Gertrude Woodard was only seventeen years old. Popular and well-liked by many, young Gertrude lived with her parents near Hale, Missouri.
She, just like most people that age, no doubt had her hopes and dreams, of what adventures would fill the years of life that stretched out in front of her. Gertrude might have had thoughts of marriage, or college, or just living at home for a little while, helping around the house with Mom and Dad.
One thing that we can almost know for certain, though, is that she had no intentions of dying along a roadside in northwestern Missouri.
On January 15, 1925, Gertrude and her friend, Clifford Wescott, had just gone to see a movie. While on their way home, Clifford’s car hit a patch of ice while going over a hill. The vehicle lost all traction, and was out of control by the time it reached the bottom.
Unable to stop, Wescott’s car went off the road and fell several feet into a ravine, killing Gertrude instantly. In a few short, violent moments, her life was over.
As the frequent travel warnings and storm watches grace our television screens during the nightly news, I feel a familiar disappointed sensation as I realize I have to drive through it all to work. But I’m far from the only one.
All across the Midwest, thousands of people brave the winter weather to make it to their jobs.
Winter driving is always full of hazardous promise. Snow, ice, and plummeting temperatures can create dangerous road conditions. As much as we’d like to forget about it during the warmer months, braving bad roads in the winter is simply part of life for many in the Midwestern United States. In that regard, little has changed for the people living in that region over the decades.
People have always done what was necessary, and in 1926, a man named Singleton Gardiner was doing what must have thought was necessary as he and his companions travelled through western Illinois in 1926.
Singleton Gardiner was the superintendent of the Davenport, Iowa division of the Prudential Insurance Company. He had started his career with them in New York in 1896 and had climbed his way up the corporate ladder to his current position.
Since his arrival in Davenport in 1907, Gardiner had built a solid reputation as a good manager and insurance man, and by the 1920’s, the number of policies carried by Prudential in his region numbered into the thousands.
His wife, Eva, had been rendered an invalid from some serious health problems, and Singleton hired a woman named Sophia Inkman to act as a nurse for her. Although it’s probably reasonable to assume that Eva would have preferred to have her health restored to her, there is no reason to believe that she held any animosity against either her husband or caregiver.
In early January of 1926, Singleton and the regional assistant superintendent of Prudential, Charles Frey, had to travel to Geneseo, Illinois for business. Eva accompanied the men, and her condition automatically required that her caregiver come along. Everything went well, and the group began to make their way home on January 12.
The roads were covered in snow and ice that night, but Gardiner had been able to manage them without much difficulty. The biggest problem that he must have had was the frost forming on the inside of the car windows, which made visibility difficult.
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.
Suddenly, Gardiner’s car lost traction and began to slide on the icy road toward the speeding train. 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 tracks had no crossing barriers, and with a tremendous crash, 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 was 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, 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 were closer, however, and 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 extinguish the flames.
Frey and Inkman were both severely injured. Besides severe burns, Frey 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, with deep cuts in her head and burns on her face and hands. The remains of Singleton Gardiner were still 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, which could probably get into Moline faster. The newspaper delivery men agreed and helped load them into the baggage car of the train.
Some of the train crew ran to a nearby farm and 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. The rescue vehicle was sent up onto the curb, but little overall damage was done. Still drivable, the ambulance got back onto the road and resumed its journey 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 Moline, while Singleton Gardiner was later buried in a private mausoleum 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.
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.
Winter travel has always been a dangerous proposition in the Midwest. But we still have to do it, no matter how much we may not want to.
So next time you’re out making your way through snow and wind, let your mind drift back to the winter of 1926, when Singleton Gardiner and his passengers met a horrible fate on an icy Illinois road.
Let their experience be a cautionary tale for us all, to drive a little slower, brake a little sooner, and to appreciate our car defrosters a little bit more.
You have been reading John Brassard Jr., the Kitchen Table Historian. Please stop over and have a seat at the table every week or so to hear new stories of true crime, disasters, the paranormal, and other weird and dark stories from America’s Heartland.
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Singleton Gardiner Presented Diamond Set Gold Badge for 25 Years Continuous Service. The Davenport Democrat and Leader, 4/26/1921
17-Year-Old Girl Killed in Auto Accident. The Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune, 1/15/1925
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