The November moon washed the leafless trees with blue silver. The air was cold and damp, chilled by the black rushing waters of the Lehigh river. Frosty plumes flowed from Dave’s mouth with each phrase, like wispy ghosts carrying his words into the autumn night air. He smiled that smile that I knew so well. Though we were both 13 at the time, Dave was about an inch shorter than I, with dark wavy hair of medium length. His blue eyes blazed with pale fire in the moonlight. He was a tough and scrappy kid, with some boxing training that gave him quick hands and a powerful jab. I knew not to get on his bad side, which, luckily, was quite difficult to do, since his demeanor was rarely aggressive or angry. He was a curious person by nature, with a peculiar habit of complimenting you while at the same time gathering information that he could use for his own benefit, a sort of cheerful inquisition through friendly bonding and universal truth. It was that quest for answers that led us to this particular place on this particular night.
“All right. We wait until 10:30. Then we go out to the middle. That’s where stuff’s supposed to happen.” said Dave, waving his kerosene lantern toward the old railroad trestle before us.
I had known Dave since first grade. He was a middle brother, sandwiched between older and younger siblings, and mostly ignored by his parents. He spent a substantial amount of time at my house, often into the later hours of the evening, with seemingly little concern from his family. His company was always appreciated and his inquisitive nature always refreshing. I often felt particularly privileged to count Dave as a friend of mine.
I stared at the hulking iron bridge known as the West Catty trestle. Its frame had rusted to a dark purplish-brown from decades of sun and rain. Big round rivets, as large as our fists, still held all the trusses and plates together. The rails had been removed, leaving silvery wooden railroad ties from one end to another. There were large gaps where some of the ties had fallen off into the river fifty feet below. Dave and I had crossed that old bridge many times during the day. We knew how to walk toe-to-heel, arms out for balance, along the frame where the ties were missing. We had mastered the “West Catty Wallenda” despite our parents’ warnings to stay off the old relic. But this was different. This was at night when the spirits of the wreck of ’39 were said to walk the bridge in search of souls.
“The accident happened after 10:30, so that’s the best time to go out and see the ghosts.” Said Dave. He blew hot air into his fist for warmth.
My grandfather had told me the story of the great wreck. It was back in 1939, just before the war. A few steam engines were still in service along the route from Allentown to Scranton. Those tracks paralleled the Lehigh river on both sides for hundreds of miles. The trestle provided opportunity for trains to switch from the southbound side to the northbound side and vice versa. The problem was that it could only accommodate one train at a time. The switch masters had to stay vigilant so as not to send two trains across the bridge simultaneously. Of course, that’s exactly what happened on a cold moonlit night in 1939. The night before Thanksgiving.
America was still reeling from the depression and bands of vagabonds rode the rails in search of employment and adventure. Several had found the switch man earlier that afternoon, then alert at his post, and bartered their homemade gin for his lunch. The switchman gladly obliged when presented with the more unsavory alternative of a beating. Shaken, but not deterred, the switchman remained at his post after the rowdy bunch left. To calm his nerves, he drank some of the gin, but alas he underestimated the strength of the spirit and passed out at his post around ten o’clock that night.
The two trains collided just after 10:30, leaving five dead and seven injured. The switchman was arrested for negligence. A week later, after being released on bail, he committed suicide by leaping from the trestle to his death in the river below. His body was never recovered. The legend says that on the anniversary of the crash, the spirits of the dead can be seen on the bridge, waving large black railroad lanterns, pacing back and forth in search of souls. The legend also recounts a more malevolent spirit, that of the Conductor, who walks the trestle in search of the switchman in order to exact some manner of revenge. It has been said that an encounter with the Conductor by any living person is deadly, with several accounts of brave adventurers never returning from a late night pilgrimage on the anniversary of that fateful night.
My grandfather warned us years ago to stay away from the trestle, even during the day. He said that all the death and sorrow had poisoned the iron and nothing good could ever happen near the bridge. Several years later I realized that it was just a story to keep kids away from a deteriorating and dangerous old structure.
So now I stood here with Dave, shivering on a cold November night, gathering my nerve to walk out onto that bridge and put an end to an old ghost story and prove to my friend that this whole thing was a lot of nonsense.
“What time is it?” I said.
“Ten twenty-five.” said Dave.
“Well, let’s do this, then, so you’ll finally understand that this is all a bunch of crap.” I raised my lantern and led my friend out onto the trestle.
The roar of the river forced us to raise our voices a bit as we stepped carefully across the old railroad ties. One of them shifted beneath my tread, throwing me off balance for a moment.
“Watch that one!” I shouted, and pointed to the loose tie.
Dave nodded and stepped around. I did this several times, to keep Dave from tripping. We proceeded slowly, carefully calculating each step before committing our full weight. The roar of the river grew louder as we neared the midpoint. A large gap in the ties was before us, revealing two thin iron rails, running parallel about six feet apart, for about five yards. I looked at Dave. He smiled.
“After you!” He said, swinging his lantern over the chasm. I stared down into the gap. The river looked like a great black serpent in the moonlight. It hissed below us, angry that we were just out of reach. Slowly, I began the high-rail act. One foot, then the next. I kept my arms out for balance, wobbled twice, but finally made it across the chasm.
“C’mon Dave!” I said.
Dave stepped gingerly out onto the narrow rail. He held his arms out and inched forward.
“I got this.” Dave said, concentrating. He was halfway across when I heard a distant sound, like a bell clanging. I checked my watch. 10:30 on the nose. The trestle began to vibrate. It started low, but quickly intensified. Dave looked up and lost his balance. He dropped the lantern which shattered upon the rail, spilling fire across the iron between us. He fell to his knees and grabbed the thin rusty rail with both hands. I reached out across the gap, but the fire had flared higher, creating a gold and orange barrier. I could see Dave’s face between the flames, a mask of panic and confusion, distorted by the heat.
“Hang on! Stay down low and inch back away from the fire!” I shouted, motioning Dave backwards. A strange sound rose in the cold night air. I lifted my head and heard a steam engine, chugging above the din of the river. It seemed to come from behind us, growing louder with each second. And then I heard another engine, approaching from the opposite direction. Dave and I looked all around, but could see nothing.
“Holy crap!” shouted Dave.
A phantom steam whistle shrieked and echoed from the river banks. The trestle began to heave and moan. I heard what sounded like metal bend and buckle as if under some immense strain followed by a cacophonous thunder of iron colliding with iron. The bridge shook and knocked me to my knees onto the wooden railroad ties.
I looked up and saw Dave nearly shaken from the rail upon which he now clung. He fell, but caught the iron beneath his armpits. He wrapped his arms tight to his chest, while his legs dangled and flailed high above the dark rushing river.
“Hold on!” I shouted but I doubted he could hear me over the sound. The bridge shuddered and shook and I felt air rush past, as if large objects were careening close to me. Several loose railroad ties dropped into the river. I instinctively covered my head and ducked down, crouching for safety atop the vibrating timbers.
The sound reached an unbearable crescendo and then stopped with one last metallic groan and a release of steam. I looked up and saw Dave, heaving himself back up onto the rail. The fire had been blown out by the wind, allowing him to crawl to safety next to me on the wooden railroad ties. He exhaled and rolled over on his back.
“What the hell was that?” Dave said, exhausted. “And don’t tell me it was an earthquake!”
Before I could answer, a low moaning sound filled the air around us. I looked up and squinted to focus down the length of the trestle. The moans transitioned to sobs and I began to make our dark forms strewn about in various places along the bridge. They looked like bodies, some on the timbers and some suspended in mid air, a few feet from the railroad ties. They appeared to be intermittently solid and vaporous, vacillating between form and formless.
“Holy crap.” I whispered. “This is not happening!”
I looked at Dave and his blue eyes were wide, his mouth agape. Suddenly, he gasped and pointed at something behind me. I turned and recoiled in horror. A burley bearded man, dressed in coveralls, was reaching toward me. His face was covered in blood and his hands and arms black with soot. I noticed that his body had been severed just below the rib cage and his entrails spilled out behind him like a grotesque wedding train. He clawed at the air and turned his palm up, as if begging for something. His mouth opened and released a moan that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I tried to back away but couldn’t for I was at the edge of the railroad ties, with nowhere to go but down.
The moaning man began to drag himself toward me, his ribcage scraping across the wooden railroad ties. Slowly, and with great effort, he pulled his half body toward me. I waved my lantern and yelled, hoping to change his course, but to no avail. His hand reached up and touched mine. I tried to pull back but was unable. In that moment, that brief touch, I felt the searing pain of his injuries followed by an infinite emptiness. I saw the life of a young railroad worker, his family, his mother and father, his children all whir by In a flash. I felt an uncontrollable scream well up inside me. I closed my eyes and screamed as loud and and as long as I have ever screamed in my life. I opened my eyes and the apparition swirled into black vapor and disappeared into the night breeze.
“Are you OK?” said Dave, clambering next to me.
We paused and looked around. The other apparitions had begun to move. One young man with a missing leg groaned an hopped toward us. Another one with a crushed head that drooped to one side staggered in our direction. David and I surveyed the situation for an escape but realized that we were trapped, caught between the mangled spirits and a deadly fifty-foot drop to the river. Dave reached down and pulled an old iron railroad spike from one of the timbers and readied it for a defensive launch. I did the same, preparing to fight off the creatures with whatever means available.
Just as the dead were drawing near, I noticed a light at the far end of the trestle. It was suspended about shoulder height and swayed back and forth as it moved toward us. Loud footfalls shook the railroad ties and the iron of the bridge frame groaned as if it were under the stress of something massive.
Dave and I stared, petrified. We could only make out a dark silhouette behind the light, but soon recognized the outline of a conductor swinging his railroad lantern. The other spirits which now surrounded us took notice as well. They stopped and turned their attention toward the approaching specter. As I stared, the creature howled a deep and mournful cry that reverberated through my body. The sound made my legs tremble. Dave and I dropped our iron weapons to shield our ears from the horrible wail. We fell to our knees, hands over our ears, and cowered beneath the unearthly onslaught.
The other spirits whirled into black wisps of smoke and vanished into the air, as if scurrying away from some deadly predator. My heart raced and I realized that this must be the legendary Conductor. That very same mythical creature that my grandfather had warned me about. I knew we had to move quickly and with the other spirits gone, we were once again safe to traverse the bridge.
I grabbed Dave by his coat and pulled him along the trestle, back the way we had come. We practically ran across the open railing. We nearly lost our footing several times, but managing to safely reach the other side. I looked back over my shoulder and the Conductor was getting closer. I heard him growl like a beast from some dark region of hell what sounded like the word “switchman”. Dave ran ahead of me and we were nearly two-thirds of the way to the other bank of the river when suddenly the Conductor appeared directly in front of us, our exit from the trestle now blocked by the evil thing.
Dave tried to stop, but stumbled and slid right up to the feet of the phantom spirit. He cried out in horror as the Conductor grabbed him by the throat and lifted him from the ground with one hand. Dave swung his fists in a flurry of punches that passed right through the apparition. I ran forward and tackled Dave, driving him through the creature and breaking its deadly grip.
Dave tumbled forward and was able to get off the trestle. I, on the other hand, had captured the attention of the Conductor. He grabbed my neck and lifted me close to his face. In the lamplight I could see his burnt and blistered skin, charred red and black in spots and hanging in loose, peeling shards. He had the traditional conductor’s cap and round wire rimmed glasses. His eyes glowed blue and milky, with no pupils. With his head cocked to one side, he hissed the word “switchman” through broken teeth and carried me back toward the middle of the trestle.
The grip around my neck was like a cold steel vise. It chilled my soul like nothing I had ever felt and churned my stomach with icy fear. I couldn’t breath much less scream. I flailed my arms and kicked my legs but all efforts passed right through the phantom being that carried me.
“Switchman!” The Conductor hissed again and stopped.
We had reached the middle of the trestle and he dangled me over the hole where the railroad ties had long since fallen away. I felt dizzy and the world began to fade as the creature’s hand closed tighter, choking the consciousness from me. I struggled one last time and twisted my head around in time to see Dave, just behind me. He reared back and hurled a railroad spike at the Conductor. The rusted iron tumbled end-over-end through the night air and struck the the evil entity squarely between the eyes. To my surprise, it stuck, jutting from his forehead, nearly half its length sunk deep into the skull of the Conductor!
I was immediately tossed backward onto the wooden planks next to Dave. The Conductor reeled, staggered and nearly fell from the trestle. I remembered some folklore about spirits and iron and thought how clever Dave had been. The Conductor paused for a moment and regained his balance. He reached up and began to pull the spike from his head. I glanced at Dave who pointed to the other side of the bridge where another dark figure had appeared. It shuffled forward, dragging one badly mangled leg behind, but advanced quickly toward the Conductor who had just put down his lantern in order to get both hands on the offending iron spike.
The placement of the lantern revealed the identity the other figure. In that golden shaft of light I discerned a man about six feet tall, with blue coveralls, thick black boots and a long beard. He was soaked in water from head to toe and his skin, which had come loose from his bones in places, was pale white and hung in rubbery flaps, often revealing the bone beneath. I had seen bodies pulled from the river after weeks of exposure and I immediately recognized the same condition here. I stared into his eyes, which were black holes that seemed to absorb light. His mouth hung open in a silent moan.
Remembering the legend, I guessed that this was the Switchman who had thrown himself from the bridge in a fit of guilt. Dave and I exchanged glances and slowly backed up. In that moment, the Conductor wrenched the spike from his forehead and tossed it into the river. His blazing eyes found us again and he lurched toward us. He floated above the wooden railroad ties, and covered the distance between in the blink of an eye.
Once again, both Dave and I were in his clutches, strangled without breath or voice. The Conductor laughed a laugh that sounded like gravel and steam wheezing through a haunted harmonica. His breath, a cold blast of decay, washed over us like a toxic tide. My eyes burned and I closed them for a second. When I opened them again, Dave was punching with all his might, delivering rabid-fire blows like a golden gloves champion.
Unfortunately, his fists again passed through empty air, leaving the apparition unfazed. What happened next is still unclear as I had begun to black out. I remember a terrible pain in my legs that pulled me back to consciousness. When I had regained my wits, I was on my knees a few feet from the Conductor. I blinked for moment, not comprehending what I saw. The Conductor appeared to be locked in the grasp of the Switchman!
As they lurched from side to side, I swear I heard the Conductor’s gravelly voice exclaim “You!”. In the next moment, the Switchman lurched and twisted, dragging the Conductor into the gap and down to the black river below. I expected a splash, but heard none. The Conductor’s lantern, which was still on the trestle, vanished in a swirl of black vapor.
I rubbed my eyes and looked over at Dave. He stared, slack jawed, at the spot where the struggle had just ended. We wasted no time getting off that trestle. I checked my watch and the time was 10:31. Could all that just transpired have really taken only a minute? It made absolutely no sense at all. Perhaps we were caught in some time warp of repetition, a spiritual wrinkle in the space time continuum.
I was still shaking when I got home and Dave and I often conjecture about events of that night in November. Did this drama play out every anniversary of the great wreck of thirty-nine, or was this a one time thing? Did the Switchman save us to atone for his sins? I fear we will never know as we never set foot on that trestle, day or night, ever again. One thing is certain, the scars on our necks, particularly the handprints, are proof that what happened on the trestle that night was very, very real. Needless to say, roast turkey, stuffing, Cope’s corn and cranberry sauce never tasted better than on that particular Thanksgiving.
—-This story is dedicated to the memory of David Bandle who left this world far too early. Rest in peace dear friend. West Catty 4ever.—