Thursday, October 24, 2013

Search for ghosts of orphans on Charley Western Trail in Iowa

Children allegedly
died in train fire

Do the ghosts of orphans who died in a fiery train wreck haunt a hiking trail on the plains of northeast Iowa?

That’s the legend surrounding the fairly new Charley Western Trail in Charles City, Iowa. The largely urban trail encircles three-quarters of the town; you can day hike a spooky 0.9-mile round trip segment of it to see for yourself if the specters are real.

To reach the trail, take U.S. Hwy. 18 into Charles City (Where it’s aka Fifth Avenue.). Go north onto J Street then turn right/east onto Eighth Avenue; park along this street between J and L streets. The trail runs going north and south across Eighth Avenue.

Crying children and smoke
Heading through a wooded area, you’re walking what used to be the Charley Western Railroad. When constructed in 1910, the rail line looped Charles City with spurs to the neighboring towns of Colwell and Marble Rock.

Like the oval of a child’s train set, the trail curves left/west. To your right/north is the former White Farm site. According to a local urban legend, a train crashed here in the 1920s, and unwanted orphans in a wooden passenger car were burned alive.

Since then, some using the trail report that the sound of crying children and the smell of smoke – despite that there are no children or fires – appear on the farm site and its aptly named Iron Hill. They’ve even see the ghost of a young girl, in a white dress, walking through these woods. Others say they’ve heard their names called though no one was there.

When you reach F Street, the trail ends. Go right/north on the street to the intersection of 11th Avenue. Before you is the allegedly haunted site. Do not go on the property, however, as it’s privately owned.

No record of train
While the reports of apparitions are verified, the legend behind them appears to be made up. There is no record of an orphan train – or any other railroad cars – burning in Charles City.

An orphan train did once stop in Charles City, though it was in 1917. From 1853 to 1929, authorities across New England and New York state placed orphans and minors who were incarcerated or institutionalized on trains and sent them west where families could adopt them to work on farms.

Perhaps the ghosts are of orphans who fled the train and later died. Or possibly they passed from this world in another town but their specters stayed with the train until coming to the pastoral woods of this beautiful small Iowa town.

After taking in the White farm site, return the way you came. And if you hear a little girl singing merrily form the woods, don’t be surprised if she can’t be seen.

Find out about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.