Cautionary Tales of the Midwest’s Roadways

               Writing is my passion. I enjoy sharing the stories that I collect along my way with whoever cares to listen, and more than a few that don’t sometimes!

                However, like many people out there, I work a day job. Like musicians and writers before, I haven’t yet broken into that mystical land where I can make a living through my chosen craft. And so, the daily grind continues.

                One of the perks of my job is that I have a commute. This allows me to get out and see some of the region in which I live, and to appreciate what’s out there in the wider world. But the drive has also given me a greater awareness of the need for safety on the roadways. When you’re going down the highway at seventy miles an hour, you have to have your head in the game!

                A normal day behind the wheel can quickly turn into your last.

                So, for those of you who have to drive to work, I would like to share with you two cautionary tales about the importance of driving safety.

Routine Maneuver Turns Deadly

                In 1957, a father of five by the name of Charles Nicely made a living distributing gasoline. In other words, he drove a fuel truck.

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                That May, Charles was driving his fuel truck on U.S. 30 just east of the town of Wheatland. As he went on his way, he decided to pass a 1954 Chevy sedan. As Charles did so, he accidentally made contact with the smaller vehicle, causing his truck to lose control.

                Before he knew it, Charles’ truck was first tipping over, and then rolling down the highway. As it did so, the fuel truck somehow ignited, causing the vehicle to explode. Charles, still conscious inside the truck cab, quickly realized he was trapped inside the now burning fuel truck.

                When police arrived on scene, they heard Charles’ awful screams.

                “Shoot me! Shoot me!”

                The police tried in vain to rescue the poor man, but the flames were so hot that they couldn’t get close enough the cab to be of any use. With anguish in their hearts, the brave men who wanted nothing more than to save the driver instead had to stand there in the middle of the road, listening to the dying screams of Charles Nicely.

                What had started as a routine driving maneuver had, without warning, become the last move for a man who was just doing his job.

Car vs. Train

                Winter in the Midwest is harsh. Bitterly cold temperatures, gusting winds, and slick, icy roads force drivers to be extra cautious during the winter months.

                On the evening of January 12, 1926, Singleton Gardiner, superintendent of the Prudential Insurance Company in Davenport, was returning from a business trip. His wife, Eva, and the assistant superintendent of Prudential Insurance, Charles Frey, rode with him, as well as his maid, Sophia Inkman. A few years prior, Eva had suffered a nervous breakdown, rendering an invalid. This may explain why Inkman was with them.

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               The roads were snowy, and the inside of the car windows had frosted over. As they approached the Poppy Gardens train crossing east of Rock Island, Illinois, Gardiner suddenly lost control of the vehicle. The car began to slide as a passenger train from Burlington, Iowa, began to make its way through the crossing.

                The scene inside the car must have been terrifying. Gardiner trying desperately to stop, all the while his passengers began to panic, their terrified eyes fixed on the train.  

                 The train engineer, O.C. Gordon, saw the car and pulled the whistle to warn them, holding it down with as much strength as he could muster as they started through the intersection. But Gardiner couldn’t stop, and the hapless driver and his passengers were propelled directly into the side of the speeding locomotive. The sedan impacted with a crash, becoming temporarily entangled with the train. The powerful locomotive didn’t bat a proverbial eye at the extra weight and began to drag the car along the tracks with it.

Fireball

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                Without warning, the car broke free and was tossed airborne. Train passengers and crew watched helplessly as the car’s gas tank exploded in midair. The twisted, burning machine landed nearly 30 feet away. Gordon immediately pulled the brake, and the train came screeching to a stop just a short distance down the track. Men ran from the train back toward the wreck.

                It was a gruesome sight that awaited them. Singleton Gardiner himself had died instantly, succumbing to the fire. His wife was in shock, suffering from severe burns to her hands. Inkman and Frey were much worse off. The side of Inkman’s face was crushed and her left eye was missing. Frey was badly burned over most of his body and he had deep wounds on his scalp. As their rescuers approached, one of the injured cried out for help.

                Acting quickly, members of the train crew loaded Frey, Inkman, and Eva Gardiner into the baggage car of the train. As the train started back into the city, the porters went through the cars asking for doctors. Unfortunately for them, there weren’t any. The closest that they could find was Dr. J.A. Krichel, a veterinarian who tended to the wounded as best as he could.

Not Out of the Woods Yet

              Meanwhile, other crew personnel ran to a nearby farm where they called the police station in Moline. The police were told what had happened, and ambulances were sent for. They were waiting for Frey and the others when the train arrived, and the injured people were quickly loaded and taken directly to the city hospital.

               On the way, the speeding ambulance carrying the severely injured Charles Frey was struck by another car near Fifth Avenue and Sixteenth Street. Little the worse for wear, the ambulance continued on its way.

                At the hospital, Frey described the incident, including being caught in the explosion. He related that they had seen the train coming, but Gardiner hadn’t been able to stop the car. While his fellow passengers Inkman and Mrs. Gardiner survived the traumatic incident, Frey himself would pass away a short time later.

                If you’ve lived in the Midwest for any length of time, then you will probably have driven through ice and snow at one time or another. And if you drive, you’ve almost certainly passed another car at some point. Both are fairly routine situations that thousands of motorists experience across the nation.

                But next time you’re behind the wheel, pause for a moment and think of Charles Nicely and Singleton Gardiner. They were just taking fairly routine drives, too. They had every confidence in their abilities and their driving prowess, just like many of you. And before they knew what was happening, their lives came to a sudden and tragic end.

                So take your time. Enjoy the drive. Pay attention to the road conditions and to what the other drivers are doing. Make sure that this drive isn’t your last.

Sources:

Charles Nicely Crash Victim.” The DeWitt Observer, May 9, 1957.

Daily Times, Tuesday, January 12, 1926.

The Davenport Democrat and Leader. Tuesday, January 12, 1926.

Brassard Sr., John  and Brassard Jr., John.  Scott County Cemeteries” Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, 2011.

Central Community Historical Museum. DeWitt, Iowa.

 

               

 

               

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