The Rock Island Wreck, January 1899

This story is a follow-up to one about the Liza Jane engineer Murray Johnson. (That post includes information about the wreck from the Des Moines Leader.)

This information is from the Atlantic Daily Telegraph, January 11, 1899:

Further details of Disastrous Collision at Chautauqua.


He Jumped as the Trains Came Together and Died Instantly from the Effects of the Fall.–The Engineer on the Extra Forgot His Orders and Caused the Accident.

The killed in the accident at Chautauqua siding near Council Bluffs yesterday morning about six o’clock are:

J. W. TAYLOR, engineer, Valley Junction. [now West Des Moines]

JOHN STONE, fireman, Centerville.

JOHN COLWELL, fireman, Stuart.

The trains which met in such fatal collision were the regular freight, No. 56, which leaves Council Bluffs for the east every morning at 6 o’clock, and a west bound extra which was running in the opposite direction on No 56’s time. The regular freight was in charge of Conductor H. E. Drew and the crew of the engine, No. 508 consisted of Engineer [Murray] Johnson [sic] and Fireman Colwell. The extra was in charge of Conductor Hanniphan, with Engineer J. W. Taylor and Fireman Stone on its engine, No. 820. No. 56 consisted of sixty cars, mostly empties, while the extra consisted of a train load of steel rails.

All the facts that came to light yesterday seem to indicate that the accident was the result of forgetfulness on the part of one of the engineers. Before leaving Council Bluffs the regular freight had received orders to look out for an extra at Chautauqua siding. Thought it could not be learned definitely, circumstances indicate that the extra was running under orders, general or special, that would require it to make the siding and let the regular train pass. As he drew near the siding Engineer Johnson [sic] of the regular slowed up his train until it was almost at a standstill. The engineer of the extra however, for some cause or other, approached the siding at full speed, apparently without any though of stopping. A curve in the track made it impossible for a sight of the other train to recall to his mind the orders under which he was funning and his train swept down the track upon the unsuspecting train and crew that were helpless to get out of the way even when they discovered their danger.

They struck with a terrible force that jammed the engines into each other until their very cylinder heads met; every particle of woodwork was shivered and torn into splinters and with the projecting iron work, twisted and bent into every imaginable shape, was scattered broadcast.

How the Victims Were Caught.

Of the great danger that impended the engineer and firemen of the regular train had sufficient warning to reverse the engine and jump. To only one, how ever, did the leap prove fortunate; Fireman Colwell escaped death on the engine only to meet it as a result of a terrible fall upon his head, which broke his neck immediately below the base of the brain. But if the engine crew of the extra had any warning of the danger it came too late to enable them to try to save themselves by jumping, and both were crushed within the cab. Fireman Stone was killed instantly, but Engineer Taylor lived for several hours after the time of the collision.

He was badly crushed about the abdomen and lower portious [sic] of the body, but he was conscious and could talk intelligently. Every effort was made to remove him and finally, after several hours of work, the wreckage was lifted from his body. He did not live more than five minutes afterwards, however, his injuries being too great. Before his death Engineer Taylor was heard to remark to those who worked to release him: “It’s my fault; I forgot about the orders.”

Died in the Cab.

Fireman Stone was found wedged in between the cab and tender, one of his hands on the throttle of the engine. He was badly mangled; one side of his head was crushed and his right cheek torn open. His left arm was almost completely cut or torn off and his left thigh was also badly cut and crushed. He death was undoubted instantaneous.

Engineer J. W. Taylor lived in Valley Junction; he was 35 years of age and leaves a wife and one child, a girl 8 years old. Of Fireman John Stone but little could be learned.

The head brakemen of each of the trains escaped death almost miraculously. Brakeman Reynolds of the regular train was standing on the top of the second car from the engine when the train struck. The car ahead of him and the one to the rear were shattered and torn into thousands of pieces but the car on which he stood was torn from its trucks and thrown nearly twenty feet to one side of the track. Reynolds landed with the car and came out of the shower of timber and bolts without injury except for a few bruises.

Brakeman Gould of the extra was in the cab of the engine and the shock of the collision threw him out of the window upon the ground. He was badly shaken up and sustained a fractured collar bone, but otherwise was uninjured. The men in the way-cars were merely shaken up. The bodies were taken east on No. 14 this forenoon, that of Colwell to Stuart and the others to Valley Junction.


Funeral of John Colwell.

Lee Prall went to Stuart this afternoon to help arrange for the funeral of John Colwell. The body will be brought here and the funeral held at the Congregational church immediately after the arrival of No. 5, due here at 11:07.


Stuart Locomotive, January 13, 1899

Murray Johnston became the engineer on the Liza Jane, which was the branch train from Stuart/Menlo to Guthrie Center. His last run was in 1912.

I thought of the train as a safer way to travel than a horse and wagon, but I’d heard of the deliberate smashing of engines as a stunt at the Iowa State Fair, with the engineers bailing before the head-on crash!



  1. What a horrific accident! When I was going through Middlebury College’s collection of vintage Vermont postcards a couple of years ago, I was shocked at the number of train accidents: either crashing into each other or jumping the tracks.

  2. Gracious! That was horrible. It always astonishes me the level of detail about injuries the newspapers used to publish. I don’t think you’d ever see that now.

  3. Wonderful story Joy! The newspaper did a brilliant job describing the scene, though graphic at times.
    My poor grandfather … engineer Johnston. It must have been awful as he knew and were friends with the crew of the other train not to mention those lost on his engine.

    • I’m so surprised that those huge things were so brittle in a crash. Do you suppose that’s when he went to work for the branch line? He sure wouldn’t have met other trains, just stray livestock.

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