Bad luck with trains tends to run in our family. Within a span of twenty-five years, four different family members came too close to passing trains, twice with fatal results.
My grandmothers made up the more-fortunate half of this catalogue. Grandma Montgomery’s incident is the one I know the least about. I know she and her mother were riding in a car that was actually struck by a passing train, and I’ve since learned that Grandma always bore a scar on her forearm as a result. Thankfully, both Grandma Montgomery and Grandma Wilson lived to tell this tale.
Grandma Hoffmann was the luckiest of the four, although her story was no less frightening. A neighboring farmer was taking Grandma, her mother, and her sister Marilyn into town. They were riding in an enclosed, horse-drawn wagon, with Lena and Marilyn in the back and Grandma on the wagon seat with the driver. As they approached the railroad tracks, Grandma said, both she and the farmer looked carefully for trains but could see none and so started across the tracks. Then, without warning, a train was nearly upon them. Grandma wondered if perhaps the steam had rolled in front of the engine somehow and blocked it from view. The farmer whipped up the reins, but it seemed the horse would never get across the tracks. He did, finally, but Lena, in the back of the enclosed wagon, was so close to the hurtling train that she could have touched it!
The two fatalities made their way into local newspapers of the time, so our information regarding them is more precise. In 1908, Charles Johnson was 35 years old and living in Nebraska with his wife and daughter. His wife Sena was the sister of Sophie (Roberg) Wilson (who, as we have already noted, would later survive her own encounter with a train). At first there was some mystery regarding Charlie Johnson’s death, but it appears that in the end it was considered a tragic accident. On October 5, according to family legend, Charlie had left the family’s home in Newman Grove to participate in a homestead drawing. By the next morning he had not yet returned, and soon the family learned the gruesome truth. Charlie, who may have been drinking in Oakdale the night before, had either fallen or been pushed onto the tracks. The Madison County newspaper would later state that Charlie’s body was so badly mutilated that it was “gathered up in a basket.” According to our own family historian David Johnson, the family would later joke with equal grimness that “only the moustache was left.”
The tragedy more familiar to most of us was the accident that killed Paul Hoffmann, Sr. In September 1933, Paul Hoffmann and several other men from Fairbury, Illinois, had traveled east to meet with members of the Apostolic Christian church who were visiting from Germany and Switzerland. The men were traveling in three separate cars, with Paul bringing up the rear; riding with him was Jacob Bohning, one of the churchmen visiting from Germany. As the cars passed through Bucyrus, Ohio, traveling on the Lincoln Highway (US Highway 30), they crossed over a set of unguarded railroad tracks. The first two cars crossed safely and only realized the Hoffmann car was no longer with them after traveling some 18 miles farther west. Returning to Bucyrus, the men came across the demolished car. According to newspaper accounts, two motorists witnessed the accident and stated that the Hoffmann car drove directly into the path of the oncoming train. On September 24, both Paul Hoffmann and Jacob Bohning were buried in the East Graceland Cemetery in Fairbury. As a direct result of this accident (which was not the first car-train fatality there), an overpass was built so that travelers on the Lincoln Highway would never again encounter trains in Bucyrus but would pass safely beneath them. Perhaps in this way other lives were saved. Nonetheless, whenever I am driving and come to a railroad crossing, I always think of our family’s history and look carefully both ways.