By Jim Miles
A number of rural communities across Georgia have stories of a ghost light, spook light, or will ‘o the wisp. Many of these spooky orbs seem related to tales of railroad engineers, conductors, or signalmen, all of whom were reportedly decapitated in tragic accidents.
Perhaps Georgia’s most famous ghost light is that of Screven, located in Wayne County in southeastern Georgia. Its renown originated with a feature article in the Atlanta Journal.
Journal writer John Vardeman visited the railroad tracks where a dirt road crosses at Milligan’s Crossing just before Halloween in 1982. The lane runs through flat, sandy, isolated territory where nights getreally dark. Locals informed him that the light most commonly appeared late at night, particularly after a rain and following the passage of a train. A common description is of “a glowing clear-white ball that floats and swings side to side along the tracks, its light often flashing bright, then dimming,” Vardeman related.
“The ghost light has provided a lot of fun for those of us who grew up here,” stated Donald Waldron, a carpenter. “There aren’t too many things to do for entertainment in Screven.”
Local groups once sponsored hayrides to the area. On one such jaunt a personal close encounter with the glowing mystery convinced Waldron to consider the phenomenon in a different light.
“After that, I just couldn’t explain to myself what it could be. That’s when it stopped being a joke, and I began taking it seriously.”
“We’ve had scientists come down here to look at it, but nothing ever came out of it,” said Andy Lastinger, Screven’s fire chief. He thought no explanation fully explained the mystery.
“I don’t think anyone will ever really know what it is,” he concluded. There’s definitely something there-and we’ve just come to live with it.”
“Years ago, a group of us were watching the light come and go,” no more than ten feet away, revealed JoAnn Surrency. “That scared me more than any other night I had watched it. I screamed and ran.”
Jim Henry Bennett, like many residents, had heard stories of the light from his father and grandfather. On many of his nocturnal observations, he thought a train was approaching.
“We would listen and wait, but there was never a sound,” he recalled, “and the train never came.”
Railroad workers confirm that the light is not associated with rail signals or machinery.
Most of Screven’s 850 residents had seen the light at one time or another, and all had heard stories of it. Equally extensive are the explanations. Elderly Witsell Griffin, who lived just yards from the rail line, said, “There must be 10,000 tales explaining the ghost light.”
The favorite theory is that it is the spirit of a railroad flagman on the Seaboard Coast Line who was decapitated in an accident between Screven and Jesup. The bobbing light is reputedly the lantern he swings nightly in search of his head.
Here is the truth of the local train wreck. Late on the afternoon of February 19, 1884, a southbound train on the Savannah, Florida, & Western Railroad overshot the place where it was to stop at Screven Station and collided with a northbound train waiting on a siding. Fortunately, the only injury occurred to the man apparently responsible for the accident, an Engineer Ford. His leg was caught between the engine and tender, crushing the bones from the ankle to the knee. Hearing of the accident, Folk’s father and brother, both physicians in Waycross, hurried to the scene. They amputated the leg midway between knee and thigh, but the engineer died several days later in Waycross on February 21. So much for the missing head. However, I think the idea of a ghostly, one-legged man limping about each night searching for his missing appendage would be ever spookier.
The light is also postulated to be the ghost of a man who died during construction of the railroad and was buried along the tracks following the Civil War. However, many natives insist that the light predates the Civil War, and the railroad, by a number of decades.
If one rejects a supernatural explanation for the spook light’s origin, there are two common “scientific” theories. The first is that it is “swamp” or “marsh” gas, produced by decaying organic material in wetlands. While that phenomenon undoubtedly explains the occasional inexplicable night light, I doubt that it is a dependable source of continuing reports. If it is a reasonable solution, then why are there not a hundred thousand regularly scheduled ghostly glows in Georgia? Vast parts of this state are swampy.
The other typical explanation is that the lights of Jesup or the lights of cars from nearby highways are reflected by atmospheric conditions.
In late June, 1998, my son Paul and I traveled to Screven to check out their ghost light. Every citizen we talked to had personal observations to relate, although no one seemed to watch for the phenomenon anymore-apparently modern life has gotten so busy we have no time left for mysteries. We ventured to the lonely crossing just before midnight. Paul and I spotted a light we could not explain down the tracks to the east, but failed to experience a dramatic sighting.
From Weird Georgia (2000).
Jim Miles is the author of two Weird Georgia books, seven books about Georgia ghosts and eight books about the Civil War. To see all of his books go to the Jim Miles Author Page on Amazon. Order autographed books or contact Jim directly at firstname.lastname@example.org