A chilling tale of a tragic passenger train accident in the late 19th century
Every Christmas Eve for the past 100 years, at ten minutes to midnight, a
mournful wail floats through the frosty silence shrouding the 468-foot
railroad bridge near Route 117 in Essex Junction, Vermont. It's the cry
of a steam locomotive; a
piercing shriek that climbs to a feverish pitch, only to end abruptly,
plunging the night back into darkness. To the old timers in the area,
it's a grim reminder of the demise of Engine 93, and Engineer, Edmund
Johansson. For hours, the wood and steel railroad bridge just outside town had
endured the paralyzing minus 39-degree temperature that had silently
descended on the wings of darkness. Deeper and deeper, the cold wormed
its way into the metal, torturing the bolts in the thick, steel splice
plate until their surrender sounded like gunshots in the empty night
air. Unfortunately, because of the late hour and the terribly frigid
night, there was no one about to hear the horror that had just spawned
that December 24, 1898.
It was by far the coldest night of the year when Johansson's train --
two coaches full of French immigrants en-route to Montreal -- left
White River Junction, winding its way through the moon lit, picturesque
snow-covered hills of central Vermont. But inside the darkened
locomotive cab the gangly Engineer wasn't interested in the scenery.
Ignoring the billowy clouds of white steam rushing past the frost-etched
windows of the locomotive,
Johansson's steel gray eyes were coolly scanning the gauges, verifying
what he already knew. He was pushing the iron 2-0-2 monolith close to
its limits. Then, without so much as a care in the world, he nudged the
throttle another notch.
At thirty-one years of age, Johansson's shock of unruly,
chestnut-colored hair and lean six-foot frame made him the heart's
desire of all the women in town. And despite his outgoing appearance,
deep down he was shy, the reason his cheeks always warmed whenever a
woman stared at him. But tonight
he wasn't 'warm', at least not that way. No. A cold anger gripped him
an anger as cold as frigid as the steel rails the train was traveling
over. And while much of his anger was directed at 93's regular engineer
who reported in sick, the gangly Johansson was angrier with himself for
not saying no when asked to take the unscheduled, last-minute Montreal
run. Further, he hadn't had time to say good-by to Mary and the children. Maybe Hector, the ticket agent, would brave the cold, and get a message to Johansson's honey-haired wife who was waiting in the cottage in West Lebanon, just across the Connecticut River in New Hampshire.
She'd be disappointed, but she'd understand. The severity of the
early winter had drastically reduced their firewood supply, and they
had already discussed his taking extra runs to earn more money with
which to buy more wood. Absently unbuttoning his heavy duffel coat --
the roaring blaze in the firebox
was making the cab uncomfortably warm -- his thoughts drifted back to
Alfy Magna, the red-faced conductor, and a young, skinny new brakeman,
named George something-or-other.
Earlier, the two men had made the precarious trip from the rear
coach on the pretense of wishing Johansson a Merry Christmas. The truth
be known, they had originally braved the elements and swaying railroad
cars in order to question the train's dangerous speed. However, one
look from Johansson convinced them otherwise. His brow furrowing,
Johansson nudged throttle another click just as the train shrieked into
the State Capitol of Montpelier, its wheels spinning even faster over
the hoar frosted rails.
For a brief moment Johansson's heart warmed at the sight of the amber glow in the windows
of the houses flying by. They reminded him of his promise this morning
to Mary that he'd be home in time to help wrap the precious few
presents for Alicia, Sarah, and Thomas. Then his heart hardened again
at the thought that his would be the first Christmas morning he wouldn't
be there with them.
Brushing at the cold wetness trickling down his cheek, he yanked his pocket watch
from his coveralls. In the flickering glow of the open firebox he saw
it was just a little after 9 p.m. Glancing at the fleeting countryside,
then at engine's gauges again, he mentally calculated that if he kept
up his speed, there was a chance he might make it home in time for
dinner. Another perilous click of the throttle and a surge of fresh
steam sent the train roaring even faster into the darkness.
Even though the cab was overly warm, Johansson still felt a
shiver course through his body. Maybe he would head to the rear car for
a swig from the whiskey flask it was rumored the bulbous-nosed
conductor always carried. No! That would mean leaving the engine
unattended. And despite his bitterness, Johansson knew that would be
negligent, something he could never be, no matter what the reason.
Magna and the new brakeman, meanwhile, were trying desperately to
ignore what they knew was a perilous situation. Braving the biting
wind on the caboose's tiny portico, they took turns at Magna's whiskey
flask. But even the spreading warmth of the alcohol did little to slow
down the tree line that was flying by, nor steady the frightening
swaying of the train. Hopefully the passengers were too caught up in
their holiday cheer to notice the danger. Casting
a troubled look forward, Magna remembered Johansson's earlier, frosty
reception, and pulled his coat collar tighter against the biting cold.
Then with a final glance at the blurred countryside, he struggled to get
slightly-intoxicated George what's-his-name back inside, to the warmth
of the glowing wood stove.
Not many miles ahead, another man was out this frigid night,
struggling to keep his oil lamp's pathetic flame from being extinguished
by the corkscrewing arctic wind threatening to pluck him from the
bridge. Sam Tower, a willowy slip of a man with haunting dark eyes that
mirrored more than fifty years of railroading, had been with the company
since he was old enough to swing a sledgehammer. A quiet, cautious individual,
Tower's inherent sense for danger had made him the company's official
troubleshooter for more years than anyone could remember.
It had been a half hour earlier, while sitting in front of a
warm, cozy fire, that he began feeling uneasy about the Montreal run.
Nodding to his knowing wife, he donned his hat and heavy overcoat. Then
he and his kerosene lamp began the freezing, quarter mile trek to the
foreboding span across the black abyss of the Winooski River. Little
did he know that when he stepped on the bridge, Engine 93 was in
Richmond an alarming forty-three minutes ahead of schedule!
His beard tinkling from the tiny icicles formed by his freezing
breath, Tower was barely half way across the span when suddenly his
blood froze. In the flickering light of the lamp he saw the rail joint
and its missing splice. But what really horrified him was that the ends
of the two rails were bent several inches out of alignment!
He had to stop the train! But how? The nearest stop, Williston,
was at least three miles up the track. Could he make the trip in time
in the numbing cold that was already beginning to seep into his bones?
He would have to try.
Johansson, meanwhile, shifted his bulk on the hard, wooden seat
while the locomotive tore across the Richmond crossing, barely missing a
horse and rider that had just crossed the tracks. "Fool!" Johansson
muttered. "A man should be home with his family on Christmas Eve, not
traipsing around the countryside!" Then the horse and rider were forgotten,
and his thoughts turned to the small, yet succulent goose, sweet
potatoes and hot, mincemeat pie Mary would have for dinner - a dinner
he prayed he wouldn't miss. At this his fury increased, and he slammed
the throttle lever against its stop, nearly breaking it off.
Glancing at the coal supply, he knew he should take more on in
Essex Junction. But because it was Christmas the yard would be closed.
Before he left Montreal, however, one way or another there would be a
full coal tender and 3,200 gallons of water in the boiler.
A tight smile creased his face ten minutes later when he saw the
pale amber lights of the Williston Station ahead. He fondly remembered
the countless times he'd visited with old Gaty who, through the good
graces of the company, was allowed to live at the Williston stop as
part-payment for serving as Station Master. The old man always had a hot
cup of coffee and a story ready for the trainmen, regardless of the
time of day or night.
But there was no time for pleasantries tonight, and flicking a
discerning eye at the steam gauge he saw that the needle was in the red
danger zone. Still, he wasn't concerned. Once he reached the flat
track the other side of the Junction, he would be able to cut back on
the pressure and still maintain his speed.
It was less than five minutes when the final curve before the
straight run to the bridge berthed in the glow of the head lamp.
Suddenly, on a breeze the sound of muffled merriment from the rear of
the train reached Johansson's ears, and for the briefest of moments he
was consumed by a burning jealousy for the sixty-odd people who, thanks
to him, would be home on Christmas morning.
While Johansson struggled with this new emotion, less than a mile
ahead Towers was hunched over, exhausted and gasping into the frozen
air. Suddenly the ground began shaking, and the sound of a rapidly
approaching train reached his ears. Appalled at what was about to
happen, he ripped his duffel coat off, and in the pathetic glow of the
lamp began waving it madly over his head.
The curve was already a memory when Johansson began inching the
throttle back. He knew the old, deck-style bridge at Essex was
notorious for cross winds. And while they wouldn't bother the fifty-ton
locomotive, the two wooden coaches trailing behind were another matter.
Craning his neck back, looking to see if the new brakeman was on
the job, was probably the reason Johansson never saw Towers. Without so
much as a tremor, the roaring train smashed through Towers, its blurred
wheels rapidly eating up the final mile of track. Too late, the
massive locomotive began slowing when a sudden heart-wrenching shriek
breached the frigid night. With a massive lurch the steam engine sailed
out into the void, its still-turning wheels clawing at the empty air
while it plummeted into the forbidding darkness below.
Its death toll -- the roiling thunder of hundreds of pounds of
steam breaching the darkness as the boiler casing tore open on the rocks
-- desecrated the silence. Within minutes' hundreds of sleepy
townspeople were scurrying to the scene of the tragedy that had just
befallen this most joyous of nights.
It was three days before the last broken body was wrested from
the twisted wreckage, and another two days before Towers fate was
learned. Johansson's body, however, was no where to be found and it was
assumed that it would be found further downriver in the spring. But
when spring came and no body was found, there where whisper that another
power had been at work that night.
A year went by, and the calamitous events of the previous
Christmas Eve were all but forgotten -- until December 24th. It came
just before midnight, the forlorn whistle of another train approaching
Essex High-Bridge. Again the townspeople were awaken by the shrieking
and rumbling of what had to be another train going to its death on the
river bed. Scrambling from their warm beds they again made their way to
the bridge, only to see in the glow of the oil lamps, the snow from that
afternoon's storm laying virgin upon the rails.
It's been over a hundred years since Edmund Johansson delivered all
those innocent people into the hands of the Grim Reaper, yet every
Christmas Eve the people living around the bridge swear they hear what
sounds like a steam locomotive. And while someone is always quick to
offer some explanation or other, there is still one or two who remember
the old tale. Handed down from generation to generation, it says that
because of his horrendous deed, a power not of this earth mysteriously
snatched Johansson from his train that night. And he is destined to
spend eternity trying to complete his Christmas run of 1891.