Saturday, November 12, 2016

Ralph's Trainwreck - 1918

This week I skip ahead a little in time from the Gramma Lu's Babies memoir. This is from a bigger memoir she wrote, which I have been slowly scanning -- over 500 pages of densely written script. I don't want to handle the musty original paper too much, so I haven't read it, but I see bits and pieces as I go.  It's hard to read her handwriting, but now and then a little bit will intrigue me, and I'll sit down and keep reading...discovering a new bit of family history as I go.

It was mid-March of 1918, and the family may have been living in Traverse City at the time.

Postcard showing a snow plow from the Grand Travers area circa 1915.

The Train Wreck

from the memoirs of Lula Janet Wanamaker LaGuire

Orville had not gone to war yet, but came home to stay a while to take shots for boils, etc., before he could answer his country's call. Virgil's tonsils were bothering him more, and he was getting really deaf in one ear. What to do! I did not know. There had never at that time been an operation in our family, and they were considered at that time dangerous. Something comparatively new. Fred surely didn't approve and I surely was worried about my little boy.  He didn't take any interest in school, nor play.

One afternoon, Orville was home waiting for his call and all at once it seemed that I lost interest in my work -- which was very unusual -- it just seemed that the world was stopping in its rotation or something was radically wrong.  Such a feeling I had I couldn't explain.  Orville was very restless and soon started pacing the floor; finally said, "I feel awful. I don't know what is the matter. I can't sit still a minute. Just like something was wrong."

I said, "I feel funny too.  I can't settle down to anything." 

However, I had to get supper for us all. The children came home and ate and went about their several activities, while we waited for the ax to fall, as it were.

It did.  As I've said, Fred and Ralph were working in Suttons Bay on the railroad.  Winter had arrived in earnest and they were having their annual struggle to get thru to the rest of the world. Though we did not know about this at that time. After supper, a small boy came with a note saying that Fred wanted me to meet the train when it came in.

Well, it just happened that I was at the store to buy a few groceries when it came, and the children did not know where I'd gone, and when I returned to the house, Orville was nearly distracted.

But we set out at once to go to the depot, where the TCL&M came in, about a mile or more.  I remember it was very cold and I was not dressed for such cold weather.  My coat then was one that had been given to me, and was wholly inadequate for such severe weather. I don't suppose Orville was warm either, as none of us had clothes enough.

As we sped along as fast as we could walk, I wondered what could be wrong.  I believe the note said Ralph was hurt.  We should have gotten it in the early p.m., but here it was after six.  I don't know why the delay. When we got there, the train had been in and gone for hours. 

The whole town had been excited about the snow plow wreck on the TCL&M, and it appeared we were the only ones who had not known about it.  I was told afterwards that about half the town had been there to meet it when it arrived, bringing the dead and wounded of the wreck.  No wonder Orlo and I had felt so vacant and as if catastrophe was imminent. Don't tell me there's nothing to telepathy!  I thought on the way coming pehraps Ralph had broken his leg in getting off the train.  He had broken his leg indeed!  Such a thing as a wreck had not entered my mind. We went into the deserted depot then to the freight depot to see if there was anyone there.  The man there told us the conductor was on the couch outside. We went to him.

Orville said, "They told us my brother was hurt. Where is he?"

The conductor was almost weeping, he was so overwrought.  It seems he was on the train wreck but not hurt.

He said, "His father's with im," as Orville and I stood gaping. "He's in the hospital. He has a broken leg."  I began twisting my hands together, and the poor man finished.  "There was a wreck!"

Then he turned and fled, could say no more, I guess. While Orville and I looked at each other in horror and consternation.  How badly was Ralphie hurt?  Was dad hurt too, how bad was the wreck? Where?  When? etc.

Orville said, "Ma, what'll we do?"

"We better go to the hospital, I think," I said between chattering teeth.

I'd never been in one of those dreaded institutions as a patient. They meant suffering, homesickness, and death to me.  But we must go! 

Orville said, "We'll get a cab, ma. It's too far to walk out there.  We'll go home first and tell the youngsters."

So we walked the mile or more back home, where we told the bad news -- what we knew of it -- to the children.  We felt hungry and ate a little while waiting for a taxi. The meal consisted of bean soup as I recall. I was almost ready to collapse, but knew I must keep up. The children were silent, scared, almost out of their wits, I think, though they said nothing.

We arrived at hospital. Everything seemed confusion and excitement.  That remote hospital didn't have a whole mass of wrecked folks to care for often in those days.

Doctors were hustling here and there with bloody white aprons and nurses, frightened but efficient, went silently here and there.  Fred met us almost a wreck himself -- and he told us Ralph had a badly broken limb. Two men had been killed, one outright, another died as soon as they brought him to the hospital. Four other young men were in the same condition that Ralph was. Eight men had been injured when the engine had plowed through the snow plow. One fellow had been able to be taken home.

Finally they let us in to where Ralph was a helpless child, badly shaken. I went up and kissed him. It was all I could do. Several Drs. and nurses came to care for him at last. Fred and I stayed in the room.

One doctor said to me, "Are you a relative?"

I said, "I'm his mother."

We thought we'd stay in there while they attended him, but Fred got ill at his stomach and had to leave the room, so I went too. Guess the doctors were glad we went out. I felt relieved that Ralph's hurt was no worse. Though a compound fracture is plenty bad. We went to a little waiting room where Fred nearly fainted. A kind nurse brought us each a cup of coffee. I believe Fred had not eaten that p.m. 

I got the gruesome tale afterwards, how Ralph had been hung up by his broken leg for three hours on the head light of the engine before they could cut him loose. The men had taken turns holding him up so his weight would not be all dependant on that injured leg! A gruelling task for these men and a terrible ordeal for Ralph. They gave him some whisky, which I suppose helped him to endure.

At long last, he was resting, his leg set, and as we could do nothing for him, we went home. Orville had gone home earlier to be with the other kids. 

Fred asked a man, a father of one of the other injured boys, to stay with us that night. So I fixed him up a bed best I could on a cot. Bedding was not too plentiful at our house, I am free to admit. 

In later years, when auto accidents are as frequent as can be, we have sort of trained ourselves to expect something of that kind almost anytime.  But when and if they come, the shock is probably just as great. What made this trial harder to bear for me was the fact that I had scolded Ralph the last time he was home and given him a good slapping on his back -- he was then just 18 --for something he had done that he should not have done.  I don't remember what his offense was, but probably cursing, as he was getting to be a good imitator of his father in that respect. However, if he had been killed in this snow plow wreck, I never would have forgiven myself for reprimanding him.

The way we are, I guess. We punish because we think we must, then are filled with remorse when something happens.

The poor boy was in the hospital over two months. I walked out to see him as often as I could. He suffered intensly, and when he was better, made a great hit with the nurses. Have I mentioned that he had grown up to a very handsome young man, even though his one eye was crossed?  I thought nothing of walking the mile and a half to see him.

The wreck made the papers, and even though those issues are missing from the archive for the Traverse City Record Eagle, small versions of the story appeared in the Lansing State Journal, and this article below in the Port Huron Times.

It doesn't mention the names of most of the men, only the first killed.  But now we can add at least two names of the men involved: Ralph Stanley LaGuire and Fred LaGuire.

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