Ghostly Woman in White

Reenacts Tragic Death Along Vincennes-Lawrenceville, Ill. Railroad Tracks

Submitted by H.J. Halterman, Vincennes, June 18, 1997

The railroad bridge crosses the Embarrass River- the locals pronounce that "Ambraw"- about 10 miles west of Vincennes, Indiana, just to the east of the tank farm of the old Texaco refinery on the outskirts of the small Illinois town of Lawrenceville. The railroad tracks cut between the refinery's storage tank farm and catalytic cracking machinery, which needed water for cooling, so location near a river or sizable stream was a must. On the other, north side of the tracks was the engineering office where my dad worked, so the railroad and the refinery were pretty close neighbors.

The railroad was the Baltimore and Ohio, then. It's a part of the CSX Transportation corporation now, but in those days it was one of the best-known Class 1 railroads in the country. As one of the country's first railroads, it had a lot of history and its own unique character, from the locomotives and cabooses it built in its own shops, to its homebuilt special-purpose freight cars, to its beautiful and elegant passenger service units. The B&O was a class act in American Railroading, and often had its own peculiar way of doing things.

Sometimes I'd ride one of those B&O passenger trains across that bridge on the way to dinner at my grandmother's house, but I never thought there was anything special about it then. Every once in a while, an uncle would ask me if I had seen anything by that bridge, but I never noticed anything unusual about it. Of course, I was only ten years old or so, and I didn't know there was anything there except the pumping station for the coolant water for the refinery.

A few years later, I heard the first mumbles about some kind of a ghost story. It was something about a girl in a white dress, but that's a pretty common theme for ghost stories. You didn't hear the kids whose dads worked for the railroad talk about it though.

By the time I was to enter high school, we had moved to the next town down the railroad line from Lawrenceville, called Bridgeport, though it was no port and there was no bridge there. But that was where I heard a little more about the story of the girl on the bridge. She was said to be about our age, a high school girl or maybe just a little older. At some time in the past she had put on her nicest white dress, and walked the mile or so through the refinery stink and the tank car yard and walked out onto the bridge and waited for a train. When it came along she made no attempt to jump or get out of the way, she just stood there in her white dress and let it hit her.

A full train of cars at fifty tons apiece or more takes quite a ways to stop, and there was no way those trainmen could keep from hitting her. At forty, fifty miles an hour there's not much left when a train hits a person like that, and it doesn't matter if it's a pretty girl or not. At least it must have been over pretty quick.

She was said to have lost her boyfriend or husband in the early days of the war- though I never heard exactly which war. I always assumed it was meant that it was the Second World War, what they called "the Big One" then, and since we had lost a family member during the attack on Pearl Harbor, I sort of felt a little closer to that poor girl I never knew, who died before I was born. It could have been the Korean war, though, or even World War One, but it just felt like it was the sort of thing that fit in with the other stories I had heard about "the Big One."

Later I changed schools, and I graduated, and went on to the Army. When I came home to visit, I spent some time with a girlfriend I'd known from school. One night I got to her home just as she was leaving, and she told me to come along, to her brother's house. He worked for the railroad.

When we got to his house, her sister-in-law told us he had been crying. Then laughing. Then he cried some more, and then he started getting very, very drunk. I had seen a few drunks before. When we got to talking, he was laughing again, but he was shaking like he was real cold. He'd seen her, he said: the girl on the bridge. He told us about it.

It seems that sometimes since that first time, the train crew would see a girl standing out on the bridge right where the one had been hit before. It was no ghost either; when the train hit, there was blood across one side of the engine front on the fireman's side and as they went past they could see her white dress go under the wheels. The first few times, trains had stopped there and the fireman and head brakeman would go back to see who it was. When they got there, there'd be nothing there. They were told that it was probably a trick of some kind, a stunt by some kids with a dummy and some white rags. That was the official explanation anyway, and for a while at least, the trainmen were ordered not to stop at that bridge if they thought they had hit someone. It was always the trains that were coming from the same direction as the time the girl had been hit, though, but it wasn't always the same locomotive or crewmen. I don't know if it ever happened to anyone twice.

But I found out that there were other people who knew about it. And I heard other railroaders talk about it after they'd retired and couldn't be laid off. It happened through the 1950s, I was told, when they first put radios in the cabs of the locomotives and in the cabooses so the crews could talk to each other and to the stations they passed by. Sometimes a crew up front would hit the girl, and see her go under the wheels and they'd call on the radio back to the caboose and the crew in back would look for anything unusual. The ones in back never found anything.

The last guy I know of who worked for the railroad in that area told me he had spent nearly twenty years along that route, but he had never seen her. He'd heard the story, though, and he promised he'd let me know if he ever saw her. Maybe things have changed enough since the refinery shut down or the railroad changed its name that she doesn't come along any more. Maybe whatever she thought was worth dying about doesn't mean much to anyone now, or maybe there's just been enough water pass beneath that bridge, and enough trains across it, that she can get some rest, for good, at last.

Or maybe, the next train along that way, crossing that bridge when they come to it at about the same time as the one that hit that girl the first time, maybe the very next ones will see that same girl in her white dress with that same look on her face. They've got a few women running the locomotives on the CSX Railroad now, so I wonder whether one of them might be next to see that girl in the white dress. But like the men, like so many and a few I've known, I doubt if she'll talk about it much.