Blogging Prompts, Census, Montgomery Line, Research, Roberg, Thriller Thursday, Wilson

Thriller Thursday – The Disappearance of Sena Roberg

One of the stories that sparked my early interest in genealogy and family history is that of Sena Roberg. Born June 2, 1884 in Boone County, Nebraska to Anders and Agnette Roberg, she was the younger sister of my great-grandmother Sophie (Roberg) Wilson. My grandma, in relating to me the history of her family, stated simply that Sena had “disappeared” and that no one ever knew what became of her.

She appears in the 1900 census with her parents and brothers, apparently nicknamed “Sadie.”  Three years later she married Charles A. Johnson, born about 1873. On August 9, 1906 their daughter Esther was born. As has been detailed before, in October 1908 Charles traveled to enter a homestead drawing but never returned, having been run over by a train at the Oakdale (Nebraska) Railroad Yards. Sena was apparently expecting another child at this time.

In the 1910 census, Sena is again living with her parents and two daughters: Esther, age 3, and Clara, age 1. Research by cousin David Johnson reveals a history of legal disputes over Sena’s inheritance from her husband, guardianship of her daughters, and compensation demanded as a result of Charles Johnson’s death.

Sena married at least twice more – once to H. E. Fisher around 1911, then to a Mr. Evans (a traveling salesman) before 1915. I have yet to find her in any other census records. According to stories told by her sister Sophie, she later moved to Omaha, came home for a visit, then returned to Omaha to have minor surgery, and was never heard from again, in spite of newspaper advertisements attempting to locate her.

Her daughters on April 6, 1915 had been placed under the guardianship of their grandfather Anders, though they may have continued to live with a family named Bruland. I’m unsure what became of Clara, but Esther would marry John Bowen and remain in touch with her cousin, my grandmother, over the years.  Esther died February 23, 1997 in Nebraska.

Hoffmann, Roberg, Wilson

Railroad Crossings

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.