435 English Lane Dubuque, Iowa 52001
Enclosed is a manuscript of a true story which happened to my father many years ago. Since it involves steam traction engines, I thought you might be interested in printing it in your magazine.
I've heard Dad talk about this incident many times and last summer I visited with him and we sat down and put the details on paper and I have since written it out in story form. Dad is still living, and can verify all of the details. Bill Davisson is dead, but I have secured his wife's written permission to include his name in the article.
It was a hot August afternoon in 1921 while two men were moving their threshing rig from one farm to another in the extreme northwest corner of Iowa. The front wheels of the Port Huron threshing steamer had just crossed one of the rails of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Rail Road at a rural crossing when the two men on the engine's deck looked to the northwest and saw smoke. They had been watching and listening carefully, for they knew that this was a bad blind crossing with a worse reputation. Why hadn't they seen the train's smoke before they got the engine on the track?
Moments earlier the fireman on one of the two engines of the long, fast freight had put a shovel or two of coal into his firebox. He had been taking it easy, for the tracks from Inwood to Rock Valley, Iowa, are mostly down hill, requiring less steam than usual. Thus, his engine had been making very little smoke for some time. The black cloud of thick smoke was just coming out of the stack, and he looked with pleasure out of the north window of his cab to see the shadow of his magnificent plume of thick smoke spread over the tall Iowa com.
Three men were riding the front locomotive that day, for, beside the engineer and fireman, the head brake-man was riding on the pilot at the front of the engine. He had spotted the threshing rig just beginning to cross the track, and was pondering the few moments left before he would be caught between the hot, exploding energy of three high pressure steam boilers, and the grinding impact of an entire threshing rig with the overwhelming force of a double-header freight train.
By this time the fireman on the front locomotive had spotted the outfit on the track, and called to the engineer on the other side of the cab who had not yet seen it, (for he was on the outside of the slight curve in the tracks at that point, making it difficult for the engineer to see the crossing.) He applied the air brakes to the limit but could do nothing more than hope and wait.
Bill Davisson was at the controls of the threshing rig. When he first spotted the train's smoke, he said: 'Look-it there!' and reacted with every muscle in his body. However, his reaction was wasted, for he froze with both hands rigidly clutching the steering wheel of the engine.
By now his partner, Ivor Dearborn, could actually see the top of the approaching train above the tall com on the bank which made it such a bad crossing. It was really coming. He had just heard the clank of his front wheels striking the second rail of the tracks. He saw the hopeless look on Bill's face as he stood rigidly staring at the steering wheel on which he was pulling with all his might as if that would reverse the whole train of events. Seeing the train bearing down upon them,, Ivor jumped across in front of his partner, and threw the engine into reverse without even touching the throttle.
The engine lurched as it suddenly reversed itself, while the water in the boiler splashed loudly against the front flue sheet. The groaning of the rig at this sudden change of direction was drowned out by the approaching train, on which every wheel was squealing rebellingly against the burning brake shoes. By now the engineer had found his whistle cord, and was pulling on it with all his might, as though his one long warning blast would prevent this awful tragedy which he could now see as he leaned far out of his right window.
As the steamer backed slowly, the slowing train drew nearer and nearer, while all of the men involved sat or stood hopelessly staring at each other.
The man riding on the pilot of the locomotive inched backward toward the big boiler, as if the few inches he gained would tend to help protect him from the awful fate.
Ivor felt the bumping of the engine's front wheels as they retreated from the rails, and, just as the train bore down on them, he could see that they might miss each other. Timing and providence were with them. The engine continued to reverse even after the locomotive had passed within inches of the front end of the thresher's boiler. As the locomotives raced past in front of him, Ivor could see inches grow into feet as the road engine retreated from the squealing freight cars. Sensing that the threshing machine would soon begin to buckle as it reversed,, he reached for the throttle, and shut off the power. His partner still stood frozen to the wheel, as Ivor leaped off the engine and began to jump and hop on the ground to still the violent trembling he felt in his muscles as he realized all was safe, and as he pondered the awful consequences which might have resulted if his reflexes had not responded so instantly and with such correctness!
Back home in Rock Valley, Mrs. Dearborn had noticed some extra activity in the railroad yards that day. From her window across the street from the tracks she saw a double-header pull in a short freight without a caboose. After some switching, one engine began to back again on the line to the west with no freight cars attached. Later it returned with more cars and the caboose.
Mystified by this strange railroad activity, she did not learn until later that her husband's near miss had caused the train to pull apart when the brakes had been so forcefully applied, causing a drawbar to pull out of one of the cars. That was considered a small effect compared with the awful consequences which might have occurred.
The Port Huron soon had to be scrapped, for the sudden reversal caused a crack in the crankshaft mounting bracket, which, without modern welding techniques, was never able to be repaired enough to take the strain of ordinary wear and tear again.
'Until we try we don't know what we can do, and that's why some people have such a good opinion of themselves'