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, and made his home there.

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 engine No. 508. He and fireman John Colwell jumped off and into a ditch. Colwell was killed when struck on the back of his head. A runaway boxcar sheared over Johnston, but he was okay. Two of the three men on the other engine, No. 829, were killed. I was told that the accident had been because the other engineer was intoxicated.


The engines were fused together after the wreck.


Iowa Soldiers and Sailors Monument

According to his daughter, Phyllis Kennedy Cameron, Murray Johnston was selected to haul Iowa’s Soldiers and Sailors monument in sections on flatbed rail cars from Peoria, Illinois to Des Moines.  Family members even got to witness the train’s arrival in Des Moines.

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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.

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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.

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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.  


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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.


    • 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!

      Liked by 1 person

  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!


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