In a year of the improbable, one in which the Mets won their first World Series, it was fitting that a little railroad archaeology plus my grandmother’s handwoven rug would lead Jane and I to purchase our first house.
The wood framed house was built around 1910 and located in the old Winfield section of western Queens. The house was owned by Mrs. McManus, a retired widow who wished to sell and move to Florida to be near her children. She offered us a great deal.
Jane and I were newlyweds anxious to own our first house. Jane wanted the house because it was convenient to shopping and an easy commute to Manhattan. Noting the house’s rundown condition, I was not as certain.
“Let me show you the basement,” Mrs. McManus said as she led us down creaky wooden steps. The house was carved into a hill which sloped downward until it reached the base of the east-facing basement wall. The wall had a door which led to a street-level backyard. The basement floor was also at street level. Beside the door and tiny window in the east wall of the basement, the only other light was provided by a single, naked, dim incandescent light bulb, located in the middle of the basement. The bulb hung above a bare, cracked concrete floor. Imbedded in the concrete floor directly below the naked bulb was a piece of bent iron about one-foot long.
“We’ll take it,” I said to a delighted Mrs. McManus. We then closed the deal.
Shortly after leaving Mrs. McManus, Jane asked with a giggle, “Don, what made you change your mind?”
“Did you notice that little piece of iron in the basement floor?”
“What about it?”
“It's a frog.”
“No, Jane, a frog is a part of a switch. I believe a railroad track once passed through the site of this house.”
“No wonder Mrs. McManus gave us such a great deal. What's so hot about railroads anyway?”
“Jane, you studied archaeology in college. Railroads dominated the American landscape during the 19th century, just as dinosaurs did in their time. With the coming of the automobile, many railroads became extinct, with their remains, like dinosaur bones, being buried beneath freeways, homes and other places,” I replied, knowing that the railroad track belonged to the New York & Flushing Railroad.
The Long Island Railroad, which had taken over the New York & Flushing, decided that it did not need the portion of the NY&F, which ran from Winfield Junction through our house to Laurel Hill, thus abandoning it in 1869. A piece of rail from the abandoned line must have accidentally gotten imbedded in the concrete basement floor when the house was built around 1910.
“Jane, don't you see we have a piece of railroad archaeology in our basement?”
“But Don, aren't you going to carpet the basement?”
“No, I want access to the rail. I will cover the rail with one of my grandmother's tiny handwoven rugs,” I replied. In addition to being a model railroader, I was a collector of railroad memorabilia, such as a spike from the old Queens Blvd trolley line which is now the Q60 bus line. The piece of rail imbedded in our basement floor was a priceless addition to my collection.
Jane and I ditched our cramped, overpriced Rego Park apartment three months later and moved into our dream house. Shortly after settling in, on a late Saturday afternoon in November, Jane said, “I'm going upstairs, there's a leak in the bathroom sink faucet. I may have to call the plumber.”
“OK, honey, I think I'll just relax on the couch and read a while.”
I had finished some heavy yard work and was exhausted. I picked up the latest issue of our civic newsletter, The Winfield Bugle, and began to read. After a few minutes, I heard a noise coming from the basement. I flicked on the light switch and descended the creaky, wooden steps to the basement.
Standing under the dim naked bulb on top of my grandmother's handwoven rug was a middle-aged man of average build. He was wearing work clothes consisting of a woolen shirt, overalls and a peaked locomotive engineer's cap. He was looking up at an exposed pipe in the basement ceiling. I thought he was the plumber and Jane had let him through the basement door.
I said, “Hi, I'm Don Malone. I own this house. You must be the plumber.”
“I'm not the plumber, I'm looking for my passengers,” he replied.
“If you're not the plumber, then who are you?”
“I'm Roy Hallet, the engineer on the 4:20 to Hunter's Point. There was a derailment right here,” Hallet said, pointing below his feet to the piece of bent rail beneath my grandmother's tiny handwoven rug. “I want to make sure my passengers are all right.”
“You won't find them in my basement,” I said, thinking that he was a friend of Jane's. Jane enjoyed playing an occasional practical joke. Jane was a little bit jealous of my interest in trains, saying that trains were my mistress.
“What basement?” Hallet said, raising his hands skyward. “This is an open field, I'm standing on the spot where I jumped to avoid colliding with the eastbound 5:00pm from Hunter's Point to Port Washington.”
Wishing to humor him, I walked over to where he was standing and reached out to shake hands with him. Whoosh! I felt nothing but air.
“I jumped instead of saving my passengers and crew,” Hallet said with a sad, resigned expression on his face.
Hallet seemed to have a glow about him – but I felt it couldn't be. I had just read in the Bugle about a brave engineer who stayed at the throttle of his locomotive – thus averting a collision with an eastbound Port Washington train – saving the lives of all 120 passengers and crew. Like Casey Jones, Roy Hallet died a hero, dying when his engine toppled over a defective switch, crushing him. His spirit was now standing one hundred years later on top of what was my grandmother's tiny handwoven rug.
“You didn't jump, you were a hero!” I exclaimed. “You died bravely, staying at the throttle, bringing your train to a halt at this switch. You barely avoided a head-on collision with the 5:00pm Port Washington bound train. When your train toppled over at the defective switch, you were crushed immediately. You have been dead over 100 years.”
“I'm not dead, I'm still alive.”
“Ok then, touch me.”
Hallet then touched me and replied, “I feel nothing but I can't enter the light. How do I know that I didn't slaughter all those people?”
“I can show you, don't move, I'll be right back,” I said as I went upstairs to fetch the latest issue of The Winfield Bugle. I returned shortly and showed Hallet the November 1969 story which proved him to be a hero.
“The track was ripped up in 1869, shortly after the accident, the Long Island Railroad no longer needing it,” I then said in my best medium voice, “It's time to go home, your family and friends are waiting for you.”
It was getting dark outside. I looked out the basement window in the direction of Winfield Junction. There appeared to be a bright light coming from there – perhaps from a street lamp.
“Enter the light,” I said, attempting to hug Hallet but feeling air.
Hallet then said goodbye and left through the unopened basement door. Just as he reached Winfield Junction, he turned and waved to me – then entered the light. Suddenly the light became brighter and started to come toward me. The light was the headlight of a locomotive. The headlight was on an old-fashioned New York & Flushing steam locomotive – breathing fire like a dragon as it came closer. I was paralyzed with fright – unable to move off my grandmother's tiny handwoven rug. The locomotive was about the run me over – Aaaaah!
“Don, wake up,” Jane called from upstairs, “You must have been napping.”
“Yeah, I guess I dozed off. I was reading about a hero engineer who died while saving his passengers and crew. The train passed through this house. He died in the basement.”
“Boo! Spooky! Halloween's over, Don. I hear the doorbell, I think it's the plumber. Would you get it, dear?”
At the door was a middle-aged man of medium build, dressed in work clothes.
“You look like you've seen a ghost.”
The Winfield Ghost.