Lincoln’s Ghost Train: Night Switchman Describes Eyewitness Account in 1872

Lincoln’s funeral train, The Lincoln Special, was designated as the official presidential mode of transportation much like Air Force One represents today. The U.S. Military Railroads built the car and delivered it to the president in early 1865. Tragically, Lincoln never rode in it until his death.

Lincoln’s body lay in state at the White House and the rotunda of the Capitol building before being loaded into the railroad car. The train car had to be modified to transport Lincoln’s coffin and the coffin of his young son Willie, who had died of typhoid fever in 1862. Willie had been buried in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery, but after his father’s assassination, his coffin was removed and placed aboard the funeral train.

The procession left Washington on April 21, 1865, for a 12-day journey across the Northern states, stopping for formal funeral ceremonies in 12 major cities. Smaller communities organized numerous other memorial services along the train’s 1600 mile route.

When Lincoln’s funeral train made its melancholy journey from Washington D.C. to his final resting place in Illinois, every city and town along the route displayed thousands of sorrowing people that lined the tracks as the death train passed by.

Lincoln’s Hearse – Arch at 12th St. and Chicago funeral procession (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

Lincoln’s ghost has been seen everywhere from the White House to his former residences in Springfield, Illinois where he was interred.

Lincoln’s ghost train is reported to make its eerie run on the tracks from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Illinois on April 21, the anniversary of his death. People have reported seeing a white ghostly train and hearing the whistle.

Lincoln Funeral Train – Nashville 1865 (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

On September 6, 1879, the Wichita Herald (Witchita, Kansas) published an article, “It Was A Phantom Train” stating a writer interviewed the night switchman formerly employed with Hudson River Railroad. Here is a condensed version of his eyewitness account:

“I have seen the Phantom Train,” the old man said, in a tone such as he might have used had someone denied the fact; “I have seen the Phantom Train more than once.”

Impressed by the earnest manner of the old man, and influenced no doubt by natural curiosity to hear a ghost story in which a train played the leading part, the writer requested the old man to recite his ghost-like experiences. He complied without delay and began:

“I’m out of service now, but ten years ago, and for many a year before that, I was a switchman on the Hudson River Railroad. I’m retired now but through no fault of my own. It was in April 1864, that President Lincoln’s body was brought over our road. I did not see the train, and as I was no great reader of newspapers, I saw no description of it. I want you to remember this. Just one year after the funeral train passed over the raod I saw its ghost. I was at my post waiting for the midnight express, which was due about 12:30 in the morning. I had read the assassination and knew that President Lincoln’s body was sent West, but I was sick a-bed when the train passed my station and didn’t see it.”

“It was the night of April 24, 1866, as far as I can remember, that I first saw it. It was a phantom train. I was at my switch station and had a good while to wait before the next regular train was due I was about to retire into my little house when I heard a sullen, rumbling sound that gave me warning of the approach of a train. We expected a freight train that night, which was to leave half a dozen cars on the side track, and the noise I heard seemed to me to come from that train. Knowing that there were no regular trains on the road at that hour, except freights (the midnight express had passed before I heard the Phantom Train), I fixed the track accordingly. The switch was so set that the train could run upon it and detach such cars as was designed to leave.

While I arranged the first switch the rumbling in the distance became louder and louder, and I knew that the train was not far away. I had posted myself at the upper end of the siding in order to make no more delay than was absolutely necessary. Just as I had completed my arrangements I heard a sullen roar made up of a thousand different noises blended together. Looking down the road I saw a headlight whose power and intensity I had never seen equaled in my experience of thirty years. There was a chill about the air that I couldn’t understand.”

“I saw rushing along the main track with reckless speed a locomotive draped from one end to the other in crape, and carrying at least a dozen little flags, also shrouded in crape, on her side rails. I could read her name as she passed by me – it was the Constitution – and I could see three men as plainly as I see you. One had his hand on the lever, and was peering out into the night as if in search of something on the track; another was shoveling coal into the furnace and making a deal of noise about it, and a third, dressed in black, with crape dangling from his arm and encircling his stiff hight hat, sat upon a stool doing nothing. “

“You ask me how I saw so much in so short a time? I can’t explain it. All I know is that I saw what I’m telling you. There was something ghastly in the faces of the men, but that might have been caused by the terrific rate at which they were speeding along. As soon as the Constitution had passed I ran to the lower end of the siding to fix the switch, which I feared somebody had been tampering with. It was just as I had left it.”

“While I was puzzling my head over the mysterious engine a second headlight threw its reflection upon me and I saw another black-draped locomotive. It was not going as fast as the first, but making what we used to call express time – say thirty-five or forty miles an hour. I could scarcely see any of the iron and steelwork of the engine, so thoroughly was it covered with crape, ribbons and black cloth. The handrail was hidden from sight by masses of crape, as was also the steam chest, and in front of the boiler was a heavy fold of black cloth. Even the smokestack had streamers of fleecy crape and ten little national flags that ornamented the handrail were shrouded in the same material. Just below the window of the cab, I saw a portrait framed in wood as black as ebony. It was that of the martyred President!”

“I could see the faces of the engineer and brakesman and several passengers who were seated near windows, whose black curtains were raised. They all looked pale and ghostly, but those who moved at all moved naturally and transacted their business in just about the same way that nay other train hands would have done. I expected to see her turn off upon the siding. But she didn’t urn off. Instead of that, she kept right along on the main track as though there were no such as switches in the world. The cars followed her as easily as though the going was clear, and in a few seconds all that I could see of the train was the lamp of the flagman on the rear car.”

“Have you ever seen the Phantom Train since?” stated the reporter. “Yes, twice, and both times on the anniversary of that night. Nothing was changed, not even the wreath of flowers, which were still fresh,” replied the night switchman.

Once the ghost train passes by, railwaymen have reported that their watches have lost up to eight minutes. The night switchman stated in his eyewitness account he could not explain how he saw so many details as the speeding locomotive passed by.

Lincoln’s hearse – Springfield, Illinois – Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress

It’s natural that Abe’s ghost should be so active because Lincoln also believed in spirits. Before his assassination, he confessed that he had a death dream. Lincoln stated, “The thing has gotten possession of me and like Banquo’s ghost, it will not down. I heard subdued sobs. I left my bed and wandered downstairs. I kept on until I arrived in the East Room. There I met a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque on which rested a corpse in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse whose face was covered.

Lincoln’s funeral train restored April 2019 – Photo courtesy of Elizabethtowns Stone Gable Estate

Lincoln often invited crystal ball gazers to the White House to summon up spirits from beyond the grave.

Many years later after the story of the phantom train was published in several newspapers, track walkers and section hands would sit along the railroad track in the early evening on the anniversary of that fateful day waiting to catch a glimpse of Lincoln’s ghost train to roll by.

By Hope Thompson

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