Ghost stories are found in every corner of Newfoundland and Labrador, and no one knows them better than storyteller and folklorist Dale Jarvis. In this collection of ghostly tales, Jarvis introduces you to old legends, including spectral Viking longships, encounters with ghostly ferrymen, and strange voices on the trapline, while exploring classic elements of local folklore such as tokens and premonitions, bad weather lights, and the Old Hag herself. In addition to historical tales, you will also come face to face with some of the province’s eeriest urban legends, from the mysterious Red Eyes of Glovertown, to the chilling west coast Webber, to the Phantom Drummer of Conception Bay North. With leaping witches, dancing devils, phantom locomotives, and even a ghostly kitten or two, there is no mistaking that you are exploring truly haunted ground. Welcome to Newfoundland and Labrador—a place so steeped in history and tradition that some inhabitants never, ever, want to leave.
The Haunted Trestle Revisited
The American folklorist Robert A. Georges once wrote that a legend is “believed to be true by some, false by others, and both or neither by most.” It is a definition I would agree with, and Newfoundland is full of examples. Almost every town has a story which is partly true and partly not. As a collector and lover of stories, they are my favourite kind. I think everyone has a spot in his heart for a story which, though fantastic, might possibly be true.
What I love more than hearing a local legend is hearing a legend that has multiple versions. Sometimes these are migratory legends which crop up in different forms in different communities. Sometimes, however, legends are tied to a very specific place and are largely unknown outside of their home communities.
Clarke’s Beach has one of these legends, which I initially wrote up in my book Haunted Shores. Around 1984, three girls were out late one night, walking along the abandoned railway line that cuts through Clarke’s Beach. The girls were walking from Wilsonville Avenue along the track toward an old railway trestle over North River.
As the three girls drew closer to the river, they could see a fourth girl sitting on the edge of the trestle, drying her hair with a towel. Drawing closer still, they could see that the girl was dressed in an old-fashioned bathing suit. The bather paid no attention to the threesome, and it was not until they stepped onto the wooden beams of the trestle itself that the mysterious figure lowered her towel and turned to look straight at them.
The threesome stopped dead in their tracks. The girl gazed upon them, her eyes glowing with a brilliant red light, shining strong in the moonlight. The creature’s gaze was enough to send the three young girls screaming in terror back to the relative safety of Clarke’s Beach.
Theirs was not the first sighting of the midnight bathing beauty. In conversation with an elderly man who lived on Wilsonville Avenue, he learned that the form was the spectre of a local girl. The girl had arranged to meet her sweetheart for a late-night rendezvous and swim. When he did not arrive, she took to the waters. Then, tragedy: the bathing beauty slipped beneath the silent waves and drowned alone in the darkness.
Apparently, the girl’s ghost returned from the netherworld to haunt the spot of her demise, doomed to spend the sweet hereafter waiting by the railway line for a love fated never to arrive.
It is a great story. It was published, and then it faded into the background of my memory.
A decade later, folklorist Lisa Wilson and I started a project in co-operation with the Bay Roberts Cultural Foundation to document the folklore, legends, traditional cures, fairy stories, and folk beliefs of Bay Roberts and surrounding area. Part of the collection work involved the students of teacher Kimberley Welsh at Ascension Collegiate. Students were encouraged to go home, learn traditional stories from family and neighbours, and then report back.
I was delighted when two of those students returned with variants of the Clarke’s Beach trestle story. One student, Brittany Corbett, shared a fairly succinct version.
“The trestle in North River was known to be haunted,” wrote Corbett. “In the night you should stay away because there was a girl killed on it. She haunts the trestle and she will try and kill you.”
Another student, Josh Russell, offered up a slightly longer version. He wrote,
“At Clarke’s Beach Pond where the metal bridge is, there is a hill that leads into a pond, and behind is a forest where dirt bikes and quads go past. Years ago a lady was knelt down by the pond washing her old clothes, because back then there was no washing machines to clean your clothes like there is today. She lost balance and fell into the pond, and because she didn’t know how to swim, she drowned. It is said that if you go on the bridge where she drowned, you can see her ghost with red eyes on the hill washing clothes.”
While both these are different from the version I wrote up in 2004, there are intriguing similarities, particularly in Russell’s telling of the story. The glowing red eyes and the drowning are intact. One could even draw a parallel between the towel in the early version and the washing in the more recent one.
Today, the abandoned train trestle remains to cross the river, even though the tracks themselves have long since vanished. Intriguingly, the glowing-eyed spectre is not the only ghost to have been reported in that vicinity.
One fine evening in 1907, a Clarke’s Beach man decided to take a stroll along the railway track. As he did, he heard a familiar sound. He turned, and there in the distance was a steam locomotive, chugging toward him.
The train drew closer and showed no sign of slowing down to stop at the station. He watched as it moved closer and felt the vibration of the great engine shaking the earth as it roared past. From where he stood, he could see several people on board, staring out through the windows. He raised his walking stick in greeting, but no one waved back, the passengers’ eyes fixed on something in the distance.
Puzzled, he decided he would stop in at the railway station and ask about the train that had just gone through. The station was empty except for the ticket agent.
“No train has passed through here,” said the agent.
The agent checked the timetables and found that a train had not been scheduled, nor was one expected. News of the phantom train was telegraphed up along the line, but no train arrived at the station in Bay Roberts. The story was made known in the community, and others corroborated his story. They too had seen the strange train. However, no explanation was ever found. The railway hands who worked that section of the line were somewhat spooked by the story and from that point on were always nervous about meeting the ghostly engine somewhere on the tracks.
Ghostly trains are a recurring theme in contemporary legends, and the locomotive itself is an example of folk literature motif E535.4—“Phantom railway train.” The Clarke’s Beach example may not be the only phantom train in the province. While he remained vague on specific locations, Newfoundland writer P. J. Kinsella noted in 1910 that, “there is a phantom train that runs along near a certain station, and the villagers, who often hear its weird whistle, have much reason to entertain a strange superstition in connection with its nightly progress.”
While the phantom locomotive story is probably an example of a legend with variants found around the world, what is curious about the Clarke’s Beach trestle is that it seems to be a focal point for local supernatural stories. The adjacent Clarke’s Beach Salvation Army Cemetery, incidentally, is said to be haunted by the ghost of a man wearing a top hat. Though I have looked more than once, I have never caught sight of this rather debonair ghost.
This is one creepy book.-- Atlantic Books Today --
More than a collection of stories, ‘Haunted Ground’ has gathered, researched, and categorized a waft of tales, contextualizing them by type, geography, and folkloric weight and meaning.-- The Telegram --
Haunted Ground” is a collection of ghost stories, mostly as they were told to Jarvis. This is the latest of them, and it’s packed cover to cover with stories of the eerie, the weird and the inexplicable.
My advice (then) would be to dip into it at intervals. You probably won’t be able to do this, because the stories are compelling, but what a treat it might be for your family to read together with flashlights the next time we lose power in a snow storm.
With any luck, people will keep sharing their stories with him and we’ll have campfire fodder for the rest of time.
-- The Northeast Avalon Times --