The Railroad Flagman’s Death

This story comes from my own childhood, and took a lot of time and research to corroborate. I found another telling of the tale in Ghosts Across Kentucky by William Lynwood Montell. Told by Sammy Lawson, Meade County, to Nelson Graham, Jan. 5, 1968. WKU Folklife Archive, 1965.

There’s a tale about a flagman on a railroad, who was to retire after his last trip home. He was going home, riding this caboose. What his job was, he was to ride on the caboose, and every time that the train was to start or stop he was supposed to lean out and wave his lantern. Every time they went by a road or some big byway, after the train was clear, he was to wave the lantern out of the caboose, so that the engineer would know that the train was past.

Well, they were going past this road, and they had just got past when he leaned out to wave his lantern. But they were going around a slight curve, and he had to lean farther out than usual so that the engineer would know that they were past.

All the engineer said that he saw was just the lantern flying out through the air. He went back later and found the flagman with his head decapitated, where he had fallen. Leaning out, the flagman had lost his grip and fell underneath the caboose and had his head cut off.

They say that still to this day you can see the lantern swinging back and forth as he was swinging it down the railroad track, and finally it flies out into the underbrush and is never seen again that night. And every night of this same week, this same occurrence happens.

This has been validated by many people: all the folks of this town and the country around here, and even by a person known as the Ghost Hunter, who makes his living verifying or denying these things.

This is a very interesting story since I was told this in my youth. I can also state that I am firmly and adult and we did not have home internet access when I was told this story. What strikes me is that this is part of a wide urban legend. First there is the eerily similar story called the Marco Light. The Maco Light was a supposedly anomalous light, or “ghost light“, occasionally seen between the late 19th century and 1977 along a section of railroad track near the unincorporated community of Maco StationNorth Carolina. Said to resemble the glow from a railroad lantern, the light was associated with a folk tale describing a fatal accident, which may have inspired tales of a similar type around the country.

There was also The Ghost Light of St. Louis. “Some say the origins involve the tragic demise of an engineer or conductor; one story goes that a worker was doing a routine check of the tracks when the train, not able to stop in time, struck and decapitated him.”

We can see more and more examples of the same story in the same time frame. The Paulding Light (also called the Lights of Paulding or the Dog Meadow Light) is a light that appears in a valley outside Paulding, Michigan. Reports of the light have appeared since the 1960s. The first recorded sighting of the Paulding Light was in 1966 when a group of teenagers reported the light to a local sheriff. Since then, a number of other individuals have reported seeing the light, which is said to appear nearly every night at the site. Although stories related to the light vary, the most popular legend involves the death of a railroad brakeman. The legend states that the valley once contained railroad tracks and the light is the lantern of the brakeman who was killed while attempting to stop an oncoming train from colliding with railway cars stopped on the tracks.

This is just followed by example after example. Hessdalen light, Gurdon Light, Marfa lights, The Spooklight, Brown Mountain Lights, Light of Saratoga, St. Elmo’s fire, St. Louis Light, Will-o’-the-wisp, and the most popular The Legend of Joe Baldwin or The Legend of the Headless Railroad Man.

There are two things that haunt me about Meade County’s story. First, it was one of the first reported. Second, on that dark night in the 1990s I was driven down a road that for the life of me, I cannot remember. There were three of us that sat in the car. Two of which had never heard the story, and we waited. We waited to hear a train whistle. There was something so faint in the distance that could have been the wisp of a whistle. Then we all lost the ability to speak as we saw a light swing in the distance. We left the scene in a hurry, and didn’t look back.

Heard a story of the paranormal in Meade County? Email us. We will do the research behind the story and post it here.  We hope to bring you more of the unknown and weird soon. Until then, stay weird Meade County!