But not all advances are good for us. Every now and then, changes arrive on the scene that look shiny and new. They seem to solve a whole list of problems and become incredibly popular as a result. But in the process they build a brand new stage for history to be played out on, a stage where the most human characteristic of all–our desire to make and build and invent things–also unlocks our potential for something darker: tragedy, suffering, and death.
Episode 149 of the Lore podcast explores the dark side of a superficially bright development: the American railroad. Beginning with the legendary figure of John Henry, host Aaron Mahnke quickly moves to a discussion of an actual historical figure, Casey Jones. The story of the locomotive engineer’s heroic death is recounted with all of the grisly details left out of the popular ballads. The bulk of the episode, though, is devoted to the famous funeral train that conveyed the body of the assassinated President Lincoln home to Illinois (with several detours to accommodate American mourners along the way). This narrative makes for a great listen, not just to hear Mahnke wax poetic (“That dark metallic beast that seemed to be dragging Lincoln into the underworld, mile by mile”), but also to learn of the various supernatural occurrences that allegedly followed in the funeral train’s wake over the years.
My only issue with this latest offering is that I wish it were longer; Mahnke seems to use the episode mostly to promote the new podcast, American Shadows (in lieu of a concluding segment, he presents an excerpt from the just-launched show). Nevertheless, the content of this bit of Lore proves fantastically fascinating. When it comes to delivering tales of the macabre byproduct of American progress, “Off-Track” is right on the mark.