The Tragedy of John Sadilac

Brooklyn Bridgebefore the crash

Brooklyn Bridgebefore the crash.

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Maryland 20730. One block west of Patuxent Road on Montgomery Street is a stream feeding into the Patuxent River that is called Walker's Branch; and on a bright clear summer's day in 1924 the wooden planking and the steel superstructure of the bridge over the stream gave way under the locomotive-like weight of a smoke-spouting farm tractor, throwing the operator, the tractor, and the hitched-on thresher down 50 or more feet into the bottom of the ravine. Photo compliments of the Laurel Centennial Book and the News Leader. Permission granted by Honorable Mayor Wilson, Laurel, Maryland 20730.

I would like to set the facts straight concerning a tragedy that occurred over 50 years ago in this area. I was not yet born, but all of my life, which has been spent with steam engines, I have heard numerous versions of this story. I finally decided I would locate the true facts, and became involved in a five year project, separating the truth from fiction. As a result, I have been able to assemble the following story. It is based on interviews with men and women who remember, a few written records, and information from the family. After 50 years it is difficult to find the difference between fact and myth in some cases. During my search I was also fortunate in finding some excellent photos of the accident. So, to set the story straight here are the facts as I have found them. If anyone can supply additional information or corrections, please write to me.

I will begin the story with a brief history of the family as it may help explain some of the reasons so little is known about the accident. Mr. & Mrs. Sadilac immigrated to this country about 1890 from their native Europe and settled in New York City. The ways of immigrants sometimes were quite different from those of their new country, therefore, they had a tendency not to confide closely with neighbors, particularly on family matters. The Sadilac moved to Baltimore, Maryland about 1896, and to Laurel, Maryland a short time later. There they began to farm and raise a family consisting of four children: John, Rudolph, Mary, and Joe. As they grew up, Rudolph became an engineer on the B&O Railroad, while helping out at home and operating threshing rigs. Joe died of unknown causes while still a young man and Mary married and moved to Baltimore, where I lost her trail. John helped out on the family farm and ran threshing rigs, and it is with him the story is concerned. The only member of the family that I knew personally was Rudolph, who moved to a farm near Water Lick, Virginia, shortly before his retirement from the B&O Railroad. His widow and their children are the only survivors of the family, of which I know. John had never married, and Rudolph married after the tragedy, so his widow was not connected with the family at the time of the accident. Her only knowledge of it is based on what was told her and what family papers were left after Rudolph's death.

This brings us to the day of the tragedy, the morning of August 28, 1924. John was about to complete the last portion of his threshing run. Our threshing runs being in two parts, field and barn threshing. It must be born in mind also that our threshing usually began about the first of July and lasted two to three months, each job taking about a day on the average. His last swing was to be a series of four small jobs, all located along what is known as 'Brooklyn Bridge Road.' This road could be reached by either of two ways. From his starting point he could have gone up Sandy Spring Road and in Bond Mill Road. This would have been the shortest way, but it was all sand and would require lots of work with chains, jacks, and cables to pull the thresher trough. The other way was down Sandy Spring Road to Brooklyn Bridge Road. This meant crossing 'Brooklyn Bridge,' so called after the famous bridge in New York City. It was a wooden planked bridge and its' strength was questioned by many. As John prepared to leave the farm where he had stayed the night, he was asked which way he intended to go. As related to me by the farmer whose place he was leaving, his reply was, 'over Brooklyn Bridge.' This brought the question, 'do you think it will hold you?' His reply was supposed to be 'No, but I am going to try it.' This, if true, foretold the future. While I have heard two versions of where he left from that morning, I think both could be true, as I know for a fact he had spent the night at the Barton farm. I was told that he left from Laurel where repairs had been made to the thresher. Since he would have normally left the farm about 7:00 A.M. and the accident happened about 10:00 A.M. on the far side of Laurel, he well could have stopped in Laurel. This would have given him about two hours in Laurel for repairs, so this would explain the two stories.

On this day John was accompanied by his helper who normally tended the engine while threshing. Brooklyn Bridge ran over a small stream and was about 50' high and about 150' long. It was of wood deck construction, with steel girders and braces, with stone piers on each end, none in the middle. John reached the bridge, as I have said, about 10:00 to 10:30 A.M. At this point his helper, who had been running the engine, refused to run it across, leaving John to do it. John's rig consisted of a large Case engine thresher, bailer etc. I say large engine as it was for our area, being either a 65 or 75 HP engine, compared to our normal 45 or 55 HP maximum sizes. The engine and the front trucks of the thresher were on the bridge when the bridge let go. If John had taken one precaution, he might have lived, according to witnesses. Most of the engineers in this area closed all steam lines possible before crossing dangerous bridges. John neglected to do this. He was pinned between the engine and thresher and was scalded by the steam line to the injector before he could be freed. This scalding was what proved to be the fatal injury.

The crash of the bridge was heard as far as a mile away, according to reports. The helper who was walking ahead was wearing a brand new pair of boots, and being new, they were loosely laced. He either was thrown or jumped completely out of them, and suffered a broken leg in his fall into the ravine.

Telephones were few and far between, and a doctor was summoned from the nearby home of Mrs. Nettie Obrian, 1101 Montgomery Street. (Bell Telephone Company please take note, her telephone number was #5.) I believe it was her daughter who took some of the photos, upon her arrival home from work that evening. Not everyone had a camera in those days either. Mr. Sadilac was taken to the home of a Mrs. Wright, who was known as a very good and highly skilled nurse. Mrs. Wright cared for the sick and injured in either her home or theirs as the nearest hospitals were 20-25 miles away. This was a long and hard trip for a badly injured person, as most roads were unpaved and ambulances were almost unheard of in the area. After the accident, he asked that the family not be told what had happened. His request was granted, as it was obvious from the beginning he probably would not live. Doctors made every effort to get food and air into him, but he was so badly scalded in the chest and throat that he passed away about two days later. He was buried in St. Marks Cemetery, where he lays in an unmarked grave.

According to many men who had experience with bridge and road construction, the bridge did not break at the beginning. Instead, it slipped off the pier which John was coming on to and slid part way down the pier before jamming and then breaking. The pier, as originally built, had been about 4' lower, and to lessen the hill to the bridge was made about 4' by building up the piers. In doing so they continued the taper of the bridge piers outward instead of straight up. This lessened the bridge's hold on each end. As some people know, a bridge will begin to sway in various directions, finally in a back and forth motion. When back and forth motion gets in rhythm with the up and down motion it will slip off a pier, if it does not have hold enough. The conclusion that this is what happened was drawn from the marks on the bridge piers.

Following the accident, according to several people's testimony, a group of lawyers tried to get Mr. & Mrs. Sadilac to sue the state, on the ground of the bridge construction being defective. Apparently the family did not wish to do so, as no papers were found concerning this in the family records following his death. As far as the fate of the engine goes, though I cannot prove it, reliable sources claim it was never removed. Instead some of the cast parts were broken up and removed for junk, and some were used in the concrete during construction of the new bridge piers. The boiler, wheels, etc. were supposed to be left laying in the ravine. About 1950 a large landfill was put over top of the bridge, piers and all. I have enough testimony that the wheels and boiler were left in and covered by the fill that I believe it may be true. A friend and I had tentative plans to check with a metal detector and maybe do a little digging to see if we could prove it, but we never got around to it. Incidentally, this was the third time this engine had been wrecked, having been upset once, and gone through another bridge.

It was rumored also, that the family, being from 'the old country,' did not trust banks and kept a large fortune buried on the farm. After their death and the sale of the farm, the treasure hunts were many, but nothing was ever found as far as it is known. John's brother, Rudolph, did find about $20.00 hidden in various places according to his widow. The farm is now pretty well built up in houses, but rumors still persist among the old timers who still reside in the area.

Before closing I would like to suggest we all think about closing those hot steam lines when loading or unloading engines or working in a spot involving even a slight chance of danger. It takes only a minute to close and open them, and it may save yours or someone else's life.

I would like at this time to thank all of the people who helped me in assembling the information and photos for this article. I especially would like to thank the mayor of Laurel, Maryland, for permission to use some photos from the Centennial Book of Laurel, published in 1970, and the News Leader Paper.