A hundred years ago Tuesday, a fiery explosion ripped through the peaceful evening near here as two trains collided head-on, killing more than 40 people.
On Tuesday, nearly 200 people gathered at the Undercliff restaurant near Tipton Ford, then attended a luncheon at the nearby George Washington Carver National Monument in Diamond, to mark the 100th anniversary of that crash.
Among those attending was Caroline Beverly, granddaughter of one of the crash survivors.
Beverly related a family story that has been passed down since that day about how her light-skinned grandmother came to be rescued. She said the rescuer who pulled her grandmother out of the crash thought he was saving someone of his own race.
“Because of the time 100 years ago, that poor man — who was doing his best and doing God’s work to save as many people as he could — was ridiculed and suffered so much angst for saving someone who was not of his race; he actually committed suicide,” she said. “I can see that this is just so sad, because if you think about it, we are all one. As far as black people are concerned, we couldn’t have survived without the help of some of your families, some of your friends: we could not have survived without each other. So wherever you’re from, whatever your beliefs are … we’re all human. We’re all children of God.”
Margaret Hutchison Morrison of Springfield, Mo., lost an aunt and uncle, Judith and Frank Hutchison, in the crash. According to death certificates, the Hutchisons were brother and sister and were identified by African-American businessman Cal Jefferson, who owned a livery stable in nearby Granby and knew many people in both the black and white communities at the time.
“They were in Joplin for the Emancipation Day celebration, and were coming back to Neosho,” she said.
Her daughter, Caroline Payton, said as she was copying old family photographs for other family members, she felt as if her grandparents would have found a sense of peace because of the celebration.
“They have, too, a closure, because of the celebration,” she said.
Wayne Johnson lost his grandfather, Burk Johnson, in the crash. He told the audience at Carver National Monument his grandfather had initially escaped the wreckage with a fellow traveler, but both men fought their way back into the inferno to rescue crash victims. The traveler later related his account to Wayne Johnson’s uncle.
“He said ‘We got exhausted, so we sat down on the track,’ ” Wayne Johnson told the crowd. “They thought ‘This is not any good. We’ve got to help some more.’ And they got up and the man who was talking to my uncle, he survived, but my granddad didn’t.”
Burk Johnson was en route back home to Neosho from western Joplin, Wayne Johnson said, where he had worked threshing wheat.
And Wayne Johnson also related how a last-minute decision played a fateful role.
“My mother and dad took him to the depot in a buggy,” he said. “Mom was supposed to go with granddad, but at the last minute she said no, she would go the next day with my father in the buggy.”
The stories were part of a commemoration of the train wreck. A ceremony to dedicate a newly set stone marking the tragedy was held earlier that day at the Undercliff restaurant. About 200 people attended the ceremony and heard comments about the tragedy from local historian Larry James, author of “My Sorrow Was Stirred: The Tipton Ford Tragedy.” Prayers were offered by Don Deffenbaugh of the Church of Christ, and Larry C. Anderson, pastor of Neosho’s Second Baptist Church. Then dozens of black and white balloons were released skyward, symbolic of the victims’ souls stretching forth to heaven.