DISASTER AVERTED!

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’

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment