The late-winter rains of 1885 had been heavy, and on March 15 rain continued to fall, putting Village Creek between Fort Worth and Arlington in a mood: out of its banks, running high, wide, and ruthless.
A seventy-foot wooden bridge carried the Texas & Pacific railroad tracks over Village Creek. The bridge had been hastily built in 1876 in the rush to lay track west from Eagle Ford in Dallas County to Fort Worth. Writer Tom Marlin wrote in the Handley Herald in 2006 that although the bridge was only nine years old in 1885, it already needed to be repaired. Its unsafe condition had been reported to the railroad company by snipes. Snipes were railroad workers who inspected the condition of tracks and bridges.
Despite the facts that the rain continued to fall and that railroad workers were on strike at the time, on March 9 and 10 a repair crew had temporarily shored up the bridge with cribs (supporting timbers). But the heavy rain hampered repair efforts, and the crew had decided to join fellow union members in walking a picket line.
By the morning of March 15, a Sunday, the water of Village Creek was less than four feet below the bridge. Rushing water and driftwood tore away the cribs shoring up the bridge, according to Marlin.
But no one knew: The Texas & Pacific company, facing the strike and financial trouble, had laid off the snipes. As the rain fell and the creek rose, there was no one to report that the bridge was again unsafe.
On that Sunday morning of March 15 Lyman Stacy Roach arrived at the T&P roundhouse just south of downtown Fort Worth and went to the stall of T&P engine 642. Roach was an engineer, and engine 642 was his office. Roach, a resident of Texarkana, had been born in Ohio in 1845, had been a cabin boy on a river steamer, had fought for the Union in the Civil War, surviving ninety days as a prisoner of war. He had been a railroad man since the war ended. Engine 642 was his iron horse. They were a team, man and machine. (Photo from Ancestry.com.)
If you’re keeping score, T&P engine 642 was an “American” class locomotive, meaning it had a 4-4-0 wheel configuration: four leading wheels on two axles, four powered and coupled driving wheels on two axles, and no trailing wheels. It was about forty feet long. Engine 642, although not a large locomotive by standards of the day, nonetheless weighed seventy-three thousand pounds (the equivalent of fourteen 1959 Cadillac Eldorados). It had been built in the early 1870s by the Manchester Locomotive Works of New Hampshire. (Photo from Fielder House Museum.)
Marlin writes that with engineer Roach in the roundhouse was fireman J. G. Habeck. After Habeck had filled the engine’s tender with wood, Roach drove the engine and tender the short distance to the 1882 passenger depot near today’s Tower 55.
At the depot Roach and Habeck connected the engine and tender to passenger train 304, which consisted of a mail car, a baggage and express car, a smoker car, a ladies’ car, and a sleeper car.
Right on schedule Roach blew his steam whistle and headed engine 642 east.
The rain continued to fall.
Between Handley and Arlington engine 642 approached the bridge over Village Creek.
On the map note the surveys of Middleton Tate Johnson, Matthew Jackson Brinson, Robert R. Ramey, and Sarah Gray Jennings, who donated the land for Fort Worth’s Carnegie Library. (1885 General Land Office map detail from Pete Charlton’s “The Lost Antique Maps of Texas: Fort Worth & Tarrant County, Volume 2” CD.)
As engine 642 neared the bridge, engineer Roach slowed the train to twelve miles per hour. Engine 642 was tiptoeing (if seventy-three thousand pounds of iron can tiptoe). Roach peered through the rain down the track to the bridge. He had his hand on the air-brake throttle.
When he saw how high the creek water was—just four feet below the bridge—he tried to stop the train but could not.
As the pilot wheels at the front of the engine rolled onto the bridge, the bridge’s timbers began to groan and then snap. Under the weight of the engine and the pressure of the rushing creek water, the weakened bridge collapsed. The engine and tender and much of the bridge plunged into the creek.
The engine was submerged in sixteen feet of rushing water. Following the engine and tender into the water were the mail car and the baggage and express car. The baggage and express car was lying partially submerged and almost vertical on its nose. The front of the smoker car dangled over the edge of the bridge. The ladies’ car and the sleeper car derailed but remained upright on the ground above the creek.
Clip is from the March 16 Dallas Daily Herald.
Marlin writes that conductor Kellogg was the first member of the train crew to emerge from the cars that remained on the ground. He realized that seven crew members were not accounted for and organized passengers to search for the missing. Five crew members who had been in the mail car and the baggage and express car were helped ashore as they surfaced from the water.
That left engineer Roach and fireman Habeck still unaccounted for.
In the fast-moving, murky water Lyman Roach struggled to escape from the cab of the submerged engine. Fighting the current as he moved more by feel than by sight, Roach crawled into the front of the partially submerged baggage and express car and surfaced through the open side door in the middle of the car.
Several men jumped into the creek to pull Roach to safety. He was bruised and bleeding and exhausted.
The other crewmen suffered bruises and cuts and complained of head, hip, back, and leg pains. Only the Pacific Express messenger was uninjured.
None of the passengers was injured.
First aid was administered to the injured in the sleeper car, and a messenger was dispatched to Handley to telegraph for medical assistance and a rescue train.
Fireman J. G. Habeck could not be found and was presumed dead.
After the rescue train arrived doctors treated the injured crewmen. The ladies’ car and the sleeper car were connected to the rescue train, and the passengers and crewmen were taken to Fort Worth. The passengers were routed to Denton, then on to Dallas to resume their trip.
The injured crewmen were taken to the Missouri Pacific railroad hospital in Fort Worth. Engineer Roach, suffering from a crushed lung, broken leg, and multiple contusions, was not expected to live.
By afternoon a repair train carrying sixty railroad workers arrived at the bridge, temporarily leaving their picket line. Equipped with tools, timbers, rails, and spikes they began to try to get the bridge back into service. More than five hundred spectators braved the rain to witness the bridge repair and the train wreckage.
Later that day a wrecking train arrived to clear the track.
The next day, as workers began trying to pull the engine, tender, and two cars from the creek, the body of fireman Habeck was discovered a half-mile downstream from the engine. Clip is from the March 17 Dallas Daily Herald.
Pulling the wreckage from the creek was a challenge. The bank of the creek was so muddy that workers could not position horses close enough to pull the wreckage from the creek. And engine 642’s seventy-three thousand pounds were submerged and sinking into the “quicksand” of the creek bottom. After several days the mail car and the baggage and express car were pulled out of the creek by long columns of men tugging ropes and cables hand over hand.
But any hope of getting engine 642 out of the water was abandoned.
As repairs to the bridge continued, rail service between Fort Worth and Dallas was detoured through Denton.
The bridge was back in service by early April, Marlin writes.
Meanwhile, the Texas & Pacific railroad was going through a rough stretch. A few months after the Village Creek tragedy, the company went into receivership. After several years the company would recover, Marlin writes, under new ownership and management.
As for Lyman Roach, the captain of engine 642 who went down with his ship, he did survive, but his recovery would take as long as T&P’s. He would walk with a limp the rest of his life. And he would never drive a locomotive again.
Roach became a merchant in Texarkana and in 1905 was appointed postmaster.
He died there in 1915.
As for engine 642, 134 years after it rolled into oblivion it remains right where the heavy rains of March 1885 put it: in the mud of Village Creek.
For years the front of the engine was visible above water when the creek was at normal level. Walter Darr, a resident of Handley born in 1900 and himself a retired railroad man, recalled swimming around the engine’s cowcatcher and smokestack as late as 1912. The engine, Darr recalled, was resting nose up at a forty-five-degree angle.
In 1929 Texas & Pacific rebuilt the bridge, this time with steel and concrete. The workers who rebuilt the bridge said they found the engine but left it undisturbed.
In 1936 Charles Stockman, a retired Texas & Pacific worker, dug part of the smokestack out of the mud. He was unable, however, to find the rest of the engine nearby. One possible explanation is this, Marlin writes: Several local residents recalled that the smokestack had rusted loose from the engine and had drifted downstream. Stockman probably assumed that the engine was located under the smokestack when in fact it was not.
An article in a 1955 issue of T & P Topics, an official publication of the railroad, stated that the locomotive “lies beneath Village Creek today.”
Today, after the passage of 134 years and possible shifting of the creek channel, no one has been able to pinpoint the location of engine 642. One scholar at UTA said searchers would need sophisticated equipment, such as a proton magnetometer, which, he said, is a souped-up metal detector.
But how does a seventy-three-thousand-pound locomotive just disappear in the first place? After all, a locomotive that size does not lend itself to concealment.
Some folks have even speculated that the old engine has evaded discovery simply because it’s not there anymore, perhaps long ago dug up and sold for scrap.
When ninety-five-year-old Bill Bardin was asked about that possibility a few years ago, he was sure the engine is still there. He said his grandfather was one of the workers who tried to recover the engine from the creek. He said any effort to remove the engine later would have been impossible to conceal.
“The old interurban was running along there [after 1902],” Bardin said. “If there had been any recovery, people riding that interurban would have seen it.”
Indeed, the tracks of the interurban and T&P crossed Village Creek close to each other near interurban stop 14. (Map from Pete Charlton’s “1000+ Lost Antique Maps of Texas & the Southwest on DVD-ROM.”)
Pruitt Meredith, who operated a business near the bridge, told the Dallas Morning News in 1959: “Some fellows came messing around here during the Second World War with the idea of raising No. 642 for the scrap in her. They gave up pretty quick.
“I’ve been looking into that creek for eighteen years, and I’ve never seen her,” Meredith said.
Even after the interurban stopped running, excavation and removal of seventy-three thousand pounds of iron from a creek bottom just two hundred feet from Arlington’s busy West Division Street would not have gone unnoticed.
And what kind of condition might engine 642 be in now? A 134-year mud pack couldn’t do its complexion much good. Nonetheless, several years ago a developer had big plans to spend $1 million to find engine 642, exhume it, restore it, and put it on display at the renovated T&P passenger terminal downtown.
Nothing came of those plans.
And if the engine were to be discovered near the 1929 replacement railroad bridge, T&P claimed that excavation of the engine would weaken the bridge.
Meanwhile, somewhere down there in the mud of Village Creek, Texas & Pacific engine 642 is lying low, waiting, like an iron Lazarus, to be raised from the dead.