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This legend dates to at least the early 1970s. The horrific accident that created the protective ghosts is said to have involved an oncoming train and a schoolbus stalled on the tracks. According to widely believed lore, spirits of the slain youngsters forever after haunted that location, shoving stalled cars out of harm’s way, lest more innocents share their fate. Tiny handprints on the back of the saved vehicles are a motif common to this legend and serve to explain why the stalled vehicles are magically moved. Another version has some form of tame demon assisting the dead kids in their crusade. (Hoofprints, since you asked.)
Although the city of San Antonio has long claimed this folk tale as its own, pointing to the railway crossing where Villamain Road becomes Shane Road where cars seem to behave strangely and close to a set of streets named after children (Bobbie Allen, Cindy Sue, Laura Lee, Nancy Carole, and Richey Otis), the bus accident that sparked the legend took place in a city more than a thousand miles away.
In December 1938, in Salt Lake City, Utah, twenty-six children, aged 12 to 18, lost their lives when the school bus they’d been travelling in stalled on the tracks and was struck by a freight train. No similar accident took place in San Antonio, but in 1938 that city was subjected to about ten days’ worth of gruesomely detailed coverage in its local newspaper of the Salt Lake City crash, memory of which afterwards served to convince later generations the tragedy had taken place locally.
the source of the legend
On that fateful December morning, a school bus heading to Jordan High School was driving through the first snowstorm of the winter, which made it hard to see.
Near the railroad crossing at 10200 South and 400 West, the driver stopped the bus and opened the door to look beyond the thick fog, but did not see anything - including the 80-plus car "Flying Ute" train approaching at over 50 miles per hour.
At 8:43 a.m., the bus was slowly moving forward across the tracks when the speeding train smashed into its side. The driver, Farrold Silcox, and 23 of the students were killed that day, and the accident remains the worst school bus-train crash in U.S. history. The 15 survivors faced a lifetime of serious physical injuries and emotional scars.
In the wake of the horrific crash, national regulations for the installation of mechanical crossing arms and other national railroad crossing regulations were implemented that are still in place today. One of those regulations was the mandatory requirement for bus drivers to not only stop at railroad crossings, but also to open their door and driver side window to look and listen for oncoming trains.
so what's the deal with the cars moving on their own?
San Antonio’s “ghost tracks” are nothing more than an optical illusion. The mysterious movement of vehicles at that crossing is the result of a slight incline at the site, which works to roll vehicles that have been slipped into neutral off the tracks. As for the nearby streets supposedly christened in memoriam to the children who died, they were actually named in honor of a developer’s grandchildren.
The “ghosts of schoolkids push vehicle off tracks” group of tales is a subset of a larger group of stories, Gravity Hill tales. Many Gravity Hill factlets are offered as a “gee whiz” kind of thing with no storyline to them, just that if a car is slipped into neutral at the right place, it’ll move as if by magic.
Tiny Fingerprints, a stage adaptation of the urban legend, ran in March 2022 at UT New Theatre:
Some people believe that the streets of a nearby neighborhood – Bobbie Allen Way, Nancy Carole Way, Laura Lee Way, Richey Otis Way – are named after children who died in the accident. It’s hard to say when I first heard the story as it felt like just a fact of life growing up in San Antonio. Many family gatherings included huddling up with my brothers and my cousins, taking turns telling ghost stories that we had all heard a thousand times but somehow never got old. [The tracks] are a great catalyst for conflict between belief and non-belief." - Playwright Jaymes Sanchez
In 2021, Chicago's WBEZ investigated the local legend that the Haunted Railroad Tracks story took place on Munger Road:
Bartlett History Museum director Pam Rohleder has been with the museum for 25 years, and fields calls every year around Halloween concerning the legend. This led her to begin her own investigation, interviewing dozens of residents of the Bartlett area, beginning with those born in the 1920's and 30's.
"In 1950," she said, "Bartlett only had around 700 residents, so if the urban legend had any truth to it, someone would have heard something about it."
Along with the interviews Rohleder has searched through newspaper archives and called other local museums as well as the school district to see if they have any records of a crash involving a school bus.