In the history of Wabaunsee County, among the significant events which shaped the county’s development and growth were the coming of the railroad in 1880 and the subsequent addition of a second railroad seven years later. For a century the railroad provided transportation, commerce and employment for the citizens of Wabaunsee County.
When one considers the rail traffic in Wabaunsee County, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, it’s not a surprise that train wrecks were not an uncommon event in the county. The tracks of both railroads had been laid along the flat bottom-ground bordering Mill Creek, and they were prone to damage from flooding.
But, the biggest disaster in the history of Wabaunsee County, which occurred 110 years ago in the early morning hours of January 2, 1907, was not caused by a flood or natural disaster, but was a case of human error. Thirty-two passengers of two Rock Island Railway trains died and forty more riders injured when the eastbound No.30 crashed head-on with the westbound No. 29, just two miles west of the Volland station.
Sometime after midnight the No. 29 had been split into two west bound trains because of the heavy holiday traffic. The first No. 29 had passed through Volland on time; however, the second No. 29 was late. The late train was scheduled to meet the eastbound No.30 in Alta Vista, but since the 29 was late, the Topeka dispatcher ordered the two trains meeting point be changed to Volland. A call was placed to Volland to see if the No. 29 was in the station, which it was, as it was waiting for the eastbound No. 14 to pass on the single through track.
While the No. 14 was passing, the decision was made for the scheduled meet with the No. 30 to be moved to Volland, and the order was given to hold the No. 29. By the time this order was given, the No. 29 had backed onto the through track, and had begun its departure to the west. The Volland station operator, John Lyens, realizing that the No. 29 was not going to stop at the station, raced from the depot waving his lantern to attempt to stop the train, but the flame from the lantern was extinguished by the wind. His attempts to stop the No. 29 were in vain.
Lyens raced into the Western Union office of the depot, sending a message to Topeka, “No. 29 has gone and I have gone also.” As there was no communication with the trains on the track, the impending disaster could not be stopped. The two trains collided head-on about two miles west of Volland on a sharp curve. When the Engineer and Fireman on the No. 29 saw the oncoming No. 30, they applied the emergency brakes, reversed their engine, and at the last second, leapt from the locomotive. The crew of the No. 30 jumped from their locomotive before impact, as well.
The collision occurred at 4:50 am. Despite the fact that the No. 29 was almost stopped by the time of impact, the No. 30 was going downgrade, and the damage inflicted upon the 29 was enormous. A smoker car on the No. 29 was filled with Mexican railroad workers who had been given rail passes to go home to El Paso for the holiday season. Reportedly, as many as 70 Mexican Nationals were aboard the No. 29. When the trains collided, many passengers were pinned in the wreckage, and within minutes the entire wreck scene was engulfed in flames. It was reported in the newspapers to be a most gruesome scene with badly injured passengers trapped in the fiery wreckage.
The Wabaunsee County Coroner, Dr. George W. B. Beverly’s report on the accident stated that 32 individuals were killed in the accident, including 27 Mexican railroad laborers. Three of the bodies of Mexican workers were never recovered, but 24 victims were buried in a mass grave in the Catholic Church cemetery in Alma. A coroner’s inquest was held at the Wabaunsee County Courthouse on January 14, 1907, and the inquest jury concluded that Volland Operator, John Lyens and Topeka Dispatcher, J. H. Shumate were both responsible for the accident, but the railroad did not hold them criminally liable. Dr. Beverley was reportedly so affected by the carnage of the crash scene that he resigned his position as County Corner shortly after the completion of the inquest.
In a most interesting twist, the locomotive which was pulling the ill-fated No. 29 was locomotive No. 1334, an engine with a history of bad luck. The very same locomotive was pulling a Rock Island passenger train through Willard, Kansas in January of 1904 when it wrecked, killing twenty people. Locomotive 1334 had also been in three additional wrecks which had not resulted in losses of life.
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