Winter driving can always be sketchy in the Midwest. Snow, ice, and plummeting temperatures can create dangerous road conditions. Almost one-hundred years ago this month, a Davenport man named Singleton Gardiner tragically found that out.
Singleton Gardiner was the superintendent of the Davenport division of the Prudential Insurance Company. He had originally started his career with them in New York in 1896 and had worked his way up the ladder to superintendent. Around 1907, had accepted a transfer west to Davenport.
Gardiner was a good manager and insurance man, and the number of policies carried by Prudential in this region numbered into the thousands by the 1920’s.
He and his wife, Eva, lived happily in a modest-sized home near Kirkwood Boulevard in Davenport. Eva eventually developed health problems, and became an invalid because of her condition. To assist his beloved wife, Singleton hired a woman named Sophia Inkman to act as a nurse for her.
In early January 1926, Singleton, Eva, Sophia Inkman, and the regional assistant superintendent of Prudential, Charles Frey, travelled to Geneseo, Illinois together to conduct some business for the company. Everything went well, and the group began to make their way home on January 12.
The roads were covered in snow and ice, but Gardiner had been able to manage both them and the frost forming on the inside of the car windows. Eventually they made their way to a train crossing called Poppy Garden, about twelve miles east of the city of Moline, Illinois.
As he approached the tracks, Gardiner could make out a train passing through, and so applied the brake to slow down. The train engineer, O.C. Gordon, saw the car shortly before that and blew the train’s whistle as a warning of their approach. But it was too late.
The car lost traction suddenly and began to slide. Gardiner tried desperately to regain control of his car, but nothing he did helped. His passengers must have been terrified as they felt themselves hurtling toward the train and realized there was nothing that they could do but sit and watch it happen.
The car hit the side of the train engine, leaving a large dent in a cylinder on the side. It was dragged along the tracks for a brief moment, then broke free of the train and sent airborne, hurtling several feet through the frigid night. As it flew, the sedan exploded into a fireball, illuminating the train in glowing hues of orange and red.
Nearby, Ed Rinebold, a deliveryman for a local newspaper, had just gone through the crossing shortly before. As he drove away, he was struck by a sudden and uncanny intuition. He confided to his friend and passenger, a man named Will Clark, that the car that had been behind them on the road had been struck by the train back at the crossing. Even though they had not seen or heard anything, the men quickly turned around and headed back to see what was going on.
Meanwhile, the train engineer had brought the locomotive to a stop. Several crew members ran back to the crossing to check on the car.
Rinebold and Clark arrived there first. They saw that the car was completely devastated and was still burning. Frey and Inkman had been thrown free from the vehicle and were lying on the cold ground. Gasoline from the car’s broken gas tank had drenched them both during the crash, and when the car had exploded their clothing had caught fire. One of them screamed to the two men to help them. Rinebold’s hunch had been correct.
The men immediately rushed to help the victims, using their coats and bare hands to beat down the flames.
Frey and Inkman were both injured, but Frey was by far the worse of the two. Besides severe burns, he had a fractured skull and a deep cut on the back of his head. Inkman had lost her left eye, and suffered injuries to her face and head.
Eva Gardiner was found a short distance away. She also had deep cuts to her head and burns on her face and hands. The remains of Singleton Gardiner were lying in the wreckage of the car. He was dead, his body burned very badly.
Knowing that Frey needed immediate medical attention, Clark and Rinebold began loading the injured man into their car when the train crew arrived. They told the two men that they would take the three-injured people back on the train. Clark and Rinebold agreed and helped load them into the baggage car.
Some of the train crew walked to a farm nearby, where they called the police department in Moline. They told them what had happened and that they would need ambulances to meet the locomotive once it arrived in the city. The police agreed and immediately sent for both the requested ambulances and a doctor.
On the train, porters went through the passenger cars looking for a doctor. The closest thing that they had was a veterinarian who was on his way to Minnesota. The vet examined Frey, Gardiner, and Inkman, and helped as best as he could. Before too long, the train arrived in Moline, where medical personnel were already waiting.
While Sophia Inkman and Eva Gardiner made it without any issues, the ambulance carrying Charles Frey was struck by another vehicle en route to the hospital. While it was hit hard enough to send it up onto the curb, the ambulance was still drivable and was able to take Frey to the hospital.
The injured were treated as soon as they arrived, and their families notified of the accident.
While Inkman and Gardiner recovered from their wounds, Frey’s condition quickly worsened. He passed away the next day, and was later buried in Riverside Cemetery in Moline, where he had lived. Singleton Gardiner was buried in a private mausoleum in Oakdale Memorial Gardens in Davenport, Iowa.
In the aftermath of the accident, safety barriers were placed at Poppy Gardens Crossing. Eva Gardiner died in 1930, and was interred with her husband at Oakdale.
Sophia Inkman sued the Gardiner estate – worth about $110,000 – and the railroad for about $20,000 for the injuries she had sustained in the accident. While the case carried on for a while, she eventually settled for $4000.
The accident at Poppy Gardens Crossing that night was both tragic and horrific. Obviously in 1926, Gardiner’s car didn’t have the anti-lock brakes or windshield defrosters that might have saved his life today.
However, the icy road conditions that led to his ultimate demise still very much exist. In spite of so many advancements in vehicle safety and overall improvements in cars over the past one hundred years, slick roads still claim lives on Midwest roadways nearly every year.
Because of this, drivers today can still use Singleton Gardiner’s sudden death as a cautionary tale to always beware of road conditions. As a professional insurance man, he would probably be happy with that.
“Singleton Gardiner Presented Diamond Set Gold Badge for 25 Years Continuous Service.” The Davenport Democrat and Leader, 4/26/1921
“2 Dead, 2 Hurt in Crossing Crash.” The Daily Times, 1/12/1926
“Singleton Gardiner and Charles Frey Meet Terrible Deaths.” Davenport Democrat and Times, 1/12/1926
“Hold Funeral Services for Wreck Victim.” Davenport Democrat and Times, 1/14/1926
“Woman Injured in Auto Accident Suing Railway and Estate for $20,000.” Davenport Democrat and Times, 8/19/1926
“Claim Plaintiff in $20,000 Suit was Negligent.” Davenport Democrat and Times, 11/22/1926
“R.R. Co. Defendant in $20,000 Suit Asking for a Separate Trial.” Davenport Democrat and Times, 12/12/1926
“Inkman Damage Case Set for Trial Tuesday.” Davenport Democrat and Times, 2/28/1927
“Mrs. Gardiner Called After Long Illness.” Davenport Democrat and Times, 5/29/1930