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A Sawmill Explosion - A Railroad Wreck

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, July 8, 1933

 A Sawmill Explosion-- a Railroad Wreck

By Howard Burba


     Just above the Englewood dam where the National Old Trails dips into a tiny valley at Polk Grove church, it is crossed by still another pioneer trail, the Frederick pike.  About two miles north of this intersection is a little huddle of houses, a couple of stores and a filling station.  That’s Fidelity of early days, though a newer generation calls it Frederick.

     Fidelity has not made a great deal of progress since it was founded away back when this part of America was young.  To be truthful about it, Fidelity has actually grown smaller with the years.  Today it is a community of no more than half a hundred souls, many of whom were born and reared there, and now are nearing the sundown of life.  There are many gray beards in Fidelity.

    These older citizens, living in the past as those of their age ordinarily do, recall when Fidelity was far more than a wide place in the road.  They remember when it boasted heavy traffic along its principal street; when it was a stage-stop of considerable importance; when it was the trading center of all that section of the Stillwater Valley, and when a flourishing sawmill, furnishing employment for many of its residents, was an industry of which the whole community was proud.  It is of the old sawmill they first think when an opportunity to grow reminiscent presents itself.

     Possibly the fact that the old sawmill marked the site of the one and only tragedy in the long history of Fidelity serves to keep it so green in the memory of Fidelity patriarchs.  At any rate, they seem to have forgotten all other early events in their struggle to keep in mind that day in 1892 when an explosion at the mill left mangled corpses strewn about the scene, and cast a pall of sadness over the place from which it did not recover for many years.

     The site of the mill, and so hospitable are citizens of the town that any of them will gladly take time to walk the one square that separated it from the general store then kept by Charles Snell on the busiest corner of the town, is directly opposite a modern new school building—almost the only modern building to be found in the place.  The mill was owned by Leppert & Sons.  Arriving at the scene, and these pioneer citizens still approach it with as much solemnity as though they were fearful the old tragedy might be reenacted before their eyes, they will describe that tragic morning when the mill was completely wrecked by an explosion. But they do not agree as to details.  Time has served to confuse them in minor degree, and some of the details they provide the stranger with are slightly confused.  So we turn to the files of a Dayton newspaper of March 25, 1892, and find them set down in black and white.

     “An awful accident occurred at the stream sawmill of Leppert & Sons at Fredericksburg, otherwise known as Fidelity, a postoffice in Miami co., just across the Montgomery co. line between 6 and 7 o’clock yesterday morning.

     “The cause of the accident is not known but it is supposed to have resulted from low water in the boiler.  At the hour named the men employed were assembling for work and steam was being raised.  Suddenly there was a report that startled the neighborhood for miles around and very badly frightened the people of the village.  Quickly the people learned that the boiler at the sawmill had exploded and upon gathering at the mill a horrible sight was presented to their view.

     “The mangled bodies of the dead were strewn among the debris of the boiler house but were soon extricated.  They were William Leppert, Elwood Elliott, John Cassell and Della Points.  They all were shockingly mangled but all could be recognized.  Of the five persons present, only one escaped death, Samuel Davis, who, while not killed was badly injured and scalded.  Dr. Thompson, of Union, was called and rendered all possible assistence.  All of the killed were married. One of them, Elliott, had been married less than a year.

     “The force of the explosion was terrific.  Window glass was broken in all directions for a considerable distance and the boiler itself hurled for a distance of 50or 60 yards and into the gable end of the Leppert residence on the opposite side of the street from the mill.

     “It is necessary to say that great excitement followed the accident and that hundreds of people flocked in from the surrounding country to view the wreck and learn the particulars.  The mill and boiler house were of frame, yet strange to say they did not take fire.

     “The terrible boiler explosion was the topic of conversation on the streets of this city.  Rumors of a still more startling nature were afloat.  It was reported that more were killed, but investigation proved this to be erroneous.

     “Two terrific reports occurred.  The boiler flew high in the air and besides crashing the gable-end of the Leppert residence did much other damage.  Flying pieces of iron struck a tree in close proximity, severing its entire top.  The town is in mourning, and with only a dozen houses in the place, at least one-third of this number has been turned into death chambers.

     “John Cassell, one of the victims was a married man, 55 years.  He had worked all his life as a carpenter, holding that capacity at the mill.  One of his daughters is the wife of John Waymire, a well-to-do farmer of the county, who also resides in that section.

     “Elliott was 25 years old and married but a short time.  His mangled remains were viewed by hundreds of people and many sorrowful expressions escaped the lips of all.

     “William Leppert, of the firm of Leppert & Sons, sawyers, and owners of the mill, lies cold in death and a loving family is left to mourn his absence.

     “Della Points, aged 20, is a Virginian, and came to Fredericksburg five years ago.  His wife and three of his brothers reside in the same vicinity.  One brother, John, is a popular wing-shot, well known to Dayton sportsmen.

     “It was a queer but truly lucky fact that no conflagration occurred, due to the escaping steam, which quenched the flames.  About five years ago, a similar explosion, unattended however, by loss of life, occurred at Union, about two miles west of Fredericksburg.  The boiler of the sawmill was blown from its foundation and the escape of the workmen was miraculous.”

     Readers in the Stillwater and Miami valleys thus learned the details of the tragedy.  But the paper of the following day was to carry another sad chapter.  This was the announcement that the casualty list had been increased to five.  Samuel Davis having succumbed to his injuries.

     “Fortunately the explosion occurred so early in the morning,” wrote the reporter, “ or probably the scene would have presented a more horrifying sight.  Immediately opposite the sawmill is situated the district school.  The lives of the school children would have been jeopardized, to say the least, since the little ones are accustomed to playing about the mill before school takes up and at recess.  The toll of death would have been terrible to contemplate.”

     It is quiet and peaceful at Fidelity now.  Its old homes, vine clad in the shade of giant elms and locusts, are restful.  Its old men sit in their easy chairs and in silence live over the past.  Nothing comes along to disturb the tranquility of the place.  Her citizens live happily and contentedly in the days when they called the place Fidelity, the town of but one tragedy.



     Where is the old-time railroader in this “neck-of-the woods” who cannot recall the terrible freight wreck at Enon 40 years ago, and the attendant death of a brave engineer?  Certainly none of the scores who were forced to stand by and watch the flames from the burning wreckage slowly approach the spot where he was held prisoner, and those who heard his agonizing cries as these same cruel flames reached and cremated him are not among the ones who have forgotten.

     There have been worse wrecks in the neighborhood, so far as loss of life is concerned.  But there has never been a more spectacular one than the old Big Four wreck at Enon, nor have there been many in which the property damage was greater.

     “As a result of either criminal carelessness or dastardly train wreckers,” wrote a Times reporter on Thursday, Sept. 18, 1892, “over $125,000 went up in smoke and life passed into dark eternity in the most agonizing manner imaginable yesterday morning at Enon, a little hamlet of 400 souls northeast of the city.”  Then he proceeds to recount the details of the affair, a wreck that was the chief topic of conversation in this part of the country for many weeks.

     “At 2:30 a. m. Chief Larkin received a call for assistance in extinguishing more than 20 loaded freight cars of the C.C.C. & St. L.  He sent a fire engine and a hose reel, taking from the Central engine house crew Tom Hogan, Jack Sheehy, Joe Barnwell, William Riber and Junia Hash.  The ride was more exciting than a prize-fight.  The Sullivan-Corbett bout of a few days ago was nothing in comparison to that morning ride.  Eight persons upon a flat-car that swayed back and forth at the will of the snorting engine realized that the monster iron horse was in a race with death.  As trees, fences and farm houses flew past old Pony No. 2 augmented her speed.  The air was stronger, the big smokestack spit huge sparks of fire that settled upon the necks and clothes of the flat-car occupants and cinders which were more nearly the size of brickbats than anything else were flying about uncomfortably close, while smaller ones found their way into the ears, eyes, mouths and hair of the redoubtable flat-carites.  Engineer E. E. McElroy was at the throttle and Fireman George Shermer by his side.

     “A gorgeous sight greeted the eye at Enon. The broad glare of the moon in the starlit heavens was but the twinkling of a candle beside the blaze that illuminated the heavens for miles around.  A little group of villagers were standing idly by, but when they caught sight of the glistening fire engine all lent a ready hand.  A pair of heavy farm horses pulled the engine to the bank of the race which runs from Mad river and gives power to a mill.  No one could gain close proximity to the seething flames owing to the intensity of the heat.

     “ Piled in one huge heap once substantial freight cars were reduced to their original elements in a few minutes.  Cars were upturned, the trucks on top.  Flames shot higher than the elevator, a three-story structure nearby.  The engine stood majestically in the ruins.  She was robbed of her glossy coat and no cab or tender remained to show the last place on earth where the brave engineer had stuck to his post of duty.  Tracks and ties were torn up and the ground all about looked as if farmers had just plowed it.  No pen picture can convey the true frightfulness of the scene.  The Erie parallels the Big Four here, and the ties on the former road were on fire.

     Train No. 6, a freight, contained 50 cars, 46 heavily loaded. Engineer Marion Ferguson was in charge, Edward Foster the fireman and James Ford the conductor.  It was several hours late out of Dayton and running fast when it struck a switch which had been opened.  Into the switch it ran to destruction, striking and demolishing a cut of cars that were standing on it.

     In the crash Engineer Ferguson was hurled high in the air and in his descent he was caught between a freight car and the engine.  He was at once pinioned in the timbers.  Everything was in a state of chaos.  Darkness added dismal features to the wreck.  A brakeman found the engineer pinned under a cumbersome weight of debris.  He could not be seen, but was rational in all his talk and directed the life-savers how to get at his head by designating with outstretched hand where to lighten the load that was pressing upon him.  Men toiled for a long time but failed to help the engineer, who chatted and talked with the curious ones that crowded about him.  He was in such a position that human aid availed naught.

     “An unthought of demon made his appearance at an unexpected moment,” says the reporter who covered the wreck for The Times.  “While the wreck was being viewed by the eager crowd that flocked to the scene, fire broke out in the mass of ruins.  Engineer Ferguson was doomed.”

     An ominous silence followed the first advent of the flames.  Then hurried action occurred.  A call was sent to Dayton for aid.  The fire crept upon its unsuspecting victim, and forced the crowd back.  None desired to listen to the shrieks of the helpless man who, up to the very last moment, had hoped to be extricated alive.  But his fate was to be cremated and as the dying embers were scraped away at dawn a hundred country citizens searched for the cremated remains.  At 7 a.m. a charred body was dug from the debris.  Firemen kept three streams playing on the wreckage where Ferguson was burning to death.  One blistered arm, one leg, a part of the trunk and the head, from which the face had been burned off were dug out and reverently placed in a temporary casket and removed to the home of the deceased at Delaware on the first passenger train.

     Ed Foster, the fireman, was thrown clear of the tracks, and knew nothing until he found himself walking about in a cornfield.  George Shade, the brakeman, was in the engine at the time of the crash.  He was wedged in the debris, but succeeded in extricating himself.  James Ford, conductor, was in the caboose.  He was knocked to the floor and his back badly wrenched.

     John Wood and George Marley, papermakers in the Hastings mill at Enon, were the first to get to the scene and worked hard to extricate Ferguson.  His arms and a portion of his legs could be seen but the upper part of this body and face was hidden from view.  The papermakers chopped many of the obstructing pieces and sawed others.  They worked heroically until fire drove them back, and then they ran to the mill in order not to witness the tragedy being enacted amid the debris.

     When hope had fled some religiously inclined told the engineer to pray.  This he did with fervency, asking God to care for his soul.  He was told goodbye by nearly all of the train crew.  The thought of death had overcome him, and he may have been unconscious when the flames reached him.  His pleas for relief were pitiful and it seems to be the strangest fact on record that, hemmed in so tightly human hands could not extricate him, he still was not seriously hurt.  His conversation with those who stood about the wreckage showed he had not received the slightest injury.

     For hours the flames leaped and played about the splintered wooden freight cars, licking at the pine timbers and spilled contents.  Merchandise, tinware, groceries, hardware and various other freight were scattered all over the scene.  One car was loaded with barrels of whisky and these were added fuel for the flames.  There were 25 cars of perishable goods in the wreckage, and not only the goods but the cars were burned, all that remained of the latter being the steel trucks and twisted rods.  The ties beneath them were also burned away.

     Several times the wind veered and hope of saving the big Harshman elevator nearby was abandoned. But the Dayton firemen kept a close eye on it, knowing it was stored with grain worth several thousands of dollars.  An engine and reel from the Springfield fire department reached the scene too late to be of service.  For the firemen poured three streams of water into the wreckage before it was under control.  When they had finished, and the tangled mass stretching for a hundred yards along the track had been reduced to a smoking ruin, there were piles of ashes 10 feet high to show how complete had been the work of the fire fiend.

     Forty-one years have come and gone.  There have been wrecks too numerous to mention, and in some the loss of life has been far greater than in this tragedy at Enon.  But older residents of that little village, and thousands of citizens in the Mad and Miami river valleys, recall it as the most spectacular event of this kind within their recollection.  The Enon wreck has for 41 years been recorded in railroad history as one of the most tragic of all times.