Ghost waits for phantom train
BROKEN RENDEZVOUS – The heart-broken spirit of Shelby Lee Hughes is said to wait endlessly at Union Station for the dashing engineer, Patrick Corrigan who never keeps his appointment for a lovers' tryst. Photo illustration by Carisa McCain/The Meridian Star
Editor's note: Here's a local ghost story for Halloween by Katherine Ann Horne, a retired high school English teacher and free-lance writer who lives in Meridian.
By Katherine Ann Horne / special to The Star
Oct. 31, 2002
A retreat of a clandestine clique of card players, a cavernous third-floor storeroom in one of the warehouses, its packing cases stacked neatly, had been furnished with comfortable chairs surrounding a round table on which rested a tall lamp, the chamber's only illumination.
On this 1940s autumn midnight, the surreptitious game drawing to a close, its aficionados lingered, finishing glowing cigars, last drinks for the road.
A storm threatening, a heavy mist gathering, the humidity oppressive, the windows had been opened. Far off in the menacing stillness portending an impending gale, resounded a locomotive whistle, eerily toned as though in a minor key, reiterated in intervals, drawing swiftly closer.
Familiar with the schedules, the gamblers, one a railroad executive, knew no train was due at that hour or anytime soon. As they waited, frozen with foreboding, a great rush of air whizzed by, rattling the windows, the weird whistle screaming, diminishing eastward.
A long shadowy semblance of an engine pulling cars, hurtling at breakneck speed, swore those who had dashed to the windows.
The old-timer's story
No one left, some of them shivering, as they sat or stood shaken, listening to the old timer's tale.
Engineers were the dashing charioteers of the 19th century's last decades, iron horses their chargers, and government mail contracts the ultimate, most lucrative prizes. Speed was profit. Long-distance races often resolved the competition, the winner gaining the distinction of carrying the mail.
Handsome Patrick Corrigan's skill as a crack engineer was as renowned as his charm. Before being transferred to the fast express, he was rumored to have a girl in every whistle stop. His distinctive clarion-long, short, longer, culminating in an exultant crescendo like a WHOO-OO-PEE roused the romantic, lured the adventurous.
In 1883 Meridian was the junction of five railroads, the latest being the New Orleans &Northeastern, linking the Queen City with New Orleans.
A major stockholder instrumental in establishing the NO&NE, Capt. Ross Wilcox Hughes orchestrated a madcap marathon pitting competitor Louisville &Nashville's ace locomotive against NO&NE's Queen and Crescent, both departing Cincinnati for New Orleans at the determined instant.
Cheering crowds gathered at the Meridian depot as the crew switched engines, and the Queen &Crescent with Corrigan at the throttle sped to New Orleans, besting its challenger by eight hours.
A fateful meeting
A celebration was in order. Catered by Mr. Felix Weidmann, a dinner-dance hosted by Capt. Hughes and other railroad officials in a polished and festooned warehouse room honored train, station and yard employees.
Ordinarily, Pat Corrigan would not have been an acceptable dance partner for the captain's daughter. Yet he was the hero of the hour, presentable enough in his dark gray suit, his chestnut muttonchop sideburns stylishly trimmed.
Decorously he whirled the elegant strawberry blonde Miss Shelby Lee Hughes around the floor, then returned her to her parents, bowing formally. Surely the waltz was only a courtesy. Chances were, they'd never meet again.
However, soon afterward Miss Shelby coerced her brother into escorting her aboard the Queen &Crescent to visit their cousins in Slidell. Well-known were Will Hughes' tendencies to high-stake poker and a few more bourbon-and-branch waters than his father would have condoned.
After dinner and settling his sister in her private compartment, he proceeded to indulge. Before long his companions helped the befuddled young man to his berth.
A note was slipped under Miss Shelby's door, an answering one returned. A furtive tapping admitted a masculine figure in striped overalls and cap.
Thereafter, on every Meridian stopover, a secret tryst ensured in a third-floor storeroom on Cotton Row. They would elope, promised Corrigan, as soon as as he'd saved enough to maintain her in the style to which she was accustomed.
It wouldn't be long; he was well paid. He'd take her to St. Louis, New Orleans. They'd stay in the grandest hotels, dine at the most exclusive restaurants.
After the amorous encounters had stretched over several months, two dark figures stealthily emerged in the dimness near the entrance.
Interrupting a candle-silhouetted embrace, Will Hughes wrenched his sister free, then landed a blow to the interloper's jaw. No match for the brawny Irishman, Hughes was summarily floored and out of action.
Shots blasted from a brace of pistols wielded by the captain. Staggering, Corrigan dropped to his knees. With a cry, Shelby ran to him. "It isn't serious," he rasped, rising. "I'll be back." Managing to snuff the candle flame, he escaped.
A broken heart
Some said the wounds were fatal, others that Corrigan recovered, simply moving on to different railways and new loves.
Repeatedly Miss Shelby returned to their rendezvous at the appointed hour, waiting, watching the trains rush by. Wasting away, she died young of a mysterious ailment the Victorians called "a broken heart."
Sightings of a spectral lady in flowing dress have been intermittently reported by employees in Front Street buildings.
Likewise, the covert card players' story of the phantom express has been confirmed by nocturnal railroad workers, as well as late-night passengers pausing in the depot between trains. Perhaps, as promised, Patrick Corrigan strives to return.
The season of apparitions looms. Will either of the ghostly visitations recur?
It's worth an All Hallow's Eve Vigil.