This post is part of the This Town is Myth Project which looks to examine a lost town named Pemberton Ferry, Florida, that history has all but forgotten. Most of the material is my way of wiggling out the different aspects of the unexplained, the deep history, and several conspiracies and theories related to the town. As such, there will be mistakes, misidentifications, and misunderstandings. This has always been a part of Tripping on Legends as we know we are not always getting the best information when it comes to folklore and legends, but it is even more so with this. I am an outsider to the area in many respects, and my information comes from different sources and is the best information I have at the time. Mistakes come from a genuine place and not from a desire to be a poor researcher.
Please contact me with any corrections, additions, or clarifications. This project begs for it…
Some ghost stories stand out because of the lack of them from the same place when there should be. One of the defining characteristics of Pemberton Ferry is that despite the hidden history and the documentation of tragedies, locals are unfamiliar or unwilling to share moments of the paranormal with outsiders. They are not sharing them with each other either. It’s almost as if you know the ghosts should be there, but no one wants to talk about it. When one comes out, people are forced to listen and the tale is all the more powerful and believable.
Elbow Creek is now only known to people who know their history. Situated just north of Pemberton Ferry along the track to Floral City, it is fed by the deadly Withlacoochee River. Now it is nothing but a dried up water bed during the dry season and an afterthought during flooding, but it was once a well-known waterhole and geographical landmark. It was near this spot that the train ran and a man once lost his life to railway accident, common in its occurrence but uncommon in the legend that rose up around it.
According to the St. Louise Globe-Democrat, sometime in 1889 there was an accident in that area involving an engineer. The story goes that the train somehow hit a tree as it made the curve, throwing the man off the train and under the car where he was crushed to death. Mishaps like these were fairly common on the rails, and no further business was made of it.
Then something odd happened. About a year later (no exact dates are given) the engineer on Train 24 saw what looked like a tree down onto the tracks as he approached Elbow Creek. He had just made a curve, so there was no time to stop the train before the impact, which he feared might cause damage or even derail them. “To his utter astonishment no shock came, and the engine plunged through what seemed to be the huge tree without hindrance, while a blood-curdling cry came from the track underneath.” The train was finally able to stop, and trainmen got out to look at the damage only to find there was no tree and definitely no person or animal underneath that could have caused the screams.
They put the incident behind them, but a few nights later, in the same area, they came face to face with a train coming the same way along their track straight towards them. The witnesses reported they were blinded by its headlights and could actually see the woods around it lit by the firebox used to fuel it. They prepared to jump from the train, but the ghostly engine disappeared just as it reached the point of impact. Again, they heard the screams and cries of “great agony” that scared them so much they reported “his hair fairly stood on end as he heard it.” They stopped the train again to investigate, their fellow workers laughing at them about the story as they looked around in the moonlight. The men who had witnessed it, however, were unwavering in their account of what happened and sure of what had caused it.
People did not laugh at them for long. The vision of the tree and the train became an almost weekly occurrence for most of 1890. It played itself out for multiple engineers and workers at different times of the night and different days. Trains would report a fallen tree in the Elbow Creek area only to have it disappear on them. They would talk of a train almost hitting them and then vanishing. Each encounter involved the disturbing screams and cries of a man, which is what disturbed the people who experienced it the most. They just could not get over the sound of a man, one just like them, replaying over and over the moment he was crushed.
For some it became too much. Many quit their jobs or asked to be transferred to other lines. There was no shortage of people who laughed at the stories, but it is said those who witnessed it were never quit right afterwards. As with most line gossip, the story spread, no doubt getting exaggerated as it made its way up north. “It is the talk of the entire length of the line, and at times it is difficult to get engineers to take the midnight run.” The story was passed on enough for it to make its way all the way to St. Louis and for them to follow up on the encounters and interview witnesses.
And then the story ends. While there may be local papers who talked about the haunting or even a follow-up from the Globe-Democrat, if it exists it is buried deep within the archives of those papers. More importantly, the people in the area do not talk about it and the story did not get passed down through the close-knit community. It appears in no books or is talked about on any Web sites. There are no legend trippers crouching in the woods near Elbow Creek looking to experience the train. It is a ghost story that is now a ghost itself.
The account is interesting in that it sounds like a replay of the accident, but it changes, something unusual in the paranormal world. Sometimes it is a tree, and the report says that the train hit a tree but does not specify that it was on the tracks. It makes it sound more like it clipped a tree, causing the man to fall off. The story also does not specify which way the train was traveling, so it would be odd to encounter a train coming the opposite way. Encounters like this do not generally switch the way they play out, especially one that leans more towards a residual haunting, or one that is more of an echo or replay of a tragic event.
The bigger question is why there is no other record of something that was considered newsworthy at the time. Even if there are other news accounts of the ghost on the rails and even if they ended after only a year, they should still be those who talk about it. It is just the kind of thing small towns are known for in the area surrounding Pemberton Ferry. Much like the accidents and potential ghosts at Iron Bridge, residents don’t spread the story. Train ghosts are a popular motif in ghostly folklore, from the train that carried Abraham Lincoln home to the ghost trains of Astor and Venice, they are an extension of old fairy trail sightings and the precursor to roadside ghosts like phantom hitchhikers and mysterious Women in White. All the classic elements are there, but nothing from the community.
Even if many of the made their homes somewhere else after the fall of Pemberton Ferry, there should be a memory, so bit of the story that is given to the next generation. In other parts of Florida (and the rest of the country), moments like these become legend tripping gold, an event to take your date out to or to explore with the family or friends with a few beers in hand. More than two papers not in the state chose to run articles about it, so it was a story told among the workers and spread as they jumped lines.
But nothing. Much like the history of the town itself, the story of the engineer who lost his life and the ghost story he inspired is lost to time with only a few scattered mentions to prove that it was ever there.
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