“That’s My Grandfather”

Thomas Matteson Sr - Athens Train Depot c 1968 A bunch of years ago, Maruchy LaChance, a former coworker at The Palm Beach Post, set up a Facebook fan page called Ken Steinhoff – No Mere Mortal. Knowing her, it was probably more mockery than adulation, particularly since it contained things like

  • Personal Information: Legends are usually mysterious and Ken is no exception. Although he is quick to share accurate and current information on any topic or subject, Ken keeps his personal life personal, but then, so do most underworld spies.
  • Personal Interests: Cameras, bicycles and the comical and non-fatal misery of others.
  • Phone: Does not accept calls from mortals.
  • Email: No. YOU do not contact Ken. HE contacts you.

The page has a pitiful 91 likes and is rarely updated, so I was surprised to see a message from Erika Wolford pop up today: “I was in the Athens bookstore and museum today and was admiring your photos. One specific photo caught my eye as I thought the subject resembled my grandfather. After reading the caption and immediately calling my grandfather I realized it was really him.”

We exchanged a couple of emails and she elaborated, “My grandfather’s name is Thomas Matteson Sr. I was in Athens today with a coworker and on a whim we stopped into the museum. I was looking through the photos and saw the picture but didn’t really think it was him because it was with a group of older pictures. Before leaving I went back to look once more because I couldn’t get over the resemblance. I found the captions for the photos and saw that it was taken at the B & O Railroad in 1968 and called to check with him. He confirmed the date and place, so I told him what I had found. He said that he couldn’t specifically remember anyone taking his picture, but that it was quite possible.

The photos were never published because they were “finger exercises” I was doing for a photo class at Ohio University.

Railroad background was news

Thomas Matteson Sr - Athens Train Depot c 1968I mentioned to Erika that I would love to do a video of him talking about his experience with the railroad and maybe get a photo of him in front of the restored depot.

She said, “That sounds great. He lives in Wellston, which is in Jackson county, 30 minutes west of Athens. He just turned 80 on Oct 1. He gets around pretty good. He had a stroke about 8 years ago but was thrilled that he got his license renewed this past birthday with not even an eye restriction. Thank you so much. This discovery today has made my family very interested as some didn’t even know he worked for the railroad.”

This makes it worthwhile

Experiences like this make digging in the archives worthwhile. I love to be able to show later generations things about their parents and grandparents that they never knew.

Train Cars Hop Track

Twenty-seven railroad cars squashed together in a massive pileup Monday morning (March 7, 1966) about a mile north of Neely’s Landing. Two crew members were hurt and two workers were injured later during the clean-up operations, the Missourian story said.

“It’s one of the worst train wrecks I’ve ever seen,” a railroad worker of 44 years commented.

Frisco on regular run

The 76-car Frisco freight train was on its daily St. Louis-to-Memphis run when the cars in the middle derailed almost directly in front of the main cut of the Westlake Rock Quarry, a 200-foot bluff to the west. The Mississippi River was about 150 feet to the east, but no cars went into the river.

Conductor and brakeman injured

Engineer J.H. Davenport lost contact with his crew after the pileup. He found that the conductor, A.L.Bailey, and the rear brakeman, R.L Becker, were injured and “shook up.” He phoned for help from the home of Sylvester Hitchcock at Neely’s Landing. The two injured crewmen were taken to the Frisco Hospital in St. Louis. Neither was seriously hurt.

Massive cranes came from St. Louis and Memphis

Two wrecker crews worked with giant cranes mounted on railroad flatcars to clear the tracks. A crew from Memphis, with a 250-ton crane, worked the wreck from the south. A St. Louis crew, working with a slightly smaller crane attacked from the north.

Bulldozer shoved, pushed and rammed

Gerald Ford of Neely’s Landing used a bulldozer to help push the freight cars off the tracks. As the steel cable on the crane pulled one end of the cars, the dozer shoved, pushed and rammed the other end.

What caused it?

It was working this wreck that I stumbled onto a technique that came in handy over the years. Nobody would comment on the cause of the derailment, so I tried getting the workers aside and asked, “You’ve seen a lot of these things. When you’ve pulled apart ones that looked like this one, what did you find?”

The engineer said he thought the cause might have been a spreading of the rails or a break in the rails. One of the crewmen said that one of the wheels might have frozen and jumped the tracks.

Cable whipped back on workmen

Two crewmen were injured when a cable whipped back striking about six workmen and catching the legs of two of the men.

I learned from experience to be wary of cables. One of the first things Dad taught me when I was a kid hanging around his job sites was to always step on, not over, a cable on the ground. That way you’d be thrown to the side instead of being cut in half if someone suddenly took up the slack without warning. I saw enough tow cables go whipping around to always stay a cable-length away when they were under load.

It was a cold night

This must have been one of those nights when Frony said, “Let the Kid handle it.”

I was going to comment that we didn’t have any access problems at the scene, but the last paragraph of the story says that a Frisco official grabbed a Missourian photographer (me) as he was taking a picture of the wreckage. He warned the photographer and a Missourian reporter not to get too close. Another reporter who did not have a press card was told to leave.

Frisco was better than the B&O

That’s still better than the treatment I was used to getting when the B&O Railroad would pile up a train in southern Ohio. Their railroad bulls were of the ilk and era of the days when hobos were rousted from the trains by clubs and worse. To add to the problem, they had law enforcement powers and were quick to threaten you with arrest for trespassing on their right-of-way. Derailments were common because their tracks were in miserable shape, with rotted ties and spikes that were loose or missing.

I thought I had them when a trainload of new automobiles piled up south of Athens, Ohio. Before I headed to the scene, I stopped by the county courthouse to see who owned the land alongside the track. I called the farmer to ask if I could cut across his field and shoot the wreck from his property. “Sure,” he said. “You’re welcome.” Then, just as I was starting to put the phone down with a sly smile on my face, he finished his sentence. “You do remember, don’t you, that the Hocking River is flooding. You’re going to have to be about nine feet tall if you’re going to stand there.” Drat!

Train wreck photo gallery

Some of these images are redundant, but I figure Keith Robinson and his train buff buddies will find details in them that the rest of us will miss. Click on any photo to make it larger, then click on the left or right side to move through the gallery.