Building a Railway
Bellwether, Kentucky, October 11, 1936.
Engineer Joe Horner and fireman Sam Webb of the L & N had recently been shifted from the run between Cincinnati and Lexington to that between Cincinnati and Louisville. This was only their second trip.
Of some concern to Horner was the fact that the change in route also involved a change in schedule, taking him away from home more often. As Webb adjusted the steam valve on the automatic stoker of the big engine, Horner said to him,
"She'll be on her own til Thursday morning."
Webb, a small wiry black man who looked younger than his forty years, looked up at the water-level sight glass and stepped back. They had just topped the grade, and were heading down into a series of curving cuts. There was nothing to do for the next few minutes. He said to Horner,
"You didn't tell her that, did you?"
Horner nodded ruefully. Webb clutched his head.
Horner's problem was of a sort that could much more easily be confided to a black man than to a white one. In early middle age, and with a position much prized in working-class Cincinnati, Horner had, some months previously, taken a wife. She was a poor girl, but young and pretty. By marrying Horner, she had jumped up a couple of notches socially.
Webb had seen her a couple of times when she came to meet Horner, and had guessed from her mannerisms and behavior that she was smarter than her husband. From what Horner had told him, she also had a taste for younger men.
Drifting down the long grade, Webb could feel little jolts as the freight cars, which had been strung out behind, surged forward against their couplers. He urged Horner to open the throttle a little more. Otherwise, the slack action, when they started up the next grade, might break a coupler. Horner, his mind elsewhere, complied as if it were Webb who was in charge. The latter was supposed to keep a look-out from the left side of the cab, but there was nothing but trees to see at night, and Webb was one who loved to talk.
Horner's problem was, indeed, rather interesting. In Webb's opinion it was impossible for a man like Horner to keep a girl like that one away from other men. But, as he now put it,
"If you can have her when you wants, and she's nice to you, let her be."
Horner responded with a jerk at the throttle. He then said,
"Somebody may be pulling down her panties right this minute."
Webb could say nothing to that, but Horner, calming somewhat, continued in a more philosophical vein,
"My daddy used to say, either feed em too much or too little. That way, no one else'll want em."
This remark, to Webb, typified all that was most hopeless about a certain kind of white man. He tried, gently, to point out that such a course of action was somewhat self-defeating.
They were now at the bottom of the grade on a curve which climbed very slightly toward Bellwether. Horner opened the throttle wide. Webb hoped it would be all right. Despite his advice, they hadn't come down the grade as fast as they should have. Now, with full throttle, the slack would come out of the couplers with a sound like a series of shots. If the only result were to knock the conductor off his feet in the caboose, there'd be no harm.
Since the steam pressure was dropping slowly, Webb gave the fire more coal, and also adjusted the feedwater heater. As they whooshed under the Southern Railway overpass, he could feel the big engine swing to the curve and pick up speed as they started up the short grade. His controls adjusted, he once more addressed Horner,
"Why don't we find you a woman in Louisville tomorrow. I know where to go."
It was implicit that the woman would be a black one, and Webb wasn't sure how Horner would react. The latter looked at him, and seemed to take the suggestion seriously. Neither man noticed immediately when they diverged from the main line on to the spur. Webb was about to remark on the rough roadbed when Horner, still holding the throttle wide open, looked out. Then, suddenly, he let go the throttle and grabbed the brake lever. He said only,
Horner spoke in a voice which wasn't loud, but which commanded immediate obedience. Webb wasn't in the least deterred by the prospect of hitting the ground at forty miles an hour. But his last glimpse of Horner, holding the brake handle and not even bothering to look ahead, was a terrifying one.
Engineer T. J. Farris of the Southern Railway was a dapper middle-aged man, very sure of himself and of his reputation. It was no small thing to be at the head end of a named passenger train. Across from him was a young fireman, in fact a cousin of his wife's whom he had gotten the job. In Farris' system, more, not less, was expected of a relative. So far, young Cecil Travis hadn't measured up. He didn't always keep the steam pressure quite up where it should be. Once, he had committed the gravest of all sins by letting the water in the boiler get too low. Farris had spoken to the point on that subject. If Travis ever did that again, it would do no good to appeal to Mrs. Farris. He would be gone. After that, things had improved somewhat.
Still, Farris wasn't satisfied. Rolling north with five coaches, three Pullmans and a baggage car, they were two minutes late. There remained only a few opportunities to make up time before he'd have to apply brakes in order to descend Erlanger Hill and cross the Ohio into Cincinnati. Now, a few miles south of Bellwether, one of those opportunities presented itself. The road was straight and level, and there was nothing to stop them.
Unfortunately, however, the needle of the steam pressure gauge was inching down, as was their speed. Instead of hitting the ninety that Farris wanted, they were hardly over eighty. He looked over at Travis. The boy was keeping a good lookout, as was Farris himself. In this part of Kentucky, people, cars, and animals were always wandering on to the track. Sometimes a sharp blast of the whistle would bring them to their wits. But this drop in speed couldn't be tolerated. The fire simply wasn't getting enough coal. Farris shouted to Travis.
The Southern's Pacific locomotives weren't quite the last word in passenger power, but they could still steam well at speed with a train of moderate weight. Farris nodded with satisfaction as they approached ninety while ripping past the platforms of the Bellwether station. There was now just the slightest curve to the left, but it was well banked and occasioned no reduction in speed. The signal was green over green, and Farris peered ahead.
When the engine hit the switch, the jolt in the cab was sufficient to knock both men off their seats. The engine heeled alarmingly, its drivers on the left side lifting clear off the track. By some miracle, there was no derailment and the train shot up the spur. Farris, despite the blow he had taken on the head, scrambled to his feet instantly. He was in the act of reaching for the brake when the collision occurred.
The Uncle Roscoe column from the Cincinnati Morning Clarion, October 13, 1936.
"Two days ago the news was of heroism in the shocking train wreck at Bellwether. According to the surviving fireman, engineer Joe Horner stood fast at the brakes of his great locomotive, staring certain death in the face. It was worthy of Casey Jones.
Yesterday the news was still more shocking. The collision was planned and effected by a Boy Scout Troop! According to the one wretched survivor, they threw switches to send the two trains hurtling directly at one another at almost two hundred miles an hour. The boys were lined up to watch like so many monkeys. They didn't realize that the boiler explosions in front of them would send great shards of steel to tear their little bodies apart.
Today I ask: Whose is the fault in this? Were these evil demonic boys? Should they be given Christian burials with the blood of over a hundred people on their dead hands? Uncle Roscoe has been in Bellwether, asking some questions. Here are the answers.
These were not bad boys. One was a cripple, with only one leg, who struggled bravely with his handicap. They were neglected boys. Their troop was started by a minister who left, two years ago, for greener pastures.
Afterwards, they had no scoutmaster. There was no mother concerned enough to mend their uniforms. In fact, there was hardly one who even had a complete uniform. No father took them camping or fishing. They were no longer allowed to meet at their own church, the Apostolic Zion Church of God in Bellwether, Kentucky. Perhaps the minister of that church will now step forward to explain why he disowned his church's own Scout Troop.
If those boys had had a chance to be like the smartly uniformed Scouts we all know and respect, there would be far less grief in Cincinnati today."
Klaus put the newspaper down and remarked to Charlotte,
"That must be the group I encountered. The one-legged boy was quite remarkable."
"Are you going to tell the police?"
"I don't see much point in it. The only survivor is already in enough trouble."
"Your evidence might show that there was a pattern of violence, not just a single act. Uncle Roscoe thinks they wrecked two trains because they didn't have complete uniforms."
"I suppose he is a bit of a fool, but I'm also rather busy. The negotiations for the Bellwether yard are going rather well."
"Have you talked to the railway people after the wreck?"
"Yes. I had an appointment for the morning after it with Stanley Crane. I offered to postpone it, of course, but he wanted especially to meet. Then, as I say, things went well."
"You could hold out for a better price after the wreck. I bet they're frantic to get rid of that property and get it into reliable hands. I can't imagine any hands more reliable than yours."
"I'll stand by my original offer, of course. But it was low, and I expected to come up. That probably won't be necessary now."
He then ruminated a little and added,
"It did occur to me that they might think I arranged the wreck to get a better price."
Charlotte laughed outright.
"How can you possibly imagine such things, Klaus? No one would ever even dream that. Remember how Mrs. Klotter came up to you and told you what a morally good man you were?"
Klaus smiled and said nothing. Charlotte continued,
"I didn't hear how you replied, but it seemed to upset her. What did you say?"
"I think I told her that the appearance of goodness was owing only to a lack of initiative."
"Oh Klaus, you aren't good. You're dreadful! You delight in confusing these terribly decent people. You're a false innocent!"
"When I talked with railway managers in previous years I tried to be
intelligent. That got nowhere. Now, I try to seem a little simple. It goes,
not well, but better."