Town of Ravenel

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The Ravenel Lights

From the book
"Haunted Plantations: Ghosts of Slavery and Legends of the Cotton Kingdoms"

By Geordie Buxton

Published by Arcadia Publishing

Many people have gone to the railroad tracks behind an old Baptist church near Ravenel, South Carolina for a ghost hunt. Where the railroad turns just before the highway, three eerie lights are said to appear moving silently up the tracks. They disappear, leaving witnesses in a spell of darkness, only to reappear closer. When the Ravenel lights reach the bend, they fade into a dark rush of wind and phantasmal images.

According to local legend, people wishing to see this supernatural phenomenon must knock on the Baptist church door three times in the dead hours of a moonless night. They are to then walk away from the doors on the road towards the town. They must travel parallel to the railroad tracks that are behind the church graveyard, between Martin and Drayton Streets. As they come to the bend in the tracks the Ravenel lights flash slowly, like a signal, while moving ever closer to them.

One group of witnesses claimed that after the lights disappeared at the bend, the side of their car was pelted by moving objects. Later, they discovered the impressions of hands on their doors. These dented doors were the ones that faced the railroad tracks--and the approaching lights.

On another occasions, a group on foot reported a strong wind rushing over them and through the tree limbs overhead as the lights disappeared

Others in a pickup truck claimed that dark bodies tumbled quickly across their vehicle, wrecking their hood and leaving a crack in the windshield. When they opened their doors and looked around the area with a flashlight, everything looked in place except for the fact that their truck was now dented. They saw no movement from anywhere. The woods and the distant highway were completely mute, yet there was a distinct smell of smoke in the air. This silent aftermath was more alarming to them than even the lights themselves, they reported, so they returned to their damaged truck and drove away.

Three unmarked wooden grave markers sit in the back of the Baptist church graveyard. The Ravenel railroad tracks can be seen over granite rocks directly behind the graves. Although there is little evidence to prove any of the elaborate stories surrounding the Huguenot-founded town of Ravenel, oral tradition dates the three eroded grave markers back to the turn of the 19th century, when the small farming town was constructing its first train depot.

It was New Year's Eve in 1899, and a low orange moon was slowly setting over Ravenel. It had been a night of heavy celebration for three young men. After making brief appearances at every home offering cocktails for the occasion, they tied their horses and walked from one plantation party to the granite hill of the railroad tracks to toast one another at the new train depot construction site.

When they got to the tracks, they headed up the rock embankment. Suddenly, half of the enormous orange moon appeared glowing above the woods like a great mythical bridge. The Ravenel men stood solemnly. They gazed at the moon as if looking to a great alter, a cathedral of light built in their names. The unfinished depot stood nearby.

The Ravenel men's fascination with trains was enhanced by their thrill-seeking nature. Each of them worked at a depot within an hour's horse ride. The locomotive was the fastest, most powerful thing even seen at the time, and these men were thoroughly mesmerized.

Without radio or any kind of electronic communication, the only way to signal a train conductor was by Morse code, with lights. The three men performed this function, acting as vital messengers from their respective depots, controlling the movement of locomotives along the South Carolina railroad system.

Since the arrival of the first American railroads, most Ravenel families had left plantation work to be on or near the tracks. Nearly every section of the track that ran from Charleston west to Hamburg was soon populated with small towns similar in size to Ravenel, creating communities where transportation was accessible. Soon tracks were laid going east towards Charleston, South Carolina and on to Wilmington, North Carolina. Inland South Carolina towns near the rivers around Columbia, such as Camden, the oldest inland town in the Carolinas, thrived. The railroads freed the plantation system from its dependence on navigable water and horses.

The Ravenel men, whose families were involved in the new commerce, had a vested interest in the depot. A train stop would diminish the cost of transportation to get their crops to the markets of Charleston, Beaufort, and Savannah.

Although the depot was not yet completed, the Ravenel men's feverish energy, combined with the rush of their earlier celebrations, led them to believe they could do anything. The appearance of the enormous orange moon seemed to lend them some validation.

A small coal engine and box car was kept outside the depot. As if it were just another horse, the men hopped on and quickly got the coals lit, giving power to the train. They soon felt the need for a joy ride. Unfortunately, none of the men were aware that work cut off early for the laborers that day, and none of the tracks leading out from the depot were completely nailed down.

As the engine roared in fire, the dark steel machine picked up speed. The men whooped and hollered in glee. The woods lit up from the glare of the engine  coals as they passed by. The youngest of the Ravenel men was even moved to blow the steam whistle to let al the outlying plantation parties know which men were changing the face of this Southern land through their work on the railroad. The men leaned out the side of the train to glance behind them at the candlelit houses. They turned back to see what lay ahead on their joyful journey. They never looked at the plantation houses again.

As they approached the bend behind the Baptist church, they were moving at top speed. With 20 yards of rail missing on the left side of the bend, the train sailed directly off the embankment in silence. Then the ripping of the loose metal rails made a high-pitched, grating screech and fiery sparks shot into the air. The train landed on its side, exploding immediately into a ball of flames.

From the balconies of homes in the distance, the people of Ravenel saw the setting of the orange moon replaced by a closer, brighter glow between the depot and the church. The townspeople rushed down to search for survivors, but when they reached the scene of the incinerating fire, they were unable to locate any remains of the three Ravenel men.