“When people say that the Internet is going to make us all geniuses, that was said about the telegraph. On the other hand, when they say the Internet is going to make us stupid, that also was said about the telegraph” – James Gleick
My high-school guidance counselor didn’t think it was funny when I told her I wanted a career in “Rail Barony”. Tough room. It wasn’t so much that I like trains, just that being a “Baron” of anything seemed like a good gig. I suppose one has to work their way up the corporate railroad ladder, and any sort of climbing sounds like exercise. I hate exercise. It makes you sweat. Consequently, I’m not a Rail Baron. Well, that and the fact that by the time I was considering what to do with the rest of my life, railroads were not an especially profitable business (mega-mergers and government subsidies were required to keep railroads afloat in the 1970’s). As it turns out I probably shouldn’t be allowed to drive things, so a future as a railroad engineer was out of the question, and as I’m not particularly intimidating, even a career rousting train-hopping hobos was outside my skill set. Turns out I’m an information technology guy. If it was 1911, I could have taken up as a railroad telegraph operator and risen through the ranks to Baronhood. In perusing the 1911 edition of Radio Telegraph Operation for Dummies, they fail to mention one specific occupational hazard. Poltergeists.
In 1851, railroad companies in the United States starting using telegraphy to coordinate the arrival and departure schedules of their trains. Before 1851, the U.S. rail system was single-tracked. Railroad managers had to be very careful dispatching trains to avoid head on collisions between trains going in opposite directions, and back-end collisions between trains going in the same direction. A time-interval dispatching system was typically used, but that worked if nothing happened between stations. The obvious solution was a two-track system, but that would require laying double tracks everywhere (and wouldn’t solve the problem of accidents involving trains headed in the same direction). A more cost effective solution was the telegraph and a series of telegraph stations, so that every station supervisor knew where the trains he was in charge of were on the tracks. That brings us to Dale, Georgia.
Dale, Georgia never really existed. Or rather, it existed, but consisted of exactly one building. Seven miles south of Savannah, the main line of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad needed a telegraph station to relay the disposition of trains. Dale was the telegraph tower. The nearest human habitation was a quarter of a mile away. Basically the “Dale Tower” was a tiny oasis in the middle of a lonely pine forest inhabited by three railroad telegraph operators for three months of the year, and otherwise deserted. Starting in January, the northern tourists flocked to the sunnier climes of Florida for a little rest and relaxation. This passed through Dale, Georgia. The increased traffic required alert radio telegraph operators to avoid collisions. This is clearly a recipe for some sort of horror movie.
January 4th, 1911 rolled around, and three intrepid young telegraph operators named A. Bright, R. L. Davis and J. H. Clark arrived at Dale Tower to open for the season. Apart from being a relatively deserted and lonely place in the middle of nowhere, Dale already had a bit of an unsavory reputation among railroad men who passed through the area.
On one occasion, a man was killed by the train hard by the tower, and his body was laid to rest over across the track hardly a stone’s throw away, and in full view of the tower windows. After that, there were more rumors, and conductors dreaded to have to sidetrack their trains there. The brakemen would report strange noises about the switch where the tragedy had happened, and sometimes on attempting to pull out from the side track, the engineman would find his train uncoupled in three places, no order having been given to that effect and none of the train crew having put their hands to it. Scarcely a brakeman on the line will enter the tower (Raines, 1911, p267).
Remote location. Check. Horrible death. Check. History of hauntings. Check. All we need is a killer clown with a machete or a family of cannibalistic locals for a decent B-movie script. Nonetheless, Bright, Davis and Clark arrived on schedule to take up residence at Dale Tower for three months, undaunted by its spooky reputation. Radio telegraph operators were paid a respectable living in 1911, and most of us will put up with a modicum of spectral shenanigans for a living wage.
When the three telegraphmen arrived, they discovered Dale Tower already had an inhabitant – the decaying corpse of an anonymous, old hobo, who had no doubt sought shelter there, and inconsiderately died without cleaning up after himself. They gave him a good Christian burial on the other side of the tracks from the tower. This is of course, just asking for trouble. And trouble ensued.
The first thing that occurred was the sudden, inexplicable flinging open of the trap-door, and the difficulty of keeping it closed. In spite of fastening it with stout nails and an iron bar, it would still fly open; mysterious footsteps were also heard on the stair, but a careful search revealed no cause for the disturbances. Then followed the raising and lowering of the window sashes in the upper chamber, in full view of the three occupants, no one being near the window. To assure themselves against tricksters, the trap-door leading down to the floor below was closed and securely fastened, and raised only when necessary to descend to the ground. This precaution had no effect whatsoever on the phenomena, and soon various articles began to be levitated about the room in broad open daylight in full view of all three occupants of the tower, when there was no possible chance for trickery or fraud. A can of condensed milk was seen to lift itself into the air and pass from one end of the desk to the other without the contact of a visible hand. A large dish-pan lying near the stove slowly lifted itself and rolled down the stairs and out of the tower and under it, from whence it had to be fished out with the aid of a long pole. A lantern was levitated on to the desk without having been touched, and in full view of all. On another occasion this lantern made a wild rush across the room and dashed itself into fragments against the wall. An ordinary can-opener flew wildly about the room and fastened itself in the centre of the ceiling…Frequently bolts and taps, such as are used in railroad construction work, would be hurled into the room, breaking a hole in the glass of the window scarcely large enough to enter through (Barrett, 1911, p404-405).
A little wanton, phantom vandalism is par for the course with your average poltergeist. Once a ghost decides to get uppity, they like to work in the realm of the inexplicable. Sadly, if it seems one is not adequately appreciating their art, poltergeists tend to escalate things quickly.
On one occasion, when objects were being hurled about the room so persistently that the tower was hastily abandoned by all three occupants, a chair was dashed out of the upper window and fell with such force that one of the rungs was broken, and narrowly missed the head of Mr. Davis; this in broad daylight, with no one in the tower and the only avenue of entrance or of escape guarded by the three occupants of the tower (Raines, 1911, p278-279).
On two occasions, Mr. Bright (perhaps living up to his name) walked the seven miles to Savannah intending to resign his position, but found he was too embarrassed to admit the reason, returning to Dale Tower. Yet, Bright, Davis, and Clark figured something had to be done, so they started experimenting.
A pack of ordinary playing cards having been tossed from the window, in the tentative belief that they were the cause of the supernormal happenings, immediately returned, and was found in a bag of rice, while the case that formerly contained them was found in a canister of coffee with the lid tightly closed. The cards were then put back in the case, and as a fast train whizzed past they were tossed beneath the wheels of the engine, only to be found in the bed a moment later (Raines, 1911, p279).
It’s not clear what the deck of cards ever did to merit such consideration, but clearly they had friends in high places. Resolved to rid themselves of the poltergeist, the telegraphers set about burning large quantities of sulfur inside the tower. This seems a rather smelly and dangerous reaction. I’m told by modern witches that this is a traditional way to exorcise negative spirits, but since sulfur smoke is poisonous, most reasonable practitioners looking for spectral countermeasures go with something with reasonable sulfur content, but low on toxicity, like garlic. Apparently, this technique worked, as all poltergeist activity ceased. We can only assume that the overwhelming smell of rotten eggs sent the ghost packing. I mean, the dead don’t smell that pretty, what with all the decay, but even they appear to have some olfactory standards.
What should one do if they find themselves at an isolated tower in the middle of a dark forest, near a graveyard? I recommend avoiding all three for a start, but failing that you’re gambling on a haunting, and most of us successfully try to avoid the undead. They’re very needy. Unfortunately, sometimes you’ve got to make a living and the only job that’s available is winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. After all, as Tom Stoppard said, “Life is a gamble, at terrible odds – if it was a bet you wouldn’t take it”.
Barrett, W.F. “Poltergeists, Old and New”. Society for Psychical Research (Great Britain). Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research v25. London: Trübner and Co., 1911.
Raines, Thomas Hart. “A Poltergeist from Georgia”. Rider’s Review (The Occult Review) v13. London, 1911.