Ghost Ships and Trains

There are numerous stories of ghost ships and trains—spectral images that appear to be traveling in the manner of the vehicles they represent. However, ghost investigators disagree on whether these stories could possibly represent a true ghost phenomenon, with their arguments centering around the nature of ghosts. Some say that it is impossible for an inanimate object to have a ghost—unless the object has somehow been “charged” by a connection to the spirit of a dying person. Indeed, many stories of ghost vehicles are tied to horrific human tragedies, such as when people say that they have seen a spectral train rushing along tracks where a train derailment once killed dozens of people.

One of the most famous spectral vessels is a Dutch ship called the Palantine. In 1752 it sailed from Amsterdam, the Netherlands, to America with approximately three hundred immigrants aboard; as it reached the mouth of Long Island Sound, a disaster occurred. Stories vary regarding how this disaster came about. According to some stories, the ship was damaged en route in a storm and, as a result, the crew mutinied, killed the captain, and abandoned the ship and its passengers, whereupon the vessel ran aground on Block Island, Rhode Island. According to other accounts, pirates lured the ship onto some rocks just off the island, using lights to make the crew think they were approaching a port. In either case, most reports say that a group of pirates boarded and plundered the wrecked ship and set it on fire.

In some stories the pirates brought the passengers—except one, either accidentally forgotten or intentionally left behind—to shore before starting the fire. In others they left all the passengers on the ship to burn to death. Historical records indicate, however, that the ship was indeed destroyed by fire, and a year later, people began sighting a flaming ghost ship sailing slowly past Block Island. In 1869 one man said that he had seen the ship and its burning sails at least eight times. Others have seen only a light moving across the water, usually right before a storm, which they believe comes from a spectral image of the Palantine’s deadly fire. For many years residents of Block Island and the surrounding area thought that the ship would stop haunting the waters when the last of the pirates had died, but sightings continued for many years thereafter, well into the twentieth century.

Other stories of spectral vehicles have involved the idea that they appear to warn people of disaster. This is the case, for example, with the Flying Dutchman, a ship that many believe was doomed to sail the seas for eternity after its captain cursed a divine spirit. It is said that when the Flying Dutchman appears, someone is about to die, though not necessarily through a sea-related accident. There are also numerous stories of people who were killed in a train wreck appearing along the tracks to warn a train’s crew that a similar disaster is about to take place.

Most of the ghost stories associated with ships and trains, however, involve cases where a person who has died on a ship or train appears to haunt it, in the same way as ghosts are said to haunt houses. One of the best-known haunted ships is the Queen Mary, a transoceanic cruise ship that was in service from 1936 to 1967 and is now a tourist attraction in Long Beach, California. Over the years several people died in various accidents on board the ship, and there have been hundreds of reported sightings of these people’s ghosts. For example, John Peddler, an eighteen-year-old sailor who was accidentally crushed when a watertight door closed on him, is said to haunt the area where he died, a channel through which the propeller shaft passes. He is known as the Shaft Alley Spectre among many of the people who claim to have seen his ghost.


  • Animal Ghosts
  • Human Ghosts
  • Haunted Houses and other Structures


The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena – written by Patricia D. Netzley © 2006 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning