The Nebraska State Journal

Originally published on August 10, 1894 in the Nebraska State Journal

Eleven lives go out in a Rock Island railroad wreck.

The holocaust caused by fiends.

A crow bar found nearby and tell-tale marks on the rails.

Heartrending cries of dying.

Heroic rescuers work in the face of blinding heat and flames.

The injured number fifteen-anxious friends hunting for missing-unknown dead leave no identification behind.

The incoming Rock Island Train was wrecked and burned at 9:20 last night. A partial list of the dead and injured is as follows:

The dead

C.D. STANNARD, conductor, Council Bluffs, perished in the flames; family.

WILLIAM CRAIG, fireman, Fairbury; family.

IKE DEPEW, engineer, Council Bluffs, crushed; family.

UNIDENTIFIED, grain man of Fairbury.



HARRY FOOTE, brakeman, leg broken.

C.H. CHERRY, postal clerk, terribly cut about the face and head.

F.T. SCOTT, express messenger, back injured and cut on head.

O.S. BELL, Lincoln traveling man, internally.

A fearful wreck, involving the loss of eleven lives, one engine and two cars, occurred on the Chicago, Rock Island, & Pacific railroad where it crosses on a high trestle the tracks of the U.P. and B.M. railroad at 10 o'clock last night. All indications point to train wreckers as the cause.

Train No. 8 drawn by engine 213 is an accommodation called "Ft. Worth accommodation" and is due to arrive here at 9:40 p.m. Last night it was about 10 minutes late and was making up time when it struck the trestle that crosses Salt creek about four miles from the city and two from the penitentiary. When it struck the trestle the rails immediately spread and the engine drawing the two cars after it went thumping along over the cross ties and then with a crash it fell forty feet to the bed of the creek below.

The engine burst and glowing coals spreading ignited the wooden supports and the coaches behind it, and in a few moments the bridge dry as tinder due to its exposure to the sun was one mass of flames. The coals falling upon the coaches lying in the ditches set them afire and five minutes after the first warning the entire mass of cars with their load of human freight, below was one mass of flames.

It was an awful sight. The flames mounted high in the heavens coloring the entire southern sky a brilliant carmine while the moonbeams fell upon the glowing mass below from which mortal shrieks of agony and pain were heard to issue.

Willing hands were there to help, but little could be done.

The engine had fallen first then the combination car of smoker and express coach fell partially upon that and the rear coach falling upon it telescoped that car, thus pinioning those unfortunates who were in the smoker so that it was impossible to save them or for them to escape.

The rescue

Col. C.J. Bills, Jay McDowell, Fairbury passengers, and the brakeman, Harry Foote, were the first to extricate themselves from the rear car. They immediately started to work, and after a half hour's work the fifteen occupants of the rear coach were saved.

It was noble, heroic work, the flames were scorching in their intensity, but those three noble, heroic men struggled hard to save their fellow sufferers. Rapidly the work of rescue went on until the entire fifteen rear coach passengers, including three women, were rescued and laid upon the bank beside the bridge.

Those engaged in the work of rescue begged them to assist, but they were too frightened and excited to do anything but lay on the bank and moan. Many of them were seriously injured and unable to help.

About forty minutes after the wreck a B&M train came from the south and took everyone to the city.

Giving the alarm

Colonel Bills and Jay McDowell had started in search of a telephone or telegraph office soon after their work of rescue was finished, leaving Harry Foote, who was unable to walk, laying beside the track on the cool grass.

The nearest point of connection was the penitentiary, and towards that he plowed through the cornfield to the tall smoke stacks which loomed up through the moonlight in the distance, but Colonel Bills with his companion plowed over it manfully until he reached the buildings and telephoned the Rock Island depot, police headquarters and the fire department.

It was impossible to get a steamer over the rough country roads out there and no fire apparatus was available. The only thing to do was just to let the whole pile burn.

Under red hot iron

It was heartrending. The fireman, engineer, and conductor lay prostrate under the burning mass of red hot iron and burning coaches. Their faces were turned out and Stannard whose legs were being consumed by the fierce flames kept crying for help. He begged for some one to tell his wife and to help her.

"For God's sake," he cried, "some one come. What will my wife and little ones do? Oh, God, will some help come?"

Harry Foote heard and tried to help, but the fierce flames drove him back. Three times he essayed with his broken foot and leg to attend to extend some assistance but it was impossible to go near that burning pile which meant sure certain death. Fred Scott, the baggage-master saw him and cried out, "Harry! Harry! Help for Christ's sake!"

Then he heard and acted, crawling up to the burning car he caught Scott just as the flames commenced to lick up his legs burning his trousers and shoes completely off. Where the timbers had fallen upon him with crushing force his back was terribly injured. Harry pulled him out, however, and none too soon. Had help arrived two minutes later he would have perished in the flames.

As soon as Scott could breathe he murmured: "Cherry's in there! Save him!" Although the poor boy was suffering the torture of the damned with his broken leg he returned to his work where the flames rivaled the heat and intensity of those described in "Dante's Inferno." Crawling up to the prostrate coach he caught the hand of Cherry, the messenger, who was pinioned by the fallen timbers and by almost superhuman strength succeeded in extricating him just as the curling flames commenced to lap around his face and head.

By this time others attracted by the glow in the heavens had arrived, among them being W.M. Saxton, the son of George Saxton. He was running across the field when his foot struck something heavy and he stumbled over an immoveable object.

Quickly picking himself up he looked and felt around in the long grass until his hand struck a pile of fishplates, an iron fastening used to secure the rails to the cross-ties, and a crowbar. He picked them up and carried them over to the knot of railroad men.

They recognized and questioned him as to where he got and why he brought a forty pound crowbar. He explained and in a moment a terrible suspicion took possession of them.

Laying the plates and crow bar in the grass they went over to the western edge of the bridge and examined the rails and cross ties. It needed only a moment to convince them that their suspicions had been true.

Train wreckers at work

The evidences were plainly there and unmistakable. Marks made by a wrench on a loosened rail were plainly visible and the marks were there so plain that no lantern was needed to examine them.

The wood of the ties was deeply dented where the crowbar had been inserted and the rails lifted clear of the ties, and the spikes which had been pulled out were lying around loose on the bridge.

Just after this discover City Detective Malone arrived and was informed of these facts.

Several men were there who had their suspicions, but they were given only to Malone, who would not give them out for publication last night. It is certain, however, that that at any time the description of the train wreckers can be, and indeed it may have already been, furnished to the police.

Chief of Fire Department Malone was also on the scene and with a number of his men did everything possible to quench the flames. Several hand fire extinguishers had been brought along and with these one of the firemen, Anthony Horr, and employee at the penitentiary, and Detective Malone did some material work in stopping the flames.

Without a doubt this was one of the most dastardly pieces of work ever accomplished by western desperadoes. The motive was no doubt robbery, but in some manner the villains were frightened away before they could accomplish their end.

The fact that from the nature of the train's headway no very great number of lives could have been lost does not palliate the offense in the least. The intent of the rapine, murder, and robbery is plain to everyone who visited the scene last night.

Praise without stint is given to the men who did such noble work of rescue. Harry Foote is considered very inch a hero. Not many men would have forgotten their own hurts and extended such material aid and assistance to those who were crying piteously for help. With his broken foot he crawled up to the hellish heat and, utterly unmindful of self, extended the helping hand to those who had worked and were suffering with him.

The work of Col. C.J. Bills and Jay McDonnell was that of clear-headed men. The colonel was severely bruised and injured about the legs, but with consummate coolness and presence of mind he assisted and directed the work of rescue. Then with his companion, while faint from his exertions in the intense heat he tramped two miles over rough earth and through the standing stalks of the corn field to the penitentiary, from where e gave the alarm and asked for medical assistance.

City Detective Malone with his hand extinguishers, did some good salvage work, and as usual did some investigating of which one may hear later. All this time Harry Fotte had remained quiet and uncomplaining.

No physicians had arrived or did not make themselves known, so with some men who had taken a Rock Island hand car and volunteered their services, Harry was removed in a fainting condition to the car and from thence brought by willing hands to the Rock Island depot. The first thing he did was to telegraph his mother that he was a little bruised, "but still in the ring."

The loss to the railroad company alone will amount to $30,000. How much money may have been lost through the mails and otherwise is not known.

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