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The Ghost Train of Highland Park

Updated on December 16, 2014

'Twas a dark and stormy night...

Well, actually it was only dark, and the closest it came to "stormy" was the last name of the author of the book I'd taken to bed that night: Hyemeyohsts Storm's Seven Arrows, about the spiritual traditions of the Plains Indian People (the Cheyenne, the Crow and the Sioux).

The half-Blackfoot friend whose copy it was had insisted I read Seven Arrows to "clear my head" of the "garbage" I'd learned about paganism from reading Morgan Llywelyn's Druids the previous week. (In reality, the belief systems of these two earth-based cultures are amazingly similar...)

Murphy, the Siamese-with-Attitude who'd adopted the kids and me earlier that year, was curled up at the foot of the bed, directly across from the window overlooking the front yard that sloped down to 24th Street twenty-some feet away.

The map at right doesn't tell you that 24th Street is a main artery between Indiana Ave on the west and California Ave on the east, where it ends at Highland Park High School. But because of this, during the school year it's a busy street during going-to and leaving-school hours.

Year round, 24th is also the quickest route, via 21st and then Indiana, from downtown Topeka to the honeycomb of dead-end streets tucked between 24th and 21st St. Every night from around 1:00 to 3 a.m., a steady stream of "Highlanders" heads home from the bars and/or "breakfast" at an all-night eatery.

That night, though, I was only vaguely aware that not a single car had gone by since around 1:30. This fact might've registered as the red flag it really was if I hadn't been so engrossed in Seven Arrows until my concentration was broken by the train.

I don't recall which registered first, the horrendously-loud "chug chug chug" outside getting louder by the second, or the house shaking from the rumbling. Maybe a combination of both.

But I do remember thinking, "Drats! I might as well put the book down until that blasted train gets past the house!".

SuperCat before the whistle sent him airbourne.
SuperCat before the whistle sent him airbourne.


There can't be a train right outside my bedroom window!

There are no trains in this neighborhood!

The closest tracks are a mile away!

I must've transmitted these thoughts, or at least my alarm, to Murphy, because he instantly sat up ramrod straight, eyes glued to the curtains that covered the window, ready to pounce on the monster threatening his territory.

Right then, as if to say "Oh yeah? No train, huh?", a train whistle blasted.



It was the whistle that undid Murph.

Between the first and second "Woooooo!", he went airborne and buried himself and his claws in my chest. For all the years he was with us, this would be the only time I'd ever see Mr. Cool As A Cucumber totally terrified and shaking like a leaf. His eyes were as big as saucers - not easy for a Siamese. "Save me, Mom!" they seemed to say.

So we clung to each other for what seemed like hours but which was probably only a few minutes, my eyes also as big as saucers, heart pounding, Murph glued to my chest. (Thankfully, he'd withdrawn the claws.)

Little by little, the rumbling and "chug chug chug" grew fainter, then disappeared all together. The night was quiet again. A car went by. Huge sigh of relief!

So what IS the "Ghost Train of Highland Park"?

Good question.

If I tell you the area between 21st and 29th, and Indiana and California has a "distinctly positive, protective energy", and that before the white men arrived it was a neutral place for warring tribes to meet and smoke the peace pipe, you'd say the catalyst must have something to do with Indians, right?

But you would be wrong. This seems to have no bearing whatsoever on who has the Ghost Train Experience.

After I moved out the following spring, the half-Blackfoot friend who lent me Seven Arrows rented the house and never once heard the Ghost Train. But a friend who stayed with him for several months, a German-Irish farm "boy" from Nebraska with no Amer-Indian blood, did experience the same thing Murph and I did...also on a calm, quiet night.

And we aren't the only ones. According to old-timers who've lived on 24th for decades, the Ghost Train had been heard - but never seen - by many of them. And only at night.

Tradition dictated that to part the curtains and actually look at it would be suicidal. The more I learn, however, about the "ghost train" and time slips, I tend to think the "instant death" myth took root after someone with a weak heart did peek out and suffered a massive heart attack from the terror of seeing a freight train that shouldn't be there.

Evidence points to it not being "ghostly" at all, but a time slip.

Time slips are instances of the door between the present and past opening, allowing people to unwittingly return to how things were years or decades earlier. Nell Rose's hub on many such instances reported in Liverpool's Bold Street has a much more detailed explanation, so I won't repeat it here.

I'd never heard of "time slips" before I read Nell Rose's hub, and then Alastar Packer's about time slips. By the time I came across those hubs, I'd been pondering what the "ghost train" really was for almost 20 years.

I knew Highland Park wasn't originally part of the City of Topeka, that it began life as a "bedroom community" for the city's movers and shakers, and that there had once been regular train service to and from Highland Park and the City for their convenience.

For years I'd simply accepted what Murph and I heard that night was the "ghost" of one of those commuter trains. Until, that is, I came across a booklet about the history of Highland Park at a yard sale which said commuter trains never come as far as my part of 24th Street. Also that they were electric and therefore nearly silent, not the noisy steam-powered train we (and others) had heard.

All fine and dandy except some long-time residents along 24th clearly remember seeing train tracks under the pavement when it was dug up in preparation for a major resurfacing. Tracks that were simply left there and covered over...again.

Other residents found railroad ties buried in their yards when they had to be dug up to repair broken sewer lines. One home next to 24th, in fact, began as a "tar-paper shack" built from cast-off railroad ties.

So the history books have it wrong. At some point before 1903, when steam trains were replaced by engines powered by electricity, there was a spur line on 24th Street.

On old plat maps between the 1880s and early 1910s, it's the most logical route to run a dirty, noisy steam-powered freight train from Indiana Ave all the way out to C.W. Awent's rock quarry near the Vinewood Amusement Park. A train that carried food and supplies out to Vinewood's concession stands and returned with the gravel and rock used in the expansion of Kansas's capital city.

A portion of Ray Hilner's 1905 map of rail lines in Topeka.
A portion of Ray Hilner's 1905 map of rail lines in Topeka. | Source

In the 1905 map of Topeka rail lines above, notice the odd southwesterly jog in the electric line from the north end of Vinewood Park to 28th St. Odd, because the point where the line begins at Vinewood lines up perfectly with 24th St, four blocks to the north. Most of the occupied residences in Highland Park at that time were at the south end. 24th St, on the other hand, was still virtually undeveloped.

What I think happened is steam trains did run along 24th, but they weren't commuter trains. When quieter, cleaner electric trains replaced them, residents living along 28th and on nearby blocks no longer minded - even welcomed - trains running right past their front doors to take them into the city to work or shop and out to Vinewood's pleasures.

But for me, the most compelling evidence for a time slip that night is how unnaturally quiet and devoid of automobile traffic 24th Street was for an hour or longer before the train rumbled up the hill in front of my house from the Indiana end. Precisely as quiet as it would've been before cars existed.

Had I known then what I know now - that being in a time slip isn't (normally) "dangerous" - I would've run to the window and watched the magnificent "beast" pass by. I might've even grabbed a camera, gone outside, and snapped a few pix!

What do YOU think?

Is the Ghost Train of Highland Park really "ghostly" or simply a time slip?

See results

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