Updated: Mar 3, 2020
For most of my life, I’ve had this strange fear of trains. I guess it’s not that strange when you think about it — we are talking about machines that could literally rip you apart in seconds. I’m sure there’s someone out there that shares my fear, but it’s not a fear that people like to talk about a lot.
A few months ago, I got a request to talk about the haunted railroad tracks of San Antonio. When I looked into the legend, I realized I’d already heard it before…and I remembered why I was ever afraid of trains in the first place. It’s a pretty popular legend, so you may have heard of it too. But whether it’s new to you or you’ve known it for years, I hope you enjoy hearing about it as much as I did.
The section of this railroad thought to be haunted lies on the intersections of Shane and Villamain Roads in San Antonio, Texas. It’s a pretty popular local legend, and San Antonio residents (as well as others) have visited the tracks for years, hoping to find evidence of some very specific paranormal activity.
As with most of these ghost stories, there are a couple different versions. But they’re both so detailed and different that I’m just going to share them both.
Both stories take place in an unspecified year in the 1930’s or 1940’s. In the first, a busload full of schoolchildren is on its after school route, taking the kids home. But the bus stalls on the now famous train tracks…and there’s a train coming fast. The driver attempts to get all the children off the bus, and manages to save a few. But when the train hits, the driver and 10 of the children are killed.
In the next story, it’s nighttime and the kids are returning to town after a field trip. The bus driver is a nun, which is something I’ve never really envisioned, but I guess is possible. When the bus stalls and the train hits, all of the kids are killed but the nun somehow survives. A few weeks later, the nun goes back to the site and decides to kill herself out of guilt. She parks her car on the tracks and waits for a train to come. But as it comes, she starts hearing voices and her car moves forward, seemingly on its own. It rolls to safety and she survives without a scratch. When she gets out of her car, she sees child sized handprints on the back.
The nun later opens a school for orphans and runs it until she dies, making up for the lives she felt responsible for taking by helping out others in need. Moral of the story? Don’t stress if you can’t make it to the car wash for a few weeks.
Whatever the story, rumors of hauntings have persisted ever since. Locals have claimed to hear train noises like whistles and wheels screeching when there are no trains scheduled to pass through, as well as children’s laughter. Others who live in the neighborhood by the haunted train tracks claimed to see decapitated chickens in the area, and heard rumors of witchcraft.
Another legend associated with the bus crash story bears more resemblance to the famous ‘vanishing hitchhiker’ legend that’s been around in various formats since ancient times. In this version, a woman was driving down Shane Road at night and saw a little girl on the side of the road. Thinking the girl had just run away from home, she offered her a ride, which the girl took. The woman drove back to her house, but the girl didn’t want to get out of the car. The woman got out, telling the girl she’d talk to her parents. But when she turned back around, the girl was gone.
To add a bit to the story, some people point out a couple of different streets like Cindy Sue Way and Bobbie Allen Way, intersecting roads that are both close to Shane Road and have names that sound very child-like. People say these roads were named after children who died in the accident. It is worth noting, though, that there are several intersecting or nearby roads that have female names like Nancy Carole and Laura Lee.
Nowadays, the tracks attract paranormal enthusiasts both inside and out of San Antonio. Ghost hunters will visit the scene, park their cars 20 or 30 feet away, sprinkle baby powder on the back of their cars, put the car in neutral and wait. The car will then roll off the tracks and, when the driver or their companions inspect the back, they find child-size fingerprints in the baby powder, as if the child ghosts pushed them to safety. I assume these visitors don’t perform their experiments when a train is actually coming because that would be extremely dangerous.
I hate to be a killjoy, but there are quite a few holes in this urban legend. For starters, no bus crash of this sort has ever happened anywhere near San Antonio.
I did a little bit of digging — and by digging I mean I scrolled through Wikipedia, the most reliable source on the internet. I could only find two school bus crashes that happened in the United States in the 1930’s or 1940’s and involved a collision with a train.
The first happened in Rockville, Maryland on the night of April 11, 1935. High school students from Williamsport, about an hour north, were returning home from a chemistry fair when their bus collided with a train. I’m not entirely sure why the bus driver stopped on the tracks at that particular moment. Maybe he didn’t see the train coming, or maybe he thought he could beat it. Nevertheless, 14 of the 27 students on board died in what is still considered the worst school bus tragedy in Maryland history. The bus driver was charged with manslaughter, but a grand jury didn’t indict him. While his license was revoked due to previous driving violations, as well as failing to stop at the tracks, the Baltimore and Ohio railroad was also held partially responsible, since they were supposed to have a watchman on guard as well as a safety gate. The crash also inspired political action, with president Roosevelt pledging to spend up to $200 million to fix dangerous railroad tracks throughout the country. And if he said he’d give money to make railroads safer, he definitely did it. Because no politician has ever promised something and then not followed through…right?
The next crash happened in Salt Lake City, Utah, on December 1, 1938. This one is brought up quite a bit by people discussing the San Antonio legend. It was Salt Lake City’s first snowstorm of the year, and the kids were being bused to school around 8:30 that morning. But the driver didn’t see the train coming because of thick fog, and 23 students as well as the driver were all killed. The crash prompted new safety regulations for buses and railroads, including the ‘railroad crossing arms’ you still see at train tracks today.
When I started looking into the San Antonio legend, I noticed a photo of a newspaper article floating around on blog entries and articles. The article is from the San Antonio Express, and I guess some people use it to show that the San Antonio crash was real*. But if you look closely at the print, it’s clear the article is talking about the crash in Salt Lake City. I assume it was on the front page of a San Antonio paper because the crash was big enough to make national news, but I’m not really sure.
(*My link to the article is from ghostcitytours.com, who did not claim this. Just to be clear.)
The rest of the legend has been pretty thoroughly debunked as well. Matt De Waelsche, an archivist at the San Antonio Public Library, was credited with this debunking back in 2003. He discovered the Salt Lake City crash and assumed this was the story that inspired the San Antonio legend, though it’s not clear how the story took root in a city over a thousand miles away. He also noted that the fingerprints that became visible after the car was sprinkled with baby powder were fingerprints that were already on the car and merely made visible by the baby powder. I will admit to being ignorant on the science behind this. On the flip side, I did read a story from a San Antonio woman who claimed she saw child-sized handprints on her car after visiting the tracks — even though no children had been in or around her car for awhile.
De Waelsche isn’t the only person who has questioned the legend. A YouTube video shows paranormal investigators at the tracks. The hill leading up to the tracks looks like it goes up, so it seems like the car couldn’t make it up there on its own. But this is an optical illusion, and the road actually goes downhill. The video shows the road from different angles and it does in fact seem to actually go downhill. I’ll link that below if you’re interested.
Even though the legend is probably not true, it has inspired at least one movie. Fingerprints was released back in 2006, and follows a Texas woman named Melanie who moves back in with her parents after leaving rehab. Shortly after her arrival, a string of murders begins and Melanie sees a ghost girl, somehow entangling her in the mystery of the haunted train tracks.
I remember seeing this movie years ago, and mostly watched it because Melanie’s sister was played by Kristin Cavallari, and I was a huge Laguna Beach fan. I honestly don’t even remember if I liked it or not — though general consensus is that it’s not that great.
In 2016, construction in the area temporarily closed the tracks. In 2018, Union Pacific planned to build new railroads in the area. According to ksat.com, the planned construction would change the elevation so that the legend would no longer work. I assume the road leading up to the tracks would no longer appear to go uphill, but it wasn’t really clear with the information I could find. This construction was also supposed to happen almost a year ago, so I’m not sure what the tracks look like now. At this point, it is clear the the stories are probably not true. But if there really are ghosts at these San Antonio tracks, I don’t think a little construction is going to drive them away.
So what do you think of the haunted railroad tracks of San Antonio? Have you ever been? If you’re from San Antonio or have ever lived there or spent time there, what versions of the legend have you heard? I’m always interested to hear these stories from the locals’ perspectives. Let me know in the comments.
cover photo by Martin Winkler from Pixabay