This is a story Auntie told me awhile back, about an incident that happened in her hometown.
Etowah, Tennessee exists, literally, because of the railroad. The first rails were laid through there about the year 1900, and, by 1910, it was a major terminus, where Louisville and Nashville (L&N) trains on the Atlanta to Cincinnati run could stop for repairs and pick up freight and passengers. Its depot still stands, a large handsome building that now houses a museum. The trains that once stopped there only slow down through the city limits nowadays.
Part of the tracks ran through a swamp. It took some years to fill it up and make it solid enough to bear the great weight of trains, but filled up it was—which makes the story of what happened in that erstwhile swamp in the 1930s all the stranger.
Sometime around 1907, so the story goes, a track layer whom we’ll call Jedediah Long simply vanished. He turned in no notice to the bosses, he took none of his possessions from his rooming house, and he left no note. His disappearance was a nine-days’ wonder, as they say—but the work went on, and eventually he was forgotten, save by a few oldtimers who had worked with him.
In the 1930s, though, townspeople began to report that, at night, they saw an odd light. It rose from the far side of the tracks, they said, where the long-filled swamp had been deepest. It seemed, they said, to rise out of the ground, somewhat in a column shape maybe eighteen inches high; it would sit there awhile, then slowly fade out.
None of the townspeople showed any interest in tracking the light down. For that matter, neither did the men and boys who worked in the railyard. They worked hard, and after their workday was done, they’d have a few drinks, then go home—the married men to homes of their own, the unmarried to their boarding houses—and sleep, waking early to start the same old grind all over again.
In the long evenings of summer, though, it was often too hot to sleep. And so it may have been in that July when two railroad men, Jeremiah Short and Phineas Middleton (as we’ll call them), decided that, before they went to bed, they would go check out the ghost light.
They could see it as they crossed the tracks, just as it had been described, but they had a more immediate concern. Although it was a hot and exceptionally dry year, they found themselves walking into mud, where there had been no mud for thirty years. At first they were ankle deep, then knee deep. They almost turned back, frightened of this mud they knew couldn’t exist.
But then they heard the voice—a rather weak voice, calling for help, and it seemed to come from the light.
The closer they got, the less like a light the light looked. They could see it was actually a man—quite solid-looking—a man sunk chest deep into the mud that couldn’t be there.
Phineas Middleton was an oldtimer in the Etowah railyards, and he recognized the face and the voice; thirty years before, he had worked with Jedediah Long.
“Jed?” he called. “Jed, is that you? Lord, man, been thirty years since I last seen you! What are you doin’—”
“What? Phin, I just seen you a few hours ago! Ain’t got time to talk, though. Git over here and git me outen this mud fore I—”
But before Phin and his companion could pull themselves out of the mud to move closer to him, he slowly faded out. As he disappeared, so did the light.
And so did the mud. The pair could feel the sticky mess vanish from around their legs, and they stood on solid ground again.
Phin and Jeremiah stood stunned for a few minutes, then rushed back to their rooming house. The few boarders who were still awake could see they were pale and excited about something.
But when they gasped out their story, they got no sympathy. They were teased that they’d obviously had a little more beer than was good for them—or, a kinder soul opined, they were so tired from their long hard shift that they had imagined that foxfire or some such was a light that looked and spoke like the long-vanished Jedediah Long, imagined the mud that sucked at their legs–and had, the kinder soul pointed out, left no trace on their work pants.
They took the teasing as well they might. Phin was still being teased about it when he retired. As for Jeremiah, he married, left the railroad, and moved to parts unknown.
The funny thing is, though, that after that night, when the two men learned what had really happened to Jed Long, there were no more reports of the Etowah ghost light. Ever.