Ghost trains. Phantom travellers. Poltergeists and demons. Perhaps humans haven’t been the only ones riding the rails way down the line.
Nova Scotia author Jay Underwood tries to unravel the truth behind such spooky sightings in Ghost Tracks: Surprising Stories of the Supernatural on Rails.
The Elmsdale writer delves into a range of spectral stories — everything from a grey lady haunting Inverness County tracks to dreams of a white horse becoming a harbinger of death on the Merigomish line.
Along the way, he offers earthly explanations for the lore’s possibly supernatural origins.
But Underwood, 51, is certainly open to the latter, having once seen what he believes was a ghost.
It happened when he was about 14, living with his family at a Royal Air Force base in Abingdon, England.
"My bed looked out through the bedroom door and down the hallway toward my sister’s room," he recalls. "I woke up late one night and saw a little girl standing in the hallway and I thought, well, it’s my sister Sara because she sleep-walked, so I got up and I went to put her back to bed, put my arms around her and they went right through.
"So I locked myself in the lavatory and spent the rest of the night there. . . . Afterwards I thought that probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do because a ghost could probably walk through a locked door anyway. But anyway, that was the sum total of it. It seemed quite real at the time."
Underwood says he didn’t talk much about the experience afterward, telling his grandmother (who believed in the supernatural) only years later when the family had moved to Canada.
Besides, he says, many who report supernatural experiences often face ridicule as a result.
"This is one of the things I found when I was writing the stories of the railway ghosts. It tends to get treated the same way as an unidentified flying object. A lot of people think they’ve seen them, but they don’t like to talk about it for fear of being dismissed as a crackpot of some kind. And what they may have seen may or may not have been a ghost but they know they saw something. And I spoke to several people who believed they saw or experienced something."
But that’s not to say Underwood buys into every spooky story he hears. In fact, he makes it clear that many of the book’s tales can be traced to far more human factors. Some appear to have grown out of train wrecks and other railway-related deaths seemingly tied to things like unfamiliarity with new technology, or overwork or lack of maintenance.
Even the prevailing mood of the times may have conjured some spirits in people’s minds. Underwood points to the gloom pervading the Commonwealth after Queen Victoria’s death as a factor.
"All these stories, it seemed to me, happened within a certain time frame, especially around the death of Queen Victoria and that seemed to me to be a pivotal point not just on Canadian history but in British history too because a queen who had reigned for that long and was so loved to suddenly die, it was a massive change in the way the society viewed itself. . . .
"At that time Canadians were still proud to call themselves members of the British Empire and when the head of the empire died suddenly there was this uncertainty about . . . what would the empire become without her presence. So a lot of that seems to be a reflection of the melancholy that pervaded the empire when she died."
Fear of new technology may have inspired such beliefs too, he says, especially in the wake of numerous wrecks and accidental individual deaths.
Even in the late 1800s and 1900s, Underwood says, railway companies were emphasizing safety "so that when something did go wrong people would say, ‘Well, we did everything we were supposed to do and the accident still happened — there must have been some other force at work.’
"There was a certain amount of lack of sophistication associated with that era. . . . The world was transitioning from a Victorian era into what we are today, and in Victorian times there were still a lot of people who clung very strongly to tradition and superstition."
In many cases, though, lack of familiarity with new technology may have caused wrecks, explosions and freak accidents that lent themselves to ghostly interpretations.
But perhaps not all.
Underwood believes the tale of the Whiteside Terror, which he chronicles in Chapter 5, could be true. Without giving the whole story away, suffice to say it involves, at one point, a ghostly hand gripping a human neck.
"I believe the Grey Lady of Inverness certainly could be," he adds of another story about a female apparition people have claimed to see and hear around old railway tracks near Judique.
"I think in this day and age people like to use science to explain everything," says Underwood, a longtime journalist who is also president of the Nova Scotia Railway Heritage Society. "And I don’t believe that science can explain everything, in some cases. You know they’ve tried to use science to explain the Shroud of Turin, but they never have completely."(above taken from "TheChronicleherald.ca ". )