The moon over the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania had turned the shining steel rails into two endless ribbons of silver that faded away into the night. The Buffalo Flyer, PG-16, winding its way along the valley route from Williamsport, rolled into the station at Sunbury on time.
There was a ten-minute layover there. That was where the crew of the Sunbury division took the train. And that was where William "Bill" Henry took the throttle.
The Flyer left Sunbury on schedule and was soon lost in the night, pounding the rails, winding up the river, keeping its appointment with the clock. The next station stop was Scranton, about eighty miles northeast in the mountains, up and beyond the valley of the Susquehanna River. Between Sunbury and Scranton was a stop where steam locomotives refilled their water tanks. That water stop was called Port.
The crewmen worked together well. They had traveled the same familiar run day after day, night after night. As they traveled along--the engineer with his hand on the throttle and his eye on the rail, the fireman feeding coal into the hungry firebox, the flagmen with their signals--each was pretty much alone with his thoughts. No one knows what each crewman was thinking that night. No one knows the thoughts of Bill Henry as the train sped along the mountain railway. But Bill was a God-fearing man, a man whose character and integrity were above question.
Soon the night express was at Port and water was dumped into the tanks. Again on schedule, with a blast of the whistle and in a cloud of black coal smoke, the train followed the steel pathway into the night.
Bill had his hand on the throttle, and Hank, his fireman, was shoveling coal into the roaring fire. The PG-16 was racing along the familiar course, each crewman absorbed in his own thoughts, when the engineer saw him!
They were just above Shickshinny, where the mining region began. There, in the dying light of a fading moon, Bill saw a man walk calmly up from the pilot in front of the locomotive and swing confidently up onto the steam chest. His back was to the cab and the engineer. With his left hand he was holding onto the handrail, and with his right hand he gave a signal. He was well dressed, wearing a light-grey suit and a soft Fedora hat. And he was continually giving the caution-stop signal.
Bill called to his fireman. "Hank, it looks like we have a passenger!"
Hank came over and looked ahead. He, too, saw the rider. He looked at him for just a moment and then went back to his shovel. "Must be a bum that got on at Port."
As Bill watched, the man in grey stepped up onto the running board that led from the front of the engine back to the cab and gave another signal--danger stop. Then he turned and for the first time looked at the engineer--the first time that Bill had seen his face.
Bill saw him clearly. He had a light brown mustache, and his eyes bore an expression of wonderment. The train was still traveling at full speed, but the hat remained on the man's head without aid and his clothes were not blown by the wind. They remained in place just as if he were standing in his own parlor.
Then he changed his signal once more. This time, having walked a little closer to the cab, he gave the sign for an emergency stop.
Bill released the throttle, put on all brakes, and whistled for the flag. The PG-16 ground to a hard stop and flagmen went out, the first flagman ahead for 200 feet and the second flagman back for 300 feet to warn any other train that there was a halted locomotive on the tracks.
The first flagman had gone only about 150 feet when he signaled with his lantern. "Cave in!"
When the crew rushed ahead they found only a gaping hole where there had been the twin rails and a tool shed.
The engineer and the fireman turned to inquire of the man in grey. But the mysterious night rider on that train was never found. He was never heard of again. He had disappeared just as mysteriously as he had appeared.
Bill Henry was a quiet, devoted Christian gentleman, and he didn't talk much to most people about the experience. When he did tell it, he left it to the hearer to identify the man in grey. But of one thing he was personally sure: that night he had a messenger from heaven riding his train.
From The Youth's Instructor, p. 6, January 21, 1958.
Last revised: 30 Sep 2011.