The Saratoga Lights flicker at the end of a sandy road tunneling through the tangled forest in East Texas. Some say it's swamp gas or headlights reflecting off the mist rising in the darkness. Others point to the flickering yellow light at the end of Old Bragg Road and remember too many creepy occurences along the path for the stories to be coincidence.
Straight as a gun barrel and eight miles long, the road was once the the bed for the Santa Fe Railroad tracks between Saratoga and Bragg. After the turn of the century, excursion trains from Beaumont running to the sulphur springs were replaced by oil and lumber cargos. By 1934, cheaper methods of transporting the treasures of the Big Thicket were installed, the town was dismantled, and the tracks were pulled up.
Nothing remains of the resort town named for a Confederate general except an unaccountable light that looks like a gas lantern swaying as if someone were walking toward you. The light starts as a flickering yellow light in the distance, grows to a brilliant white as it nears, and then turns bright red before it disappears. The road is off of FM787, 3.5 miles north of the junction with FM770.
Witnesses have said that it has chased them, engulfed them, and even scorched the tops of their cars as it passed over them. Explanations of the light have said that it is a phenomenon that happens where Spanish conquistadors buried treasure and guard it with their spirits. Or it could be the remains of Union sympathizers who were burned alive because they wouldn't fight for the Confederacy. Maybe the light is a lost hunter trying to find his way home through the thick brush.
Because they appear at the north end of Bragg Road near the "Mexican cemetery," the lights could be a crew that helped lay the track. Rather than pay the men, a foreman robbed, killed, and buried them in the woods. The lights could be the lost workers looking for the boss who owes them more than back wages.
T.S. Woods never saw the lights when he was a brakeman on the railroad. Life was good for the young man. He bought a house in Bragg and he had a girlfriend at either end of his route. In Bragg, Sue was the daughter of the preacher, but her father wouldn't let her have much fun. In Saratoga was Betty, a fun-loving gal who worked at a resort hotel.
One night, Betty told Woods that she was in trouble and that unless he married her, she was moving away. She wanted an answer by next Saturday. As he rode back home on the midnight train the low branches of the loblolly pine trees scraped the sides of the train like fingernails as he thought about Betty and how he loved her and how he loved Sue.
The next morning after church, Sue and he snuck off for a private moment. Her pa was moving, Sue said, and she would have to go with him unless T.S. married her. She had to have an answer by next Sunday morning.
That week Woods worked the late shift ferrying the cars to the switching yard. No matter how much he loved his job swinging the lantern at the end of the train, his mind just wasn't on the work. He kept thinking about Sue and Betty.
Just as the train was getting up a full head of steam, Woods heard a female voice call his name from outside. It was Sue. No, maybe it was Betty. He couldn't be sure, so he stuck his head out the window to see who it was just as the jagged stub of a branch came within a few inches of the caboose window.
With a whack and a splat, T.S. Woods' body dropped to the floor of the railroad car. Without his head! His head had been ripped from his torso.
The next day the townfolk, railroad workers, even Betty and Sue (neither knowing about the other) couldn't find Woods' head. Not even his brakeman's cap.
On a humid night in the thick of the swampy forest after a rainy day with the bullfrogs singing in the darkness, just like the day when T.S. Woods lost his head over two women, the Saratoga Lights flicker at the end of the road. Might the light be Woods' head looking for his lost body? When there is more than one light, is it the lovers reunited in the stillness of the Big Thicket night?
"I have seen something out there," says Leni Rodes. "I don't know exactly what it is." She runs Piney Woods Canoe Company, a canoe rental, bed and breakfast, and campground on Village Creek a few miles from the Saratoga Lights. October through February, Rodes takes tours out to Bragg Road to see the phantom lights.
Fall is a great time to visit Southeast Texas because the cypress leaves are turning a rust color and the Chinese tallow leaves are multi-colored, she says. The Big Thicket National Preserve is scattered around the area in 12 units making it harder to see by hiking. Canoe trips from three to 20 miles long can be the ideal way to explore the forest.
For more information on exploring the Big Thicket, call the Piney Woods Canoe Company at 409/274-5892.
Coming up this weekend ...
Wurstfest takes off at Landa Park in New Braunfels with a unique German festival, Oct. 30-Nov. 8. 800/221-4369.
Haunted River Cruises along the River Walk in San Antonio offers a family-oriented alternative to trick-or-treating, Oct. 29-31. 210/244-5700.
Halloween Spooktacular in downtown Tayor lines Main Street with arts & crafts and pumpkin carving, Oct. 31. 512/352-3675.
Coming up ...
International Tolbert/Fowler Chili Cookoff in Terlingua gives more than bragging rights to the contestants and spectators, Nov. 6-7. 903/874-5601.
Jugland Family Festival offers a catered campout with music, hikes, and wildlife at Rancho Richey Refuge near Belmont, Nov. 6-8. 444-4550 or http://www.io.com/~zow.
Day Trips, Vol.2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is now available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, P.O. Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.