The Mystery of New Jersey's Hookerman

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Fantastic stories of ghostly lights which frequently appear near railroad tracks and, according to popular imagination, are carried by the spirits of long-deceased conductors have become a permanent and tantalizing feature of American folklore. Commonly referred to as "spook lights," the phenomenon has captured the imagination of Fortean investigators around the world.
According to recent estimates, there exist more than 60 separate locations throughout the United States alone where this strange phenomenon occurs. The "Maco lights," of North Carolina, have, by far, received the greatest attention of all, and are said to have been first sighted during the 18th Century

Others, though less familiar, are equally well-documented, with many of the contemporary sightings having their roots in local Indian legends, such as the Hornet Spook Light, found in the southern midwest region of the country. Here, as in countless other cases, the belief persists that the lights are concrete proof of psychic survival after death, and that the discarnate personalities of dead railroad conductors and ancient tribal leaders are with us today.
Over the last five years, however, many researchers have sought to strip away the thick layers of myth and superstition which surround the spook light mystery, and have begun to employ sophisticated scientific equipment and methods in their research efforts. One such research group, Vestigia, has been concentrating its attention on strange lights observed in northwestern New Jersey, in an area known as Long Valley. Their investigation and findings, along with material gathered from other researchers in the field, have yielded some provocative answers to the spook light mystery.
The spook lights of Long Valley have been actively reported since the turn of the century. One particular section of the High Bridge Railroad is the focus of the activity, a stretch of railroad which is now owned by Con Rail. The spur was originally built in the mid-18th Century, and was, for a time, a bustling link between the iron-rich Long Valley area and the main line of the New Jersey Central Railroad as Chester, NJ The High Bridge Railroad was built by mine owners for the transfer of ore; the line later carried both passengers and freight until the 1930s. Today the line is an infrequently used freight spur.
The legend of this local spook light is, indeed, colorful, and conforms faithfully to the mythic storyline found in many similar cases. A brakeman of the High Bridge Railroad is supposed to have lost his hand in an accident caused by a mechanical malfunction. Mentally unbalanced by the trauma of the accident, he walked the tracks near the site of the mishap with a lantern swinging from a hook which replaced his lost hand. One night, legend has it, that hapless figure, while searching for his lost limb on the tracks, was struck by an oncoming train, and instantly killed.
It was believed that the lights appearing over the High Bridge Railroad were a psychic re-creation of that tragic night. The "Hookerman's" lantern sways over the tracks, then, suddenly vanishes as he is once again felled by the approaching locomotive.
The High Bridge legend is almost identical to others across the country, both in reported phenomena and folklore. In almost all cases, the lights appear suddenly and at random, but seldom during heavy rain. The light itself, often a dull yellow, flickers much like a lantern, swinging from side to side like a pendulum. Generally it appears several inches to a few feet above the ground, and seems to move toward the observer in uncanny silence.
In one isolated incident, a young high school student was said to have been severely burned by the bizarre light, though this report ha yet to be confirmed. What is confirmable, however, is that the phenomenon is genuine, and has been reported by hundreds of people since the turn of the century.
At Long Valley, the researchers of Vestigia undertook a preliminary study of the spook lights in 1976, studying the history of the area, the High Bridge Railroad, and any accidents that could be linked to the Hookerman legend. It was learned that Long Valley was rural farmland until 1850, when iron ore began to be mined in the area. The High Bridge Railroad was, at first, a short spur that was used to transport ore from the mines to the foundry, and was actively used until 1885, when the mines began to cut back on operations. Eventually the railroad added several spurs, to the original Chester branch that ran to Long Valley. It was this spur that became the center of Vestigia's study. By 1899, the railroad was renamed the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad, and ran passenger operations until 1934. The line was still in use for freight until 1960. Today, there is little activity on the spur, which is now part of the jersey Central Railroad owned by Conrail.

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