Fact Check

Did a Father Sacrifice His Son for a Train Full of Passengers?

The story of a father's choice between saving his own son or a train full of people goes back long before it was published online.

Published March 16, 2001

 (Pfc598/Wikimedia Commons)
Image Via Pfc598/Wikimedia Commons
A father was faced with the horrifying choice between saving his son's life at the cost of many, or watching his son die as his inaction saves others.

"The Drawbridge Keeper" has been in circulation since December 1997. 30 years earlier in 1967 it was known as "To Sacrifice a Son: An Allegory", a short story written by Dennis E. Hensley and first published in the Michigan Baptist Bulletin. Since then it has appeared in numerous forms, including as a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints video version produced in the mid-1970s.

There was once a bridge that spanned a large river. During most of the day the bridge sat with its length running up and down the river paralleled with the banks, allowing ships to pass through freely on both sides of the bridge. But at certain times each day, a train would come along and the bridge would be turned sideways across the river, allowing the train to cross it.

A switchman sat in a shack on one side of the river where he operated the controls to turn the bridge and lock it into place as the train crossed.

One evening as the switchman was waiting for the last train of the day to come, he looked off into the distance through the dimming twilight and caught sight of the train lights. He stepped onto the control and waited until the train was within a prescribed distance. Then he was to turn the bridge. He turned the bridge into position, but, to his horror, he found the locking control did not work. If the bridge was not securely in position, it would cause the train to jump the track and go crashing into the river. This would be a passenger train with MANY people aboard.

He left the bridge turned across the river and hurried across the bridge to the other side of the river, where there was a lever switch he could hold to operate the lock manually.

He would have to hold the lever back firmly as the train crossed. He could hear the rumble of the train now, and he took hold of the lever and leaned backward to apply his weight to it, locking the bridge. He kept applying the pressure to keep the mechanism locked. Many lives depended on this man's strength.

Then, coming across the bridge from the direction of his control shack, he heard a sound that made his blood run cold.

"Daddy, where are you?" His four-year-old son was crossing the bridge to look for him. His first impulse was to cry out to the child, "Run! Run!" But the train was too close; the tiny legs would never make it across the bridge in time..

The man almost left his lever to snatch up his son and carry him to safety. But he realized that he could not get back to the lever in time if he saved his son.

Either many people on the train or his own son - must die.

He took but a moment to make his decision. The train sped safely and swiftly on its way, and no one aboard was even aware of the tiny broken body thrown mercilessly into the river by the on rushing train. Nor were they aware of the pitiful figure of the sobbing man, still clinging to the locking lever long after the train had passed. They did not see him walking home more slowly than he had ever walked; to tell his wife how their son had brutally died.

Now, if you comprehend the emotions that went through this man's heart, you can begin to understand the feelings of Our Father in Heaven when He sacrificed His Son to bridge the gap between us and eternal life.

Can there be any wonder that He caused the earth to tremble and the skies to darken when His Son died? How does He feel when we speed along through life without giving a thought to what was done for us through Jesus Christ?

However, even the 1967 recounting is but a version of a much older story. Consider this form of the tale from 1884:


On one of the railroads in Prussia, a few years ago, a switch-tender was just taking his place, in order to turn a coming train approaching in a contrary direction. Just at this moment, on turning his head, he discerned his little son playing on the track of the advancing engine. What could he do? Thought was quick at such a moment of peril! He might spring to his child and rescue him, but he could not do this and turn the switch in time, and for want of that hundreds of lives might be lost.

Although in sore trouble, he could not neglect his greater duty, but exclaiming with a loud voice to his son, "Lie down," he laid hold of the switch, and saw the train safely turned on to its proper track. His boy, accustomed to obedience, did as his father commanded him, and the fearful heavy train thundered over him.

Little did the passengers dream, as they found themselves quietly resting on that turnout, what terrible anguish their approach had that day caused to one noble heart. The father rushed to where his boy lay, fearful lest he should find only a mangled corpse, but to his great joy and thankful gratitude he found him alive and unharmed. Prompt obedience had saved him. Had he paused to argue, to reason whether it were best - death, and fearful mutilation of body, would have resulted.

The circumstances connected with this event were made known to the King of Prussia, who the next day sent for the man and presented him with a medal of honour for his heroism.

The tale of a son sacrificed for the salvation of many is best classified as an inspirational parable. It attempts to render God's sacrifice of his son Jesus understandable on a more direct level by relating it in terms of an earthly father's anguish over having to make a comparable offering. As such, it's a teaching tool, nothing more. Asking if it's true is akin to asking if "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" was based on a real event.

As a "Jesus died for us" parallel, the tale falters on one key point: Jesus did not go to his death as the result of an accident. Though the Heavenly Father did give up his son to save mankind (the way the drawbridge keeper sacrifices his child to spare the lives of strangers), the choice was not forced upon Him by circumstance. The death of Jesus Christ was predetermined; the Son was always fated to die for mankind's sins. Some scholars find that inconsistency a sticking point with this allegory; they say it debases God's planned sacrifice by presenting it as a spur-of-the-moment decision.

The tale has another function besides that of religious allegory. It is sometimes framed as a question and used on philosophy tests.

Suppose that your spouse or your baby, like in an old movie, is tied to a railroad track with a train approaching that is carrying 100 people. You are at the switch, but if you switch the train away from your spouse or baby, it will run over a broken bridge off a high cliff with jagged rocks and a raging current hundreds of feet below. What should you do? Why?

Another version involves one child playing on one set of tracks while ten children play on another set the train is headed for and asks if it is right to throw the switch, resulting in one death instead of ten. In that form of the question, the children are not known to the switchman, which removes from the equation the emotional factor of choosing between beloved family members and strangers.

(If you're a philosophy student trying to ace an exam and can explain the reasons for your response, the "correct" answer is to leave the switch alone. By moving it you would be murdering those now about to die. If the switch is left in its original position, no murder will be committed even though deaths occur as a result of inaction. Those who believe in a higher power have a further philosophical reason for leaving the switch untouched; by changing the course of the train, they are usurping God's prerogative in deciding who is to live and who is to die.)

Philosophy exams and religious allegories aside, the tale has achieved the measure of popularity it has likely because it leaves the reader asking himself what he'd do in a comparable situation: save the many at the cost of the one he cherishes, or rescue the one he loves at any cost. It's a question that takes the measure of a person.


Pike, Richard.   Railway Adventures and Anecdotes.     Hamilton, Adams, and Co., 1884.