Say Goodbye to the Ghost Tracks….at Least for Now

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An old vehicle is covered with baby powder and hand prints after being pushed across the famous Ghost Tracks. This photo can be seen in the bar Phantom Room off of North Saint Mary's. Photo by Jackie Earhart.

Proof: A vintage automobile is covered with the hands of ghost children, made visible with a dusting of baby powder. This photo can be seen in the bar of the Phantom Room off of North Saint Mary's. Photo by Jackie Earhart.

Editor’s Note: This story was first published on Aug. 27, 2015.

The ghosts of the children who died in a tragic school bus accident more than 75 years ago won’t be pushing any vehicles to safety across the Ghost Tracks at Shane and Villamain Roads anytime soon. Alas, they could be gone forever, ending what some consider the most famous ghost story in Texas, and others dismiss as one of the city’s longest running urban legends.

One thing is certain: Union Pacific Railroad has shut down both roadways to all traffic until Oct. 1 to construct a “siding track” that will extend alongside the existing railroad tracks so trains can travel in opposite directions without stopping on alternative tracks miles away. The closure took many by surprise, including Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3), who said company officials had led her to believe there would be “community engagement” meetings before any closure. Viagran’s district includes the Missions, recently named a World Heritage site, as well as the celebrated train crossing.

A Union Pacific spokesman contacted Friday said increased train traffic on the fast-developing Southside is the reason for the new siding track that will extend 5,000 to 10,000 feet alongside the existing track bed. One mile is 5,280 feet. The daily passage of 2-3 trains on the tracks has grown to 10-12 trains, according to Ivan Jaime, Union Pacific’s director of public affairs in San Antonio.

“A siding track is essentially a parallel track we use when we have trains coming in the opposite direction that allows one train to pull over and let the other train pass,” said Jeff Degraff, Union Pacific’s director of media relations in Fort Worth. “We use them to help keep our trainings moving instead of having one pull over miles away.”

The Legend of the Ghost Tracks

Ask a Southside native to share the history of the crossing and the person will vaguely describe a tragic train-school bus collision at the crossing in the 1930s. The details often vary, but there are never any survivors. All the children were lost after the bus driver attempted to cross ahead of an approaching train and became stuck on the tracks.

Generations of San Antonians and ghost-hunting visitors have driven to Shane Road to test the legend that the ghosts of the children haunt the crossing and push to safety any vehicles that stop on the tracks to prevent further tragedy. Drivers place their vehicle transmissions in neutral and then wait. Inevitable, their car or truck begins to roll slowly towards and across the tracks. Some who exit their vehicles afterwards find the handprints of children on the rear trunks, proof the phantom kids pushed them to safety. It’s common to see people dusting their vehicle trunks with baby powder beforehand, the better to see the handprints afterwards. (See top image, photographic “proof” by Jackie Earhart. This photo can be seen in the bar of the Phantom Room off of North Saint Mary’s.)

How famous are the Southside’s legendary Ghost Tracks? Google maps identifies the location with these words: “Haunted Railroad tracks.”

Google Maps marks the Ghost Tracks with the words "Haunted Railroad tracks".

Google Maps marks the Ghost Tracks with the words “Haunted Railroad tracks” on the map version and “Ghost Tracks” on the satellite version.

It’s too late for newcomers to test the legend now, but Mission Road, which runs roughly parallel to the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River, turns into Villamain Road at Mission San Juan as the road winds to the south in front of the Mission grounds. It passes under a Loop 410 overpass and then dead ends at Shane Road. The route is a popular one in the cycling community for training rides from downtown past the Missions and through the Southside. It’s not unusual to cross the tracks south as vehicles on Shane Road are preparing to experience the paranormal phenomenon.

Mission San Juan. Photo by Scott Ball.

Mission San Juan. Photo by Scott Ball.

City officials granted a closure permit to Union Pacific on Friday and sometime over the weekend or Monday the roads were closed and construction began. It’s too late for anyone to test the legend, at least for now, and Union Pacific officials were unable to say how the crossing will be affected, or even if safety arms will finally be installed there for the first time, a decision they said is up to the Texas Department of Transportation.

The closure caught Councilmember Viagran by surprise when we contacted her for this story, and represents a major inconvenience for locals who do not have an easy alternative detour.

“When I first heard about this from Union Pacific, I said, ‘This is our Ghost Tracks! What are you talking about?’ They said they were going to be engaging the community before anything got started,” Viagran said Friday. That didn’t happen.

Union Pacific spokesmen seemed confused about company policy for community engagement in such circumstances.

“When it comes to closing roadways we always give ample advance notice, we let people in the neighborhood know, we post signs, etc.,” Degraff said.

Viagran wasn’t the only one caught by surprise. Cyclists who crossed the tracks without incident last week only to find the road blocked this week.  No one knew why until City officials told the Rivard Report about the Union Pacific project.

“We had engaged Councilmember Viagran as early as last year about closing that road and providing for rerouting of traffic,” Jaime said.  “In terms of these types of projects, we do own the property. We have to seek a permit, and we acquired a 45-day permit Friday, so we did follow the procedure. We really don’t have to have any public meetings for projects like this one. The road is scheduled to open back up to Oct. 1 or 2. We might be done before then.”

Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3) addresses media gathered at the Síclovía 2014 route announcement. Photo by Randy Bear.

Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3) addresses media gathered at the Síclovía 2014 route announcement. Photo by Randy Bear.

For many in the city, improved railway efficiency will be a poor tradeoff if the Ghost Tracks cease to exist, even if there is more myth than fact behind the tradition. What high school kid hasn’t watched a stationary vehicle roll across the Ghost Tracks? One of my grown children told me he first learned of the Ghost Tracks from a babysitter.

The Legends of America website calls San Antonio’s Ghost Tracks “the most famous ghost story in Texas.” This video posted on YouTube in 2010 shows what any cyclist who has crossed the tracks in either direction can tell you: Shane Road in the stretch approaching the railroad track crossing is deceptively downhill. Vehicles that come to a stop on Shane Road and then begin to move in neutral across the tracks on to Villamain Road are heading down an incline.

Sorry to write that, but it’s true. It gets worse. That tragic bus accident? It never happened, at least not in San Antonio, not in Texas. At the risk of stirring up readers who are true believers, here is the buzzkill from snopes.com:

“Although the city of San Antonio has long claimed this folk tale as its own, pointing to the railway crossing where Villamain Road becomes Shane Road where cars seem to behave strangely and close to a set of streets named after children (Bobbie Allen, Cindy Sue, Laura Lee, Nancy Carole, and Richey Otis), the bus accident that sparked the legend took place in a city more than a thousand miles away.

“In December 1938, in Salt Lake City, Utah, twenty-six children, aged 12 to 18, lost their lives when the school bus they’d been traveling in stalled on the tracks and was struck by a freight train. No similar accident took place in San Antonio, but in 1938 that city was subjected to about 10 days’ worth of gruesomely detailed coverage in its local newspaper of the Salt Lake City crash, memory of which afterwards served to convince later generations the tragedy had taken place locally.

“San Antonio’s ‘ghost tracks’ are nothing more than an optical illusion. The mysterious movement of vehicles at that crossing is the result of a slight incline at the site, which works to roll vehicles that have been slipped into neutral off the tracks. As for the nearby streets supposedly christened in memoriam to the children who died, they were actually named in honor of a developer’s grandchildren.”

All that might be true, but Union Pacific would be wise to respect Southside history and make sure the improvements now underway do not visibly, or invisibly, alter the reality. The true test will come Oct. 1. Bring baby powder.

 

*Featured/top image: Proof: A vintage automobile is covered with the hands of ghost children, made visible with a dusting of baby powder. This photo can be seen in the bar of the Phantom Room off of North Saint Mary’s. Photo by Jackie Earhart.  

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36 thoughts on “Say Goodbye to the Ghost Tracks….at Least for Now

  1. as an property owner along this stretch of Villamain, I can tell you I was not notified. WIll be going down there tomorrow to see if I can access my property. Thanks for the story!!

  2. One of the problems with the internet these days is that it kills any mystery, local legends included. Bob, I think you’re great, but it would have been more fun to just leave the facts of the downward slope and whether it happened here or not out of the article and left a little more to the imagination for those maybe not familiar with it.

    Just my two cents. Keep up the good work.

  3. Silly me. I thought the city was building a “trails next to rails” paved path to extend further south on the increasingly busy Southton Rd.

    Ugh.

  4. I’m bringing sacks of chicken feet to spread all over the road the night before it opens back up so I can watch all the legend hunters scream like little girls.

  5. A siding track is what you use because our rail infrastructure is 50 years behind the times and not already double tracked like rail in the rest of the developed world.

  6. A TV news crew looked into this incident….A train crashing into a school bus full of children, killing everyone on board would have been front page news…….After many hours and days of research, they could not find any evidence, no documentation, no official records, no news articles of any type that a train crashing into a school bus ever had happened at all at this location……..What seems to cause the cars to go across the tracks by themselves is the slight angle of this particular road in question.Not by ghostly children pushing the car, but gravity…..It is not sure where the ghostly children story came from……More likely, it might have been started by high school kids that knew that a car in neutral would go across these railroad tracks, then it spread by word of mouth and ended up on some tabloid publications and kept spreading..

  7. I grew up on the south side and these tracks were part of growing up along with the donkey lady bridge, the Chinese graveyard, and the screaming woman in the Stinson Field area. I even took my kids back to experience it. You will never convince the kids that grew up there that these things were’t real. When I was in high school some friends and I did an experiment with using aluminum cans instead of cars and they rolled not all the way up and over the tracks but they rolled. Tin cans would not role. I know growing up they had some professions come out and study why the cars would role

  8. They all had different theories of why but they never convinced any of the people that grew up there about their theories and that is why the legend has gone on for all these years. Gone are a lot of the things that made living on the south side cool like Capt Jims,Fred’s Fish, The Tall Texan, Taco Hut, Kiddie City, Bob Jones, riding around the Frontier, The Flame, and up an down Military Dr on
    Fri and Sat night. Also the rabbit trails and the peace sign bridge which is now part of IH 37. We always found something to do and never got into any trouble. Hopefully this takes everybody back and you have fond memories of the Southside just as I do. I hope they never get rid of Griff’s and Bud Jones. Those are another staple there. I could go on and on. Maybe some will post their memories growing up there.

  9. For many in the city, improved railway efficiency will be a poor tradeoff if the Ghost Tracks CEASE to exist, even if there is more myth than fact behind the tradition.

    Not (seek).

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