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Rain, Wind, and Woe: The Flatwoods Ghost Train, Part 1

By John D. Bybee

Originally published in 2012 in the Astoria South Fulton Argus, reprinted with permission from the author.

Engine of Train #193 wrecked.

Engine of Train #193 wrecked.

In South Fulton County, Illinois, if one drives south of Vermont and heads west on County Highway 35 and glides past the David and Norma Brockley farm and then hooks a left onto the narrow gravel North Flatwoods Road—one has arrived at the mortal origins of the ghost story of C.B. & Q. train #193.

The Lester and Florance Lybarger farm home once stood on the brow of the fallow field to the immediate west of the small cluster of weathered outbuildings. At suppertime on June 5, 1924, nine-year-old Velma M. Lybarger was startled by the sudden soul-rendering shriek of a locomotive’s whistle. Living only about two miles from the railroad line from Vermont to Rushville, the residents of the Flatwoods Community were used to everyday train sounds. Velma recalled in later years, this whistle was different. It was a constant eerie moan and fell in pitch as the minutes went by.

Lester Lawrence and Florance Edith Lybarger gathered up their children; James Roland, Velma Maxine, Vera Evelyn, Lester Lewis and Melvin Freeman and headed southeast towards the presumed source of the dying whistle—the McCormick Trestle over Sugar Creek…

2:30 P.M. Thursday, June 5, 1924. A dozen dusty miles south of Macomb, Illinois, Vermont route salesman Bill Jenkins’ secondhand Model T Ford lurched over the pocked and pitted dirt road, which led south to the Bellingham Road.

At the rural Bellingham junction, Bill pulled into the gravel drive of the “Shopps” gas station. Bill stopped his car opposite the single gas pump and noted a hand written cardboard sign flopping in the stale south breeze. “Gas—Five Gallons for a dollar,” the sign advertised. Bill got out, raised the front seat cushion, grabbed the wooden yardstick located beneath the seat and inserted the stick into the ten-gallon tank under the seat. Sales had been slow all week and he had more sales calls to make before he returned to his family fifteen miles to the east.

Bill said to the sweaty attendant, “A dollars worth, please.” Bill retreated into the narrow shade of the office awning. He spent a nickel for a grape Nehi before walking slowly back to his car. As the attendant returned the gas nozzle to the pump, a shadow cast by a thin-cluster of pearl-gray misshapen cumulus clouds drifted over the filling station. A dull flash of lightning and a pop of thunder preceded the large raindrops, which splattered down in a lazy tempo that barely settled the dust. The insignificant shower abruptly stopped. “A three-inch rain, three inches between the drops, the attendant jokingly observed as he accepted the eight-bits from Bill.

“You are right, no moisture in those clouds,” sighed Bill as he pushed down the Fliver’s low speed pedal and eased onto the sun-hardened Bellingham Road.

In the corn and soybean fields beyond the gas station the failed thundershower plowed into a core of convective heat. In an instant the wispy leading edges of the embryonic storm morphed into an atmospheric grain scoop that ram jetted the new heat energy upwards at eighty miles per hour.

By the time the vortex was midway between Industry and Eldorado Hall the updraft had increased to over one-hundred miles per hour. The super cell thunderstorm uncoiled and blossomed into a cobra’s hood that soared twelve miles in the atmosphere. Raindrops were swept up into the stratosphere by the violent updrafts and frozen into pea-sized hail. An equally severe downdraft shoved the hail down and it thawed slightly before an elevator updraft carried it back upwards.

The hail grew to grapefruit-sized proportions. The lowering rain-free dark cloud base maintained the secret of its tornado as it churned towards Vermont less than five miles away.

Thirty-six-year-old Mollie A. Phillips had always considered the prairie sky overhead as a benign celestial canvas shaped by Nature into a multitude of seasons. She endured the blizzards of winter, shrugged off the windy March chills, savored the damp fogs and frosts of fall and reveled in the spring and summer seasons. The morning had started exceptionally clear, hot and muggy.

After lunch the temperature was ninety degrees. Mollie stepped off her back porch carrying a basket of wet clothes. She and her husband Asa had seven energetic children so everyday was washday. Mollie was pinning up the clothes when a shaft of cold air ruffled her long black hair. She spun on her bare heels and faced the western horizon. The weather had turned; a huge, wall-shaped cloud tinged with yellowish-green haze roiled towards her. The wind shifted to the east and brought to her ears the whistle of the afternoon freight #193.

A skybolt of fanged lightning speared the fork of an Elm tree opposite Mollie’s clotheslines. An enormous thunderclap followed immediately. The five-foot in diameter tree split like a match and crashed down in a tangle of broken limbs. Click, pick, crack, bam, hailstones as sharp as needles stung Mollie as she herded her seven small children into the house.

At the Vermont depot, ice balls pelted #193’s head brakeman as he dismounted to line the switch into the upper yard. Thirty-five-year-old fireman William F. Zimmerman backed away from his window into a corner of the cab as a barrage of hail hammered the locomotive. Engineer W.A. Manvels eased the train ahead and picked up the hunched and soaked brakeman at the switch.

Manvels looked at his watch. They were scheduled to leave Vermont at 4:15 P.M. for Rushville. Even with the light switching they had to do, the storm would delay them.

A curtain of hail slammed into the northeast side of Vermont. The brick two-story North School building on North Main was assaulted by hen-egg sized hail, which broke out forty-six windows. Two blocks south, at the corner of North Union and East North Alley streets, Elder A .J. Conlce was in his office at the First Primitive Baptist Church composing his Sunday sermon.

The hail arrived ahead of the lightning and thunder and surprised the preacher. Elder Conlce ducked as five of the tall, arched windows dissolved in a flurry of flying glass. On South Union Street, the Nelson sisters’ home lost eighteen windows. The South School building lost twenty-three windows. Charlie Kost’s home at the extreme south edge of town had twenty-six windows broken out. Dane Nelson looked up in amazement as hail punched a dozen holes in the tin roof of the Union Newspaper Office on Main Street. The hail pelted down for some thirty minutes and reached a depth of three to four inches.

To be continued Wed. May 8…

John Bybee retired in 2008 after 36 years with the BNSF Railroad at Beardstown, IL.  In the summer of 1975, he was the unofficial fireman on BN train #15832, engine SD-9, #6180, and traversed several times the rail route from Vermont to Rushville taken by the doomed Ghost Train #193 in 1924.

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