The Journal Gazette
Thursday, April 29, 2021 1:00 am

Train crash kills 3 in 1947

COREY MCMAKEN | The Journal Gazette

Three people died and more than a dozen were injured on Oct. 7, 1947, when a passenger train struck a 26-ton earth mover and partially derailed at what was a crossing on California Road.

The engineer and a special-duty engine man riding in the cab were killed. The train's fireman was hurled from the cab and died a few hours later at St. Joseph's Hospital.

The operator of the earth mover was uninjured after the hopper, carrying 13 tons of dirt, was ripped from the device and thrown more than 100 feet. The train, No. 508, was estimated to have been traveling about 40 mph at the time of the crash, according to a story in The Journal Gazette the next morning.

“The locomotive plowed down into the dry ditch and turned completely around, the tender jack-knifed behind it,” the story reads. “A baggage car rushed past the locomotive while it still was in motion, but the locomotive speared the next coach in which several trainmen were 'dead-heading' back to Fort Wayne. The hot smoke box of the wrecked locomotive threatened to set fire to the car in which the men were imprisoned.”

The men were lifted out through the coach windows. One man was pinned in the debris until freed with torches and was taken to a hospital in critical condition.

Among passengers in the car that had tilted but not fallen were 73 members of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, who were traveling to Dayton for a performance that night.

Speaking after the crash, ballet master Frederick Franklin recalled that the conductor had told passengers they would be in Fort Wayne within 10 minutes, so the troupe was preparing for the station stop.

“We had no indication that anything was wrong until we felt a sudden jolt,” Franklin said. “Then the car lurched forward and two more jolts followed in rapid succession. The car began to tilt to the right as it left the tracks. Realizing we were in a wreck, I shouted 'Everyone cover your heads.' The reason for that was that I immediately thought of flying glass.”

Several members were hospitalized with injuries, but the troupe continued on its way to the show, scheduled for the following night.

History Journal appears monthly in print with additional items weekly on The Journal Gazette's website. To comment on items or suggest dates and topics, contact Corey McMaken at 461-8475 or



“3 Die, 14 Hurt As Train Hits Huge Earth Mover,” by Kenneth B. Keller (Oct. 8, 1947)

A Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad passenger train, steaming briskly toward the city at 12:17 p.m. yesterday, struck a 26-ton earth mover at the California Road crossing and spilled into a 30-foot gully with a toll of three dead and 14 injured.

Killed when the locomotive somersaulted into the ditch were Engineer Charles A. Perry, 63, and W.R. Foshee, 32, of Indianapolis, a special duty engineman, also riding in the cab.

Lyle M. Martin, 27, of the Sand Point Road, the fireman, was hurled out of the cab just after the locomotive cleared the crossing. He was found dying on the east side of the right-of-way, after four derailed coaches had roared past, within inches of his body. He died at 4 p.m. at St. Joseph's Hospital.

Dennis L. Gerlock, a Pennsylvania Railroad fireman riding in a combination baggage and passenger coach, was in a critical condition last night at St. Joseph's Hospital. The locomotive had nosed deeply into the roof of the overturned coach, and Gerlock was pinned in the debris until freed with acetylene torches.

Gene Smoleke, 23, of Albion, the operator of the earth mover, stepped down from his seat unhurt after the hopper, carrying 13 tons of dirt, had been ripped from the motor, behind which he sat, and tossed more than 100 feet into a right-of-way ditch. He is an employee of the Daoust Construction Company, Defiance, Ohio.

Officials said the speed of the train had been estimated at approximately 40 miles an hour at the time of the crash.

Riding in a chair car about the center of the train were 73 members of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, en route from Grand Rapids to Dayton, Ohio, for a performance tonight. The players, caught in the paradox of being an audience to death, were herded into the Charles Spice residence near the crossing, where a first aid station had been set up by the Fort Wayne Chapter of the American Red Cross. Several members of the group, scheduled for an appearance in Fort Wayne next week, were hospitalized.

The derailment occurred where a part of the California Road is being converted into a State Highway cutoff north of the city, recently put under contract by the Indiana State Highway Department.

The locomotive plowed down into the dry ditch and turned completely around, the tender jack-knifed behind it. A baggage car rushed past the locomotive while it still was in motion, but the locomotive speared the next coach in which several trainmen were “dead-heading” back to Fort Wayne. The hot smoke box of the wrecked locomotive threatened to set fire to the car in which the men were imprisoned. They were lifted out through windows of this roach, and the cutting equipment was lowered to the cocoon of wreckage which imprisoned Gerlock.

The coach lay on its side, hugging the locomotive, and the heat inside was terrific. While one of the rescue workers poured water over Gerlock to prevent burns, another cut away the heavy metal which threatened to crush him.

Screams of the injured railroader quickly led rescuers to wreckage of the threatened coach. Other workers, including trainmen, cooled the firebox of the locomotive as quickly as they could.

First officials to reach the scene of the wreck were Sheriff Harold S. Zeis, Chief Jailer Ron Rider and Deputy Jack Vail. Members of the ballet troupe were helping each other from the chair car and collecting along the tracks.

“It looks bad up ahead,” one of the actors told the sheriff, when screams and shouts of the injured began to rise.

One baggage car on the end of the six-car train did not leave the rails, another ahead of it was tilted and the chair car, the third from the end, had listed sharply toward the ditch.

The train, No. 508, en route to Fort Wayne from Grand Rapids, consisted of two passenger coaches, the combination baggage and passenger coach, and three baggage cars. The first car of the train skidded on past the wrecked locomotive, remaining upright. The second coach was the combination car, and it fell on one side, to be snared by the locomotive. The following passenger coach was nosed deeply into the gully.

More than 600 feet of right-of-way were torn up, officials estimated. Deputy Vail first radioed calls to the city for all available ambulances and within a few minutes these vehicles and nine Indiana State Police units under the command of Cpl. Ralph Powell were at the scene. Only three of the State Police units had been relieved of their assignment at a late hour last night.

As the curious started pouring across fields to the wreckage, Sheriff Zeis called out 50 special deputies from seven emergency districts set up in the county, and the California Road was completely blocked off between U.S. Highway 30 on the west and State Highway 3, the eastern outlet.

Besides Smoleke, there were two eyewitnesses of the wreck – Johndell Henderson, 26, and Walter Anderson, 30, both construction workers.

Henderson was standing with his back to the approaching train, on the top of a cement cat about 300 feet north of the crossing. He said he heard the blast of the whistle and braced himself against the sweep of air which he knew would accompany the train.

While so tensed, Henderson said, he saw the earth mover approach the crossing from the east. Smoleke apparently had seen the train, it was his impression, for he was tugging at the levers of the diesel motor, apparently in an effort to stop it. But the earth mover did not stop, and the tractor section of the machine passed over the rails with the locomotive only feet away.

Then there was a “boomp” like one railroad car bumping another and a big cloud of dust,” Henderson recalled.

Henderson darted over a plank from the car to a loading bin beside the right-of-way, and then jumped to the ground. As he sprinted toward the crossing, he saw Smoleke jump from the seat of his tractor, which, having lost the hopper, had nosed forward into the dirt beside the rails.

“The dust still was so heavy that I didn't realize anything had happened to the train until I heard the hiss of steam,” Henderson explained “Then I started down toward the wreckage.”

Anderson was standing on a truck, near the cement car, and watched the train descending a grade about a mile away.

“For some reason, I thought something was wrong,” Anderson said, “and I kept watching the train as it approached. It rushed past me, and then I heard the noise on the crossing.”

Anderson was so absorbed that he couldn't remember whether or not the train had whistled.

The noise of the derailment drummed across the fields and startled workers as far away as the transmitting towers for Westinghouse Radio Station WOWO, at the junction of U.S. Highways 30 and 33. Within 10 minutes, more than 200 automobiles were parked at crazy angles in yards and barn lots along the national highway.

Smoleke, suffering from shock ran up the dusty road toward other workers, was taken to Fort Wayne and was treated for shock. He returned to the scene an hour later and was relieved of duty for the rest of the day. He had not been contacted by authorities last night for an official statement.

Knowing that at least two persons were burled in the wreckage, the Sheriff's Department acted quickly to catalogue all the victims, so a missing list could be had. Fireman Martin, the first to reach the city by ambulance, escaped identification, and for time there was confusion as to what had happened to him. This was particularly so after his white cap was found under the tender, not far from the body of Engineman Foshee.

The first body recovered was that of Engineman Perry, who for the last two years had been planning his retirement from railroad service. It was hanging from jagged wreckage of what had been the cab, impaled on the controls Perry had handled for so many years.

It was necessary to jack up the tender of the locomotive before Foshee's body could be moved. His identification was found near the body. Sheriff Zeis said he was advised that Foshee, acting as an assistant trainmaster, had boarded the ill-fated train after it left Grand Rapids.

Edward Bartz, 53, of Grand Rapids, an express messenger could not be coaxed away from his derailed coach until all the valuables had been removed and trucked away. Then he went to the Lutheran Hospital for treatment of an ankle injury. For several hours after the wreck, he could be seen, perched on top the leaning coach, to make sure that it was not entered by unauthorized persons.

Zeis and Vail paid tribute to the calm of the ballet personnel, who moved through the first aid station in an orderly manner.

Their fortitude greatly reduced the confusion which immediately followed the wreck,” the officials said.

Three physicians and surgeons were on the job within minutes after the accident. They were Dr. A.P. Hattendorf, county coroner; Dr. A.R. Savage, deputy county coroner; and Dr. Leslie Popp, jail physician. Hattendorf and Savage remained to conduct their investigation after the injured had been cared for.

In addition to first aid service, the Red Cross station provided cold water, ropes for barricading the scene, and other equipment of value to officials. Mr. and Mrs. Spice also assisted the first aiders.

Two buses were sent to the wreck from the Greyhound Terminal, and members of the ballet who were not severely hurt were moved to the city to await further transportation to Dayton.

Red Cross attaches terminated their afternoon of duty with a search for a six-year-old boy who strayed while parents were moving about the scene of the wreck.

Scores of curious motorists traveled down the California Road before the barricades could be erected and this traffic, in addition to the construction work, concealed nearby residences in a pall of dust. The situation finally became so critical for residents of the vicinity, that they placed emergency calls to the Sheriff's Department.

Rails of the crossing were damaged, and work on this section of the cut-off was suspended during the afternoon.

R.D. McKeon, Grand Rapids, superintendent of the Grand Rapids Division of the Pennsylvania system, made a personal investigation at the scene. Wreck trains moved in last night, on both sides of the wreck. The two upright baggage coaches on the end of the train were moved away, and other sections of the wrecked train were moved to the side, so the track could be replaced. The locomotive was completely in the ditch.

Several sections of steel rail torn loose by the avalanche were stacked neatly, though accidentally, on the east side of the right-of-way.

The earth mover, which set the locomotive on its fatal rampage, is known commercially as a “Turnapull.” The device consists of an engine and a heavy scoop attached like trailer, which is capable of scooping up and moving 15 tons of dirt at one time.

When the crash came, the earth mover was fully loaded. As the scoop was hurled aside by the train, an impenetrable cloud of dust enveloped and hid the wreckage from persons in the vicinity.

Constant patrolling was necessary last night to keep traffic moving along U.S. Highway 30. Lights of the wrecking train were visible from a long section of the national highway.

Among emergency vehicles sent immediately to the scene was the City Signal Department mobile radio unit in charge of Sgt. Richard Jones. The portable radio station sent a flood of messages to Fort Wayne, and the Indiana State Police Radio at Ligonier.

Brake shoes, springs and other equipment from the wrecked train were scattered for many feet on each side of the track. Several pedestrians were reported to have suffered minor injuries in falls while scrambling across an unbroken field from U.S. Highway 30 to view the destruction.

Fireman Martin was a veteran of five years Army service during World War II. He was seriously wounded while serving in France and Germany and held five Bronze Stars at the time of his discharge with the rank of mess sergeant. He also held the EAME Theater Ribbon, the American Defense Service Medal and a Distinguished Unit Citation.

He was born in Pleasant Township and was a member of St. Theresa's Catholic Church. He had been a fireman with the GR&I railroad for the past two years.

Survivors include his wife, Pattie; three sons, Michael, Tommie and Stephen, all at home; his father, William D. Martin, Avilla; his foster mother, Mrs. Gertrude Kelly, New Haven; his step-mother, Mrs. Lena Martin, Avilla; a brother, Dominie Martin, now in the Army; and two half-brothers, William and Keith Martin Avilla.

The body was taken to the Mungovan & Sons Mortuary; funeral arrangements are incomplete.

Mr. Perry was a veteran of 38 years' service with the railroad. He was a member of the First Baptist Church and the IOOF Lodge. He also was a member of the brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and was past secretary of that organization.

He is survived by his wife, Bessie L; three sons, Paul B. and Gordon A., both of Fort Wayne, and J. Neil of Likely. Calif.; two daughters, Mrs. Milton J. Dennison, Lutz, Fla., and Mrs. Arthur E. Schlie. Fort Wayne; and five grandchildren.

Mr. Perry was born in Chicago but spent most of his early life in Cromwell and Churubusco. The body was removed to the C.M. Sloan & Sons Funeral home. Funeral arrangements have not been completed. The body may not be viewed.

“Ballet Troupe Leader Tells Of Wreck,” by Ivan H. McKathnie (Oct. 8, 1947)

“It's a good thing we don't have a performance scheduled for tonight.” Frederick Franklin, ballet master of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, said in a voice still cracking under the strain of living through a train wreck.

Franklin talked as he stood near the front entrance of a Greyhound bus near the scene of the GR&I wreck yesterday afternoon. The rest of the troupe were aboard that bus and another one a short distance away.

A strange quiet seemed to prevail throughout the two conveyances that were hurried to the scene to take aboard the uninjured passengers and bring them to Fort Wayne. The ballet made up most of the 90 persons aboard the train including its crew.

Franklin turned to survey his fellow-troupers. Most of them displayed few outward signs of their ordeal. Their faces were grim and occasionally one or two stirred uneasily but said nothing.

“Most of the troupe was in a chair car – the third one from the engine. The conductor had just told us we would be in Fort Wayne within 10 minutes. So, most of the troupe put down the newspapers and magazines they were reading and began to ready themselves for the station stop.”

“We had no indication that anything was wrong until we felt a sudden jolt,” Franklin continued. “Then the car lurched forward and two more jolts followed in rapid succession. The car began to tilt to the right as it left the tracks. Realizing we were in a wreck, I shouted 'Everyone cover your heads.' The reason for that was that I immediately thought of flying glass.”

At that point a heavy set, perspiring man ran up to the bus. “Is Mrs. Adams on the bus,” he asked, his lips quivering in anticipation.

“Here I am,” a female voice answered from deep among the bus passengers. A few moments later a woman emerged. The man gave a deep sigh of relief, took the woman by the arm and surveyed her intently as she stepped to the ground.

He identified himself as Glenn Adams. “I knew my wife was on the train returning from a visit with relatives to Grand Rapids. I happened to be driving past and saw the twisted wreckage of the train.

“Boy, I was really scared for a while,” he confided to his wife as he took her by the arm and walked slowly down the road towards his car.

Directly across the California Road from where the buses were parked, Mrs. Delbert Fowler stood in the doorway of the Warren Buckmaster home. Her little girl, Nancy, 6, was playing on the floor.

Mrs. Fowler, who is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Buckmaster, said she did not see the wreck but heard the impact as the train struck the earth mover.

“My attention was called to the train when it whistled,” Mrs. Fowler said. “Nancy has always been afraid of a train. When this one whistled as it approached the crossing, the noise scared her. She screamed and ran to me crying. Then I heard the crash and looked out only to see a cloud of dust at the intersection.”

Harding Dorn, 23, of New York, dance master in Gaite Parisienne in the ballet, was the most seriously injured among the troupe. He received a fractured pelvis and is a patient in the Lutheran Hospital.

While placing a telephone call to relatives in New York from his hospital wheel chair last night, he briefly explained the wreck.

“I was on my way to the wash room in the second car behind the engine. Suddenly the train lurched once, continued on a short distance, then lurched again. The motion threw me against the door at the front of the coach and I fell to the floor. I tried to get up but felt a sharp pain in my back and decided to remain where I was. A great cloud of soot came down upon me and I was soon covered with dirt.

Other members of the group injured were Daniel Epstein, 25, Brooklyn, N.Y., an abdominal in jury; Jerone Lewis, 29, of Brooklyn, bruises and cuts to his legs who was treated in the Lutheran Hospital and released; and Miss Yvonne Chouteau, 19, of Muskogee, Okla., bruises and shock treated at the same hospital and released.

The troupe, on its way for a show at Dayton tonight, made other train connections for the last lap of the trip soon after the accident.


Windstorm memory

Last month's column about a 1954 windstorm causing major damage in the city stirred up memories from several readers, including John Hamm. Here is an edited version of what he shared with The Journal Gazette by email:

I was only 19 months old, however the storm that produced those winds will be forever etched in my mind as my mother and I were caught in the storm while driving to visit my grandmother.

The storm blew up rather quickly, the skies turned dark just like nighttime and the winds were horrendous. It was like having 10 huge football players on each side of the car and rocking it side to side and backwards and forwards!

The Lakeside area was hit awfully hard and we got stranded on Columbia Street when a huge tree came crashing down right in front of our car and brought us to a screeching halt. Power lines were down and sparks where flying from them.

There was an elderly couple standing on their front porch watching what was going on. We were able to get out of the car and ran up on their porch for safety. The couple was kind enough to put us up for the night as no one could get to us until late the next day.

As I remember, the entire Lakeside area looked like a war zone the next day. I remember it all so vividly to this day!

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