The infrastructure of railroads—their tracks, their yards, their stations, all teeming with massive locomotives and cars traveling at high speed—can be dangerous: dangerous for workers, dangerous for passengers, dangerous for pedestrians and motorists. But railroads can be dangerous even when the rolling stock isn’t rolling. On the night of March 3, 1898 six “tramps” riding the rails through Fort Worth climbed into a freight car of the Houston & Texas Central railroad parked on a siding just south of town, closed the doors of the car, built a fire in a large can, and, with a camaraderie born of shared circumstance, huddled around the fire to keep warm on a night when the temperature would fall to 24 degrees.
Only two of the six men would wake up the next morning.
John F. Ryan of Boston and James Taylor, a laborer in a California silver mine, survived.
From his hospital bed Ryan told the Dallas Morning News that he had met another “tramp,” identified as William H. Remington, in New Orleans and that the two had hopped a train to Fort Worth. When the two men climbed into the parked rail car that night, Taylor and three other men were already there.
Ryan said the six men built a fire: “In the car was a fifty-pound round lard can, which had been filled with clinker [waste] from burnt coal, in which the fire was made,” the newspaper report said.
“We talked from probably 8 to 10 o’clock when we all decided to get to sleep, determining to get up early in the morning and go to work on the Santa Fe grade seven miles below here. It was early in the morning that I awoke. My face was burning, my hands were blistered, and my head felt peculiar. I could realize that something was wrong, but I could not understand what. I tried to get on my feet, but I could not. I was weak and dragged myself to the car door and finally opened it. I tried to stir up the others and discovered that four were dead and Taylor almost dead. After I recovered sufficiently I went for aid.
Ryan was discovered about dawn the next morning as he was “staggering” toward nearby St. Joseph Infirmary “to tell the terrible tale.”
“Those who responded saw a ghastly sight,” the newspaper wrote. “On the floor in the interior of the car four robust dead men lay. ”
“The four men all died from inhaling the escaped gas from the fire—there is no doubt as to that,” Ryan said. Clip is from the March 5 Dallas Morning News.
This 1911 map shows that the Houston & Texas Central tracks were near (about five hundred feet) the infirmary, which had been built for workers of the Missouri Pacific railroad. The area was outside the city limits in 1898.
Among the four dead, estimated to be between the ages of twenty-five and forty, Henry Harrell and Remington were identified by letters they were carrying. Remington was carrying letters from a young woman in Colorado and from his mother in Connecticut. The newspaper report also said that telegrams found on Remington’s body “indicated that two years ago he was a man of some means.”
However, “Not as much as 5 cents has been found on any of the dead persons,” the Morning News wrote.
The four bodies were taken to the undertaking parlor of Louis P. Robertson. Clip is from the March 6 Dallas Morning News.
Because the county provided pauper burials for the indigent and the unclaimed, the county probably buried Harrell and the two unidentified men in section 55 of Oakwood Cemetery. Oakwood has no burial record of Remington; his body was probably shipped to Connecticut. Clip is from the February 12, 1904 Telegram.
The Houston Daily Post on March 5 reported that Remington in two months was to have inherited $250,000 ($7 million today) from his father’s estate.