hated this job. Oh, it wasn’t so bad in calm weather, but he had never felt easy about this rickety ladder and that shaky rim of walkway at the top. “Don’t know why I’ve got the willies tonight”, he thought to himself. “Must just be this weather.”
So he shook off his willies, shouldered his lantern, checked his inside overall pocket for extra matches, and began that slow climb to the top of the water tower.
The rungs were slippery, that was for sure, but it wasn’t the first time. Slow and steady, slow and steady he finally made it to the top walkway. He eased himself onto the walkway and used his good foot to brush off the ice beginning to lay. The lantern gave a bit of light, cause the moon sure wasn’t out in this weather, and he began to inch along the walkway, getting ready to hook the lantern on the rim pole. Everything was going fairly well, in spite of the weather. He made his way around, got to the right spot, eased the langern off his shoulder. He could hear her now, big ole’ No. 13 coming around the bend, so he set that lantern on the walkway in front of him to reach for the pole. He got the pole in is right hand, and……
“What the devil happened?” the last full thought to form in his mind…and then “Oh, my Maa…r……..y…..”
He hit the ground hard and he hit it at a devilishly peculiar angle, for his body was off the rails and might have survived – but his neck fell smack dab on the rail itself. The lantern was not hanging out over the tower, so the engineer just poured on more steam and charged right though that stretch of rail.
It was the Johnson boys found him next day. They’d been walking the rails into town to trade their momma’s eggs for some yard goods and they come right up on it. They knew who it was a’course. Everyone knew most everybody else in this small community, but it took them a moment to realize it was the midnight lineman. Recognition didn’t come easy ‘cause his head was gone. Just gone. His body was stretched out on one side of the rails, and his head was just gone. Their boyish imaginations were thinking it must be smashed up around there somewhere – but it was gone. Just gone.
Well, another train death, another lineman loses his life. Nothing exactly remarkable about this. It happened all the time. However, this story became remarkable soon enough. Later that month the Methodist circuit riding preacher was riding his mare home after service, and he was the first to see it – a strangely bright light swinging back and forth down the tracks. He had crossed the tracks on the old Campbell road, and there it was – but not a sound could be heard – but that light came closer and closer, so he just took off as hard as his mare could gallop. The story took hold cause it was the preacher who told it, but he was soon followed by other versions of this same story. For decades of time, folks who were crossing the tracks on that particular stretch of rail would report a strange light a’swinging back and forth in the dark of night. It was that lineman a’lookin’ for his head.
When new freshmen and sophomores came to MTSU, the college that sits fairly near the site of this legend, they are always initiated into the many ghost stories that abound in that area…usually late at night in darkened dorm hallways. Well, freshmen hear the stories, and sophomores go explore. You all know the definition of “sophomore”…the word means “wise fool”. So this sophomore girl who always loved a good story set off with three good friends in the middle of the night for Campbell Road, just outside Chapel Hill.
This night was dark with just a slipper of a moon, and the mood was high as we went a’lookin’ for that light. We had the radio cranked up high and the windows down and we were laughing and telling stories when we came to the crossing.
We got quiet and I slowed the car and eased across the tracks. I idled the car there for a moment and we looked and listened. Nothing but girlish giggles and the ragged motor of my old Chevrolet. We sat there a moment and then pulled on down the road to turn around and head back. Not really wanting to give up on a good adventure, we pulled back over the tracks and just stopped right on the crossing. Windows down. Nothing but the fall sounds of leaves turning colors and leaves turning loose. We talked softly now; don’t really know why. I finally turned off the motor, so that we could hear better if a train should be running. I was facing Claudia in the passenger seat and I saw it first in her face. I whirled around and it was terribly bright and incredibly close and I thought my life was over! Remarkably I started the car and slammed on the gas and we slung gravel and screams as we roared off that crossing. We didn’t stop til we reached the highway. We didn’t stop and we didn’t speak and we hardly breathed. When we reached the lights of that small town I pulled over for a minute. All of us had seen it. Not one of us had heard a sound. We all were terrified. And we all were convinced that we were never going back.
To this day I can see the brilliance of that light right in my face. And to this day I have no idea what it could have been if not that lineman, a’lookin’ for his head.
Spirits, Legends & Lore – 10/12/18 – Local Storytellers and Local Legends (…and local chills up your spine!) Lee University’s Black Box Theatre, Communications Building