The Iron Mountain Baby may be a story everyone heard while growing up, but for 86-year-old Gladys Black it’s a piece of her history. Black is the great granddaughter of William Helms, the man who found the Iron Mountain Baby near Hopewell in Washington County in August of 1902.
“I was told that Grandpa was in the field with his horses plowing and he went to water them before he took them to the barn,” said Black. “That’s when he heard something and figured out it sounded like crying so he went to search the weeds around the river bank.”
There have been different variations of the story saying that he was collecting lumber to build a shed that day, or heading to a lumber mill, or even just passing through.
“When he found the satchel and he opened it, a whole bunch of little shirts and diapers and things puffed up and then he found the baby in there. There was also a spool of black thread in there. The train had just passed that creek, but he didn’t see anyone throw him off there, but that’s what they did.”
He picked up the satchel, or suitcase, along with the baby and took it to his wife and they raised him. Black said his leg was hurt and there was a spot on his head that was also hurt.
“Grandma doctored him up and got him well, but he always limped with that one foot,” said Black. “He was the same age as my mother and she would go over to her grandma and grandpa's house to play with him. There weren’t many kids around for her to play with. They grew up together and were the best of friends.”
According to an article written by the St. Louis Post Dispatch which ran on Aug. 17, 1902, Helms was building a shed for his farm and needed one more board. He went to fetch a discarded plank near the railroad bridge over the Big River in Washington County.
The Iron Mountain Railroad’s passenger train No. 4 rumbled over the bridge, bound for St. Louis 65 miles to the north. Helms was walking the track through a low rock cut when he heard a strange squeak, like that of a field mouse.
He saw a small, battered piece of luggage. “I opened it, and inside was a baby,” said Helms.
Helms, 72, rushed it home to his wife, Sarah, who unwrapped the newborn and tended to him. Neighbors soon gathered to help — and swap tantalizing theories on the boy’s identity.
It was just days after the baby being found that the Post-Dispatch splashed across its front page a story and photos under this wordy headline, “Can you furnish any clew to identify this baby who was hurled from a fast passenger train in a valise?”
Black grew up hearing the story from her mother and grandparents about the Iron Mountain Baby and she has passed the stories down to her own children. Black said Sarah was her grandfather’s second wife. Black is a decedent of his first wife, Elizabeth Helms.
“A woman from St. Louis came down and tried to say he was her baby but she couldn’t prove it,” said Black. “So my great grandparents wouldn’t let her take him and they thought she just wanted publicity. They kept him and raised him as theirs because back then you didn’t have to report things like that to the police.”
In the original story from the Post-Dispatch it stated that reporters interviewed No. 4’s crew, but none had noticed a newborn or young woman in distress on the train that day. Because the baby was snugly wrapped inside the small box, the bet was that he couldn’t have lived in it for long. But nobody remembered anything odd at Bismarck or Irondale, the train’s stops before the Big River.
The common theory was that the valise was tossed off the train toward the river. But No. 4 was running fast. The cut is just north of the bridge. Maybe the throw was off?
Among the many who visited the Helms’ cabin was a young woman wearing a black veil. She kissed the baby and left without leaving her name. A detective in St. Louis had seen a nervous woman with a valise board a southbound Iron Mountain train at Union Station early that morning. And someone had walked the cut before No. 4 passed and saw no luggage.
“He never did find out who his mother was,” said Black. “But whoever she was, she must have wanted to keep the baby because on all of his little clothes and diapers was a black “B” embroidered on each one. She had a whole bunch of clothes in the suitcase.”
The couple named the baby William Moses Gould Helms ... "William" after the man who found him, his middle name recalling the Bible story of another infant, "Moses," who was rescued, and "Gould" after the president of the railroad. He became known to the world as the Iron Mountain Baby.
Sarah Helms was 21 years younger than her husband but she insisted upon raising him with their two daughters. He went to school in Hopewell and when they moved to Salem, he attended high school and worked as a newspaper printer.
He attended college at Braughon University and Southwest State Teachers College, now Missouri State University, in Springfield. The railroad covered all his college expenses.
The elder Helms died in 1917. Six years later his adopted son walked into the Post-Dispatch office and asked to see the papers from August of 1902. He told a reporter he was content with life and had no desire to find his biological parents. “Would you?” he asked.
Helms became a newspaper editor in Fair Grove near Springfield, but suddenly left town in 1928, once again attracting press curiosity. Banker J.I. Grant called Helms a good man, adding “He didn’t play cards, and he didn’t drink.”
“Momma always said that he didn’t like the attention he always got,” said Black.
William married a woman named Sally on Aug. 5, 1933, in St. Louis and moved to Texas. They had one son.
“I don’t think he ever told his son the story of being thrown from a train," added Black. "But I think his son died at a very young age, 14 maybe.”
The Iron Mountain Baby died in Houston, Texas, in 1953 at age 50 and was buried in Hopewell near the graves of his adoptive parents and ironically in the area where he was thrown from the train. His wife, Sally, died in Wisconsin in September of 1987. It was speculated that after falling ill she moved back to St. Louis. It’s unknown what she died from.
The Union Pacific Railroad owns the old Iron Mountain line to Little Rock. Amtrak’s Texas Eagle crosses the Big River Bridge regularly.
One of the more well-known stories and songs from the area is the story about the “Iron Mountain Baby,” which was made famous by local entertainer Johnny Rion.
The story about the “Iron Mountain Baby” was made famous when the song was written by J.T. Barton and recorded by local singer Johnny Rion. The song was written in the late 1940s and recorded for King Records by Rion.
Through the years some versions of the song have included more verses than others. Rion became an on-air personality for KFMO and KREI, and went on to have a music career and run a country music theme park in Illinois. He became a preacher later in life, lived out his days in southern Illinois, and is buried in Farmington.