April 30, 1900 Two Minutes Late

Casey Jones had a knack for these complex and powerful machines. He was good at what he did and an aggressive risk taker. Ambitious for advancement, Jones was issued nine citations for rules infractions over the course of his career, resulting in 145 days’ suspension.  He was well liked by fellow railroaders but widely regarded, as just this side of reckless.

Acts of heroism have a way of popping up, in the most unexpected places. Ordinary people rising to the occasion, in anything but ordinary circumstances.

Just recently, two teenage boys chased down a kidnapper on their bicycles, freeing a little girl from captivity.  The Poway, California Rabbi grabs hold of a gun in the hands of a demented killer, losing a finger and saving untold numbers of congregants, in the process.  An eight-month’s pregnant mother-to-be dives into the Australian surf, to save two drowning boys.

This is one of those stories.

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Jonathon Luther Jones lived near Cayce Kentucky as a boy, and the nickname stuck. For reasons which remain unclear, he preferred to spell it, “Casey”.

Casey Jones was a train man, working on the I.C.R.R., the Illinois Central Railroad.

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Jonathon Luther “Casey” Jones

One example of the man’s character comes to us from 1895, when Jones was thirty two. Outside Michigan City Mississippi, a group of children darted across the tracks, fewer than sixty yards from the speeding train.  Most made it across except one little girl, who froze in terror before the oncoming locomotive.

With fellow engineer Bob Stevenson hauling back on the emergency brakes and buying precious extra moments, Jones ran across the running boards and inched his way down the pilot, better known as the “cow catcher”.

This is no trick rider.  No circus acrobat.  Casey Jones worked on the railroad. Bracing himself with his legs, Jones reached out and scooped up the little girl, at the last possible moment. 

On this occasion, the man had every hope and expectation of remaining alive, and that he did.  Five years later, he’d perform his last act of heroism in the face of certain and violent, death.

Casey Jones went to work for the Mobile & Ohio Railroad where he performed well, receiving first a promotion to brakeman, and then to fireman. He met Mary Joanna (“Janie”) Brady around this time, whose father owned the boarding house, where Jones lived. The pair fell in love and married on November 11, 1886, buying a house in Jackson Alabama where the couple raised their three children. By all accounts the man was sober and devoted to his work, a dedicated family man.

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Several crews from the Illinois Central Railroad (IC) were down with yellow fever in the summer of 1887. Fireman Jones went to work for the IC the following year, firing a freight run between Jackson, Tennessee, and Water Valley, Mississippi.

Casey Jones had a knack for these complex and powerful machines. He was good at what he did and an aggressive risk taker. Ambitious for advancement, Jones was issued nine citations for rules infractions over the course of his career, resulting in 145 days’ suspension.  He was well liked by fellow railroaders but widely regarded, as just this side of reckless.

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Jones achieved his lifelong goal of becoming an engineer in 1891.  He was well  known, for being on time. Jones insisted he never “fall down” and get behind schedule. People learned to set their watches by his train whistle, knowing he would always “get her there on the advertised” (time).

Jones moved his family to Memphis in 1900, transferring to the “cannonball run” between Chicago and New Orleans. The run was a four train passenger relay, advertising the fastest travel times in the history of the American railroad. Experienced engineers were worried about the ambitious schedule and some even quit, but Jones saw the new itinerary as an opportunity for advancement.

How a steam locomotive, works

On this day in 1900, Engine #382 departed Memphis at 12:05am, ninety-five minutes behind schedule due to the late arrival of the first leg, of the relay.

The Memphis to Canton, Mississippi run was 190 miles long and normally took 4 hours, 50 minutes at an average speed of 39 MPH. 95 minutes was a lot of time to make up but #382 was a fast engine and traveling “light” that night, with only six cars.

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Fireman Simeon “Sim” T. Webb

Fireman Simeon Taylor “Sim” Webb was one of the best. He would have to be. This would be a record breaking run.

Jones hit the Johnson bar, throttling #382 up to 80 MPH despite sharp turns and visibility reduced by fog. There were two stops for water and a brief halt on a side track, to let another engine through. Despite all that, #382 made up most of that time by the 155-mile mark. On leaving the side track in Goodman, Mississippi, Jones was only five minutes behind the advertised arrival time of 4:05am.

Jones was well acquainted with those last 25 miles into Vaughn Mississippi.  There were few turns and the engineer throttled his engine up to breakneck speed. He  was thrilled with his time, saying “Sim, the old girl’s got her dancing slippers on tonight!”

Unknown to Casey, there was a problem ahead. Three trains were in the station at Vaughn, with a combined length ten cars longer, than the main siding. Rail yard workers performed a “saw by” maneuver, backing #83 onto the main line and switching overlapping cars onto the “house track”. Then there was that problem with an air hose. Four cars were stranded on the main line.

#382 sped through the final curve at 75MPH, only two minutes behind schedule. Clinging to the side board, Sim Webb was the first to see the red lights, of the caboose. “Oh my Lord”, he yelled, “there’s something on the main line!”

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Jones didn’t have a prayer of stopping in time. He was moving too fast. He reversed throttle and slammed the air brakes into emergency stop, screaming “Jump Sim, jump!” Sim Webb jumped clear with only 300 feet to go as the piercing scream of the train’s whistle, rent the air.

Jones could have jumped himself. His ordering Webb to do so, demonstrates he understood the situation.  Casey Jones stayed on the train as “Ole 382” plowed through the red wooden caboose and three freight cars, before leaving the track. By the time of impact, Jones frantic efforts had slowed the engine to 35 miles per hour, saving his passengers from serious injury or death. Jones himself was the only fatality, his watch stopped at 3:52am.  He was only two minutes behind schedule.

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Passenger Adam Hauser of the New Orleans Times-Democrat was in a sleeper car, at the time of the wreck: “The passengers did not suffer” he said, “and there was no panic. I was jarred a little in my bunk, but when fairly awake the train was stopped and everything was still. Engineer Jones did a wonderful as well as a heroic piece of work, at the cost of his life”.

Legend has it that, when Jones’ body was removed, his dead hands still clutched the whistle cord, and the brake.

Casey Jones has achieved mythological status since that day, alongside the likes of Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan. “The Ballad of Casey Jones” was recorded by Mississippi John Hurt, Johnny Cash and the Grateful Dead, among others.

Jones’ son Charles was 12 at the time of  his death at age 37, his daughter Helen, 10.  The  youngest, John Lloyd (“Casey Junior”) was 4.  Janie received two life insurance payments totaling $3,000 as Casey was “Double Heading” at that time, as a member of two unions.   she received no other compensation.  The Railroad Retirement Fund didn’t come about, until 1937.

Janie never had any thought of remarrying and lived the rest of her years, dressed in black.  She died on November 21, 1958 in Jackson Alabama, at the age of 92

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A Trivial Matter
In 1907, brakeman Jesus Garcia drove his flaming train away from the small mining town of Nacozari, in the Mexican state of Sonora. The train was carrying dynamite, and blew up,  Killing Garcia.  His quick actions had saved the town, where Jesus Garcia remains a hero, to this day.

January 15, 1919 Slower than Cold Molasses, in January

Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage … Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was … Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings—men and women—suffered likewise

On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister became the first human to run a sub-four minute mile, with an official time of 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds.

Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is the fastest man who ever lived. At the 2009 World Track and Field Championships, Bolt ran 100 meters at an average 23.35 mph from a standing start, and the 20 meters between the 60 & 80 markers, at an average 27.79 mph.

It would come as a rude shock to both of those guys, that they are literally slower than cold molasses.  In January.

File photo of Bolt of Jamaica competing in the men's 100 metres semi-final heat event during the IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow
Usain Bolt

In 1919, the Purity Distilling Company operated a large molasses storage tank at 529 Commercial Street, in the North End of Boston. Fifty feet tall and ninety feet wide, the tank held 2.32 million gallons, about 14,000 tons of the sweet stuff, awaiting transfer to the Purity industrial alcohol distillation plant, in Cambridge.

It had been cold earlier in the month, but on January 15, it was a balmy 46°, up from the bitter low of 2° of the day before.

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If you were there at about 12:30, the first sound you might have heard was a rumble, like the sound of a distant train. The next sound was like that of a machine gun, as rivets popped and the two sides of the metal tower split apart.

The collapse hurled a wall of molasses 40′ high down the street at 35 miles per hour, smashing the elevated train tracks on Atlantic Ave and hurling entire buildings from their foundations. Horses, wagons, and dogs were caught up with broken buildings and scores of people as the brown deluge sped across the North End. Twenty municipal workers were eating lunch in a nearby city building when they were swept away, parts of the building thrown fifty yards. Part of the tank wall fell on a nearby fire house, crushing the building and burying three firemen alive.

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The power of the deluge may be seen in the elevated rail, twisted and deformed as by the temper tantrum, of some titanic child.

In the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton described the physical properties of fluids. Water, a “Newtonian” fluid, retains a constant viscosity (flow) between 32° and 212°, Fahrenheit. We all know what it is to swim in water, but a “non-Newtonian” fluid such as molasses, acts very differently. Non Newtonian fluids change viscosity and “shear”, in response to pressure. You do not propel yourself through non-Newtonian fluid, the stuff will swallow you, whole. Not even Michael Phelps is swimming out of all that gunk.

The Boston Post reported “Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage … Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was … Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings—men and women—suffered likewise”.

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“Firefighters tried to wash the molasses away with freshwater, but would later find that briny seawater was the only way to “cut” the hardened substance”. H/T Historycollection.com

In 1983, a Smithsonian Magazine article described the experience of one child: “Anthony di Stasio, walking homeward with his sisters from the Michelangelo School, was picked up by the wave and carried, tumbling on its crest, almost as though he were surfing. Then he grounded and the molasses rolled him like a pebble as the wave diminished. He heard his mother call his name and couldn’t answer, his throat was so clogged with the smothering goo. He passed out, then opened his eyes to find three of his four sisters staring at him”.

All told, the molasses flood of 1919 killed 21 people, and injured another 150. 116 cadets from the Massachusetts Nautical School, now Mass Maritime Academy, were the first rescuers on-scene. They were soon followed by Boston Police, Red Cross, Army and Navy personnel. Some Red Cross nurses literally dove into the mess to rescue victims, while doctors and surgeons set up a makeshift hospital and worked around the clock.

It was four days before the search was called off for additional victims. The total cleanup was estimated at 87,000 man-hours.

The men playing cards at the firehouse looked out the windows and saw a dark wall that didn’t belong there. Whatever it was, the wall was coming right at them.

The rupture resulted from a combination of factors. Construction was so poor, locals knew they could come down and collect household molasses from drippings down the outside of the thing, which was leaking so badly it was painted brown to hide the leaks.

This was only the 6th or 7th time the tank had been filled to capacity, and rising temperatures almost surely helped to build up gas pressure inside the structure.

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With temperatures being so cold, the rapid spread of all that molasses made no sense. The proverbial “cold molasses” had exploded it seemed, in January.  Newspapers speculated that there must be something more. A bomb, perhaps.

Newspapers would more profitably have resorted to their physics books. In fluid dynamics, a “gravity current” describes the horizontal flow in a gravitational field, of a dense fluid into a fluid of lesser density. Think about the way cold air rushes through an open doorway into a warm room, even with no wind behind it.

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Today, the site of the Great Molasses Flood is occupied by a recreational complex called Langone Park, featuring a Little League ball field, a playground, and boccie courts. The Boston Duck Tours DUKW’s regularly visit the place with their amphibious vehicles, especially the dark brown one. The one with the name “Molly Molasses”, painted on its side.

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Feature image, top of page:  H/T Boston Globe.

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May 23 1928  Crash of the Airship Italia

The airship’s control cabin hit the jagged ice seconds later, smashing open and spilling ten crew members and a Fox Terrier onto the ice.

The semi-rigid airship Italia departed from Milan on April 15, 1928, headed for the Arctic.  Italia carried 20 personnel, a payload of 17,000 pounds of fuel and supplies, and the expedition mascot, a Fox Terrier named Titina.

Stolp, Landung des Nordpol-Luftschiffes "Italia"

Her mission was to explore the ice cap surrounding the North Pole, operating out of an expedition base in Ny-Ålesund, one of four permanent settlements on Spitsbergen Island in the Kingdom of Norway.

italia mapThe first of five planned sorties began on May 11, before turning back only eight hours later in near blizzard conditions.  The second trip took place in near perfect weather conditions and unlimited visibility, the craft covering 4,000 km (2,500 miles) and setting the stage for the third and final trip departing on May 23.

Strong tailwinds aided the passage as Italia traveled north along the Greenland coast, arriving at the north pole only 19 hours after departing Spitzbergen. Though wind conditions prevented them from dropping scientists onto the ice sheet, survival packs and the inflatable raft they brought along for the purpose would turn out to be providential.

Trouble started almost immediately, as the tailwinds that brought them to the pole were now strong headwinds as they headed south to King’s Bay. Fuel consumption was doubled as the airship struggled to make headway.  After 24 hours, they were only halfway back.

A cascade of events took place on the morning of the 25th, causing Italia to be tail-heavy and falling at a rate of two feet per second. Captain Umberto Nobile ordered Chief technician Natale Cecion to dump ballast chain, but the steep deck angle made the task difficult. The airship’s control cabin hit the jagged ice seconds later, smashing open and spilling ten crew members and a Fox Terrier onto the ice.

Now relieved of the weight of the gondola, the envelope of the ship began to rise again with a gaping tear where the control cabin used to be.

What followed was a remarkable display of calm under pressure. As the airship’s italia-crashenvelope floated away, Chief Engineer Ettore Arduino started to throw everything he could get his hands on down to the men on the ice. These were the supplies intended for the descent to the pole, but they were now the only thing that stood between life and death. Arduino himself and the rest of the crew drifted away with the now helpless airship.

Nine survivors and one fatality were left stranded on the ice.  They immediately began to go through their supplies. They found a radio and fashioned a mast from the debris, and set up a tent after coloring it red using the dye contained in several flares.

The tale of the Italia rescue is a story in itself, as would-be rescuers themselves became stranded or disappeared into the arctic circle, never to be seen again.

The famous polar explorer Raould Amundsen, the man who first reached the pole in 1926, disappeared on June 18 while flying on a rescue mission with Norwegian pilot Leif Dietrichson, French pilot René Guilbaud, and a three-man French crew.

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Raould Amundsen

Rescue expeditions were launched from Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Norway, Soviet Russia, Sweden, and the United States. Bureaucratic intransigence, equipment failure and a lack of coordination would hamper rescue efforts.  It would be more than 49 days before the last of the crash survivors and stranded would-be rescuers would be found. The fate of the journalist, the three mechanics and the scientist who drifted away on the Airship Italia, is unknown.

April 15, 1912 Unsinkable

The elderly owner of Macy’s Department Stores Isidor Straus was offered a seat with his wife Ida, on account of his age. Strauss refused any special consideration and Ida refused to leave his side. The couple went down with the ship.

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For Scale, Note the Man Standing Next to Titanic’s Stern and Rudder

The maiden voyage of the largest ship afloat left the port of Southampton, England On April 10, 1912, carrying 2,224 passengers and crew.  An accident was narrowly averted only minutes later, as Titanic passed the moored liners SS City of New York and Oceanic.

Both smaller ships lifted in the bow wave formed by Titanic’s passing, then dropped into the trough. New York’s mooring cables snapped, swinging her around stern-first.  Collision was averted by a bare 4 feet as the panicked crew of the tugboat Vulcan struggled to bring New York under tow.

The Southampton-to-New York run made stops at Cherbourg, France and Queenstown Ireland, to pick up passengers before the Atlantic crossing.  Titanic stoker John Coffey jumped ship in Ireland, hiding under a pile of mail bags.  The Queenstown native may have had a premonition as he claimed, or maybe he just wanted to go home.  Be that as it may, subsequent events may have made him the luckiest man on the cruise.

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Edward Smith, 1911

By the evening of the 14th, Titanic was 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, conditions clear, calm and cold.  There were warnings of drifting ice from other ships in the area, but the ship continued to steam at full speed.  It was generally believed that ice posed little danger to large vessels at this time, Captain Edward Smith opined that he “[couldn’t] imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder.  Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”

Lookout Frederick Fleet alerted the bridge of an iceberg dead ahead at 11:40pm. First Officer William Murdoch ordered the engines put in reverse, veering the ship to the left.  Lookouts were relieved, thinking that collision had been averted.  Below the surface, the starboard side of Titanic ground into the iceberg, opening a gash the length of a football field.  The ship had been designed to withstand the flooding of four watertight compartments.  The iceberg had opened five.  As Titanic began to lower at the bow, it soon became clear that the ship was doomed.

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Last known image of titanic

Those aboard were poorly prepared for such an emergency. The ship was built for 64 wooden lifeboats, enough for 4,000, however the White Star Liner carried only 16 wooden lifeboats and four collapsibles. Regulations then in effect required enough room for 990 people. Titanic carried enough to accommodate 1,178.

As it was there was room for over half of those on board, provided that each boat was filled to capacity. The crew, however, hadn’t been adequately trained in evacuation.

The “women and children first” protocol was generally followed, sometimes to the exclusion of all others.  Ship’s officers didn’t know how many could safely board the lifeboats, and many were launched barely half-full. The first lifeboat in the water, rated at 65 passengers, launched with only 28 aboard.

3rd class passenger Bertram Dean and his wife Georgette had decided to leave the UK and emigrate to the United States.  Mr. Dean planned to become a partner in a tobacco store, owned by a cousin in Wichita.   Down below, Bert Dean was among the first to hear the collision.  After inspecting the damage, Dean told his wife to dress the children, two-year old Bertram and two-month old Millvina, the youngest passenger on board.     Georgette and the two kids were placed on lifeboat #10, the first to escape.  Most of the male passengers and crew were left aboard, even as lifeboats launched half empty.Carpathia Iceberg

J. Bruce Ismay, CEO of White Star Lines, helped to load some of the boats. Looking about and seeing no women or children in the vicinity, only then did he step onto a lowering collapsible, but he never lived down having survived a disaster in which so many others perished.

Titanic chief architect Thomas Andrews was last seen in the First Class smoking room, staring blankly at a painting of the ship.  John Jacob Astor IV, the wealthiest passenger onboard, was traveling with his young wife Madeleine Talmadge Force, 29 years his junior.  Placing her on a lifeboat, Astor asked if he could join her, explaining that she was pregnant.  All that money didn’t help him, Astor was refused.  All he could do was kiss his young wife goodbye as the boat lowered out of sight.

The elderly owner of Macy’s Department Stores Isidor Straus was offered a seat with his wife Ida, on account of his age.  Strauss refused any special consideration and Ida refused to leave his side.  The couple went down with the ship, as did Benjamin Guggenheim and his valet, who returned to their rooms and changed into Tuxedos.  Emerging on deck, the wealthy industrialist declared, “We are dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen”.

The stories that will never be told, are those of the 700 or so 3rd class passengers below decks.  Disoriented, terrified and trapped below decks, one by one they spent their last moments gasping in shrinking pockets of air, as frigid water swirled like class V rapids through the pitch black interior of the ship.Titanic last moments

Distress signals were sent by wireless and lamp, but none of the ships responding were close enough to effect the outcome. The Californian, six miles to the north, was close enough to see distress rockets, but crew members thought the liner was having a party.

Two hours and 40 minutes after striking the iceberg, Titanic went up by the stern.  The forward deck dipped underwater as seawater poured in through open hatches and grates.  The immense strain on the keel split the ship in two between the third and fourth funnels, as the unsupported stern rose out of the water.  Propellers exposed, the stern remained afloat for a few minutes longer, rising to a nearly vertical angle with hundreds of people still clinging to it. The last piece sank out of sight at 2:20am, plunging passengers and crew into 28°F water.  Most of them died within minutes of hypothermia, cardiac arrest, or drowning. Lifeboats had room for almost 500 more, but only 13 were pulled from the water. Titanic_wreck_bow

RMS Carpathia arrived on the scene around 4am, in response to Titanic’s distress calls.  Originally bound for Austria-Hungary, Carpathia diverted to New York with survivors.  A crowd of 40,000 awaited the arrival of 705 survivors on the 18th, despite a cold, driving rain.  It would take four full days to compile and release the full list of casualties.

Millvina Dean, once the youngest survivor of the Titanic disaster, died 97 years later, the last survivor of the sinking.  The remains of her father lie with the ship on which he perished, 12,415 feet beneath the surface of the north Atlantic.