When a passenger train crashed near Knoxville, Iowa, on Monday, May 24, 1909, J.M. Harrison, a detective with the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, was baffled. Some clues led him to believe it was caused by a band of robbers who intended to steal valuables from passengers. Yet no robbery had taken place. It was an unsolved mystery for several days. But by Thursday Harrison and Knoxville’s deputy sheriff had two little rascals in custody.
It was about 7:30 p.m. on the 24th that the train carrying about 300 passengers ran off the tracks near the tiny town of Flagler. The engine had derailed when it encountered a railroad tie placed across the tracks. The engine slid the tie for about three miles until it caught on a guard rail, causing the train to jump the track.
Detective Harrison had begun to hear some rumors about a couple of boys, ages 12 and 14, who had been playing hooky recently. And those same two boys had been seen trapping gophers along a creek near the tracks. Harrison started taking a closer look at the footprints around the crash site.
Upon closer inspection, he discovered the two sets of prints came from the creek area. And as he continued to follow the tracks, they led to a house where he found the two young boys.
It took four hours of intense questioning in the Knoxville jail’s “sweatbox,” but eventually one of the boys started talking. According to the talkative boy, the two had been catching gophers in the afternoon when the “sport got too tame.” They began to discuss the possibilities “to get up a little excitement.” After a little planning, they decided a train wreck “suited their fancy.” They dragged a rail tie from the east end of the Knoxville yards to a spot up the track. Wedging the tie between the two rails of the track, they went home for supper. Word spread fast about the crash; and when the boys heard about it, they scurried to Flagler and had their “thirst for excitement partly quenched.”
“We put the tie on the track to see how far the train would knock it and to see how far the splinters would fly,” the 12- year-old boy explained to the detectives as they questioned him in the sweatbox.
Detective Harrison and the deputy sheriff said everyone involved was very lucky. If the train had jumped the track where the boys had placed the tie — a high embankment, there would have been a very serious wreck, resulting in injury or death to the passengers. It was also fortunate that the train was moving at a very low rate of speed. And, luckily, little damage was done to the train cars. The passengers were “badly shaken” but no one was seriously injured.
Everyone said the younger boy was “not overly bright.” The 14-year-old was blamed for coming up with the idea and making the plans. Everyone expected the two would be sent to reform school to pay for their afternoon of excitement.
Cheryl Mullenbach is a former high school history teacher and public television project manager. She is an award-winning author of non-fiction books for young people. She was featured on C-SPAN’s “Book TV” for her talk at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum’s Reading Festival.