I recently investigated a local legend that gained worldwide attention in the late ‘70s, early ’80s.
In 1907, 29-year-old railway worker William Steenson died in a shunting accident at Mullumbimby train station in NSW, after he bravely tried to stop a runaway train carriage. He was buried in the old Pioneer Cemetery in north Lismore. A few years later, during WWI, locals noticed his cross began to sporadically emit a bright white light, bathing the entire cemetery in a luminous crescent.
Word spread of the phenomenon and for a while the place was used to scare out-of-towners. However the locals kept it relatively quiet, William Steenson was the last one to be buried at the cemetery and the place fell into disrepair.
Then, in 1978, a local woman visited the gravestone and described her experience to the local newspaper, the Northern Star. The article attracted the attention of Sydney journalists, and pretty soon a media frenzy descended upon the site, as did people from all over the world, ranging from the fervently devout to the plain curious.
Locals then began to speak out. One Albert Dann told the Northern Star that as a newcomer to town, children took him to the ‘ghost on the hill’ and offered him a penny if he would read the name on the epitaph. He said: “forcing myself towards the main gate, suddenly, as I edged closer, a dazzling beam of white light flashed from the centre of the cemetery and struck me in the eyes.”
“I was rooted to the spot with a horrible fear, still indescribable to this day. Somehow I remember forcing my unwilling body about and with every ghost and devil after me I sprinted back along the metalled road to the comfort of a gas lamp, beneath which the boys were howling with laughter and yelling, ‘you couldn’t do it, you couldn’t do it!.'”
Soon after, experts of all kinds – geologists, physicists and stonemasons – descended upon the site, attempting to explain the phenomenon. However no conclusion was reached, as the cross allegedly glowed even on moonless nights. The cross was made from Balmoral red granite from Scotland and marked with a Masonic compass, although William Steenson was not believed to be a religious man.
A photographer from the Northern Star, Warren Croser, maintained the granite was “well polished” and refracted light rather well, nothing more. However, one Sydney journalist allegedly said after visiting the cross – “it impressed me and I’ve seen a lot of impressive things in 20 years in journalism.”
Warren Croser’s photo of the glowing cross, taken in 1984, can be viewed here.
At the height of its popularity, the cross had chunks chiselled off it for souvenirs and finally, in 1986, it disappeared in the dead of night. The distraught Steenson family had a replacement built using the same material and exact same dimensions two years later, although the replica hasn’t since glowed.
The original and curiously prophetic words on the epitaph were reinscribed, and read:
Though sorrow and darkness encompass the tomb,
Thy saviour has pass’d through its darkness before thee…
And the lamp of his Love
Is thy guide through the gloom
Driving about 40 minutes from my home, I arrived at the Pioneer Cemetery in north Lismore to a curious site.
A mere 218 marked graves sit atop a hill on the side of a busy road, in a small area mostly filled with grass catchings. To one side is a rather inconspicuous data recovery centre, while on the other, lies an old scrap yard, replete with rusted girders and odds and ends. A brick wall at the entrance tells us that 83 unmarked graves also lie here.
This cemetery was purportedly moved about 200 metres uphill from its original site to make way for Nimbin Road. So the small, obscure cemetery contains the headstones, while the bodies remain interred in their original location, beneath what is now the intersection of Nimbin Road and Wilson Street just metres below.
Apart from the mowed lawns, today the place looks all but forsaken. Tombstone shards – lying amidst the graves of drowning victims and children as young as eight – line the cemetery’s edge.
What of the Masonic compass?
Evidently Steenson was a Freemason, and the compass can be used to “illuminate” initiates. Its meaning, while not fully understood (even to symbolic scholars and many Freemasons), is believed to be “a spiritual reference to man’s instinctive quest to harmonize our physical and spiritual natures.”
What of the original cross?
It has never been found, and the intoxicating nights that seized Lismore for almost a decade during the late ’70s have faded into obscurity.
What do you think? Was the glowing cross merely a congregation of glow-worms? A sterling piece of Scottish granite? Or something more inexplicable?