Past collides with present in old freight depot
Special to the Enquirer
Sandra Jenkins Sowder had worked late and come in early to her restaurant inside the old L&N freight depot that houses her Hartselle restaurant appropriately called “The Freight House.”
Having supervised renovation of the 100-year-old building a few years prior and which is celebrating its centennial this year, she knows every inch of the place at 200 Railroad St. S.W. When an employee found a heavy iron railroad spike in the middle of the main dining room some 25 feet from its usual resting place on a mantle, her curiosity piqued.
“I would have found it the night before when cleaning up,” Sowder said. She doesn’t think vibrations of nearby passing trains would have managed to bounce the spike so far away into the middle of the room. “The walls are 13-inches-thick and the floors are over a foot thick of concrete. The ceilings are concrete and steel beam,” she said. “I knew that spike shouldn’t have been there.”
Sowder asked around about not only the incident with the railroad spike but other incidents that seemed to be unexplained. “I’ve had employees that have seen things or felt things go past them,” Sowder said. “When we run into people that worked here in the past (and) mention the possibility of ghosts being here they’re matter of fact about it – ‘Yeah, everybody knows that,’ they tell me.”
A paranormal group set up sensitive electronic equipment one night inside the building but results were inconclusive, according to Sowder. She said passing trains would set off the equipment. “But they were pretty confident there were several hot spots here for (supernatural) activity.”
Employees and guests also have described shadows and apparitions. “My manager described someone she saw and we had a guest here during Depot Days whom, out of the blue, described someone that by the description sounded just like what the manager saw,” Sowder said. “It was a middle-aged woman with blonde hair in an up-do style and a high-collar blouse or dress. But for me, I’ve never seen or heard anything myself.”
Antheia Simmons, of Hartselle, has been an employee at The Freight House restaurant for almost seven years. She was baking cakes in the kitchen one day and besides herself, there was only one other employee in the building.
“I looked up and I saw a lady with shoulder-length hair in white clothes,” Simmons said. “She had brownish-blonde hair.”
After describing the “lady in white,” to another employee, Simmons said the employee, a lady from New Orleans who was working at the restaurant’s dishwashing station, replied calmly, “Yes, I’ve seen her.”
Unexplained noises in the century-old building also have been heard, according to Simmons. “One day I was there by myself and I had gone over to the drink station and I kept hearing noises,” she said. “I found all of our to-go boxes scattered over the floor from another room. There was no one else in the building. I thought someone was messing with me but only I, Sandra and one other lady had a key and the doors were still locked.”
Younger members of the restaurant’s crew also have experienced the downright weird, Simmons said. Two boys hired to work in the place were cleaning at the end of the night when Simmons said she heard them shout. “I came around the corner and both of them were scared to death. What they saw was a black shadow. ‘Did you see that!’ they shouted. I said, ‘What?’ They said a black shadow had flown right in front of them.”
Sowder and Simmons said the kitchen area seems to be where most of the supposed paranormal activity is located, but has had one guest mention the upstairs banquet room.
“I had one lady one day who wanted to see the upstairs room,” Simmons said. “She was going to rent the room for a party. She was coming down the stairs and just stopped and said, ‘Do you have a ghost here?’ I said, ‘Yes, why?’ She said she could feel it. She wasn’t from Hartselle and didn’t know anything about it.”
Sowder said if anyone knows of any history that happened in the old freight depot or heard something that perhaps their grandparents might have mentioned, that she’d love to hear their stories.
“I don’t mind them being here,” Sowder said of the ghosts. “They seem to be very pleasant. I just wish they would do a little work at night to pay for their boarding.”
Simmons isn’t so cavalier. “When I would stand by the back by the oven and make cakes, sometimes I would see someone out of the side of my eye,” she said. “That happened several times. I’ve heard things there too. It was like someone had opened the back door and was coming in. I’ve heard things I couldn’t explain.”