The new historical marker along a recreational trail in southwest Lincoln marks where 11 people died in an 1894 train wreck.

But Joel Williamsen, the writer who dedicated the marker Monday, said he hopes it will honor one crash survivor as much as it recalls the lives lost.

Harry Foote, a brakeman for the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, suffered a broken foot when the steam locomotive and two passenger cars plunged over a trestle and burst into flames. Yet he rushed into the burning pile twice to free his fellow crewmen and some of the 30 passengers.

"Providing a memorial to the bravery of Harry Foote, that's what was a real reward for me," Williamsen said Monday after the dedication.

Williamsen grew up near Craig, Neb., but now works as a systems engineer for the defense industry in Washington, D.C. He stumbled upon news of the wreck while doing research for a historical novel.

An act of sabotage, the derailment represents Nebraska's largest mass murder, yet it was all but forgotten. The man convicted of the derailment, George W. Davis, later was pardoned after Gov. John Mickey concluded there were grave doubts about his guilt.

Williamsen included the true story of the wreck as a subplot in his 2009 fictional book "Barrelhouse Boys."

But to help ensure it wasn't forgotten again, he pitched the marker idea to the Nebraska State Historical Society and the city of Lincoln. The city owns Wilderness Park, where the crash site is located.

Both the society and Lincoln Parks and Recreation endorsed the marker. But Williamsen paid $1,200 to have it cast and installed. It includes an 80-word summary of the incident.

About 450 state markers stand on historic sites in Nebraska. Because the state does not appropriate money for the marker program, contributions from individuals and historical organizations are critical to getting them installed, said Lynne Ireland, chief education and research officer with the State Historical Society.

About 40 people attended Monday morning's dedication along the Jamaica North Trail about 3/4 mile south of Old Cheney Road.

"A lot of folks use the trail and to now have a history identified with it is great," said Terry Genrich, the city's natural resource manager.

Reach Joe Duggan at 402-473-7239 or jduggan@journalstar.com.

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