The Mysterious Signal

By Cy Warman in 1906

Wreck of the Pacific Express Ashtabula Bridge Disaster, 1876.

Wreck of the Pacific Express Ashtabula Bridge Disaster, 1876.

As Waterloo lingered in the memory of the conquered Corsican, Ashtabula was burned into the brain of Bradish. Out of that awful wreck, he crawled, widowed and childless. For a long time, he did not realize, for his head was hurt in that frightful crash.

By the time he was fit to leave the hospital, they had told him, little by little, that all his people had perished.

He made his way to the West, where he had a good home and houses to rent and a hole in the hillside that was just then being changed from a prospect to a mine.

The townspeople, who had heard of the disaster, waited for him to speak of it — but he never did. The neighbors nodded, and he nodded to them and passed on about his business. The old servant came and asked if she should open the house, and he nodded. The man-servant — the woman’s husband — came also, and to him, Bradish nodded; and at noon, he had luncheon alone in the fine new house that had just been completed a year before the catastrophe.

About once a week, Bradish would board the midnight express, ride down the line for a few hundred miles, and double back.

When he went away, they knew he had gone, and when he came back, they knew he had returned, and that was as much as his housekeeper, his agent, or the foreman at the mines could tell you.

One would have thought that the haunting memory of Ashtabula would have kept him at home for the rest of his life, but he seemed to travel for the sake of the ride only, or for no reason, as a deaf man walks on the railroad track.

Gradually he extended his trips, taking the Midland over into Utah, and once or twice he had been seen on the rear end of the California Limited as it dropped down the western watershed of Raton Range.

One night, when the Limited was lapping up the landscape, and the Desert was rushing in under her pilot and streaking out below the last sleeper like tape from a ticker, the danger signal sounded in the engine cab, the air went on full, the passengers braced themselves against the seats in front of them, or held their breath in their berths as the train came to a dead stop.

The conductor and the head man hurried forward, shouting, “What’s the matter?” to the engineer.

The driver, leaning from his lofty window, asked angrily, “What in thunder’s the matter with you? I got a stop signal from behind.”

“You’d better lay off and have a good sleep,” said the conductor.

Canyon Diablo, Arizona

Canyon Diablo, Arizona

“I’ll put you to sleep for a minute if you ever hint that I was not awake coming down Cañon Diablo,” shouted the engineer, releasing his brakes. As the long, heavy train glided by, the trainmen swung up like sailors, and away went the Limited over the long bridge, five minutes to the bad.

A month later, the same thing happened on the East end. The engineer was signaled and stopped on a curve with the point of his pilot on a high bridge.

This time the captain and the engineer were not so brittle of temper. They discussed the matter, calling on the fireman, who had heard nothing, being busy in the coal tank.

The head brakeman, crossing himself, said it was the “unseen hand” that had been stopping the Limited on the Desert. It might be a warning, he said and walked briskly out on the bridge, looking for dynamite, ghosts, and things.

When he had reached the other end of the bridge, he gave the go-ahead signal, and the train pulled out. As they had lost seven minutes, it was necessary for the conductor to report the “cause of delay,” and that was the first hint the officials of any of the Western lines had of the “unseen hand.”

Presently trainmen, swapping yarns at division stations, heard of the mysterious signal on other roads.

The Columbia Limited, over on the Short Line, was choked with her head over Snake River at the very edge of Pendleton. When they had pulled in, and a fresh crew had taken the train on, the in-coming captain and his daring driver argued over the incident, and they each got ten days, — not for the delay, but because they could not see to sign the call-book next morning and were not fit to be seen by other people.

The next train stopped was the International Limited on the Grand Trunk, then the Sunset by the South Coast.

The strange phenomenon became so general that officials lost patience. One road issued an order to the effect that any engineer who heard signals when there were no signals should get thirty days for the first and his time for the second offense.

Within a week from the appearance of the unusual and unusually offensive bulletin, “Baldy” Hooten heard the stop signal as he neared a little junction town where his line crossed another on an overhead bridge.

When the signal sounded, the fireman glanced over at the driver, who dived through the window up to his hip pockets.

Railroad Engineer and fireman

Railroad Engineer and fireman

When the engine had crashed over the bridge, the driver pulled himself into the cab again and once more, the signal. The fireman, amazed, stared at the engineer. The latter jerked the throttle wide open, seeing which, the stoker dropped to the deck and began feeding the hungry furnace. Ten minutes later, the Limited screamed for a regular stop ten miles down the line. As the driver dropped to the ground and began touching the pins and links with the back of his bare hand to see if they were all cool, the head brakeman trotted forward, whispering hoarsely, “The ol’ man’s aboard.”

The driver waved him aside with his flaring torch and up trotted the blue-and-gold conductor with his little silver white light with a frosted flue. “Why didn’t you stop at Pee-Wee Junction?” he hissed.

“Is Pee-Wee a stop station?”

“On signal.”

“I didn’t see no sign.”

“I pulled the bell.”

“Go on now, you ghost-dancer,” said the engineer.

“You idiot!” gasped the exasperated conductor. “Don’t you know the old man’s on that he wanted to stop at Pee-Wee to meet the G.M. this morning, that a whole engineering outfit will be idle there for half a day, and you’ll get the guillotine?”

“Whew, you have shore got ’em.”

“Isn’t your bell working?” asked a big man who had joined the group under the cab window.

“I think so, sir,” said the driver as he recognized the superintendent. “Johnny, try that cab bell,” he shouted, and the fire-boy sounded the big brass gong.

“Why didn’t you take it at Pee-Wee?” asked the old man, holding his temper beautifully.

The driver lifted his torch and stared almost rudely into the face of the official in front of him. “Why, Mr. Skidum,” said he slowly, “I didn’t hear no signal.”

The superintendent was blocked.

As he turned and followed the conductor into the telegraph office, the driver, gloating in his high cab tower, watched him.

“He’s an old darling,” said he to the fire-boy, “and I’m ready to die for him any day; but I can’t stop for him in the face of bulletin 13. Thirty days for the first offense, and then fire,” he quoted, as he opened the throttle and steamed away, four minutes late.

The old man drummed on the counter-top in the telegraph office and then picked up a pad and wrote a wire to his assistant: —

“Cancel general order No. 13.”

The night man slipped out in the dawn and called the day man, who was the station master, explaining that the old man was at the station and evidently unhappy.

The agent arrived unusually early and endeavored to arrange for a light engine to carry the superintendent back to the Junction.

At the end of three hours, they had a freight engine that had left its train on a siding thirty miles away and rolled up to rescue the stranded superintendent.

Now, every railway man knows that when one thing goes wrong on a railroad, two more mishaps are sure to follow; so, when the rescuing crew heard over the wire that the train they had left on a siding, having been butted by another train heading in, had started back downgrade, spilled over at the lower switch, and blocked the main line, they began to expect something to happen at home.

However, the driver had to go when the old man was in the cab and the G.M. with a whole army of engineers and workmen waiting for him at Pee-Wee, so he rattled over the switches and swung out on the main line like a man who was not afraid.

Two miles up the road, the light engine, screaming through a cut, encountered a flock of sheep, wallowed through them, left the track, and slammed the four men on board up against the side of the cut.

Not a bone was broken, though all of them were sorely shaken, the engineer being unconscious when picked up.

“Go back and report,” said the old man to the conductor. “You look after the engineer,” to the fireman.

“Will you flag west, sir?” asked the conductor.

“Yes, — I’ll flag into Pee-Wee,” said the old man, limping down the line.

To be sure, the superintendent was an intelligent man and not the least bit superstitious, but he couldn’t help as he limped along, connecting these disasters, remotely at least, with general order No. 13.

In time the “unseen signal” came to be talked of by the officials as well as by train and enginemen. It came up finally at the annual convention of General Passenger Agents in Chicago and was discussed by the engineers at Atlanta but was always ridiculed by the eastern element.

“I helped build the U.P.,” said a Buffalo man, “and I want to tell you high-liners you can’t drink squirrel-whiskey at timber-line without seein’ things nights.”

That ended the discussion.

Probably no road in the country suffered from the evil effects of the mysterious signal, as did the Inter-Mountain Air Line.

The regular spotters failed to find out, and the management sent to Chicago for a real live detective who would not be predisposed to accept the “mystery” as such but would do his utmost to find the cause of a phenomenon that was not only interrupting traffic but demoralizing the whole service.

As the express trains were almost invariably stopped at night, the expert traveled at night and slept by day. Months passed with only two or three “signals.” These happened to be on the train as opposed to the one where the detective was traveling at that moment. They brought out another man, and on his first trip, taken merely to “learn the road,” the train was stopped in broad daylight. This time the stop proved to be a lucky one; for, as the engineer let off the air and slipped around a curve in a cañon, he found a rock as big as a box car resting on the track.

The detective was unable to say who sounded the signal. The train crew was overawed. They would not even discuss the matter.

With a watchman, unknown to the trainmen, on every train, the officials hoped now to solve the mystery in a very short time.

The old engineer, McNally, who had found the rock in the cañon, had boasted in the lodge room, in the roundhouse, and out that if ever he got the “ghost sign,” he’d let her go. Of course, he was off his guard this time. He had not expected the “spook-stop” on open day. And right glad he was, too, that he stopped that day.

A fortnight later, McNally, on the night run, was going down Crooked Creek Cañon watching the fireworks in the heavens. A black cloud hung on a high peak, and where its sable skirts trailed along the range, the lightning leaped and flashed in sheets and chains. Above the roar of wheels, he could hear the splash, and once in a while, he could feel the spray of new-made cataracts as the water rushed down the mountainside, choking the culverts.

Railroad trestle in Virginia, Andrew Russell, 1861-1865

At Crag View there was, at that time, a high wooden trestle stilted up on spliced spruce piles with the bark on.

It used to creak and crack under the engine when it was new. McNally was nearing it now. It lay, however, just below a deep rock cut that had been made in a mountain crag and beyond a sharp curve.

McNally leaned from his cab window and, when the lightning flashed, saw that the cut was clear of rock and released the brakes slightly to allow the long train to slip through the reverse curve at the bridge. Curves cramp a train, and a smooth runner likes to feel them glide smoothly.

As the black locomotive poked her nose through the cut, the engineer leaned out again; but the after-effect of the flash of lightning left the world in inky blackness.

Back in a darkened corner of the drawing-room of the rearmost sleeper, the sleuth snored with both eyes and ears open.

Suddenly he saw a man, fully dressed, leap from a lower berth in the last section and make a grab for the bell rope. The man missed the rope, and before he could leap again, the detective landed on the back of his neck, bearing him down. At that moment, the conductor came through; and when he saw the detective pull a pair of bracelets from his hip pocket, he guessed that the man underneath must be wanted and joined in the scuffle. In a moment, the man was handcuffed, for he really offered no resistance. As they released him, he rose, and they squashed him into a seat opposite the section from which he had leaped a moment before. The man looked not at his captors, who still held him but pressed his face against the window. He saw the posts of the snow-shed passing, sprang up, flung the two men from him as a Newfoundland would free himself from a couple of kittens, lifted his manacled hands, leaped toward the ceiling, and bore down on the signal rope.

The conductor, in the excitement, yelled at the man, bringing the rear brakeman from the smoking room, followed by the black boy bearing a shoe brush.

Once more, they bore the bad man down, and then the conductor grabbed the rope and signaled the engineer ahead.

Men leaped from their berths, and women showed white faces between the closely drawn curtains.

Once more, the conductor pulled the bell, but the train stood still.

One of the passengers picked up the man’s hand grip that had fallen from his berth and found that the card held in the leather tag read:

“John Bradish.”

“Go forward,” shouted the conductor to the rear brakeman, “and get ’em out of here, — tell McNally we’ve got the ghost.”

The detective released his hold on his captive, and the man sank limply in the corner seat.

The company’s surgeon, who was on the car, came over and examined the prisoner. The man had collapsed completely.

When the doctor had revived the handcuffed passenger and got him to sit up and speak, the porter, wild-eyed, burst in and shouted: “De bridge is gone.”

A death-like hush held the occupants of the car.

“De hangin’ bridge is sho’ gone,” repeated the panting porter, “an’ de engine, wi’ McNally in de cab’s crouchin’ on de bank, like a black cat on a well-cu’b. De watah’s roahin’ in de deep gorge, and if she drap she gwine drag — ”

The doctor clapped his hand over the frightened darky’s mouth, and the detective butted him out to the smoking room.

The conductor explained that the porter was crazy, and so averted a panic.

The detective came back and faced the doctor. “Take off the irons,” said the surgeon, and the detective unlocked the handcuffs.

Now the doctor, in his suave, sympathetic way, began to question Bradish; and Bradish began to unravel the mystery, pausing now and again to rest, for the ordeal through which he had just passed had been a great mental and nervous strain.

He began by relating the Ashtabula accident that had left him wifeless and childless, and as the story progressed, he seemed to find infinite relief in relating the sad tale of his lonely life. It was like a confession. Moreover, he had kept the secret so long locked in his troubled breast that it was good to pour it out.

The doctor sat directly in front of the narrator, the detective beside him, while interested passengers hung over the backs of seats and blocked the narrow aisle. Women, with faces, still blanched, sat up in bed listening breathlessly to the strange story of John Bradish.

Shortly after returning to their old home, he related, he was awakened one night by the voice of his wife calling in agonized tones, “John! John!” precisely as she had cried to him through the smoke and steam and twisted débris at Ashtabula. He leaped from his bed, heard a mighty roar, saw a great light flash on his window, and the midnight express crashed by.

To be sure, it was only a dream, he said to himself, intensified by the roar of the approaching train, and yet he could sleep no more that night. Try as he would, he could not forget it, and soon he realized that a growing desire to travel was coming upon him. In two or three days’ time, this desire had become irresistible. He boarded the midnight train and took a ride. But this did not cure him. In fact, the more he traveled, the more he wanted to travel. Soon after this, he discovered that he had acquired another habit. He wanted to stop the train. Against these inclinations, he had struggled but to no purpose. Once, when he felt that he must take a trip, he undressed and went to bed. He fell asleep and slept soundly until he heard the whistle of the midnight train. Instantly he was out of bed, and by the time they had changed engines, he was at the station, ready to go.

The mania for stopping trains had been equally irresistible. He would bite his lips, his fingers, but he would also stop the train.

The moment the mischief (for such it was, in nearly every instance) was done, he would suffer greatly in dread of being found out. But tonight, as on the occasion of the daylight stop in the cañon, he had no warning, no opportunity to check himself, nor any desire to do so. In each instance he had heard, dozing in the day coach and sleeping soundly in his berth, the voice cry: “John! John!” and instantly, his brain was ablaze with the light of burning wreckage. In the canyon, he had only felt, indefinitely, the danger ahead, but tonight he saw the bridge swept away and the dark gorge that yawned in front of them. Instantly upon hearing the cry that woke him, he saw it all.

“When I realized that the train was still moving, that my first effort to stop had failed, I flung these strong men from me with the greatest ease. I’m sure I should have burst those steel bands that bound my wrists if it had been necessary.

“Thank God it’s all over. I feel now that I am cured, — that I can settle down contented.”

The man drew a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his forehead, keeping his face to the window for a long time.

When the conductor went forward, he found that it was as the porter had pictured. A water spout had carried away the high bridge, and on the edge of the opening, the engine trembled, her pilot pointing out over the black abyss.

McNally, having driven his fireman from the deck, stood in the cab gripping the air lever and watching the pump. At that time, we used what is technically known as “straight air”; so that if the pump stopped, the air played out.

The conductor ordered the passengers to leave the train.

The rain had ceased, but the lightning was still playing about the summit of the range, and when it flashed, those who had gone forward saw McNally standing at his open window, looking as grand and heroic as the captain on the bridge of his sinking ship.

A nervous and somewhat thoughtless person came close to the cab to ask the engineer why he didn’t back up.

There was no answer. McNally thought it must be obvious to a man with the intelligence of an oyster that to release the brakes would be to let the heavy train shove him over the bank, even if his engine had the power to back up, which she had not.

Ashtabula Disaster, Harpers Weekly, January, 1877

This ghostly tale, as well as dozens of others, was based on alleged hauntings that occurred after the disastrous train wreck in Ashtabula, Ohio, in December 1876. Illustration from Harper’s Weekly, January 1877.

The trainmen were working quietly but very effectively, unloading. The day coaches had been emptied, the hand brakes set, and all the wheels blocked with links and pins and stones when the link between the engine and the mail-car snapped, and the engine moved forward.

McNally heard the snap and felt her going, leaped from the window, caught and held a scrub cedar that grew in a rock crevice, and saw his black steed plunge down the dark cañon, a sheer two thousand feet.

McNally had been holding her in the back motion with steam in her cylinders, and now, when she leaped out into space, her throttle flew wide, a knot in the whistle-rope caught in the throttle, opening the whistle-valve as well. Down, down she plunged, — her wheels whirling in mid-air, a solid stream of fire escaping from her quivering stack, and from her throat a shriek that almost froze the blood in the veins of the onlookers. Fainter and farther came the cry until, at last, the wild waters caught her, held her, hushed her, and smothered out her life.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated August 2020.

Author & Notes: This tale is adapted from a chapter of a book written by Cy Warman, entitled The Last Spike And Other Railroad Stories, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1906. The tale is not 100% verbatim, as minor grammatical errors and spelling have been corrected. At the age of five, Warman got his first job working as a water boy for a railroad construction crew. When he grew up, he went to work on the Denver & Rio Grande hired him as a general laborer, and by the second day, he had so impressed his foreman that he was promoted to a fireman. Three years later, he became an engineer. He soon began to write railroad poems and short stories about railroad life. Later he worked as an editor on several railway magazines and as a railroad reporter. He contributed a number of stories to Harper’s MagazineThe Century, and McClure’s Magazine, as well as publishing several books.

Also See:

The Ashtabula Disaster – Historic Accounts

Railroads of America

Tom Cypher’s Phantom Engine

Ghost Stories