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Rain, Wind, and Woe: The Flatwoods Ghost Train, Part 2

By John D. Bybee

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

Read Part 1 here.

At the apex of the hailstorm, residents reported a cyclone cloud passed. After the hail stopped, the super cell lashed the town with high winds and a deluge of rain that topped four inches. Residents who had lived in Vermont during the previous sixty years recounted that, “the hailstones were the largest they had ever remembered seeing and that the rain fell as fast as ever known in the community. Fields were turned into lakes and streets flooded from curb to curb.” Walking on the bed of hailstones was like trying to walk on ball bearings.

Site of McCormick's Trestle in 1924.  These are the concrete pillars that were put in at a later date.  The east side of the roadbed has washed out considerably since the line was abandoned in the early 1980s.

Site of 1924 McCormick’s Trestle. These are the concrete pillars that were put in at a later date. The east side of the roadbed has washed out considerably since the line was abandoned in the early 1980s.

The clouds broke apart and weak sunlight reflected off a winter scene in June. At the end of West 7th Street, Bret Thomas recovered a flat hailstone that was two and one-half inches across. Mrs. Delilah Chipman discovered in her yard a flat hailstone seven and one-half inches in circumference.

Three miles southwest of Vermont, the near-tornado’s hail and rain clogged the McCormick Trestle’s drainage paths, culverts and grates. A flash flood swirled down Sugar Creek and scoured the foundations away from the pilings supporting the trestle. The timber trestle groaned and swayed under the onslaught. Long transverse cracks opened in the massive timbers capable of handling loads of 1,700 lbs. per square inch.

The crew of #193 finished their switching chores at 5:00 P.M. and were ready to depart for Rushville. Vermont was junction point for the C.B. & Q’s Buda-Rushville Branch and the Beardstown Division’s St. Louis Subdivision. The storm had caused a cluster of weather-delayed trains from three directions to converge on Vermont. Harried dispatchers in Galesburg and Beardstown worked to untangle the snarl of traffic. 2nd trick train order operator Perry Fordyce copied the train orders for #193’s crew and handed them up. At 5:57 P.M. engineer Manvels whistled off for Rushville.

Beneath a tall black plume of smoke Mogul 2-6-0 #1126 pulled its 710-ton train out of Vermont. Zimmerman had a red-hot fire, but the steam pressure was a little low. He grabbed his slash bar, opened the firebox door and gave the ashes a healthy spreading. The train clattered over the wooden bridge, which spanned the wagon road at the south edge of Vermont. The train rounded a curve and pounded downhill towards the McCormick trestle over Sugar Creek.

Zimmerman had just tossed several scoops of coal into the firebox as the train bore down on the trestle. Manvels leaned out of the cab and saw that the normally low and placid Sugar Creek was now a muddy torrent. He saw no obvious dangers. Manvels yelled across the cab and asked Zimmerman how things looked on his side. Zimmerman leaned out also and saw nothing out of the ordinary. He gave Manvels a highball. At 6:05 P.M. the locomotive rumbled across the trestle and reached the southwest bank. A gut-smashing backwards tug severed the trainline air hoses and threw the train into emergency.

Manvels and Zimmerman’s souls died when the tender upended and plunged like a cannon ball into the chasm opened by the collapsing trestle. The engine swayed but before the tender coupling broke, the plunging and twisting tender overturned the locomotive. Engineer Manvels was crushed beneath the twenty-ton locomotive. Bill Zimmerman careened off the boilerhead and back deck. Zimmerman came to rest with his hips smashed under a corner of roof of the cab and with a mangled arm managed to pull down on the whistle cord. The scalded head brakeman was tossed clear and knocked senseless.

Rushville Line North and remains of McCormick's Trestle

Rushville Line North and remains of McCormick’s Trestle

Word of the tragedy reached the Vermont Depot at 6:30P.M. Dr. Lloyd V. Boyton and undertaker Jerry Sears were whisked by a special train to the accident scene. Section Foreman Madtson and his gang began digging to free Zimmerman and find Manvels.

Boyton and Sears did their best to relieve Zimmerman’s sufferings. Zimmerman asked that Madtson be brought to him. Zimmerman in “pretty strong” language berated
Madtson for not inspecting the trestle after the heavy storm. A special train transported Zimmerman and Dr.Boyton to the St. Francis Hospital in Macomb. Zimmerman died at 11:05 P.M. It was midnight before the body of Manvels was recovered and brought to the Sear’s Funeral Parlor in Vermont.

An inquest into the death of W. Manvels was conducted at noon on the following day.
A wreck train equipped with a 250-ton steam derrick arrived in Vermont from Galesburg. Sixty-three-year-old Vermont, Illinois native Abraham Lincoln Mercer, Foreman of the forty-man Vermont B&B Gang #1 worked feverishly to erect a temporary trestle across Sugar Creek so that the derrick could reach the overturned locomotive. Mercer had the new trestle completed by 10 P.M. Friday, June 6. The line to Rushville reopened for normal traffic on Saturday, June 7.

In a haze of grief, Ewa Zimmerman buried Bill at Quincy on Sunday, June 8, 1924. Manvels was buried in Galesburg.

The Burlington railroad line that was originally laid through the Flatwoods area in 1869 was abandoned in the early 1980s. Concrete culverts and sawn off wooden bridge footings and the raised berm of the old roadbed still remain. All the people and machines of June 1924 are gone, but their ghosts do not sleep.

Some night when the moon is full and an Indian summer breeze is ghosting from the southwest and lifting the spider silks from the woven grids of a farm fence, retrace #193’s triangle of tragedy from East Kost Road to the Brockley farm and thence to the old Lybarger’s homestead. Perhaps the flashes of moonlight skitting through the Cottonwoods and White Oaks might be from the single eye of engine #1183. Stop and listen, perhaps you will hear welling up from the hallows of Sugar Creek and rotting pilings of the McCormick Trestle, the mournful whistle of the train that never arrived.

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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