They were traveling home from Joplin after a day spent at the Emancipation Day Celebration or from shopping or were on a business trip. Others had visited family or friends. And some were railroad employees. On a hot August day in 1914, an estimated 40 to 50 people died when a motor car, known at the time as a "Doodlebug" and a Kansas City Southern passenger train collided near Tipton Ford between Joplin and Neosho. As the 105th anniversary nears, it remains one of the most tragic accidents in local history.
The Doodlebug - a self-propelled, gasoline fueled motor car operated by the Missouri and Northwest Arkansas Railroad was southbound and the KCS train was headed north. The passenger train was running about eight hours behind schedule and the motor car should have been told to divert to the siding. If the message was sent, survivors said it was never received.
The impact ruptured the gas tank of the motor car and exploded, spraying the passengers with gasoline. Eyewitnesses described a fireball that erupted from the wreckage.
A total of 72 tickets had been sold but how many actual passengers were actually on the car or train is uncertain. Estimates were that 24 survived and that between 45-50 died.
Those who survived were injured. A few escaped with minor injuries while others were hurt seriously.
The Tipton Ford wreck happened at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, August 5, 1914.
Some of those who died were identified but many were burned beyond recognition.
On Friday, August 7, a service was held on the Newton County Courthouse lawn. More than five thousand people attended. The Ministerial Alliance shared the service. Psalm 29 was read. More than five thousand people attended the mass funeral and in Neosho, every business closed. The hymns "Lead Kindly, Light" and "Rock of Ages" were sung. Every local business closed in respect and Neosho stood silent.
According to an article in The Neosho Times on August 13, 1914, thirty-three coffins were transported from the Square to Odd Fellows Cemetery (now known as IOOF) then located southeast of Neosho on what was termed "long trucks". The crowd of mourners followed, in automobiles, buggies, wagons and on foot.
Thirty-three individual graves were dug and in time, a monument was erected with the names of known victims. It still stands, near the main entrance of the cemetery today.
There were no color barriers in death and the dead were almost evenly divided with seventeen black and sixteen white. Most of those who perished were local but some were from Oklahoma and Arkansas, even as distant as Seattle, Washington.
Many area families suffered loss. Among those were JM Harmon, a bookkeeper at The Savings Bank, then located in the Haas Building on the northeast corner of the Square who lost his wife, Josie, and their three children, Roy, age 12, Loyd, age 9 and Stella, age 4. He lost his entire family. Others lost a parent, a spouse, children or other relatives.
Some were known to have perished only because a piece of jewelry or wallet was found in the wreckage. Others who could have been on the train were missing, presumed dead.
Death certificates for those who died listed "railway wreck-head on collision -possibly burned to death" as the cause of death.
In the aftermath of the crash, a survivor found a house nearby with a telephone and called for help. A relief train staffed with doctors and nurses, loaded with medical supplies was dispatched from Joplin.
On the 100th anniversary of the wreck, a monument was placed near the site at Tipton Ford.
According to The Neosho Times, it was the first wreck in the 15-year history of the motor car and the event remains one of the worst railroad crashes in American history.
A mural depicting the tragedy painted by Thomas Hart Benton's nephew, Anthony Benton Gude, hangs within the United Methodist Church in Neosho.
After more than a century, August 5, 1914 has been almost forgotten. Were it not for the two markers that stand in memory of the victims, a few photographs and the history books, those who died could have been forgotten. But, thanks to the dedication of those preserve the past, they will be long remembered.