Fantastic stories of ghostly lights which frequently appear near railroad tracks and, according to popular imagination, are carried by the spirits of long-deceased conductors have become a permanent and tantalizing feature of American folklore. Commonly referred to as “spook lights,” the phenomenon has captured the imagination of Fortean investigators around the world.
According to recent estimates, there exist more than 60 separate locations throughout the United States alone where this strange phenomenon occurs. The “Maco lights,” of North Carolina, have, by far, received the greatest attention of all, and are said to have been first sighted during the 18th Century.
Others, though less familiar, are equally well-documented, with many of the contemporary sightings having their roots in local Indian legends, such as the Hornet Spook Light, found in the southern midwest region of the country. Here, as in countless other cases, the belief persists that the lights are concrete proof of psychic survival after death, and that the discarnate personalities of dead railroad conductors and ancient tribal leaders are with us today.
Over the last five years, however, many researchers have sought to strip away the thick layers of myth and superstition which surround the spook light mystery, and have begun to employ sophisticated scientific equipment and methods in their research efforts. One such research group, Vestigia, has been concentrating its attention on strange lights observed in northwestern New Jersey, in an area known as Long Valley. Their investigation and findings, along with material gathered from other researchers in the field, have yielded some provocative answers to the spook light mystery.
The spook lights of Long Valley have been actively reported since the turn of the century. One particular section of the High Bridge Railroad is the focus of the activity, a stretch of railroad which is now owned by Con Rail. The spur was originally built in the mid-18th Century, and was, for a time, a bustling link between the iron-rich Long Valley area and the main line of the New Jersey Central Railroad as Chester, N.J. The High Bridge Railroad was built by mine owners for the transfer of ore; the line later carried both passengers and freight until the 1930s. Today the line is an infrequently used freight spur.
The legend of this local spook light is, indeed, colorful, and conforms faithfully to the mythic storyline found in many similar cases. A brakeman of the High Bridge Railroad is supposed to have lost his hand in an accident caused by a mechanical malfunction. Mentally unbalanced by the trauma of the accident, he walked the tracks near the site of the mishap with a lantern swinging from a hook which replaced his lost hand. One night, legend has it, that hapless figure, while searching for his lost limb on the tracks, was struck by an oncoming train, and instantly killed.
It was believed that the lights appearing over the High Bridge Railroad were a psychic re-creation of that tragic night. The “Hookerman’s” lantern sways over the tracks, then, suddenly vanishes as he is once again felled by the approaching locomotive.
The High Bridge legend is almost identical to others across the country, both in reported phenomena and folklore. In almost all cases, the lights appear suddenly and at random, but seldom during heavy rain. The light itself, often a dull yellow, flickers much like a lantern, swinging from side to side like a pendulum. Generally it appears several inches to a few feet above the ground, and seems to move toward the observer in uncanny silence.
In one isolated incident, a young high school student was said to have been severely burned by the bizarre light, though this report ha yet to be confirmed. What is confirmable, however, is that the phenomenon is genuine, and has been reported by hundreds of people since the turn of the century.
At Long Valley, the researchers of Vestigia undertook a preliminary study of the spook lights in 1976, studying the history of the area, the High Bridge Railroad, and any accidents that could be linked to the Hookerman legend. It was learned that Long Valley was rural farmland until 1850, when iron ore began to be mined in the area. The High Bridge Railroad was, at first, a short spur that was used to transport ore from the mines to the foundry, and was actively used until 1885, when the mines began to cut back on operations. Eventually the railroad added several spurs, to the original Chester branch that ran to Long Valley. It was this spur that became the center of Vestigia’s study. By 1899, the railroad was renamed the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad, and ran passenger operations until 1934. The line was still in use for freight until 1960. Today, there is little activity on the spur, which is now part of the Jersey Central Railroad owned by Conrail.
The area is incredibly rich in folklore, including several tragedies associated with both mining and railroad operations. Many of these casualties are on record, but nothing in the records parallels the legend of the Hookerman, or gives any hint as to his identity, if he did, in the fact, exist.
Representatives from Vestigia collected background information from local residents about the legend, including several accounts that suggested the Hookerman was hospitalized at a local institution for the insane after his accident. Local hospital records and old railroad documents were carefully examined. The researchers even visited the local mental hospitals in search of the true identity of the Hookerman, but nothing could be found to link the legend of Long valley to reality.
Even if the Hookerman was the product of overactive local imaginations, the spook lights of Long Valley certainly were not. Researchers visited the area several times and each time they were able to see the Hookerman’s infamous “lantern.” Although the size, shape, speed of movement, and color varied from sighting to sighting, one thing was certain – the phenomenon was authentic and repeatedly observable. The directors of Vestigia then began the arduous task of amassing the technical materials, test equipment, and personnel necessary to study the phenomenon properly.
The first studies of the lights were scheduled for the fall of 1976 and the list of necessary equipment was extensive. Included were cameras, Geiger counters, methane gas sniffers devices, oscilloscopes, a Vascar radar unit, recording apparatus, thermometers, walkie-talkies, and assorted auxiliary equipment.
The team, led by Bill Wagner, was working on the theory that, if the lights could be seen, they should be recordable, photogenic and measurable. To that end, the team, 16 in all, amassed their equipment, much of it at their own expense. Next, the researchers selected the location for the study – a one mile stretch of railroad track, a virtual straightaway, intersected at its midpoint by a dirt road and bordered by two major roads.
While team members worked on collecting their gear, other Vestigia investigators secured the necessary releases, and received the cooperation of all authorities involved. Conrail was contacted, and permission was granted to use its right of way for the tests. A local resident whose house was in close proximity to the railroad tracks was contacted, and agreed to make power available from his home to the central post during the experiments.
On the night of November 20, 1976, the first of the field experiments were initiated, with three outposts set up. For the first time in Long Valley, the Hookerman’s light was going to be photographed, measured, and permanently recorded. The team assembled on the night of the initial test was composed of individuals from all disciplines and backgrounds. Within the group were experts in electronics, meteorology, physics, optics, photography, chemistry, and mathematics. What distinguished Vestigia’s study from any other was the quality and amount of technical expertise and equipment amassed from its study. A total of 10,000 man-hours were spent in the search, and the value of the equipment totally over $30,000.
What follows is a brief description of the first night of study into the Long valley spook lights. The investigation continues in the area, and Vestigia is presently collaborating with other research groups and universities in its probe.
On the night of the investigation, 4,000 feet of ground antenna wire was laid between the rails, and attached to an amplifier and oscilloscope which would detect variations in electrical frequency and amplitude. Other cables were attached directly to the rails to act as a capacitance test; anything metallic between or over the rails would register on a readout device in the equipment van. The Geiger counter was positioned at the presumed “hot spot,” and it, too, was wired into a readout in the command post. Other devices included a methane gas detector, and a parabolic listening device.
At Post Two (level with the command post), a group of observers on the track manned the Vascar radar unit as well as cameras which were loaded with infra-red sensitive film, and a motion picture camera containing ultra-fast film. Post One and Post Three observers, located a half-mile to the right and left, respectively, were armed with cameras, binoculars, and radio communicators.
At approximately 10 p.m., researchers at the control van reported drastic fluctuations on their instruments. Researchers at Post Three simultaneously observed a small, distinct light that startled them with its sudden and unanticipated appearance. They described it as yellowish, of low magnitude, and from five to six inches in diameter. It hovered over the tracks, about a foot above the ground, and was positioned between Post One and the control vans. Cameras clicked, and recording devices were quickly activated. One puzzling thing occurred, however. Although Post Three was in visual contact with the object, and Post Two was clearly recording it electronically and had activated its cameras to photograph the phenomenon, observers at Post One had no visual contact with the light.
The oscilloscope, and other electronic measuring devices, recorded changes in the electromagnetic field of the area in which the light appeared, as well as discharges of electrical activity.
During the appearance of the light, the oscilloscope recorded a dramatic reaction for a period of one minute and 50 seconds. Amplitude varied from.5 volts to 2.5 volts, while a normal background signal is only.4 volts at 60 cycles. During this time the normal 60 cycles range swelled to well over 40,000 cycles.
These readings obviously indicated that whatever the observers were seeing, whatever the cameras were recording, were capable of producing a dramatic change in the electrical activity of the area.
Other equipment did not immediately respond to the sighting; no radiation was evident at the time of the incident. Although there were noticeable reactions in the rail capacitance tests, both the test and the radiation indicators became active after the sighting. One thing was certain: for approximately one minute and 50 seconds, the legend of the Hookerman became objective reality, and staged a performance for the most sophisticated audience in its history.
As quickly as the phenomenon occurred, it disappeared, and the team began to run through the tests to find any possible explanation for the incident. The observers at Post One never obtained visual contact with the object between them and the command post, but all tests, with the exception of the rail capacitance test, verified that the phenomenon had, indeed, physically occurred.
Team leaders checked the apparatus responsible for the rail capacitance test and discovered why it had not responded at the time of the sighting. It seems that one of the connections to the track had been knocked loose perhaps by some of the onlookers earlier in the evening.
At approximately 10:45PM, a full ten minutes after the visual sightings of the light had ceased, test equipment used to record radiation began to show active readings from the track area. The Geiger counter recorded these readings for about five seconds before returning to its normal level. This occurred again nearly four minutes later, and persisted for seven seconds. There was a third and final recurrence 15 minutes following the visual sighting, this time lasting over 10 seconds.
The team worked on past midnight, hoping for a possible replay of the phenomenon, but all was quiet. Finally, at one a.m., the team leaders called it a night, yet the most dramatic proof of the evening would not be apparent until the photographs of the light were developed.
Two independent cameras at Post Two, near the control van, photographed an image, using two different types of film. A total of six frames of regular black and white, and seven frames of infrared were taken. Each frame reveals a definite image – a glowing ball of light. The black and white film shows a pinpoint of light, while the infrared shows a more detailed image. The black and white film (Tri-X) which was shot at 1/1250th of a second, shows only a light source, similar to that discerned by the observers’ naked eyes. The infrared film was exposed at 10 seconds per frame, and provides far more detail. This furnished us with important insight into the light range of the object, the film images showing density not discernible in normal black and white photographs.
What, however, does all of this prove? In what way do Vestigia’s findings contribute to an overall understanding of the spook light mystery. Just how have they succeeded in deflating the widespread claims of bodily survival.
To answer these questions, it is necessary to enter the realm of geophysical science.
It is fairly common knowledge that when certain types of quartz-bearing rocks are subjected to stress from within the Earth, an electrical potential results. This principle, referred to as the piezoelectric effect, is applied to telephone receivers as well as microphone transmitters, in which pressure from sound waves produce electrical responses in crystals. Physicists David Finkelstein and J.R Powell, of New York, vigorously explored the phenomenon in 1970, and concluded that stress accumulated in rocks over a period of years may change in intensity very slowly just prior to major earthquake activity. They further hypothesized that such stress may be capable of establishing an electrical field whereby discharges of electricity would ionize the air in the area into visible light.
Intrigued by this curious theory, Vestigia investigators carefully examined geodesic maps of New Jersey, and discovered that a major fault, the Ramapo Border Fault, runs through Peapack in northern New Jersey and passes within a mile of Indian Point, N.Y. It was also learned that since 1962 no fewer than 33 earthquakes have occurred along that fault, with a sizable portion in close proximity to the Long Valley area. After exhaustive study and field investigation, Bill Wagner and his associates within Vestigia became convinced that a definite correlation existed between the appearance of the light and local seismic activity. Through careful observation and documentation, they have succeeded in establishing, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the Long valley lights
persistently and predictably precede reports of local earthquake activity, and are entirely dependent upon natural, physical principles. Many, if not all, of the mysteries associated with the Hookerman have been unraveled.
For instance, the railroad bed at Long Valley is composed of granite, an extremely good conductor of electricity. Wagner has noted that the phenomenon is most prevalent in Long Valley either before or after changes in weather, and he cites barometric pressure as a logical correlative factor. As for the tendency of the light to recede as a human agent approaches, Vestigia believes it is foolish to automatically ascribe intelligent behavior to the light when a more sound and reasonable explanation exists. It is likely, they claim, that either the delicate field within the area is disrupted by the body’s own electrical charge, or merely that the static charge of the light itself seeks the natural ground of the approaching human and harmlessly discharges to the earth. But what about the radioactivity? Wagner and his co-workers suspect that the abnormal radiation recorded during their investigations of the light is associated with the presence of radon, an inert, natural gas, which is apparently bled off during earthquake activity.
The movement of the light across the tracks, though a bit more difficult to explain, has been linked by scientists to subsurface stress forces within a dynamic state of displacement. The spook light, according to informed speculation, is simply following the local fault lines, rift zones, and other rock strata that locally dissipate the stress. Dr. Michael Persinger, in his work, Space-Time Transients and Unusual Events, argues that “since the locus of the subsurface sources exists in a three-dimensional space, any movement of this source would be deflected, like a ‘transformation of axes,’ on the surface by the luminosity.” Persinger maintains that the light’s apparent movement, whether pendulum-like or vertical, is dependent upon the source’s subsurface position.
Wagner and his team members are in full agreement with the findings of Persinger, and are currently refining their research techniques at Long Valley. They are confident that with additional research and investigation, earthquake prediction, based on the observation and the scrutiny of these spook lights, may evolve into a more precise and accurate science.
Due to Vestigia’s pioneering research on the spook light mystery, major universities and governmental agencies have begun to collaborate with the group in its probe of this highly elusive, but natural phenomenon. As for the legend of the “Hookerman,” local residents appear to be accepting the conventional explanations advanced by Vestigia. It would seem as though the colorful story centered around this mythic figure has begun to lose much of its luster, and that superstition, at least for the community of Long Valley, has been firmly replaced by truth.