Terror on the Trolley Trail

In this special edition, read Sam Crane's terrifying and exclusive account of the surreal events that transpired on a recent Halloween Night in Philadelphia. Readers and riders be warned!

Terror on the Trolley Trail

I take no pleasure in relaying to you the following tale. Alas, my story has been a secret for so long. As the days wane shorter and the nights grow colder, I fear I must recount to you the details of the day that changed my life forever.

Philadelphia has a deep legacy of hauntings, what with its central role in the American rebellion and years of ensuing bloodshed so many centuries ago. Stories of ghosts abound: from the specters of Society Hill to the battlegrounds where American, British, and Hessian souls were squandered, to the spirits patrolling the grounds of the Laurel Hill cemeteries and beyond. Hell, Poe himself was moved to create some of his most disturbing work in Philadelphia. You’ll be familiar with Shyamalan’s catalog of thrillers set in our city and with his characters who saw dead people or walked the streets unknowingly deceased.

I always laughed these stories off and carried on about my life. Nevertheless, Philadelphia is a city I find enchanting and since my arrival I have appreciated, embraced, and even studied its rich history. Philly is a city of superstition, after all, and superstitious traditions evolve from rational ideas, right?

Rationality, for me, is getting around town by bike. It’s become my tradition to drift around on my trusty old aluminum Focus, which sports a Grateful Dead sticker on the headtube. A few short years ago I was delighted to learn that work was underway to conjure a biking trail through the Belmont woods tracing the route of a long-defunct trolley line - a Trolley Trail. The popular narrative says the old service perished out of financial ruin in 1946. As a student of the city's history, however, I've come to learn that the operation had spiraled into collapse as a result of a horrific tragedy that same year. Having dissected obscure accounts in various archives, I have no doubt that the malicious actions of a deranged trolley operator, whose exploits resulted in the death of 13 passengers, were the nail in the coffin for the West Fairmount trolley.

Riders of Belmont's labyrinthine trails have long debated the source of resonant trolley bells heard ringing eerily and inexplicably at dusk through Westpark's dense woods. Even those most intimately familiar with the trail network become disoriented on early autumn nights when the sun's familiar glow ceases to penetrate the thinning canopy. I've heard stories of encounters with ethereal figures who'd seemingly disappear after warning of imminent trouble. It always wreaked of total bullshit to me.

A few years ago, on that first Halloween night after development on the Trolley Trail had begun, my friend Ricky messaged me to see if I wanted to ride some dirt. I'd be commuting back to East Falls after work and I'm always down to get some trail riding in so I eagerly agreed. By the time we set off toward Belmont, the lanterns atop the skyscrapers weren't yet shining so I didn’t even think about the lights tucked into the bottom of my bag.

Pumping rollers, hugging berms, bouncing over baby-heads, the urge to pedal harder and harder possessed me. With every pedal stroke I chased Ricky deeper into the woods, feeling immune and never shedding a drop of sweat as the temperature tumbled. I was lulled to a hypnotic trance as the fading light transformed the forest from a vivid emerald to dull gray stone. I’d found that feeling I'm always chasing. Total freedom. Like being a kid.

I caught a glimpse of the night's first bats, zigzagging against a twilit sky from a fork in the trail. I gripped the bars tight bombing down a winding descent. I skid into a turn too quickly but managed to keep my feet up. Powering through a long flat straightaway, I took a spider's web right in the face. My glove reached to uncover the sticky gossamer tangle from my mug and I knew right away that I’d fucked up. Blind and off-balance, I went straight where I should have dodged. My handlebar connected with an oak tree's trunk and I went down hard. My head was a pumpkin smashed by a teenager on Mischief Night. Out cold.

When I came to, all the light had left the sky. I propped myself up and saw a figure a dozen or so yards down the trail. I called out, assuming it was Ricky. The figure’s head snapped around and it floated briskly over to me. In that moment, his bike nowhere in sight, I realized it wasn't Ricky at all. It seemed to be a woman, her translucent pale skin giving off a faint glow. Her delicate frame was mangled, but her eyes, glaring down upon me, were calm and true. I didn't dare break contact with the woman's gaze, but obliquely I noticed a small child trailing just behind her. Suddenly, both the figures’ arms, draped in tattered linens, jerked up and pointed with crooked fingers in the direction I’d come from. 

"Leave here now," is all the woman said before gliding away with the child in tow.

I couldn’t believe what I’d just experienced. A sickening malaise consumed me, no longer able to distinguish nightmare and reality. But darkness was here and I needed to find my way. Setting my discomfort aside, I rifled through my waxed canvas bar bag and pulled out the lights I thought I'd never need. My stem and handlebars had twisted out of alignment. Muscling them back into position, the nighttime silence was broken by the unmistakable signature of an old bell's toll. Dong. Dong. As the beat of my heart rattled against my ribcage, I noticed the soft warm glow of flames down the trail in the distance.

The evening air felt suddenly frigid and a shiver crawled wretchedly up my spine. The echo of the tolling bell flooded the forest through the night. I called again for Ricky and in response I heard a low and villainous cackle from the direction of the flames. My mind muddled, I approached, following the tunnel created by the discrete beam of my light through the dark. As I got closer, the bell ringing louder and the flames warming my skin, I encountered Ricky's bike on the ground before the strewn and smoldering wreckage of the Fairmount Park Trolley.

I stopped dead, adrenaline stirring through my veins. Though Ricky’s bike was there, the hunched figure up ahead was too massive to be my friend. Too big to be man at all. Squinting at the silhouette cast by the glowing debris of the antiquated trolley car, I began to make out the details. The colossal form before me was not alone but accompanied by the limp and lifeless body of my dear friend Ricky. What’s worse, the creature was ripping and tearing at the flesh and preying on his slain and mutilated body.

Gasping uncontrollably, I drew the attention of the bloodcurdling monster. He immediately leapt from his feast of flesh and lunged directly for me. I mounted my bike in a desperate attempt to flee and pedaled with all my strength. As I strained, my breath ragged in my throat, the forest was filled with the maniacal laughter of the evil spirit. The trolley's bell, clasped in his mangled hand, rang menacingly with each stride and punctuated his sinister snickers. Closer and closer he came with each bell’s toll. I felt my bike's chain grinding against every tooth in my drivetrain as I clicked through my gears in what was starting to feel like a futile attempt to escape a painful and untraceable death.

I could see electric lights marking the edge of the treeline up ahead, indicating the trail’s end at Belmont Plateau. Sprinting desperately, I was struck by a blunt force and immediately felt the sting of an indescribable chill. The trolley’s bell bounced to a stop alongside me as I crashed into the dirt once again. Hurled by my assailant in an attempt to score my final blow, the bell’s black iron surface was crystalized with a patina of frost. The embodiment of darkness and coldness itself.

Looking up, I was overcome with the awful visage of my attacker approaching. A shredded old uniform topped off with a blooksoaked conductor’s cap betrayed the beast as the revenant phantom of the murderous trolley operator. His breath was cold, his eyes were dark. In what were surely my life's final moments, I reflected on all that I love and regretted my willful disregard of Philadelphia's legendary hauntings. In a final frantic attempt to defend myself, I thrust both feet up in the air, clad in cleated shoes, and kicked the phantom trolley operator in the jaw. His head, tenuously attached to begin with, separated wildly from his body, showering blood and teeth across the darkened trail. 

I wasn't out of the woods yet. Without looking back and without grabbing my bike, I scrambled to my feet and ran the few dozen yards into the clearing. A waning moon hanging high in the sky and my morale hanging lower than ever, I forced myself to look back towards the woods. Staring back at me from the trailhead stood the trolley operator, holding his head in one hand and the cold bell in the other. Never breaking his stare, he stuffed his head back atop his shoulders, bellowed a low sinister laugh for the last time that night, turned slowly and disappeared into the forest.

No trace of Ricky's body or our bikes nor the wreckage of the trolley I'd seen were ever discovered. But I know the phantom trolley operator's still out there, waiting in the cold and dark. I haven't been back to Belmont ever since, but friends still mention hearing the sound of a bell in the distance while riding the trails near sunset. With autumn heralding days both shorter and colder, it seems the phantom's trolley bell rings earlier and earlier every night. Now is the time of year when riders like you and me start to hang up our bikes for the season, wary of the cold and wary of the dark. Will you too fall victim to the trolley bell’s toll? 

This story was written by Dan Powers with editing and illustration by Micah Epstein.

For more on the Trolley Trail, check out this story from The Philadelphia Inquirer and this update from Fairmount Park Conservancy.

Happy Halloween!