Gasconade Bridge Disaster: The Immediate Aftermath Nov. 1, 1855-Nov. 5, 1855

 Ray Ham

 

While commendable actions occurred in the aftermath of the Gasconade Bridge Disaster, there was also the reprehensible.  In the weeks following this tragic event, newspapers reported stories of a dark nature.  Stories which related that some of those at the disaster site were engaged in stealing, or attempting to steal, watches, money, and other valuables from the severely injured and dead.  Often such rogues could be temporarily run off, but they never completely left the scene.  There are even reports of some coming in on the following day to get what valuables remained.  As to where these scavengers came from, one is left with a rather unsettling conclusion.  The distance from Hermann combined with the weather conditions tend to somewhat exempt it as being the source, at least during Nov. 1.  The fact that the town of Gasconade was on the west side of the flooding Gasconade River, and separated from the east bank by an approximate forty yard gap in the flooring of the eastern end of the bridge, also tends to exclude it as being the source, again at least for Nov. 1.  Furthermore, there were virtually no dwellings in the immediate area of the disaster site.  All of this leaves one with the uneasy conclusion that the source of thievery, at least for Nov. 1, was among the distinguished passengers of that ill-fated train. 

 

Another sobering observation to be made pertains to the Hermann Jaeger Company.  Lycurgus Radcliffe recalled that the Hermann Jaeger Company heroically rescued the injured from both the wreckage and the river.  However, that recollection was given in an interview with the Kansas City Times in 1905, fifty years after the events being described.  Such a distance in time from the actual event always makes one question the accuracy of his memory.  On the other hand, there is a story, published just a few weeks after the event, which tells of a totally different reality.  This story relates that the men of the Hermann Jaeger Company did not give a helping hand to a single one of the unfortunate victims.  Rather, that militia unit turned its back on them, and literally marched back to Hermann.  However, one cannot exclude the possibilities that this witness either did not fully understand what he was witnessing, or purposely reported falsely for whatever reason(s).  Incidentally, if the Hermann Jaeger Company did return to Hermann, it most likely did not march back.  Rather, it probably rode back in its passenger car (the only such car to remain on the tracks after the disaster), pulled by the engine which had been following the inaugural train.  It was probably this engine and passenger car which brought all of the survivors, and the dead, to Hermann throughout the remainder of Nov. 1 into Nov. 2.  The question as to the behavior of the Hermann Jaeger Company on Nov. 1, 1855, is one that needs more research before it can accurately be answered.

 

The process of getting the victims of the Gasconade Bridge disaster back to St. Louis, where most of the approximate 600 inaugural party had originated from, was a daunting and dreadful odyssey that began in the afternoon of Nov. 1, and did not end until Nov. 3.  Due to its proximity, the river town of Hermann was the first sanctuary for the victims of the Gasconade Bridge disaster. The Leimer Hotel on Wharf Street, which was Hermann’s first hotel, was called into service as a hospital.  However, as recalled by Lycurgus Radcliffe, there simply were not enough surgeons in Hermann, and most of the wounded there received scant surgical aid.  It was imperative to get those hundreds who were injured back to St. Louis as soon as possible.

There were also possible darker reasons why it was so necessary for the survivors to leave Hermann.  The St. Louis Herald reported on Nov. 4, 1855, that some of the residents of Hermann charged excessive prices for supplies, and that others refused to give shelter to the victims. Such examples of despicable behavior are common to many disasters.

 

Furthermore, some basic assumptions can be made to explain, in part, why less-than-charitable behavior might at that time have been exhibited in Hermann.  Bear in mind, that in a time span of something in the range of 12 hours, a town with a population of just over 1,200 was faced with approximately 600 additional individuals, 31 of which were dead or dying, hundreds wounded, many of which very seriously so.  That same town, as noted by Lycurgus Radcliffe, did not have the surgical/medical facilities to deal with such an overload.  And most significantly, it is only human for the residents of Hermann to want to give what comfort they could to those victims that were from it, rather than to those from other communities.  But, like the question of the behavior of the Hermann Jaeger Company at the disaster site on Nov. 1, the question of the response of the town of Hermann to the victims of this disaster is one that needs to be researched in more detail.

It was not until approximately 8 p.m. the night of Nov. 1, 1855 (seven hours after the Gasconade Bridge disaster), that word reached St Louis.  The sources differ here as to some of the specifics as to why it took so long for St. Louis to be informed.  Either the telegraph line from St. Louis had not yet reached Hermann by November 1855, or if it had reached it, but it was out of service due to the ferocity of the storms the area was experiencing.  In either case, the St. Louis Democrat reported on Nov. 2, 1855, that the news of the disaster reached St. Louis by steamboat.  Incidentally, it was not until noon on Nov. 2 that Jefferson City, the destination for a gala dinner, had word of the disaster.

 

Plans were set in motion to improvise a relief train to return the survivors and the dead, to St. Louis.  Making such plans more difficult was the fact that there was no direct telegraph communication between St. Louis and Hermann to coordinate such efforts.  This was especially complicated since the Pacific Railroad was attempting to maintain its regular commercial train service between St. Louis and Hermann, with an unscheduled relief train also destined for Hermann.  The trains involved were unaware of each other’s exact location at any given point in time. Those trains were limited to running on only a single track, at some point in opposite directions. Plus, that track and the bridges along it, were of unknown soundness after torrential rains. Under the existing circumstances, the risk of a major crash involving those trains, or a major derailment, or an additional bridge failure, were great.

 

It rained through the night of Nov. 1.  The next day, the special relief train was sent from St. Louis, and upon reaching Hermann, the survivors were loaded into the passenger cars, with the dead placed in the freight cars, in preparation for the return run to St. Louis.  In all probability, this relief train arrived in Hermann with its engine pulling the cars behind it, and hence when it left Hermann, to return to St. Louis, that engine was now in the rear, running in reverse, thereby pushing the cars in front of it.  Such an arrangement would explain the maneuvering on the return trip at the Boeuf Creek Bridge.

As the relief/rescue train made its way back to St. Louis ,it consistently tolled its bell, since there was now no established schedule for trains to follow when running on this single line of track.  Justifiable concern existed pertaining to the possibility of a train collision under these circumstances.  Hence the need for each train on the line to be as “observable” as possible.

 

As the relief/rescue train approached the Boeuf Creek Bridge, 17 miles east of Hermann (and three miles east of Miller’s Landing, today’s New Haven), it stopped at the western end of that bridge.  Boeuf Creek was a raging flood due to the nearly continuous rain of the previous two days.  Driftwood washed down the creek and stacked up against the bridge’s pilings.  The engineer of the relief/rescue train rightly feared that the Boeuf Creek Bridge would give way if he attempted to cross it with his engine and all of its cars.

There was, or would soon arrive, a second train westbound that already had, or would soon, stop at the eastern end of the Boeuf Creek Bridge.  It appears to be the case that this second train was a passenger train from St. Louis to Hermann, on which there were approximately 150 passengers.  

 

Those survivors who could walk, walked across the bridge to the passenger train on the eastern end of the bridge.  But when the attempt was made to try and push by hand the cars carrying the severely wounded and the dead across the bridge, it suddenly collapsed, leaving them on the western side. Subsequently, the passenger train on the eastern side of the Boeuf Creek Bridge returned to St. Louis on Nov. 2, with its approximate original 150 passengers, plus those survivors of the Gasconade Bridge disaster that were not seriously injured.  The ordeal of the seriously injured and the dead was not yet over.  The relief/rescue train returned to Miller’s Landing, where its suffering human cargo would spend the night of Nov. 2 into Nov. 3.

 

The treatment given to these victims of the Gasconade Bridge disaster by the people of Miller’s Landing was recorded as being very good.   The St. Louis Herald on Nov. 4, 1855, specifically complimented the Irish of that town for their hospitality to the victims.  Incidentally, many, if not most, of those Irish residents were probably construction crew employees of the Pacific Railroad. 

 

During the night of Nov. 2, residents of Miller’s Landing, engaged in building 31 rough coffins for the dead.  This was done to have a respectful and considerate means by which those dead could be returned to their loved ones in St. Louis.  In addition, care was shown to the severely injured of the Gasconade Bridge Disaster. 

 

Since the Pacific Railroad’s connection between St. Louis and Miller’s Landing was no longer functional due to the Boeuf Creek Bridge failure of November 2, the transport of the injured survivors -- and the dead -- to St. Louis, would have to rely, at least in part, on the Missouri River.  Consequently, on Nov. 3, a ferry boat from Washington arrived at Miller’s Landing to carry those severely injured survivors, and the 31 rough coffins, back to Washington.  At Washington, that unfortunate human cargo was then boarded on a Pacific train for its final stop at St. Louis. Thus, ended the odyssey of the passengers and crew which started out with such gaiety and fanfare on the morning of Nov. 1.

 

The entire city of St. Louis was stunned by the enormity of the disaster at the Gasconade River Bridge.  Prominent citizens and leaders of that city had been killed.  The Pacific Railroad, a major business in which many of the city’s leading families had a vested financial interest, was threatened with blame and financial disaster.  Both St. Louis and the Pacific Railroad went into public mourning and damage control.  The mayor of St. Louis, and one of the survivors of the Gasconade Bridge Disaster, Washington King proclaimed that Monday, Nov. 5, 1855: “Was to be a day of cessation from all labor in a tribute of respect for all the victims, and for all those stricken by the horrible events of Nov. 1.  Furthermore, it was also to be a day of heartfelt thankfulness and gratitude to God on account of all who were saved from death.”  Businesses in St. Louis were closed, and churches were opened for worship on that Monday.  In St. Louis, 12 of the dead were buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery, six were buried in Calvary Cemetery, and several were buried in the old Wesleyan Cemetery.

After the requirements of public mourning had been met, it would shortly be followed by the equally necessary need to achieve some level of damage control.

 

TO BE CONTINUED IN AN UPCOMING EDITION

Sources

Books:

Little Germany On the Missouri: The Photographs of Edward J. Kemper, 1895-1920

Edited by, Anna Kemper Hesse

University of Missouri Press, Columbia, Missouri, 1998

(Page: 43)

New Haven: Its Past and People

By, David Menke

Leader Publishing Company, New Haven, Missouri, 2002

(Pages: 37 & 47)

Lives, Legends, & Laughs

By, David Menke

Leader Publishing Company, New Haven, Missouri, 2006

(Page: 16)

Gasconade County, Missouri Family History Book Volume II

Turner Publishing Company, Paducah, Kentucky, 2003

(Page: 68)

Periodicals:

“An Eastern Division Chronicle: The Gasconade River Bridge Wrecks 1855 and 1896”

By, G. J. Michaels, Jr.

The Eagle

Missouri Pacific Historical Society

Fall, 1991

Vol. 16 No. 3

(Page: 17)

Newspapers:

The Perrysburg Journal

(Perrysburg, Ohio)

November 17, 1855

Web Sites:

Remembering the Gasconade Disaster

By, Bob Aubuchon

Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum

A Look Back: Disaster at Bridge In 1855 Derails St. Louis Dream for A Transcontinental Railroad.

By, Tim O’Neal

November 4, 2012

Gasconade Bridge Disaster

Wikipedia

Updated – Sept. 8, 2019

Editor's Note: A soft opening of the new Hermann Caboose Museum on the riverfront will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday, July 4.