The Green Mountain Train Wreck – Iowa’s Worst Rail Disaster

 

On Sunday, March 20, 1910 (Palm Sunday) the collapse of a railroad bridge under the weight of a freight train, set off a string of events that would culminate in the worst passenger train disaster in Iowa history.  Known variously as the Green Mountain Train Wreck or the “Wreck of the Rock”, the event left an indelible mark on Central Iowa.

The collapse of the bridge near Shellsburg caused the freight train to derail and plunge into the creek below.  The brakeman, a Mr. Reynolds of Cedar Rapids was killed as a result and the engineer was badly scalded.  That same day, two Rock Island passenger trains, one coming from Chicago and one from St. Louis, were prevented from traveling on to their destination of Minneapolis by the closure of the rail line near Shellsburg.  Eventually, the Rock Island line was given permission by railroad officials to detour the trains to Marshalltown and then travel on to Waterloo where they were to continue their trip to Minneapolis via Rock Island tracks.

The second of the two trains reached Marshalltown in the early hours of Monday, March 21st.  After some strategizing by rail officials, a decision was made to join the two trains together for the 40 some mile trip to Waterloo.  However, two problems stood in the way; both trains came to Marshalltown from the East and thus were headed the wrong direction for the trip to Waterloo, and the rail yards in Marshalltown had neither a turntable nor a “Y” of sufficient size to turn the locomotives.  The combined train was placed under the direction of “pilot” John White of Des Moines.  Mr. White made the decision to back the locomotives all the way to Waterloo and then turn them around for the trip to Minneapolis once they reached Waterloo’s rail yard.  In addition, he decided to arrange the combined train with the reversed engines preceded by their own coal-tenders and the wooden passenger cars of the St. Louis train followed by the steel Pullman cars of theChicago train.  The decision to combine the cars in this order and back the engines violated two very important railroad safety rules of the time; backed steam engines were to operate no faster than 10-15 miles per hour and the heavier steel Pullman cars were always to precede lighter wooden cars.  Although rail officials to this day have never released a definitive finding as to the speed of the train at the time of the derailment, deciding to back the engines of an already very delayed train made it highly unlikely that the crew would be able to follow the safety constraint of keeping the speed under 15 mph.  No justification for placing the heavier Pullman cars behind the wooden cars has ever been offered.

The combined train pulled out of the Marshalltown yard some time between 7:30 and 7:45 a.m. on an unseasonably warm spring day.  The train passed through Green Mountain at 8:05 and reached the site of the derailment 4 miles NE of Green Mountain between 8:15 and 8:17 a.m.  To cover that distance in 10 to 12 minutes if must have been traveling between 20 and 24 mph, well over the recommended speeds for a backed steam locomotive.  At 8:05, the tender of the first engine jumped the tracks and dug into the clay embankment.  The second engine immediately telescoped into its coal tender and then into the first engine, killing crew members Ross Charter, Jacob Nauholz, George Ross  and R. S. Robinson.  Pilot John White was badly scalded but survived to organize the first of the rescue efforts, only to die of his burns later in the day.

One of the Most Badly Damages Cars of the Train

Although accounts of the disaster list names of the passengers who were killed or injured along with their hometowns, no listing of the total passenger manifest seems to be available.  It would appear that at least 80 passengers and crew members were on the combined train.  Among the passengers, were Paul Swift a newspaperman for the Waterloo Daily Reporter and his girlfriend Mae Hoffman, a former Miss Iowa, described as the most beautiful woman in Iowa.   They had taken the train to Cedar Rapids the day before to join friends for an afternoon of motoring.  Miss Hoffman wore a pendant necklace she had won in a local beauty pageant.  Also on the train was H. L. Pennington of Albert Lea, MN, trying to reach home before his wife gave birth to their first child.

Shortly after the derailment and as soon as he could gather his wits, a badly scalded John White assessed the damage and injuries and set out to notify railroad authorities and summon rescuers.  He was aided by E.A. Murphy of Vinton who had been riding in the last part of the train.  Together they made their way to a farm house where they reported the accident to the depot agent at Gladbrook.  Due to their quick action, the first help, a group of Marshalltown physicians arrived by automobile.  By 10:30 a relief train arrived from Marshalltown to take away the injured to the medical facilities in Marshalltown, facilities that were soon overwhelmed by the extent of the disaster.  Calls were put out for more physicians, nurses and morticians who arrived as quickly as possible on trains from Des Moines.  While the medical professionals worked feverously to tend to the injured, morticians and embalmers worked for 36 hours straight to prepare the dead for burial.

Since the passengers had come from all over the mid-west, many of the bodies had to be prepared for shipment to their home towns as well as for burial.  The scene at the temporary morgue which was set up in an empty furniture store on South Center Street was nearly as chaotic as the scene at St. Thomas Hospital.  As is the case with any large disaster, accurate identification of the injured and dead was slow in coming.  Many family members of the passengers arrived in Marshalltown even before they knew for sure what news would await them about their loved ones.  A large crowd of the concerned as well as the curious gathered at the rail station and at the temporary morgue.  Bodies covered in sheets were transported back to Marshalltown in one of the intact Pullman cars and unloaded through the open windows on screen doors converted into stretchers.  Screen doors commandeered from local lumber yards.  By night fall, so many bodies covered the floor of the morgue, there was hardly room for those tending to their final needs to walk.

Removing the Injured on Screen Door Stretchers

Many residents of Marshalltown opened their homes to family members of the deceased and injured as well as to some of the injured themselves as the hospital was taxed beyond its capacity by the most seriously injured.  The event of the train wreck played a part in two eventual advances in Marshalltown’s medical facilities.  The Marshalltown Community Nursing Service was established shortly after the disaster in part as a reaction to nursing short comings made clear by the train wreck.  And within a few years, a new hospital was constructed on the site of the present day Marshalltown Medical and Surgical Center.

Eventually, a total of 55 lives were taken by the derailment known as the Green Mountain Train Wreck.  In addition, Dr. Elijah Jay, Marshalltown coroner was thrown from a speeding wagon as it rounded the corner of 12th Street and Main.  He died some 30 days after the wreck of those injuries.  He had been assisting with the rescue efforts and was tending to injured victims being transported to St. Thomas Hospital at the time.  And the wife of H. L. Pennington, upon learning of his death, went into premature labor and died during the delivery of a baby girl.  The baby also died.  But in one of the most bizarre events related to the wreck, Pinkerton railroad detectives eventually recovered a pendant necklace from a passenger who had escaped injury himself and took it upon himself to remove it from the neck of Miss Hoffman before he climbed from the wreckage.

Present Day Monument on Zeller Ave.

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Iowa Railroad Commissioner E .L. Eaton said he was awed by the quick reactions of Marshalltown’s citizens and medical community the day of the train wreck.  “I wish that it could all be written in a book and circulated through state, so that all could read of the magnificent things that the people of Marshalltown did for those sufferers.  No city of its size ever showed a more magnificent spirit of hospitality.  I am satisfied that all used every possible effort they could summon for the alleviation of those who lived as well as those who were taken away.  I wish I could render a fitting tribute to the people of Marshalltownfor what they did, but I cannot.” – The Wreck of the Rock; A massive tragedy moves Marshalltown