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.”
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.
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.”
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.