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Rural Missouri Magazine

Train to Tragedy
A history buff recalls a nearly forgotten
tragedy on the way to the World's Fair

by Jeff Joiner

 

It was a story Lyndon Irwin heard often growing up in the small southwest Missouri town of Bronaugh, just a few miles from the Kansas state line. The Missouri Pacific Railroad passed through the town on the way to Kansas City and St. Louis and it was on a Missouri Pacific train in 1904 that more than 30 lives were lost in one of the bloodiest accidents in Missouri railroad history.

Irwin had heard people talk about the terrible accident and knew four people from his hometown had been killed. In fact, his great-grandfather had planned to take that train to St. Louis with a friend but at the last moment changed his mind. His friend was one of those killed.

Researching the history of Vernon County often takes Lyndon Irwin, a Southwest Missouri State University agriculture professor, to local cemeteries. He also traveled to all the towns in Missouri and Kansas where vicitms of the 1904 train wreck came from. He visited cemeteries, historical society museums and visited with local residents while researching the accident. His five years of collecting stories about the train wreck resulted in his self-published book, "There will be a wreck!"

Irwin, an agriculture professor at Southwest Missouri State University for 30 years, says he's addicted to history. He's done extensive family geneology research and studied the colorful history of Vernon County. He even created a class at SMSU on ag history.

So it's natural Irwin began researching what happened in 1904. He traveled across western Missouri and southeast Kansas, visiting libraries and cemeteries and reading dozens of newspaper accounts of the accident. After five years of research, he wrote a book, "There will be a wreck," which he published himself.

In 1904 the World's Fair propelled St. Louis into the spotlight of international attention and attracted more than 20 million people to the city. That year the Missouri Pacific Railroad offered attractive rates to take passengers from across the Midwest to St. Louis for the fair.

The railroad often sold more tickets than there were seats forcing some passengers to stand or sit in the aisle or on the platforms between cars. There was virtually no regulation of railroads at the time despite how common fatal accidents were. It was one of those World's Fair trains, crammed to capacity, that smashed head-on into a Missouri Pacific freight train near Warrensburg.

The accident happened early in the morning of Oct. 10 ironically on a stretch of the rail line called Dead Man's Curve near Montserrat. As was the custom at the time, trains often pulled onto sidings to wait for a specified number of trains to pass in the opposite direction. The crew of the west-bound freight did just that and waited on a siding near Knob Noster.

They were told to wait for four trains to pass before continuing. But instead the crew apparently fell asleep. According to court records from the criminal trial of members of the crew, they had worked 17 straight hours without sleep.

When they awoke crew members weren't sure how many trains had passed and decided to go on. It was a fatal mistake.

The freight passed through Montserrat and the railroad agent there, realizing something was wrong, telegraphed the Sedalia station to the east to ask why a freight train had just passed. The Sedalia agent, also realizing the unfolding tragedy, quickly wired Warrensburg to stop the eastbound passenger train.

It was too late. The train had already passed through town and, without direct communications with the trains, there was no way to stop them. The Montserrat agent wired, "There will be a wreck!"

The Union Pacific wreck site near Warrensburg was a scene of chaos. Thousands of people gathered to see the devastation as bodies still lay in rows after being pulled from the wreckage following the collision of two trains. The 1904 wreck killed 30 people on their way to visit the St. Louis World's Fair.

At 4:10 a.m. the two trains collided in the blackness of the countryside miles from any town. The two crews, realizing they were about to collide, set their emergency brakes and jumped, which was company policy.

Only one crew member died, a brakeman on the passenger train caught between cars when the trains hit. In the collision the passenger locomotive shot beneath the freight engine forcing it up and over the other train. It landed on the first passenger car where most of the fatalities and serious injuries occured.

Many accounts of the accident tell of the horrible carnage. Those not crushed or mangled by pieces of the shattered rail car were scalded to death by steam escaping from the freight locomotive resting on top of them.

Irwin's book includes an account of the accident's aftermath from passenger D.M. Watts of Nevada, Mo. "The air was filled with groans of agony, prayers, and cries for help; people were crushed in a manner that was simply horrible."

It would be hours before many of the injured were taken to hospitals in Sedalia and Warrensburg. Missouri Pacific backed trains in from the two towns to take out the injured and remove bodies. As word spread, it was estimated nearly 3,000 people from surrounding communities gathered at the crash site to help and gawk including one teacher who took his students on a field trip to view the carnage.

In his research Irwin found the cold facts behind the tragedy interesting, but to him the most fascinating and poignant part of his research was collecting the stories of the families affected by the wreck and of their hometowns which mourned the loss of prominent citizens.

The Missouri Pacific line crossed into Missouri near the town of Mindenmines and turned north to pass through Bronaugh, Moundville, Nevada, Rich Hill and Pleasant Hill where the train split and part continued on to Kansas City and part to St. Louis. Most of those killed were from Kansas and southwest Missouri because they boarded first and took seats in the forward cars of the doomed train.

"This is the most tragic week in the history of Cedar Vale (Kansas)," a story in the town's newspaper, The Commercial, reported. "Sunday afternoon a merry party of sixteen left . . . to spend a week at the Exposition. Tuesday night four were returned shrouded in death . . ."

One of the most poignant memorials to train wreck victims is this grave marker for cousins Dicy Ream and Gertrude Loud who were buried together near Bronaugh. Visitors to the cemetery still place flowers in the hands of the grieving stone girls.

L.H. Sullivan of Cedar Vale and his wife put their six children on the train to St. Louis and intended to follow later. Two daughters were killed and the remaining children were injured. Five siblings from Cedar Vale were orphaned when their parents were killed while the entire Philip Ragel family, from Edna, Kan., was lost.

Often whole towns met trains returning the bodies and funeral processions went on for miles, newspapers reported. The tragic stories include those from Irwin's hometown of Bronaugh where six people got on the train but only two returned alive. Buried in Worsley Cemetery near Bronaugh are the four victims including two teenage cousins, Gertrude Loud and Dicy Ream, who were buried together beneath a granite stone topped with statues carved in Italy of two young girls in mourning. On the stone is carved the simple statement, "Our little girls."

A year after the wreck the freight train engineer and conductor were tried for manslaughter and found not guilty despite the engineer's testimony that he was "pumped full of morphine" to keep him awake on the run.

Two brakemen on the freight train were convicted, but not of negligence in the accident. They were seen robbing valuables from the dead including their fellow brakeman killed on the passenger train.

Irwin has rekindled an interest in the accident in Missouri and Kansas and has spoken to a number of county historic societies and has even made a presentation at a family reunion.

"The reunion was very interesting. Everyone in the audience was the descendent of a wreck victim. To talk about the wreck with these people was fascinating. There were tear-filled eyes in the room. It's still very emotional."

That experience showed Irwin how devastating the tragedy was in communities affected and how it remains a part of lives today.

For information about Irwin's book, "There will be a wreck!" visit www.lyndonirwin.com/wreck.htm or contact him at 3902 N. State Highway UU, Bois D'Arc, MO 65612.

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