Several years ago, I was lucky enough to acquire a relic cane associated with a train wreck, and it is a prized piece in my collection. This cane is fashioned with a smooth, turned shaft of dark walnut, about 32” long and topped with a substantial brass fitting, which, in turn, is topped with a three inch teardrop shaped wooden knob matching the shaft. The oddly shaped ferrule is also brass. The following inscription is found carefully and neatly incised into the uppermost eight inches of the shaft:
T.P. & W. R.R. WRECK
AUG. 10th 11-45. PM
From a local newspaper account contemporary to the tragedy:
“The residents of our quiet little village were awakened from their slumbers a few minutes before one o’clock Thursday morning by the fire alarm, and in but an instant, apparently, people were running from all directions for the engine house, as no fire could be seen. Instantly it became generally known that the Niagara Falls excursion train from Peoria, which had passed through here at 12:45, had been wrecked by a burning bridge two miles east of town. A special train was immediately telegraphed for from Forrest, and as messengers brought in news of the wreck, it became apparent that some place need be prepared for the reception of the dead and wounded, although the true extent of the damage had not been imagined. Many went to the scene of the disaster on foot, in vehicles of all kinds, and in the special train, while other remained and made arrangements to care for the dead and wounded in the hall, which had been opened to use as a hospital. Upon arrival at the wreck, the sight was most terrible. While all had read of disastrous wrecks, none had been prepared for such a scene as was presented.”
The story accompanying the cane when I purchased it was that it had belonged to the estate of a local woman who had owned the relic for as long as her descendants could remember. How she had, herself, originally acquired the stick remained unclear, but the story that had been passed down in the family was that the cane was the creation of a man who had been a fireman among the first party of rescuers to arrive at the scene of the wreck. He had been so moved, it is said, by the scene to which he bore witness, that he felt compelled to create some object in order to forever commemorate the terrible event. The cane is reputed to be crafted from decorative fittings and wood salvaged from the shattered trappings of one of the train’s luxury coaches. In fact, a minimum of four, and possibly more, such souvenir canes were made. I know this because I was intrigued enough by the story to embark on a research journey of my own. One thing I turned up was an article in a 1936 issue of a Bloomington, Illinois newspaper, The Daily Pantagraph, commemorating the 49th anniversary of the Chatsworth Railroad Disaster. The article prominently featured a photograph of a man holding a walking stick that was captioned,
“B.M. Judd of Colfax is one of the survivors of the Chatsworth train wreck which occurred 49 years ago Monday. He is shown here with a souvenir cane fashioned from wood splintered from one of the death coaches.”
The cane being held in the photo is similar to the stick I purchased, but it is not the same cane. In googling ‘Chatsworth Train Wreck’, I was led to chat sites peopled by enthusiasts of the role of railroading in our national heritage. One railroad hobbyist and earnest historian of local histories had been so intrigued by the controversy surrounding the Chatsworth event that he sold his suburban Chicago home and took up residence in the stately two-story Chatsworth home that had served as the emergency makeshift infirmary/morgue for victims of the 1887 disaster. He spent several years prior to his move in collaboration with a local Chatsworth mentor and historian in her own right who had gathered a tremendous collection of artifacts and documents pertaining to the rail tragedy. Fortunately for me, this gentleman was gracious enough, when he discovered my interest, to invite me to view what had become his collection.
My host began by relating, for me and my husband, the story of the controversy surrounding the true cause of the horrible accident involving the 1887 T.P. & W. Niagara Falls excursion train. His own interest in the wreck pertains most specifically to clearing the name of the individual, Timothy Coughlin, blamed by most popular historical accounts for the genesis of the accident. It seems Coughlin was a section crew chief working for the T.P. & W. whose crew, the week of the wreck, had been assigned the task of burning away brush in the railroad right-of-way in the general area of the site of the wreck. Contemporary newspaper accounts of the “facts” surrounding the wreck tell that the disaster occurred when the train approached a shallow trestled ravine. The trestle was burning, but when the engineer in the lead engine came close enough to detect the fire, it was already too late to stop the train. The lead and second engine plunged into the ravine when the burning trestle collapsed. The tender and passenger coaches followed, one car collapsing into another as the bodies inside were thrown and crushed. According
to the newspaper accounts, the blaze at the trestle was touched off by the burn-off fires that had been allowed to get out of the control of a negligent crew chief by the name of Timothy Coughlin. It was the contention of our host that newspapers then, as now, sometimes function as a buffer protecting the interests of the wealthy and powerful, and that, in fact, the wreck was caused by a host of factors pointing to negligence on the part of the owners of the T.P. & W., including, but not limited to, the fact that the man operating the lead engine was the wholly unqualified and inebriated son of a T.P. & W. executive, on board the excursion train for a joy ride. He supports his version by citing the well-documented official exoneration of Timothy Coughlin by the investigating panel of the, then, newly founded Federal Warehouse & Railroad Commission. The Commission’s official report on the incident states that there was no evidence that the fire at the site of the trestle had burned prior to the occasion of the wreck itself, and that, regardless, the burns initiated by Coughlin’s crew were too far away to have factored into the wreck. Unfortunately, the popular histories of the event have relied exclusively on the original newspaper accounts stressing the alleged negligence of Tim Coughlin, and tend to ignore the stories pertaining to the Commission’s clearing of his actions, buried deep in the back pages of the very same journals, months later.
Our host then showed us many of the artifacts of the wreck that he had acquired. Among these were two souvenir walking sticks. These canes were similar to mine and the style of the lettering of the inscriptions on their shafts left no doubt that they were created by the same hand that had made mine. Again, however, the sticks were not the same as the one appearing in the 1936 Pantagraph photo. There is really no way to determine, now, either how many of these sticks were originally fashioned, or how many may still survive tucked away in trunks stowed in attics or cellars.
As a final gesture, our new friend took us out to the actual site of the Chatsworth train wreck. The trestle has since been replaced by a concrete culvert, but the ravine and surrounding bean fields must appear much as they did at the time of the wreck in 1887. He pointed out which direction the train had been coming from, how it must have gained momentum on the downward grade approaching the ravine trestle, where the first engine struck the side of the ravine after the trestle had collapsed, followed by the tender and the first few passenger coaches containing the unfortunate victims, and finally how and where each of the subsequent coaches fell and landed. As I stood in the field, listening to my guide, I felt a real connection to the survivors like B.M. Judd, the firemen (one of them, perhaps, the maker of my cane) who had rushed to the site to aid the injured and drag out the dead, the defamed Timothy Coughlin and his crew, and even the crowds of townspeople who flocked to the site just to gawk at the bodies and smoldering wreckage. That connection continues to live on in the wood and brass of the relic cane that had started me on this journey into history.