The “almost” ghost town of Bushong, Kansas got its start in 1886 when the Missouri Pacific Railroad built its tracks across Northern Lyon County. The railroad station was named Weeks, as was the town at first, after Joseph Weeks, who donated 20 acres of land to the railroad. After the railroad built on part of the acreage, it sold some of the acreage as town lots. Although there was no town company, per se, Joseph Weeks also platted another 20 acres and sold lots on that, and a town was born. The Missouri Pacific Railroad also built a large tank pond one mile east of town to supply the steam engines with water, as they pulled their trains over the hills to Council Grove. There were large pastures filled with cattle in the area, and cattle pens were constructed to hold the cattle for shipping. The railroad also bought a valuable stone quarry south of Bushong and shipped quarried rock to Kansas City, about an hour and a half to their Northeast.
As the town grew, more buildings were needed. The first school building was erected in 1886. The school was a two-story wood-frame structure, and it housed grades 1-8. The school was used until 1948. Then, students were moved to the brick high school building, and the old school building was sold and removed. When the new settlement gained a post office on January 31, 1887, the name was changed to Bushong in honor of Al “Doc” Bushong, who was a baseball player for the Saint Louis Browns. The player’s greatest success came when he was the starting catcher in the 1886 World Series. The Saint Louis Browns of the American Association beat the Chicago White Stockings of the National League. The team owner wanted to do something special for his team to mark their success. Somehow, he made the arrangements for each player to have a town named after them. While all the players had towns named after them, Bushong is the only town that still carries the name of the player they were to have honored. In 1887, Bushong had a population of about 75 people. The first station agent was R D Cottrell, who also built the Bushong Hotel, which he operated with his wife until his death, then she remarried and continued to operate the hotel for a few more years. Other early businesses included a general store, a flour mill, blacksmith, lumber yard, boarding house, and a hog fence factory.
In the town’s saddest event, twelve members of the population died within 48 hours of each other in February 1894, when a diphtheria epidemic gripped the town. It was the last great pandemic of the 19th century, and among the deadliest pandemics in history. The worst effects of the pandemic took place from October 1889 to December 1890, with recurrences in March to June 1891, November 1891 to June 1892, winter of 1893–1894, and early 1895. At the same time, the school in Bushong was closed. The towns first and only doctor, Chester L Stocks, set up his practice in 1896. He was also a druggist, and he continued to serve the community until 1934.
For a brief time in 1899, the town boasted a newspaper called the Bushong Bulletin. It was a small town, and really, how much news could there be. A Methodist church was established that year. It had one large room with a pot-bellied stove in the center and an organ. By 1910, Bushong was a thriving town with a population of 250. The post office even had one rural route. The town also had a number of general stores, a hotel, public school, telegraph, telephone, and express service, and its railroad was providing a considerable amount of shipping. For many years trains stopped at Bushong for passengers. When passenger service was discontinued, trains could still be stopped by “flagging” them down to load freight or livestock. It finally became necessary to establish the Bushong Rural High School, and classes were held in the upper room of the grade school in 1913. Later, students were taught in other town buildings, with the first graduation taking place in 1916. The town also became home to The Bushong State Bank, which was chartered in 1916, but like many other banks, it failed during the Great Depression and closed in 1932. A new brick High School was erected in 1918 consisting of four rooms. Later additions were made, including a gymnasium in 1926. Unfortunately, a fire in the 1920s destroyed a large portion of the downtown area, and the buildings were never rebuilt. In 1923 a new Methodist church building was erected on the same site as the first one. The building utilized the bell from the old church in the belfry. That year, the town’s population was 150. However, the next year, severe drought and heat caused many settlers to move from the area. Bushong was incorporated in 1927, and L A Grimsley was elected as the first mayor. At that time, the town had a population of about 150 and continued to maintain its two room grade school and a four-room rural high school. The Methodist Church and Sunday School were well attended. At about that same time, electricity was approved, and in 1936 Bushong voted to sell their utility to Kansas Electric Company of Emporia. Bushong’s early telephone system was part of the Farmers Mutual Telephone Association, a cooperative company that everyone helped to construct and care for lines and poles. The telephone company was sold in 1960. Like numerous other communities, Bushong was hit hard by the Great Depression and never recovered.
In 1955, school enrollment had dropped to such a degree that Bushong consolidated with the other area schools. High school pupils went to nearby Allen until Northern Heights opened in the fall of 1957, consolidating the high schools of Bushong, Allen, Admire, and Miller. Grade school continued at Bushong until 1966 when all area 3rd and 4th graders went to Bushong and the other grades to Allen and Admire. The school finally closed in 1970, and the city purchased the building for use as a Civic Center. Currently, the building is abandoned. The railroad discontinued the depot in 1957, and later the depot building was torn down.
During the Cold War, Bushong was again in the spotlight. I became the location of one of the first generations of nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. One of several Atlas class missile silos developed in the Midwest, active from 1961-1965, was part of the 548th Strategic Missile Squadron was located in the small town. Unfortunately, that was still not enough to save the town from virtual extinction. Bushong’s post office closed on July 2, 1976. Today, Bushong is called home to only about 30 people with no open businesses. The old community is located about 20 miles northwest of Emporia. It’s strange how things work out. What starts out as a thriving town, sometimes gives way to a ghost town, while other times, the town grows to greatness.
While most of the economy in Southeast Texas depended on agriculture, cattle ranching, and the lumber business in the 19th century, things were about to change. The presence of oil was known, but untapped until 1901 when the oil industry would change the landscape of the region. Uses for oil date back many years. In the 1500s, the Spanish used oil from seeps near Sabine Pass for caulking their ships, and to the north, settlers near Nacogdoches used seeping oil for lubricants before 1800. There were numerous discoveries in east and central Texas in the later 1800s, especially at Corsicana in 1896. Attempts were made to drill wells at Spindletop 1893 and 1896 and at Sour Lake in 1896, but they had no successful oil production along the Gulf Coast until the Lucas Gusher came in on Spindletop Hill on January 10, 1901.
Spindletop Hill was a salt dome oil field, that was located in the southern portion of Beaumont, Texas. People had long suspected that oil might be under the hill as the area had been known for its sulfur springs and bubbling gas seepages that would ignite if lit. Then in August, 1892, several men including George W. O’Brien, George W. Carroll, and Pattillo Higgins formed the Gladys City Oil, Gas, and Manufacturing Company to do exploratory drilling on Spindletop Hill.
By September 1901, there were at least six successful wells on Gladys City Company lands. Wild speculation drove land prices around Spindletop to incredible heights. One man who had been trying to sell his tract there for $150 for three years sold his land for $20,000; the buyer promptly sold to another investor within fifteen minutes for $50,000. One well, representing an initial investment of under $10,000, was sold for $1,250,000. Legal entanglements and multimillion-dollar deals became almost commonplace. An estimated $235 million had been invested in oil that year in Texas; while some had made fortunes, others lost everything.
Following the success of the oil industry at Spindletop Hill, many people, including my grandparents, Allen and Anna Spencer would make their way to Texas in search of a better life. They would settle on the oilfields near Ranger, Texas. They didn’t find any oil fields, so their income came from his work for other people in the oilfields. These days people working in the oilfield business make good money, but as near as I can tell oilfield workers averaged about 90 cents an hour in 1919, which would be about $11.74 an hour today. That’s pretty poor wages, especially for the oilfield, but I suppose people didn’t realize how valuable they really were. Needless to say, the oilfield was not the place my grandfather would choose to make his living, and eventually they returned to Wisconsin where he went to work for the railroad.
When a body of water stands between two places that people need to go, there are a few options to solve the dilemma…a bridge, a road around, or as was the case of a way across the Detroit River, a tunnel. With a river, you can’t really go around, so often it’s a bridge, but in this case there was a great deal of opposition to a bridge over the river. Since the beginning of the 19th century, Detroiters and Windsorians had been trying to find a way to move people and goods back and forth across the Detroit River. For decades, railroad interests proposed tunnels and bridges galore, but powerful advocates of marine shipping always managed to block those projects, because they did not want to lose business to faster and more capacious trains. Plans for bridges were particularly troubling to those shippers, since just one low-hanging bridge had the potential to keep high-masted sailing vessels off the river altogether.
In 1871, the region’s railroads finally won permission to build a trans-national tunnel, and workers began to dig into the river at the foot of Detroit’s San Antoine Street. They were forced to abandon the project just 135 feet under the river, however, when they struck a pocket of sulfurous gas that made workers so ill that none could be persuaded to return. Likewise, in 1879, another tunnel had to be abandoned when it ran right into some unexpectedly difficult to excavate limestone under the river. The first successful Michigan to Canada tunnel project finally opened in 1891. It was the 6,000 foot long Grand Trunk Railway Tunnel at Port Huron.
Soon enough, it was clear to most people on both sides of the border that they needed to build some sort of structure for transporting automobiles across the river too. In June 1919, the mayors of Detroit and Windsor decided to build a city to city tunnel that would serve as a memorial to the American and Canadian soldiers who had died in World War I. Even after advocates of the under-construction Ambassador Bridge tried to frighten away the tunnel’s backers by spreading rumors about the danger of subterranean carbon monoxide poisoning, the tunnel boosters were undeterred. One said, they were “inspired by God to have this tunnel built.” Construction began in 1928. First, barges were used to dredge a 2,454 foot long trench across the river. Then workers sank nine 8,000 ton steel and concrete tubes into the trench and welded them together. Finally, an elaborate ventilation system was built to make sure that the air in the tunnel safe to breathe.
On Nov 1, 1930, President Herbert Hoover turned a telegraphic Golden Key in the White House to mark the opening of the 5,160 foot long Detroit-Windsor Tunnel between the United States city of Detroit, Michigan, and the Canadian city of Windsor, Ontario. The tunnel opened to regular traffic on November 3, 1930. The first passenger car it carried was a 1929 Studebaker. In the first nine weeks it was open, nearly 200,000 cars passed through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel. Today, about 9 million vehicles use the tunnel each year.
Jonathan Luther “John” “Casey” Jones was born on March 14, 1863. As a boy, he lived near Cayce, Kentucky, which is where his nickname of “Cayce” came from, but he chose to spell it “Casey”. Jones went to work for the Mobile & Ohio Railroad and performed well and was promoted to brakeman on the Columbus, Kentucky to Jackson, Tennessee route, and then to fireman on the Jackson, Tennessee to Mobile, Alabama route. That caught my attention, because my grandfathers and other family members worked for the railroad too, but it was not working on the railroad that made Casey famous…at least not totally anyway. Casey always dreamed of being an engineer. He worked hard, but did receive nine citations for rule violations, and 145 total days suspended. In the year prior to his death, Jones had not been cited for any rules infractions. His dreams came true, but not in the way he expected. In the summer 1887, a yellow fever epidemic struck many train crews on the neighboring Illinois Central Railroad, providing an unexpected opportunity for faster promotion of firemen on that line. On March 1, 1888, Jones switched to the Illinois Central Railroad, taking a freight locomotive between Jackson, Tennessee and Water Valley, Mississippi.
Jones was a bit of a risk taker, but I doubt if some of the people who knew about some of his “risks” would hold that against him. A little-known example of Jones’ heroic act saved the life of a little girl. As Jones’ train approached Michigan City, Mississippi, he had walked out on the running board to oil the relief valves. He had finished well before they arrived at the station, as planned, and was returning to the cab when he noticed a group of small children dart in front of the train some 60 yards ahead. They all cleared the rails easily except for a little girl who suddenly froze in fear at the sight of the oncoming iron horse. Jones shouted to Stevenson to reverse the train and yelled to the girl to get off the tracks in almost the same breath. Then he realize that she was frozen in fear. He raced to the tip of the cowcatcher and braced himself on it, reaching out as far as he could to pull the frightened but unharmed girl from the rails.
On April 30, 1900, while Casey was running the Cannonball Express, and trying to make up for a late start, it would be his heroics that would cost him his life. As Casey was coming into Vaughan, Mississippi, he did not know that three separate trains were in the station at Vaughan…double-header freight train No. 83 and long freight train No. 72 were both in the passing track to the east of the main line. As the combined length of the trains was ten cars longer than the length of the east passing track, some of the cars were stopped on the main line. The two sections of northbound local passenger train No. 26 had arrived from Canton earlier, and required a “saw by” for them to get to the “house track” west of the main line. The “saw by” maneuver required that No. 83 back up (onto the main line) to allow No. 72 to move northward and pull its overlapping cars off the main line and onto the east side track from the south switch, thus allowing the two sections of No. 26 to gain access to the west house track. The “saw by”, however, left the rear cars of No. 83 overlapping above the north switch and on the main line…right in Jones’ path. As workers prepared a second “saw by” to let Jones pass, an air hose broke on No. 72, locking its brakes and leaving the last four cars of No. 83 on the main line.
Jones was almost back on schedule, running at about 75 miles per hour toward Vaughan, and traveling through a 1.5 mile left-hand curve that blocked his view. Webb’s view from the left side of the train was better, and he was first to see the red lights of the caboose on the main line. “Oh my Lord, there’s something on the main line!” he yelled to Jones. Jones quickly yelled back “Jump Sim, jump!” to Webb, who crouched down and jumped from the train, about 300 feet before impact, and knocked unconscious by his fall. The last thing Webb heard as he jumped was the long, piercing scream of the whistle as Jones warned anyone still in the freight train looming ahead. He was only two minutes behind schedule. Jones reversed the throttle and slammed the airbrakes into emergency stop, but “Ole 382” quickly plowed through a wooden caboose, a car load of hay, another of corn, and halfway through a car of timber before leaving the track. He had reduced his speed from about 75 miles per hour to about 35 miles per hour when he hit. Because Jones stayed on board to slow the train, he saved the passengers from serious injury and death. He was the only fatality of the collision. His watch stopped at the time of impact…3:52 am on April 30, 1900. Legend holds that when his body was pulled from the wreckage, his hands still clutched the whistle cord and brake. A stretcher was brought from the baggage car on No. 1, and crewmen of the other trains carried his body to the depot, a half-mile away.
Through the centuries, new designs were developed to build things we needed. As the railroad moved across the nation, track laying came across deep gorges and flat plains. Of course, the flat plains were easy to deal with, and trains could simply go around any hills in the area, but the rivers and gullies were a bigger problem. They needed bridges, and so Charles Collins and Amasa Stone jointly designed a bridge to be used at Ashtabula, Ohio. It was the first Howe-type wrought iron truss bridge built. Collins was worried about the bridge, thinking that it was “too experimental” and needed further evaluation. Nevertheless, higher powers prevailed, and the bridge was built. Collins had been right to be concerned. The bridge lasted just 11 years before it collapsed.
On December 28, 1876, a Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway train…the Pacific Express left New York. It struggled along through the drifts and the blinding storm. The train was pulling into Ashtabula, Ohio, shortly before 8:00pm on December 29, 1876, several hours behind schedule. The eleven cars were a heavy burden to the two engines. The leading locomotive broke through the drifts beyond the ravine, and rolled on across the bridge at Ashtabula at less than ten miles an hour. The head lamp could barely be seen because the air was thick with the driving snow. The leading engine reached solid ground, and the engineer had just given it steam…when something in the undergearing of the bridge snapped.
What followed was a horror beyond horrors…not only for the victims, but for the rescuers as well…maybe even more so for the rescuers. As the bridge crumbled beneath the weight of the train, the train and its 159 passengers fell 70 feet into the river below. More than 90 people, passengers and crew, were killed when the train hit the river and ignited into a huge ball of flames. Only the lead engine escaped the fall. As the bridge fell, the engineer gave it a quick head of steam, which tore the draw head from its tender, and the liberated engine shot forward and buried itself in the snow. The engineer escaped with a broken leg. The proportions of the Ashtabula horror are still only approximately known. Daylight, brought with it the opportunity to find and count the saved. It also revealed the fact that two out of every three passengers on the train were lost. Of the 160 passengers who the injured conductor reports as having been on board, fifty nine were found or accounted for as surviving. The remaining 100, burned to ashes or shapeless lumps of charred flesh, were lying under the ruins of the bridge and train. Every possible element of horror was there. First came the crash of the bridge, the agonizing moments of suspense as the seven laden cars plunged down their fearful leap to the icy riverbed. Then the fire, that devoured all that had been left alive by the crash. The water that gurgled up from under the broken ice brought with it another form of death. And finally, the biting blast of freezing air filled with snow, that froze those who had escaped the water and fire.
For the rescuers, the horror had just begun. I can’t think of anything worse than seeing those bodies after they were horribly mangled, drowned, and burned…some beyond recognition, some completely cremated. The number of persons killed cannot be accurately stated, because it is not known exactly how many there were on the train. It is supposed that some of the bodies were entirely consumed in the flames, as well. The official list of those killed and those who have died of their injuries, gives the number as fifty five, but it is suspected to be somewhat higher. There is no death list to report…and in fact, there can be none. There are no remains that can ever be identified. The three charred, shapeless lumps recovered were burned beyond recognition. For the rest, there are piles of white ashes in which were found the crumbling particles of bones. In other places masses of black, charred debris, half under water, which may contain fragments of bodies, but nothing that resembled a human body. It is thought that there may have been a few corpses under the ice, as there were women and children who jumped into the water and sank, but none have been recovered. Periodically, as people began looking for people that were missing around the country, and they were able to place them, as possibly on the train, more supposed victims have been identified…at least there is the possibility that they were a victim.
The Ashtabula, Ohio Railroad Disaster, often referred to simply as the Ashtabula Disaster or the Ashtabula Horror, was one of the worst railroad disasters in American history. The event occurred just 100 yards from the railroad station at Ashtabula, Ohio. It’s topped only by the Great Train Wreck of 1918 in Nashville, Tennessee. Charles Collin, the chief engineer, who knew as few men did the defects of that bridge, but was powerless to repair them, had been listening for this very crash for years. Collins, locked himself in his bedroom and shot himself while the inquest was in progress rather than tell the world all he believed he knew. Collins was found dead in his bedroom of a gunshot wound to the head. He had tendered his resignation to the Board of Directors the previous Monday. Collins was believed to have committed suicide out of grief and feeling partially responsible for the tragic accident, however, a police report at the time suggested the wound had not been self inflicted. Documents discovered in 2001 and an examination of Collins’ skull suggest that he had indeed been murdered. Amasa Stone committed suicide seven years later after experiencing financial difficulties with some foundries he had interests in, suffering from severe ulcers that kept him from sleeping, and scorn from the public over the disaster.
Over the years, man has tried many ways to harness water. Water is a necessity to life, and without it, all things would die off. Some projects worked out better than others, and some simply needed to be replaced sooner than they were in order to prevent disaster. A good example of that is the earthen dam. An earthen dam is a dam that is built out of rocks and dirt, instead of steel and concrete. Of course, when dams were first built, earthen dams were the only way to go, but after so many failed, a new type of dam had to be designed, in order to save lives. One such failure was the earthen dam built in 1840 on the Little Conemaugh River, fourteen miles upstream from Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Johnstown is sixty miles east of Pittsburgh, in a valley near the Allegheny, Little Conemaugh, and Stony Creek Rivers. The area lies in a floodplain that has had frequent disasters. This time would prove to be one of them. At nine hundred by seventy two feet, this dam was the largest earthen dam in the United States, creating the largest man-made lake at that time…Lake Conemaugh. At a time when here were no railroads in the area for transporting goods, the dam and its extensive canal system was the only way to transport goods to the people, but it became obsolete as the railroads replaced the canal as a means of transporting goods. The canal system was left to become a victim of the elements, and with its neglect, also came the neglect of the dam. In reality, people just didn’t really think anything would happen, and they most likely looked at the dam as just a part of the landscape.
By 1889, Johnstown had grown to a population of 30,000 people, many of whom worked in the steel industry…ironically. On May 30, 1889, it began to rain, and continued steadily all day. No one really gave any thought the potential harm so much rain could bring to the nearly sixty year old earthen dam. The dam had a spillway, and so everything seemed safe, but the spillway became clogged with debris, that could not be dislodged. On May 31, 1889, an engineer at the dam saw the warning signs, but the only way to notify anyone was to ride his horse into the village of South Fork to warn the people…a ride that took an eternity in the face of the impending disaster. Nevertheless, it should have been enough time, but the telegraph lines were down, and no warning ever reached Johnstown. At 3:10pm, the dam collapsed with a roar that could be heard for miles. The water, moving at 40 miles per hour barreled down on the towns in it’s path, wiping out everything that got in its way. At Johnstown, 2,200 people lost their lives that day, including one Thomas Knox and his wife. Thomas, like a large number of the flood victims was never found. While I’m not sure that Thomas Knox is related to my husband, Bob Schulenberg’s family, it is quite likely that he is, as there are a number of Thomas Knox’s in the family…though none that I have found so far that died in the Johnstown Flood.
The people in the path of the raging flood waters, were tossed around, along with all that debris, including thirty three train engines that were pulled into the flood waters. I’m sure that for many, death did not come from drowning, but rather from blunt force trauma. Nevertheless, some people did manage to climb atop the debris, only to be burned alive when much of the debris caught fire, when it was caught in a bridge downstreem and burst into flames. There was a report of a baby that survived on the floor of a house that floated 75 miles downstream, but that was something that was not confirmed. It was during the Johnstown flood, that the American Red Cross handled its first major relief effort. Clara Barton arrived five days after the flood to lead the relief. In the end, it took five years to rebuild Johnstown, which went through disastrous floods in 1936 and 1977. I have to wonder if they should just move the town, but with no major floods since 1977, it’s hard to say.
For a time, my grandfather, Allen Luther Spencer, worked in the lumber business. It started when he and my grandmother’s brother, Albert Schumacher, decided to go trapping in northern Minnesota. That venture didn’t go very well, and they just about froze to death. It was at that time that they decided to go into the lumber business. Being a lumberjack is no easy job, and was probably much more dangerous in my grandfather’s day, than it is now. Back then, lumberjacks, as they were called did everything from chopping down the trees, to cutting them with a saw, climbing up in the tree to get to the top. You name it, if it pertained to logging, they did it. They called it harvesting, and it begins with the lumberjack. The term lumberjack is not a term that is used much these days, because the modern way of harvesting is very different. Lumberjacks were pretty much a pre-1945 term. Hand tools were the harvest tools used, because there were no machines like what we have now.
The actual work of a lumberjack was difficult, dangerous, intermittent, low-paying, and primitive in living conditions, but the men built a traditional culture that celebrated strength, masculinity, confrontation with danger, and resistance to modernization. These days, there are a few people who actually celebrate the lumberjacking trade. Mostly it involves competitions, but just by watching, you can see that being a lumberjack was not a job for a weakling.
Lumberjacks, and their families, usually lived in a lumber camp, moving from site to site and the job moved. I know that my grandmother and my Aunt Laura spent time in the lumber camps. From what I’ve been told, the houses were little more that a log tent. They didn’t stay very warm, because there were gaps in the walls, and my guess is that they could only use a certain amount of wood a day, so it didn’t eat into the profits. I suppose that the owner of the logging operation made a good profit, but that doesn’t mean that the people who worked for them made a great deal of money, because they really didn’t. Being a lumberjack was really a far from glamorous occupation, and like most really physical jobs, not one that a man can do for too many years. Before long, my grandfather, like most lumberjacks, moved on to other jobs, in grandpa’s case the railroad.
As the railroad spread across this land, and payrolls began coming in by way of the railroad, a new breed of criminal showed up on the scene…the train robbers. At first, the train robbers got away with it, because no one had really given much thought to the possibility of such a thing happening. Gangs like Jesse James…who was best known as a bank robber, but was also one of the early train robbers, Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, the Dalton Gang, and the Reno Gang terrorized the railways, stealing the payrolls of crews working on building the railroads and towns in the west.
With the advent of train robberies came a need for a solution. Enter the train police. At first the railroads would arrange for a posse to go after the robbers, but eventually they realized that the posse was too little too late. They had to take affirmative action. So they put the police on the train with the money. I’m sure that more violence came from that action, but the robbers probably didn’t get away with it as often as they had been.
I think that in many ways, we have almost romanticized the train robbers, but in reality, they were like any other criminal. They would kill for the money they were after. The police were under as much pressure as the police these days. You can’t face a gun as a regular part of your job and not have some degree of fear for your life. These men were the law, and they were pretty much on their own. They couldn’t call in the state police, or the police from the next town over. Those were too far away…especially with the distances the trains traveled. The railroad police were the only thing standing between the robbers and the money.
Theirs was an important job too. Every time the train was robbed, peoples lives were affected. Without the payroll money, the workers couldn’t support their families, and that caused more problems. The workers were angry and then desperate. I don’t think police work would be for me, but I have to wonder if police work was harder back in the old west, or now, with the terrorism and gang issues…or if police work is police work, no matter what era it is.
People always seem to be in a hurry. We encounter cars that fly past us trying to get to their destination on time, when they really didn’t allow enough time for the trip. We are all guilty of running late, and even of speeding to make it on time, and as we all know, sometimes our habit of running late and being in such a hurry, can have bad consequences. Sometimes the consequences of running late can be devastating. Such was the case with Old 97, a mail train for Southern Railways. While it’s number was simply number 97, and it was officially known as the Fast Mail, its nickname was Old 97. The train ran from Washington DC to Atlanta, Georgia. On September 27, 1903 it was en route from Monroe, Virginia, to Spencer, North Carolina when disaster struck…or rather was forced upon the ill fated train.
When the train arrived in Monroe, it switched train crews and when it left Monroe there were 17 people on board. The train personnel included Joseph A Broady who was the engineer, nicknamed “Steve” by his friends, John Blair was the conductor, A C Clapp was the fireman, John Hodge was a student fireman, and James Robert Moody was the flagman. Also aboard were mail clerks, including J L Thompson, Scott Chambers, Daniel Flory, Paul Argenbright, Lewis Spies, Frank Brooks, Percival Indermauer, Charles Reames, Jennings Dunlap, Napoleon Maupin, J H Thompson, and W R Pinckney, who was an express messenger.
As they left Monroe, Old 97’s engineer, 33 year old Broady found himself running late, and in a hurry to get the train back on schedule. When the train pulled into Lynchburg, VA, Wentworth Armistead, who was a safe locker boarded the train so at that time there were 18 men aboard. The train consisted of four cars, and Broady was operating the train at high speed in order to stay on schedule and arrive at Spencer on time. You see, Fast Mail had a reputation for never being late…and a contract that included a fine if they were. Old 97 was behind schedule when it left Washington, DC and was one hour late when it arrived in Monroe, Virginia. All that was unacceptable, but Southern Railways and Engineer Broady were about to discover two things. The first is that it is always best to stay on schedule, when a schedule is an important part of your job. The second is that there are far worse things than being late.
By the time Old 97 reached the Stillhouse Trestle near Danville, Virginia, Broady realized, with a horrible sense of dread and impending doom, that he did not have enough air pressure to slow the train for Stillhouse’s upcoming curved trestle. He tried, in vain to slow the train down by reversing the engine to lock the wheels, but Old 97 vaulted off the trestle, and 11 people were killed. Nine men of the eleven who died, were killed instantly. Seven men were injured. Among the deceased were the engineer Broady, conductor Blair, and flagman Moody. The bodies of both firemen were recovered, but they were mangled so badly they were unrecognizable. There were several survivors to the wreck who believed they survived because they jumped from the train just before the fatal plunge. Among the three survivors was an individual named J Harris Thompson of Lexington. Harris was a mail-clerk who served on the Southern Railroad. He later retired on May 1, 1941. W R Pinckney, the express messenger who also survived went home, located in Charlotte, North Carolina, and immediately resigned after the experience. Two other survivors included Jennings J Dunlap, and M C Maupin. These two men did not resign and continued their work, but started in new departments. Dunlap went to work on a train that ran between Washington and Charlotte, while Maupin worked at the Charlotte union station. The horrible pictures of the aftermath of the crash taken from above the scene ran in newspapers across the country.
At Monroe, Broady was instructed to get the Fast Mail to Spencer, 166 miles away…on time. The scheduled running time from Monroe to Spencer was four hours and fifteen minutes at an average speed of approximately 39 miles per hour. In order to make up the one hour delay, the train’s average speed would have to be at least 51 miles per hour. Broady was ordered to maintain speed through Franklin Junction, an intermediate stop normally made during the run. This was a time when train wrecks were not uncommon, but the day after the wreck, Southern Railway’s Vice President stated that “The train consisted of two postal cars, one express and one baggage car for the storage of mail… Eyewitnesses said the train was approaching the trestle at speeds of 30 to 35 miles an hour.” The Southern Railway placed blame for the wreck on engineer Broady, denying that he had been ordered to run as fast as possible to maintain the schedule. The railroad also claimed he descended the grade leading to Stillhouse Trestle at a speed of more than 70 miles per hour. Several eyewitnesses to the wreck, however, stated that the speed was probably around 50 miles per hour. In all likelihood, the railroad was at least partially to blame, as they had a lucrative contract with the US Post Office to haul mail…a contract that did include a penalty clause for each minute the train was late into Spencer. It is probably safe to conclude that the engineers piloting the Fast Mail were always under pressure to stay on time so the railroad would not be penalized for late mail delivery. And being under pressure can be deadly.
In their early years, the railroads were quite powerful companies, and with good reason. The railroad reduced travel time across the United States from days or months, to hours, in many cases. They brought supplies, payroll, and people from back east to the west quickly. The railroad did not come without some confusion, however. Even as late as the 1880s, most United States towns had their own system for keeping track of time, based on where the sun was at high noon. I had never given much thought to this, but I suppose it could have been a big mess, since the train’s arrival would be very mixed up, and the end result would be that the train might be scheduled to arrive in several places at once.
Because the railroads were quite powerful, they took it upon themselves to make a monumental change that would affect the entire nation, and Canada too. At exactly noon on this day in 1883, American and Canadian railroads broke the continent into four sections, and began using a system of time zones that we still use to this day, with very few changes made to it over the years. I’m sure there were people who did not like the new system much, but most people quickly embraced it, because their lives depended on the railroad in one way or another. The root of the problem they had was that they moved passengers and freight over the thousands of miles the line covered. With the varying times in towns along the route, the train ended up with dozens of different departure and arrival times. No one really knew when the train would arrive…except possibly the engineer. I’m sure that caused chaos in the train stations…especially in the bigger cities. These days, we have to be at the airport two hours early for flights, because of screening, so imagine that kind of a scenario in the small train stations of the old west. This scheduling nightmare had to be stopped, and time zones were the only logical way to do it.
With the use of time zones, rail transportation became far more efficient. The thing that seems rather odd, is that they didn’t go to the United States or Canadian governments to resolve the problem, and if the government at that time was as inefficient as our congress is right now, I can fully understand why they didn’t. Imaging waiting six years to make a decision concerning time and its vital role in rail travel. Something had to be done right away, and the railroad was just bold enough to do it. As it turned out, no one tried to stop them either. I suppose everyone could see just how logical their plan was, and no one complained. So, the railroad companies agreed to create four continental time zones, and that decision has changed the way we live to this day.
The lines they adopted to make those time zones were very close to the ones we have today. I’m sure that any changes are based on where towns began to fall along the zone lines. It wasn’t until as late as 1918 that Congress officially adopted the railroad time zones and put them under the Interstate Commerce Commission. Just imagine, if you will, if the people and the railroad had waited for Congress to act on this matter. There would have been 35 more years of unorganized and frustrating railroad travel. Something that should have revolutionized travel, would have been relegated to the stone age again, because of Congress’ lack of action. Even after the system was implemented and people finally had an organized schedule, that was relatively accurate…because you can’t predict accidents or weather related delays very well, Congress sat on their hands, and I suppose they operated the government on government time instead. In this writer’s opinion, the time zones were a wonderful idea, and have benefitted this nation very well since 1883. My family has a long history of working on the railroad, and that is a fact that I am very proud of.