Time for another tale of spookiness from my home state of Ohio. This time we’re hitting very close to home with a story from Urbana, Ohio, which is the basis for my fictional Urbandale in several of my short stories.
Though Urbana is not unique in this particular ghostly encounter, it’s become a town tradition to watch for the Lincoln ghost train every April 29th.
First a bit of history. After the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, it was decided (against his wife’s objections) that his body be displayed on a funeral train that would zigzag through the northern United States on its way to his home in Springfield, IL. The body was not embalmed, and a pair of funeral home employees were on hand during the whole trip to keep the deceased president looking good. They used fresh flowers to mask the smell, which meant the train needed to make frequent stops, which served to refresh the flowers and also allow mourners to pay their respects.
No one fully grasped how many people would turn out to see the train and pay their respects to a man who had become a hero to most of the folks in the north. The train left Washington DC on April 21, 1865. All along the path of the train, men, women and children lined up along the tracks to mourn the passing of a great man.
On April 29, the train arrived in Columbus where Lincoln’s body was displayed in the statehouse rotunda for about twelve hours. Over fifty thousand people came to the statehouse to pay their respects. The train left around 8pm, heading west. This was unusual, as the way west was one of the steepest grades in Ohio, and it would require two engines to make the trip. Normally trains would head south to Cincinnati, but there was a concern that Copperheads (anti-civil war protesters) would potentially make trouble for the train if it went through the Queen City.
Instead, the train took the western tracks and late that night passed into Urbana. Many people assume it stopped at the Miami Street depot, the only train station still in town, but it actually stopped at the North Main Street station, which no longer exists. The train was met by a large flower archway over the tracks and several hundred mourners who brought wreaths of flowers. The train was only in town for about twenty minutes and to the contrary of some urban legends, it did not break down there.
The train then left Urbana, passing through my own home town of Saint Paris and onward west to Piqua where it stopped again for a short time just after midnight. The train eventually made it to Springfield, IL, right on schedule where the president was interred.
A few years later, tales of a spectral locomotive began appearing along the path of the funeral train. These were not at all unique to Urbana, but they latched on in the small town and began to grow into a local legend. The ghost train, it was said, was crewed by skeletons and a similar skeleton honor guard stood watch over the casket. The sound of the train’s whistle, quite different from modern locomotives, could sometimes be heard, or a puff of smoke from an invisible stack might be seen. Clocks would stop for anywhere from six minutes to twenty (the length of the actual stay). The crossing guards at the Miami Street junction also would drop mysteriously when there was nothing on the tracks.
Eventually the legend claimed that on the night of April 29th each year, the train would appear. Of course, this doesn’t actually happen, and most ghost hunters go looking at the wrong place (while the train did pass the Miami Street station, it never stopped there). However, it is a fun local story that the small town enjoys maintaining as part of its cultural heritage.