MONTICELLO — Rose Echols and Emma Kallembach of Monticello giggled with wide-eyed wonder as they rode an old-time train through Camp Creek Hollow on Sunday afternoon in Monticello.
For Rose, 9, and Emma, 10, it was their first experience on the Monticello Railway Museum's Ghost Train.
"My friend Emma asked me to go with her," said Rose, as she viewed witches, spiders, jack-o'-lanterns and bats from the girls' perch on the front seat of the train car.
"People are always saying there's a lot of scary stuff, so I thought it would be cool," Emma said.
After departing from the Ghost Train, many of the riders hopped aboard the nearby Haunted Boxcar, where they were greeted by skeletons, cobwebs, ghosts and more. The lights were turned on and the moving features were turned off and no people were hidden during the matinees so that young kids wouldn't get too frightened.
Sunday marked what may turn out to be the final runs for the Ghost Train, an annual attraction at the Monticello-based museum since 1975.
According to Museum President Donna McClure, it isn't giving up the ghosts for lack of interest. It's just that the holiday-themed attraction that launches right after Thanksgiving, the Polar Express, has been so overwhelmingly popular that organizers have decided to set aside the Halloween train rides to give more boys and girls — and their families — opportunities to meet Santa in future years.
"Polar Express has become so popular that we sold out of all of the rides for our two weekends within an hour and 20 minutes when the tickets went on sale at midnight on June 1," McClure said.
In an effort to allow more families to experience the Polar Express, museum leaders have opted to add two weekends next year for the Christmas-themed train rides.
"Next year we will start the Polar Express earlier," McClure said.
But since it takes a great deal of time for the museum's volunteers to remove all the haunted-train-ride props and set up props for the Polar Express, organizers have decided not to hold the Ghost Train rides at least in 2014.
"Those of us who have enough vacation time will be out here beginning on Monday putting everything away from the Ghost Train, and by next weekend, we will be turning this into the North Pole," McClure said.
The Ghost Train's flagman, John Crawford of Clinton, said he gets a kick out of volunteering to help out for the rides.
"I used to be a railroader, so I decided to be a volunteer here to keep in touch with the work I used to do," Crawford said.
Another Ghost Train volunteer, Ray Zilvitis, said he drives nearly 180 miles from his hometown of Elizabethtown to help out with the Ghost Train.
"I love all the screaming and yelling people do as they ride the Ghost Train," he said.
"You can actually hear people screaming on the train when it is dark and spooky and you startle them," McClure agreed.
McClure said experiencing the final runs of the Ghost Train was emotional for some of the volunteers.
"It is kind of sad, but we're so busy that we'll probably do more things to make the North Pole more spectacular in the future," she said.
Lacey and Brian Rogers brought their two kids, Mackenzie, 5, and Ben, 2 1/2, for a matinee run on the Ghost Train as the kids' first experience on a train.
"They are so excited about being on a train, and I don't think any of it is too scary for them," said Lacey Rogers.
According to McClure, it takes at least 30 people per night to run an event like the Ghost Train.
The volunteers do everything from scaring guests along the tracks and inside the haunted boxcar to serving as engineers, brakemen, flagmen and concession workers.
The people who operate the train also undergo a training program put on by the museum before they can begin their duties.
"We certify our own people," she said.
People interested in becoming a volunteer can email the museum at firstname.lastname@example.org
But McClure, who was dressed as a witch during the final runs Sunday, said it isn't beyond the realm of possibility for the Ghost Train to return some day.
"I would say we probably won't run Ghost Train in 2015, but things can change," she said. "We probably would need a committed group of probably 30 people who knew how to run a haunted house and would be ready to take it over. It would take a while to train somebody in how to do this.
"We're not selling any of the props, but this is it for the foreseeable future," McClure said. "Our plans are to proceed with the Polar Express."