This past weekend, the Midwest faced down Winter Storm Jupiter, what was promised to deliver a whole lot of nastiness. Thankfully, here in eastern Iowa it turned out to not be too awfully bad, but still bad enough to cause a lot of people to fall on icy sidewalks and streets and go to the emergency room. As I was driving through Iowa City, being thankful that the streets were clear, I found myself thinking about a particular winter night several decades ago.
Winter in Illinois is harsh. Bitterly cold temperatures, gusting winds, and slick, icy roads force drivers to be extra cautious during the winter months in the Midwest. In January 1926, an event occurred that shows just how dangerous travelling can be.
On the evening of January 12, 1926, Singleton Gardiner, superintendent of the Prudential Insurance Company in Davenport, were 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 been made an invalid by a nervous breakdown, which may explain why Inkman was with them.
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, 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 train engineer, O.C. Gordon, saw the car and pulled the whistle to warn them, holding it 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, and the big train began to drag the car along the tracks.
Without warning, the car 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. The closest that they could find was Dr. J.A. Krichel, a veterinarian who tended to the wounded as best as he could.
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 them when the train arrived, and the injured 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.
So next time you’re out driving and the roads are slick and snowy, give a thought to Singleton Gardiner and his passengers. Drive safe, and give yourself plenty of time to brake.