Liza Jane Train–Part 3: Stuart’s Engineer, Murray Johnston

Civil War Veteran

Murray Johnston was only 16 years old when he “heard the call of his country for more soldiers to fight in the great war between the states.” He’d been born in Davenport, Iowa, in 1849, and enlisted there in Iowa Infantry, Company E, 8th Regiment. After the war he enlisted for three more years with the 77th Regiment Infantry of the regular army, serving from 1866-1869.

Rock Island Railroad

Johnston began working as a railroad fireman for the Rock Island in Davenport, married Mary Bogart in 1874, moved with his family about 1880 to Stuart, Iowa, where they made their home.

He survived a terrible accident on January 10, 1899, when two engines collided at the Chautauqua switch just east of Council Bluffs. Murray Johnston was the engineer on the regular train. He jumped off and into a ditch.  A runaway boxcar sheared over Johnston, but he wasn’t hurt. Two of the three men on the other engine, No. 829, were killed. It was believed that the accident had been because the other engineer was intoxicated.


From The Des Moines Leader, Jan. 11, 1899: The Rock Island Wreck

Further Details of the Wreck Near Council Bluffs Yesterday Morning.

Council Bluffs, Iowa, Jan. 11. – By one of those strange freaks of forgetfulness which evade mental analysis, westbound freight on the Rock Island, a head-end collision with regular freight No. 36, eastbound, in which two firemen and an engineer lost their lives and two engines were reduced to ruins, was brought about opposite the Chautauqua park, six miles east of Council Bluffs, early yesterday morning.

The dead are:

WILLIAM TAYLOR of Valley Junction, engineer on engine No. 829, attached to extra.

JOHN CALDWELL of Valley Junction, fireman of engine No. 829.

W. J. STONE of Valley Junction, fireman on the engine attached to No. __, the regular train.

Engineer Johnston, of engine No. __, saw the impending collision in time to reverse and leap from the gangway. He escaped without serious hurt, but received several painful bruises.

The wreck was caused by the crew of the extra freight, of which John Henafin was conductor, forgetting about the regular train in a hurried attempt to get to Council Bluffs ahead of the limited fast mail and express trains.

Engineer Johnston and Conductor Drew, of the regular, conscious that their train took precedence and as such had the right to the track, were preceding on time to Underwood, 11 miles east of Council Bluffs, to meet the limited mail, and were almost upon the west switch at Chautauqua park, when Johnston was appalled to see another train approaching from the opposite direction on the same track at a high rate of speed. The siding at Chautauqua is on a curve, and at the time the trains sighted one another they were not a quarter of a mile apart.

Engineer Johnston was evidently first to realize the danger and quickly shutting off steam and reversing, he sprang to the gangway and leaped to the ground. Fearful that the cars might leave the track and come tumbling down upon him, he relied [?] over and over until stopped by the fence. Then there was a crash, in which the shrill hiss of escaping steam was blended with the sound of iron and wood being reduced to splinters. The engines were completely wrecked, even their sheet iron jackets being stripped from the boilers.

Fireman Stone, of the regular train, who was shoveling coal into the furnace at the time, perhaps never realized the danger, and his body was afterward found pinned against the boiler head buried under several tons of coal thrown forward from the tank.

Fireman Caldwell, on the other engine, was instantly killed by the tank crashing into the cab. Engineer Taylor, on the same engine with Caldwell, survived 23 minutes.

Ten minutes after the collision and a few minutes before he died, Engineer Johnston, while assisting to extricate Taylor from the splintered wreck of the engine and cab asked, “Billy, what in the name of heaven were you doing on our time?”

Taylor replied feebly, as the light of life faded from his vision, “We forgot about No. 36 in our haste to get in ahead of No. 22. You are not to blame.”

With the utterance of this frank confession the engineer closed his eyes and death ensued.

Iowa Soldiers and Sailors Monument

According to his granddaughter, Phyllis Kennedy Cameron, Murray Johnston was later selected to haul the Iowa Soldiers and Sailors Monument in sections on flatbed rail cars from Peoria, Illinois, to Des Moines.  Family members witnessed the train’s arrival in Des Moines.

20180726_090319 (3)

20180726_090236 (2)

Liza Jane

Murray Johnston’s regular run was as engineer on the Liza Jane on the branch line of the Rock Island, from Stuart to Guthrie Center. One winter he was on a return trip from Guthrie Center, according to his granddaughter, and got caught in a snowstorm. He was snow bound in Windy Gap near Monteith for three days, having run out of coal and water.

LizaSnowBound (2)
This clipping, from about 1923, refers to Liza being snowbound 11 years earlier.
Murray and Mary Johnston, Stuart, Iowa

Murray Johnston worked for the Rock Island Railroad for 42 years. His last run was on the Guthrie branch in 1912–on Engine #344, affectionately called Liza Jane, possibly a Baldwin.

train (2)
Picture taken the day of Murray Johnston’s last run on the Liza Jane, Engine No. 344.

He retired from the Chicago Rock Island & Pacific Railroad because of ill health.  


image6 (2)
Rock Island Railroad oil can belonged to Engineer Johnston. Now belongs to his great grandson, Kevan Cameron.

According to his obituary, among his “brother engineers” at his funeral were four from Rock Island, Illinois, and five from Valley Junction. John Murray Johnston is buried at South Oak Grove Cemetery in Stuart. (There are also family pictures on the Find-a-Grave cemetery link.)


Thanks for help with information and pictures from Engineer Johnston’s granddaughters, Phyllis (Kennedy) Cameron and Roberta Kennedy, and Phyllis Cameron’s daughter, Lori (Cameron) Lovett.

“The engine is sacred for many reasons. It is in the cab of a locomotive that a mere man can control all that power, it is from there and there only that a man riding on a train can see ahead. It is the eyes, ears, brains, motor power, and central nervous system for the long string of cars it is pulling along.” — Stephen E. Ambrose, Nothing Like it in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869.

I framed a small remembrance of Murray Johnston and the Liza Jane for the museum section of the restored Stuart Depot.


    • I found Murray Johnston’s granddaughter 20 years ago, after I’d had an essay published about the Liza Jane–actually, she wrote me several times. But just recently I found her daughter! In fact, I just sent her the original letters her mother had sent me. I certainly had fun with these three “stories.” How I would have loved one ride on old Liza across Guthrie County!

  1. Mom made sure we knew our family history and even though we moved from Iowa when we were so young, we retained our love for the state, Guthrie County and how our history intertwined with both. She regaled us with stories of Liza Jane and Grandpa Johnston and the whole family.

    I so enjoyed exchanging thoughts and pictures with Joy and will cherish the letters she sent me that she had exchanged with my mom, Phyllis Kennedy Cameron..

    Thank you so much Joy! I hope we continue to correspond for a long long time!

    Lori Cameron Lovett
    Savannah, GA

    • I was just so delighted to find you, and to see the pictures you’d posted of family members. I’m so thankful we’ve found even more ways to make sure Murray Johnston and the Liza Jane are never forgotten!

    • Thank you, Leora! For a long time, the only picture I had was of the engine with snow on it. I looked through old letters from the engineer’s granddaughter and began googling names. I eventually found her daughter–great granddaughter of the engineer through the FindaGrave information. She had many of the other pictures and was delighted I’d found her. Her brother sent her the photo of the big oil can. And I poked around on the internet and found some of the train that brought the monument to Des Moines. So it was like finding pieces of a puzzle. I just got to see the restored Stuart Depot. They need a picture of Liza Jane and her engineer!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.