Remembering Missouri’s worst train wreck

Some were spared by twists of fate
2012-07-30T05:00:00Z 2012-07-31T07:39:29Z Remembering Missouri’s worst train wreckBY KEVIN R. JENKINS Daily Journal Staff Writer Daily Journal Online

IRON COUNTY — Next Sunday marks the 90th anniversary of the worst train disaster in Missouri history. John Abney of Iron County said he became interested in learning more about the wreck once he realized he had a personal connection to the tragedy.

“At approximately 7:18 p.m. at Sulphur Springs, near the banks of the Mississippi River in Jefferson County 34 people lost their lives and another 186 people were injured,” Abney said.  “With the exception of the recorded memories of those associated with the accident, little remains to remind the living of the tragic event that took place in Sulphur Springs, Mo., almost a century ago.”

In the course of his study, he discovered the death certificates of two distant relatives who died in the accident. Listed under the contributory cause of death were the words “criminal carelessness.” Abney, who is president of the Iron County Historical Society and also serves on the Missouri State Genealogical Association Board of Directors, used his skills in historical and genealogical research to learn more about the accident that happened during the early evening hours of Saturday, Aug. 5, 1922.

“Today, Sulphur Springs is a quiet little town,” said Abney. “With the exception of some older homes, there’s nothing much left today to remind visitors of its previous importance.”

According to local historians, Sulphur Springs — then known as Sulphur Springs Landing — was the first mail stop in Jefferson County. As early as the late 1700s, boats would stop and drop mail there. The town’s first postmaster was appointed in 1837. The railroad arrived in 1850 and the town would have a station there until 1964.  

“With the beginning of the Civil War, Sulphur Springs became a strategic location for Union forces,” said Abney. “With access to both the Mississippi River and the railroad, Camp Curtis was established nearby and heavy artillery was positioned there to protect the area. Some of the Union forces returning from the 1862 Arkansas campaign came north by steamboat to Sulphur Springs Landing, where they then used the railroad to travel south back to where they were originally stationed in the Arcadia Valley. After the war, the town continued to grow. It was the port on the Mississippi River where iron from the mines at Iron Mountain was brought by rail for transfer to steamboats. It also served as a resort community for people who would come to partake of the waters of the nearby springs.”

With the new century came the automobile, but in the years immediately following World War I, the railroad was reaching its zenith. While automobiles were becoming more popular, Abney said that for the most part, roads were unpaved and many were poor.  

“In 1920 only one-third of all families owned an automobile and rail service, which connected many small towns throughout the United States was still the most popular alternative,” said Abney.

Abney discovered that in 1920 more workers were employed by the railroads than worked in construction, mining or in government jobs. Of the more than two million railroad workers, over 400,000 of these were railroad shopmen, the men and women responsible for building and maintaining the railroads’ rolling stock.

“The strength of the shopmen’s union would be tested when they went on strike on July 1, 1922,” said Abney. “Among these strikers were approximately 600 shopmen employed at the DeSoto car shops. An unintended consequence of the strike was a water shortage in the city of DeSoto.”

For the first time in 30 years or more, Abney said the fires were taken from under the boilers. This left the shops without water for fire protection and the city water was turned into a railroad tank causing a shortage of water for those who get their supply from the basin. The City Council held a meeting to see what could be done. To alleviate the shortage, the railroad agreed to have their engines take on water at either Bismarck or Sulphur Springs.

Thus, the table was set for Missouri’s worst train disaster.

The passengers

“By the time Local Train No. 32 reached Poplar Bluff at around 1 p.m. it was already almost two hours behind schedule,” said Abney “It began its run at Hoxie, Ark., and was being hauled by Missouri Pacific engine number MP 5310. Besides the engine and tender, the train consisted of two baggage cars, one mail and baggage car, two chair cars, three coaches and one chair car, all in that order. The first baggage car and the mail car were of steel construction. The second baggage car and one of the passenger coaches were of wooden construction with a steel center sill. All the remaining cars were of wooden construction.”

Abney explained that, by the turn of the 20th century, railroads had begun investing in steel-construction passenger cars. While these represented a quantum leap forward in passenger safety, these new cars did not immediately replace their wooden predecessors.

“Also at Poplar Bluff was the replacement crew for the northbound express train, the No. 4, which had started its journey northward from Texas the previous evening,” said Abney. “Part of that crew was engineer, Matthew “Ginger” Glenn. Joking with the crew of the late arriving local train, Glenn told them to watch out or he would run them over.”  

Glenn had been employed as an engineman for 32 years and was referring to the fact that the express train was only about two hours behind the local train and would be making up time as both trains proceeded on their routes.

“After leaving Poplar Bluff, the local train made a stop at Hilliard before reaching Hendrickson,” said Abney. “Awaiting the arrival of the train at Hendickson were Della Campbell and her four children, ranging in ages from 6 to 12. Della, who grew up in the area, was home visiting her family. That day she was waiting on the local train to get to St. Louis where she would connect to another train to take her home to Idaho, where she lived with her husband who worked for the railroad as the telegrapher at McCammon.”

Once the local No. 32 left Hendrickson, it made six more stops before reaching Des Arc. Two of the passengers getting on at Des Arc were salesmen Charles J. Hamilton and Robert Thomas.

“At about the same time the local train was leaving Des Arc at around 3 p.m., the express No. 4 train was nearing Poplar Bluff,” said Abney. “The express train was being pulled by engine No. MP 5312 — another MT73 Mountain class engine — and consisted of three baggage cars, a mail car, coach, chair car, two coaches, a Pullman sleeping car and a dining car. The cars were of all-steel construction with the exception of the second and 12th cars which were constructed of wood. Unknown to the crew of the express train, they would have a non-paying passenger hitching a ride. John Crafton, a soldier from Oran, Mo., was riding between two of the express train’s baggage cars.”

After making another six stops, Abney said the local train reached Ironton about an hour and 10 minutes after leaving Des Arc.  

“Among the passengers waiting to get on the train here were a group of Boy Scouts returning to their homes in the metro east-side of St. Louis,” said Abney. “Upon trying to board the train with their packs and other gear, the conductor of the No. 32, J. A. Long, told the Illinois Scouts that the train was too crowded for all their gear and that they would have to wait for the express train. This simple twist of fate may have saved their lives.”

The local train would make another nine stops before reaching De Soto a little after 6 p.m., still two hours behind schedule. Among the passengers getting on at those nine stops were Rudolph Eichneberger and his granddaughter Ruth Isenberg. They were going to St. Louis to meet Eichenberger’s wife who was returning from a trip back east. The others were 20-year-old Walter Boyer and his 18-year-old sister Susan who were returning to St. Louis after visiting their family; one-time Washington County Justice of the Peace William Goff and two of his young granddaughters, Beulah and Pearl Goff; 23-year-old Maude DeClue and her 21-year-old brother Ben who were returning to St. Louis; and Mattie DeGonia, along with her five children who had been visiting Mattie’s mother at Potosi. It was an especially exciting day for the DeGonias as they were going to join Mattie’s husband in St. Louis where he had just found a new job and had just rented his young family a place to live in the city.

“Still more than two hours behind schedule when it reached De Soto, the passengers on the depot’s platform anxiously awaited No. 32’s arrival,” Abney said.  

Among them was the Rev. Victor Owen Penley, the rector at De Soto’s Trinity Episcopal church who was going to St. Louis for a speaking engagement.

“Unknown, to No. 32’s crew when their train pulled out of the De Soto station at 6:18 p.m., the No. 4 express train was now less than half an hour behind them,” said Abney. “After making another five stops, the local No. 32 train arrived at the Riverside station at 7:07 p.m. Riverside sat at the junction of the Missouri Pacific and Mississippi River and Bonne Terre Railroads. The MR & BT provided service between Doe Run and Riverside.”

Among the passengers transferring from the MR & BT to the local train were 18-year-old Irene Moon of Crystal City; her next door neighbor, 17-year-old Esther McDonald; and 36-year-old Festus native, Alice Cooper. The three were on their way to St. Louis for a visit. Another passenger was Irene Hise, 23, an employee of Nugent’s Department Store in St. Louis who had been home visiting her parents in Desloge. Also waiting at Riverside was Thomas DeGonia. He had taken the train from St. Louis to surprise his wife and children, who were on the northbound local train.  

“Besides having recently lost a child, Mr. DeGonia had been seeking work for nearly two years before finding a new job in the city,” said Abney. “With a new job and a new place to live, Mr. DeGonia had brought along presents for each of his four children and a new hat for his wife.”  

Before leaving Riverside at 7:08 p.m., the conductor of the local train, J. L. Long, asked the station master about the progress of the No. 4 express train. He was told they should try to make Wickes, 4.2 miles north of Sulphur Springs, take the siding there and let both the north and southbound express trains pass them there.

Unknown to all was that the northbound express was now only minutes behind them.

“At 7:13 p.m. the express reached Riverside, but didn’t stop,” said Abney. “Reducing speed to 25 miles per hour, the fireman for the express train received a waiting train order telling it to take the siding at Wickes to allow the passage of the southbound express No. 1 train. The order made no mention of the northbound local No. 32 train just ahead.”

Four minutes later, at 7:17 p.m., No. 32 reached Sulphur Springs.

“The approach to the town from the south brings the train around three curves including a compound one immediately to the south of town,” explained Abney. “Stopping here to take on water, the rear cars of the local were on the bridge over Glaize Creek, to the south of the water tank. With the train stopped, young Ruth Isenberg left the seat behind her grandfather Rudolph Eichenberger, and went across the aisle to get a cookie from a neighbor, Mary Oberting. It was to be the last time Ruth saw her grandfather alive. Less than a minute later, out of the evening’s twilight, the No. 4 express train — traveling at close to 40 miles per hour with engineman Glenn at the controls— rounds the final curve before Sulphur Springs. Glenn seeing the stopped train ahead, sounds his whistle and throws on his brakes.”

The crash

Seconds before the crash occurred, witnesses spoke of a shouted warning of the approaching express. Lucky passengers like W.E. Foster, Fred Spaulding, W. D. Morton and Des Arc salesman Charles Hamilton jumped to safety through windows and doors.

“The coaches of No. 32 were crowded,” said Abney. “It was dusk and the reflection of the lights twinkled in the river’s waters. Then the impact. A crash and roar that reverberated fully three miles in the high hills and far down the river. Splintering and grinding that drowned out the human cries. The hiss of escaping steam and compressed air, gradually stilling, so that human cries at last guided rescuers from the hamlet of Sulphur Springs.”

In the forward coaches of the local, men staggered to their feet, only to be thrown to the floor. In the wooden coaches at the rear of this train, the greatest toll of life and limb was taken.

“The monstrous Pacific-type locomotive of the limited had plowed through the other train for about 200 feet, pulling a part of its own cars with it,” explained Abney. “A pair of wheels and axle from one of the wooden coaches was caught between the drivers of the locomotive.”

The rear coaches of the local were telescoped and fell nearly 40 feet into the slough and were reduced to pieces. Wooden chair cars ahead were overturned on the east side of the embankment. One of those car escaped with no more serious damage than a splintered platform on one end.

The Aug. 7, 1922 issue of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported: “The coaches of the No. 4 were of steel, and not overturned. They were not drawn on to the trestle. There was a tremendous impact felt by those on the limited, so great as to bruise persons in the dining car, near the rear of the train.

The Duluth News Tribune wrote: “From the cars, which had rolled down the embankment, no sounds came at first, then, as an obligato to the roar of escaping steam, came shouts, agonized cries and tortured moans. From the windows of the overturned cars crawled the survivors.”

Nineteen-year-old waitress Lennie Walker had been a passenger in the third car from the rear of the local train. Of the 30 or more passengers in this car, only she and two men escaped serious injury. Others, like Des Arc salesman Robert Thomas, would remain trapped in the overturned remains of the local train’s smoker car, where it would take almost 20 minutes to free him.

Maude DeClue was taken from the wreckage and laid upon the bank of the slough with severe lacerations on her face and a broken thigh. She told her rescuers to find her brother Ben, who was sitting next to her in the same seat on the train. Ben would later be found alive, suffering less serious injuries than his sister.

The St. Louis Post Dispatch reported: “Practically all 150 residents of Sulphur Springs rushed to the aid of the crash victims, as did the town’s only doctor, W. W. Hull. Boy Scouts, soldiers and other uninjured passengers from the express train joined in the effort. Rescue work began slowly and was done with great difficulty. It was hard to get to the wrecked coaches because of the narrow embankment and the mud of the slough. The moon, when it rose, flitted in and out of clouds. Flashlights and lanterns furnished the chief light. Several fires were kindled and one big tree was set afire, but did not furnish much illumination. The rescuers and onlookers stumbled over bodies. Some of them told of seeing bodies lying in the slough as a steamboat in the river played a searchlight there for a time.”

The rescue efforts

Almost immediately word of the accident was sent to neighboring towns and St. Louis requesting help and medical aid. For at least an hour, Dr. Hull was the only doctor on site. He later remarked, “Had I some assistance we might have saved some of the dying. At one time I was trying to treat 25 persons simultaneously.”

Dr. Paul Vasterling, chief surgeon for the Missouri Pacific, along with a score of doctors and nurses, came to the crash scene from St. Louis in cars. The first train arrived from Poplar Bluff about 9:30 p.m. The second relief train, this one from St. Louis, arrived about 30 minutes later. The rescuers were greeted by a gruesome reality.

The De Soto Press wrote: “There were groups of men walking around with torches and lanterns, on the south side of the creek, where bodies were lying in uneven rows, and it could not be determined whether these people were dead or alive. There were no groans, all quiet, all dead apparently. The horror of the moment was on all, but there was not weeping or wailing or outcries. The silvery moon slipped behind a cloud and torches became more in demand. From the mud of the creek came a cry, “I have found another one,” and the body was brought up to dry land, dead. The body of the “Rev. V. O. Penley — who had been riding in the last coach — was found lying at the northwest abutment of the bridge. He was easily recognized as his face was not severely maimed. Loving hands picked up his body and bore it to the depot and placed it in as good a place as could be found, an empty box.”

The DeGonia family were all found and laid upon the tracks. Three of the children — Ralph, 6, Melvin, 5, and Robert, 14 months, were dead. The mother and father were seriously injured, as was Mildred, 7, who was heard audibly mumbling the words to the Lord’s Prayer.

“Irene Moon’s lifeless body was recovered around 10 p.m.,” said Abney. “Of her two traveling companions, Esther McDonald was among the critically injured and Alice Cooper was dead. Alice’s body was recovered from the waters of Glaize Creek by her brother Wendell who had rushed to the scene. Of the five members of the Campbell family who had boarded the train at Hendrickson, only of two of the children survived.

“Susie Boyer was dead, but her brother Walter, although severely injured, was still alive. Also among the dead were 23-year-old Irene Hise; and William Goff and his two granddaughters. John Crafton, the soldier, who was riding clandestine between the baggage cars of No. 4 was pinioned in. He begged for help and rescuers put forth every human effort to get to him. He was between two steel cars and the metal successfully resisted the edge of the axes. An acetylene torch was finally brought into action, the steel penetrated and the victim dragged out. He was horribly lacerated and begged for liquor before dying.”  

The work of the rescuers continued through the night, but they would find their efforts hampered by the crowds of onlookers. During the early hours of the morning, however, the crowd began clearing away. By daylight the majority of those still on the scene were members of the wrecking crews.

A little later a new crowd began to arrive. St. Louisans were coming to the crash site by 9 a.m. One woman picked her way through the debris, following a bulldog on a leash. Young men and women stood about chatting and laughing. In an automobile near where the DeGonia family lay on their bed of cinders, a young man strummed a ukulele while several girls crooned a Hawaiian melody.

About one o’clock, the rescuers noticed two men who appeared to be drunk or dazed. When they were questioned, one ran and the other was found in possession of jewelry and purses picked from the dead. The man was searched and the articles taken from him. The man was slapped in the face and began to run. He was captured later and taken to Hillsboro where he was placed in jail. Among the stolen items was a string of beads taken from a dead child.

About midnight a list was released of nearly 100 names of passengers who had lived through the accident. In St. Louis, trains arrived with the dead and injured. Those needing medical care were transferred to waiting ambulances and taken to hospitals around the city. The 26 bodies of the dead were taken to the morgue.

One of the critically injured would later die, bringing the body count in the morgue to 27, while the remaining seven bodies were taken to De Soto and Festus.

Looking for answers

“Within hours, people were looking for an explanation as to why the wreck had occurred,” said Abney. “It was quickly confirmed that all the block signals between Riverside and Sulphur Springs had been working and if observed, would have prevented the wreck. John Cannon, assistant general manager of the Missouri Pacific, suggested that Engineer Glenn might have been reading the train order he received at Riverside and missed the stop signal. Some pointed to the fact that when the body of Glenn was found, he had no glove on his right hand. This supported the theory that he was reading the order at the time of the accident.

Jefferson County Coroner George Elders hastily impaneled a coroner’s jury at the scene on the evening of the wreck. The following Monday, at De Soto, they heard testimony from the train crews and other railroad employees. After deliberating for about 10 minutes, they returned an open verdict stating no cause of death.

It was plain from remarks made to the jury that Coroner George Elders and Prosecuting Attorney Robert Kleinschmidt, both of whom conducted the investigation, were disappointed in the verdict. The jurors were discharged and then gathered on the sidewalk. Several minutes later, however, they were told to reconvene. It was concluded that the verdict wouldn’t set well once it was spread across the country. The jury quickly changed its verdict and issued a new one that stated, “The persons killed in the wreck came to their death through the negligence of Engineer Matthew Glenn in failure to obey signals.“

“Within days of the wreck, some 25 lawsuits were filed against the railroad,” said Abney. “Unlike today, damages in wrongful death suits were limited to $10,000. Although that amount may seem small by today’s standards, $10,000 was still more than six times higher than the average skilled or semi-skilled male worker; and more than 11 times higher than the average farm worker. Many of these suits would later be dropped as families agreed on settlements with the railroad. Where found, probate records have disclosed settlements of between $4,000 and $6,000 dollars paid to victims’ families. For instance, J. S. Campbell received $16,000 for the death of his wife and two of his children.

“One exception was Walter Boyer, whose case would eventually reach the Missouri Supreme Court in 1927. Twenty-year-old Walter and his 18-year-old sister Susie were on the local No. 32 returning from a visit to Washington County. Susie was killed instantly, but Walter suffered through months of a painful recovery. He was hospitalized at the Missouri Pacific Railroad hospital on South Grand Avenue, in St. Louis for two months with contusions and lacerations. Also complicating his recovery was an enlarging of his heart attributed to the physical shock of the accident. Walter’s original suit for $10,000 in damages filed in January 1923 was amended to $35,000 the following November.”

Walter would win his case, but two further appeals by the railroad landed the case in the hands of the Missouri Supreme Court. The result of the first appeal saw a reduction in the award from $35,000 to $20,000, while the final action by the court reduced the award by another $5,000.

In the days following the wreck, the victims were laid to rest. Among those was the funeral of express train engineer, Matthew Glenn. More than 300 railroad engineers, conductors, firemen and striking railroad shopmen attended the funeral. At Glenn’s home, express train conductor Gregg told a Post-Dispatch reporter he felt sure Glenn did not jump from his locomotive when he saw the imminence of the collision, but was thrown through the window of the cab by the impact. He said he was the first to reach the engineer’s body and found it lying on the east side of the embankment about 50 feet south of the trestle. He added that fireman Tinsley was picked up about 180 feet south of where Glenn’s body was found and he thought Tinsley had jumped. Tinsley, who was recovering at the Missouri Pacific Hospital, said he was not able to recall whether he or Glenn jumped.

The Interstate Commerce Commission report on the accident, published in October, 1922, cited Engineman Glenn as the cause of the accident “by not properly observing the block signals, it also made reference to a number of rules that were violated by the crew of the local No. 32 train.”

 The report also cited problems with the train orders issued to each of the trains. In its conclusion, the report stated, “While the direct cause of the accident was the failure of an engineman to obey signal indicators, the underlying cause was lax enforcement of the operating rules, for which the supervising officials of the Missouri Pacific Railroad must bear the responsibility.”

The only living survivor of the accident is believed to be Ruth Allen Eichenberger Kite. She lived in Leadwood, but is now a resident at the Southbrook Nursing home in Farmington.

Abney says that, if nothing else, the tragic wreck at Sulphur Springs should remind people of their own fragile mortality.  

“We never know when that time will come,” said Abney. “For 34 people, ranging in age from 3 months to 78 years, that time came on that fateful day in August 1922. For others, simple twists of fate spared their lives — like the boy scouts who were forced to wait on the express train or little Ruth Isenberg who left her seat behind her grandfather to get a cookie from a neighbor across the aisle.”

Abney has already presented his slide presentation about the wreck for the Iron County Historical Society. He will be presenting the program again at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 19 for the Jefferson County Historical Society. It will take place prior to the society’s regular monthly meeting at the De Soto Public Library and the public is invited to attend.

Kevin R. Jenkins is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-431-2010, ext. 114 or at kjenkins@dailyjournalonline.com.

Copyright 2015 Daily Journal Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(6) Comments

  1. Cherripii
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    Cherripii - August 01, 2013 10:33 pm
    The Degonia family were my Uncle ,Aunt and cousins. Thomas, known to us as "uncle Dode" was never the same following this terrible accident. It is told that he lit his cigars with the money he received from the railroad for the lives of his children. They are all laid to rest in Flat Ricer where the Degonia family originated.
  2. Joanne
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    Joanne - March 25, 2013 9:09 am
    My father was a survivor of this wreck but is not mentioned in any articles. His mother, Matilda Koby and Sister were killed. Father had to have a bone graft (first in medical history) in his leg.
  3. speedknot
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    speedknot - July 31, 2012 5:28 am
    Rudolf Eichenberger was my Great Grandfather and I have heard stories of this tragedy all my life.
  4. LGoggin
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    LGoggin - July 30, 2012 1:32 pm
    Yes indeed. Several men down my family tree worked the railroads between Glover & St. Louis during that time. Hadn't heard this story before. Unfortunately I won't be able to attend as well.
  5. blasterrat1
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    blasterrat1 - July 30, 2012 11:42 am
    History is so cool!
  6. C Goggin
    Report Abuse
    C Goggin - July 30, 2012 9:12 am
    GREAT STORY! I'm glad I had the chance to read so much about it---since I won't be able to attend the presentation at the DE SOTO CITY LIBRARY on Aug 19th.
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