The wreck of Old 54 (Part I)

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Saturday, August 15, 2015

(The following account is dedicated to the memory of my friend Harold K. Vollrath, a railroader's railroader who died this month at age 92. Harold, or HKV to those who saw his initials on train orders, was dispatching the L&A Division the early morning that this collision occurred but was not involved in the mystery leading up to it. To Harold fell the job of collecting information, notifying everyone and ordering out the derricks and cleanup crews.)

For me, the tale begins at the breakfast table on a gorgeous autumn morning, Wednesday, October 12, 1955. I'm 11 years old. My big sister Carolyn and I are preparing for a day in school. The phone rings, and Mom picks it up. It's my father, who left for work at the daily newspaper he owns and edits not 15 minutes ago. Did he forget something? Mom listens, hangs up and turns to me: "Your father said to tell you that two L&A freight trains collided head-on this morning. East of town a few miles. There was a huge fire but nobody is dead, yet. He's trying to rent a plane for Tom Wright to get an aerial photo. Don't ask questions because that's all he told me."

Let's put this in context. Sulphur Springs, Tex., then is a town of 9,000 people situated 80 miles east of Dallas and 100 miles west of the Arkansas border in Texarkana. Nothing ever happens in Sulphur Springs; even murders over love triangles are a decade apart. This, however, is news the Associated Press will send across the land. To me, this is huge. It's as if a spaceship from Saturn had set down three miles from 835 Ardis Street. Or Soviet paratroopers had landed in a Hopkins County cotton field. Or a 2,000 pound real-life King Kong had been trapped inside a dairy barn. So far as I know, I am the only 11-year-old railroad fan on earth (to that day and until I hear of a lad named John Charles in Garland several years later, I know of no other young kindred spirit). Trains aren't just part of my life in 1955. They are my life. I care not for school, for girls, for small talk or for what I'll do when I grow up. All that matters is railroads, and I soak up information like a sponge, putting myself to sleep at night memorizing the Official Guide and writing division superintendents whose names I get from the Guide to request employee timetables (they almost always oblige). Yes, I drive my family crazy.

I beg my mother to call me in as sick so I can go directly to the crash site. Of course, she says no. So I spend an endless day at Steven F. Austin Elementary School, and there is football practice afterward (they start us young in Texas). Not until 4 o'clock am I free, and I pedal furiously on my bike to the end of Whitworth Street, and then walk a mile along the tracks.

What a mess I find. What we call "the L&A" is really the Texas Subdivision of the Kansas City Southern Railway, extending from Shreveport, La., to the outskirts of Dallas. The train count through town is dependable: two through freights each way every day (one scheduled, the other run as an extra) and a six-day-a-week local that goes one way one day and back the next. Now everything has been disrupted by this horrible (and to me, horribly exciting) event.

Eight red, yellow and black F units are splayed across the right of way, several on their sides, as are 23 freight cars. Big steam derricks, one from Shreveport and the other from Minden, La., are already at work, picking their way toward each other through the mess, each derrick tethered to a black GP7. I see a large contingent of track workers, constructing a shoo-fly around the wreckage so that service can be restored the next day. I also see railroad officials wearing coats, ties and of course fedoras.

But strangely, nobody restricts my access to the wreckage. I walk right up to the giant, silent locomotives; they reek of spilled diesel fuel, which to me has the same fragrance as a rose. One of the lead diesels is half buried in dirt. I look directly down into the engineer's side of the cab and see his grip. All six people aboard the engines jumped before the collision, one of them critically hurt when his head struck a culvert. Was it the person whose bag I see? I reach in and pick up a rule book or time book from inside. I open it and see the man's name inscribed, Long. Immediately I feel guilty. I look around, spot one of the fedoras and give him the book, explaining where I found it. He thanks me and suggests I not get so close to the wreckage.

By now it is late afternoon and time to leave. Besides, I want to see my dad and find out what he knows. Pop is a crackerjack reporter; he may not be a rail fan, but he is the son of a Santa Fe division officer and knows his way around the business. Pop justifies my faith in him. Over dinner that evening, he explains there was a "lap order." What's that, I ask (even 11-year-old Freddie doesn't know everything)? My dad says he learned that one train (No. 54) got orders to meet the other at Brashear, seven miles west of Sulphur Springs, and the other train (Extra 76 South) was ordered to go to Como, nine miles east of town. Their rights overlapped, in other words, and they came to grief half way between the two sidings. Both trains were doing 40 miles an hour, and it must have been sickening to those railroaders to recognize each others' headlights coming around a curve a quarter of a mile apart.

A little bit more the two months later, the Interstate Commerce Commission issues a report on this collision. The report states a cause for the accident--as my dad said, overlapping authority--but the mystery only deepens because its investigators cannot discover why this came to be. So in the second installment, soon to come, follow along as I recreate the strange events of that evening. You will be among the very few people to actually see the fateful train order that was never delivered.

To be continued.

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