This week is the 100th anniversary of something horrible … and chances are you’ve never heard of it. It made national news headlines in its day, and then suddenly disappeared from sight. It’s particularly astonishing to me that as a history buff from the moment I learned to read, I only found out about it recently. So sit back and learn the sad tale of a terrible tragedy.
First, let’s set the scene. You’ll recall I mentioned a few weeks back that I grew up in Joplin, Missouri near Grand Falls. This lovely waterfall is on Shoal Creek, which meanders through the foothills of the Ozark Mountains.
About 10 or 12 miles to the south is a little community called Tipton Ford, named for the spot where folks crossed the creek in the 19th Century.
Fast forward to the late afternoon of Wednesday, August 5, 1914, as a typically hot summer day in the country’s midsection was winding down. Even a century ago, people did a lot of commuting. Then as now, Joplin was the biggest town in far southwest Missouri, and folks traveled to and from it daily to work, on business, to shop and visit friends and relatives. Which is where the Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad enters the story.
The railway provided service between Joplin and northwest Arkansas on what was called a Gas-Electric Motor Car (similar to the one shown here). Think of a street car or a trolley, only bigger, the size of a full passenger car. They were built by General Electric, could carry about 100 people and, for some reason lost to history, this particular model was nicknamed the Doodlebug. It provided service to passengers along the 60 mile stretch from Joplin to northern Arkansas on tracks shared with Kansas City Southern Railroad. Which was how the trouble started.
A Motor Car filled with passengers left Joplin as scheduled early that Wednesday evening heading south … directly into the path of a Kansas City Southern passenger train heading north. Among its estimated 80 passengers were members of nearby Neosho, Missouri’s African-American community, who were returning home after attending Emancipation Day ceremonies in Joplin.
[Note: Some historical sources refer to the KCS train as a freight train. But the Missouri Public Service Commission’s official report says it was actually a passenger train.)
The trains met head-on near Tipton Ford. The Passenger train ripped open the Motor Car’s gasoline tank, spewing fuel and igniting a massive fireball. The blast was so strong, it blew some passengers out the windows and onto the ground. They were the lucky ones; dozens of others were trapped under blazing wreckage. Injured people actually begged to be shot and killed as they slowly burned to death.
Someone ran to the nearest house with a telephone, and soon an emergency train filled with doctors, nurses and medical supplies rushed south from Joplin. When they arrived, the scene must have looked like Hell on Earth.
The flames were eventually put out. The best guess had the death toll at 43 – 38 passengers and five crew. But the bodies were so badly burned, the exact count may never be known. It ranks among the top 25 deadliest train crashes in American history.
With the track clear to the south, survivors and victims alike were rushed to Neosho. A few days later, an estimated 5,000 people flooded the town square for a memorial service. (Note the large number of horse and buggies still used in 1914 in the photo.)
So, how did the deadly mistake that placed two trains on the same track happen? Even 100 years later, nobody knows for sure. An investigation by Missouri state officials found an order had been issued for the Motor Car to pull onto a sideline and let the passenger train pass, but the crew never received it. It’s unclear how the mix-up happened, but it’s worth noting the depot clerk who said he delivered the order had previously been fired from an earlier railroad job for failing to deliver a similar order.
Many of the victims were buried in Neosho’s I.O.O.F. Cemetery, and a marker was eventually erected to their memory. For countless decades, people passed by without stopping to read its sad inscription.
A few years ago, a lovely mural commemorating the tragedy was painted by Anthony Benton Gude, grandson of famous Missouri muralist Thomas Hart Benton. It hangs today in Neosho’s United Methodist Church.
As I said earlier, the accident was national news. The New York Times and many other leading newspapers covered it. But almost as soon as it happened, the story was swept off the front page. A lot was happening in the summer of 1914 – such as the start of World War I. Over the decades, the Tipton Ford tragedy was quietly lost in the mist of time.
Thankfully, more and more people are becoming aware of the accident. Several memorial services marking the crash’s centennial will be held in southwest Missouri this week. And a stone marker is being erected at the site of the disaster, so 21st Century children can learn just how fragile life is, and how suddenly and unexpectedly it can be taken away.
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