Nearly 100 years ago, on Aug. 5, 1914, a fiery head-on collision of two trains near Tipton Ford claimed more than 40 lives.
Among these were a group of African-American residents on their way back to their communities in Newton County from an Emancipation Day celebration in Joplin.
Many of those caught up in the blaze were burned beyond recognition. An accurate tally of the dead could not be determined at the time.
The task of identifying the remains fell on loved ones, friends and at least one Granby area businessman.
Cal Jefferson, a black businessman from Granby, positively identified at least six of the fire victims.
“Calvin Jefferson was well off,” said Kay Hively who, along with fellow local historian Larry James, compiled a history of the train disaster. “I’m sure he knew all of the blacks, and probably many of the whites.”
Among those Jefferson identified were W.P. Johnson, 41, a farmer; Judith Hutchison, 24, a maid; Frank Hutchison, 21, a waiter; W.H. Embrey, 33, a miner; Ernest Wright, age and occupation unknown; and Sam Taylor, 21, a miner. All but Taylor are buried in a mass grave in Neosho’s IOOF Cemetery, as were several other victims. Hively said a third of the victims were African-American, the remainder were white.
On Aug. 5, 1914, more than 80 people boarded a Missouri & North Arkansas motorcar at Joplin’s union depot. About 6 p.m. that evening, the gasoline powered motorcar collided with a freight train going toward Joplin. The number of people killed totaled more than 40, 33 of whom — both white and black — were buried in a mass funeral in Neosho. Newspaper accounts at the time said more than 5,000 people attended the services, held at the Newton County Courthouse.
Born in Granby on April 14, 1868, Jefferson was well-known in the area at the time. He is known to most historians today as a “friend of George Washington Carver.” Both he and Carver attended the old Lincoln School in Neosho, which sat beside the home of Uncle Andrew and Aunt Mariah Watkins. Jefferson left the school after the death of his father and became a successful tradesman. He first worked at a livery stable and saved his money, eventually starting his own livery stable in Granby. He spent more than 30 years in the livery business and was well-known for his love of animals.
Another of his passions was music, as he was noted for playing the mandolin and guitar. And while he didn’t make a splash on the music scene himself, Jefferson did have an impact. As quoted in “They Trusted God and Pressed On,” written by Hively, two Granby women remember walking down to Jefferson’s livery stable to learn musical instruments. The pair were Lillian Baker and Ruth Hawkins, known nationally and internationally as the Hammer Sisters. The pair went on to perform music throughout the United States and in many European countries.
After the death of her husband, Aunt Mariah moved to Neosho from Granby to live with Jefferson until her death.
“Aunt Mariah called him her stepson,” Hively said.
Jefferson died in 1949 and was buried in Pleasant Hill Cemetery.