Irish Ghosts of America: Ghost of the railroad bridge, Indiana

White Lick Creek trestle; an unhappy Irishman is said to be entombed beneath it.

White Lick Creek is a stream in central Indiana that rolls for almost 50 miles before feeding into the White River, and there is a railroad trestle in Danville that crosses that creek, and embedded in that trestle there is supposed to be an Irishman, still pounding on the pylon that entombed him, screaming to get out.

Danville seems to be pretty haunted in general. The Evansville Courier published a story in 1911 about Frank Baker, who surrendered himself to the Danville police. He had killed a man in Belleville a few years earlier, chloroforming him, rifling his pockets, and then flinging him down a flight of stairs. The man’s ghost had haunted Baker ever since, and so he went to the police, hoping to get some relief. There’s also a story of a woman who foolishly tried to cross the trestle with her infant child, and both fell to their deaths escaping an oncoming train. The infant’s cries, they say, can still be heard.

But it is the Irishman we will concern ourselves with. He has a name in these stories — Dad Jones — although sometimes he is said to be an African-American man and not Irish. The story is simple: They say a wooden platform collapsed and plunged him into the still-setting pylon, and he was entombed before anyone could save him.

Ghastly though it may be, this is the sort of thing that actually happened. In 1912, in Keokuk, Iowa, workers found a human hand extending from a one of the pillars of a government dam across the Mississippi River. It was a missing laborer, and they decided to leave him there, as removing his body would have involved blasting the pillar, which supported the dam. As late as 1955, one Mr. Joseph Lombardi disappeared while working on a colosseum building in New York, and was found to be entombed in the cement used to build the structure; his widow was awarded $24 a week for the rest of her life as recompense.

Looking back, Dad Jones wasn’t even the first of these unlucky workers who is supposed to have come back as a ghost. In 1930, the San Diego Union ran a story about Pasadena’s Dry River Bed, which they dubbed the “suicide bridge.” The newspaper claimed an unnamed and undocumented Greek laborer had been entombed in cement while building the bridge, and his horrific, screaming ghost actually caused people crossing the bridge to leap to their deaths in fear.

But back to Dad: Certainly Irish immigrants died building bridges. Bridge-building was dangerous work, as was any job involving construction and rivers. Many of the men who built the Brooklyn Bridge were Irish, and maybe 30 men died building that bridge, and hundreds were crippled by it. Further, just a week after it opened, rumors that the bridge was going to collapse caused a panicked rushed of pedestrians, and 12 were crushed. The Hoover Dam cost the lives of 112 workers, the first one being Irish-American Harold Connelly, part of the survey team, who fell off a barge. He was shortly followed by Irish-American J.G. Tierney, who likewise drowned while scouting locations of the dam. The last person to die was also Irish-American and also named Tierney: Patrick W. Tierney, who died 13 years later to the day. Weirdly, he was J.G. Tierney’s son.

So the story of Dad Jones dying in concrete while building the White Lick Creek Bridge is credible, but is there any evidence for it? I haven’t found any, and while newspapers didn’t always report on workmen’s deaths (they still don’t), a man trapped in concrete was novel enough that when it happened, newspapers tended to write about it. Perhaps the story was suppressed, and if so, I must say I am impressed that it has come down through urban legend in such detail.

But whether it happened or not, the story is an instructive one, as it really does reflect the sort of backbreaking and frequently lethal work early Irish-American immigrants found themselves doing. The railroads were metaphorically laid over the graves of Irish workers (and other workers, including, to a large extent, Chinese), and sometimes literally were built over their bodies, as at Duffy’s Cut. This story takes the metaphor a step further, actually entombing an Irish immigrant inside a pylon that supports the railroad.

More than that, the story expresses the inhumanity of the tale. Dad Jones didn’t merely scream and beat on the pylon in terror and outrage as he died. He does so forever, an eternal reminder that part of the cost of the railroad was paid in Irish death.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.