Honeymoon ended in tragedy in McGonigle in 1924
By Jim Blount
It wasn't Butler County's deadliest car-train collision, but the accident at a McGonigle crossing on a clear day in 1924 tugged at the heart and dramatized the increasing need for safety improvement at railroad grade-level crossings.
The victims included Roy and Myrtle Fawns, both 20, who had been married less than 24 hours before the crash Sunday afternoon, Aug. 10, 1924. Also killed were Lelia Fawns, a 15-year-old sister of the groom; J. T. Johnson, 30, the bride's uncle; and Deloris Johnson, an eight-year-old niece of the bride.
None of the five were Butler County residents. Roy Fawns and his sister resided in New Castle, Ind.; the bride was from Hillsboro, Ky.; and the Johnsons resided in Ringo Mills, Ky. The wedding had been Saturday in Kentucky and the group had stayed overnight in Ripley, Ohio
They died at a crossing considered one of the most dangerous in the county. A newspaper described it as "probably the most gruesome accident in the history of Butler County."
The car burst into flames on impact. Four of the five people died instantly. Two bodies were scattered in fields and two were on the front of the steam locomotive when it stopped. The bride was pulled from the burning car, transported to Hamilton on the train and to Mercy Hospital by ambulance.
She died three hours later, living long enough to report the names and addresses of the victims and details of the collision.
No one in the Ford touring car was familiar with the crossing, marked only by a passive cross buck signal, missing one of its arms. There were no lights, bells, gates or extra warnings in 1924 where Millville-Oxford Road (later U. S. 27) crossed the tracks of the Cincinnati, Indianapolis & Western Railroad (later the Baltimore & Ohio, now the CSX line between Hamilton and Indianapolis).
The northbound approach to the tracks was up hill and curved, obscuring sight of the railroad right-of-way to the left until a vehicle was on the tracks. The eastbound Indianapolis to Hamilton passenger train, traveling between 50 and 60 miles an hour, couldn't be seen until seconds before the crash because it was coming off a curve.
Driver vision of the sharply angled mainline to the right of the crossing was frequently blocked by trains waiting on a passing siding. That had contributed to previous accidents at the site.
The tragedy was "appalling," said an editorial in the Hamilton Daily News. "It is still more appalling to realize that it could and should have been avoided, and that all such accidents at that deadly crossing . . . could easily have been prevented for all time."
"When the Colerain Pike [as it was known then] was paved a few years ago, the people of Hanover Twp .and many others called attention to this death trap," the editorial recalled, "and begged the officials of the state of Ohio to have the paving go under the tracks." The writer said an underpass "would have cost less perhaps than the long approaches on both sides of the present grade crossing."
The editorial claimed it was more dangerous as automobiles gradually replaced horses. Cars "have no eyes or ears or instincts with which to help rushing drivers as have the dumb animals."
It wasn't until January 1937 -- more than 12 years later -- that plans for the existing McGonigle underpass were announced by the Ohio Department of Highways. It eliminated two grade crossings.
The $250,000 project included rerouting Ohio 130 (Old Oxford Road), which crossed the tracks about 1,800 feet east of U. S. 27. The new alignment paralleled the railroad for 3,500 feet east of U. S. 27 and included a new intersection north of the tracks.
The improvements were part of a new Depression-era federal program to eliminate railroad grade crossings. It had two purposes: improve safety and provide jobs for the unemployed.
Butler County had experienced its worst car-train accident about six months earlier at the Bobenmeyer Road crossing of the Pennsylvania Railroad, then just south of the Hamilton city limits in Fairfield Township. Nine people in one family died Sunday, July 26, 1936, when their westbound car was struck by a northbound passenger train. That crossing -- also with severe sight limitations for motorists -- had only the wooden cross buck warnings in 1936.
# # #
Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2007
Interurban car became church during 1909 storm
By Jim Blount
The interurban system that served parts of Butler County for four decades did more than transport people and freight. The companies operated public excursions and private party cars. Birthdays, anniversaries, wedding receptions and other events were celebrated on the electric-powered traction cars. The risky night of Feb. 24-25, 1909, religious services were conducted on an Ohio Electric Car.
The crew and 20 passengers, including five women and six children, hadn't chartered the car as a rolling church before starting the scheduled trip from Hamilton at 11 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 24.
The passengers, mostly residents of the Overpeck and Trenton areas, turned to prayer when they were trapped in the flooded rural area around the interurban tracks between Coke Otto (now New Miami) and Trenton. The Hamilton Republican-News called the scary six or more hours "a perilous night." The Cincinnati Post said it was "a night of agony."
The fright would have been bad enough if the northbound car had merely stalled in the rising water. Fear heightened when the motor failed and the helpless crew and passengers were in the dark until the conductor lit an oil lamp. It lighted the car's interior, but didn't penetrate the darkness outside.
The combined force of wind and turbulent water buffeted the traction car, threatening to topple it and the passengers into the water, its depth and expanse unknown and invisible in the dark. The Republican-News said "the water rushed against the car with such noise that [it] was almost deafening."
"Daylight revealed," the Hamilton paper said, "that the car and rails had been moved fully three feet during the night" in a zigzag pattern. The report said a livery barn had been blown to "such a position as to afford a sort of barrier for the car. The building threw the water in another direction and this probably prevented the car from being floated away."
It had been raining several days, dumping more than two inches on Hamilton by late Tuesday, Feb. 23. Water swept over the banks of the Miami-Erie Canal in the eastern part of Hamilton. Small bridges and rural roads washed away in several places, including a mile and half stretch near Okeana. Other roads were impassable because of high water. All or parts of some villages flooded when nearby streams overflowed. Livestock drowned in farm fields.
Tuesday night residents of Coke Otto (New Miami) had been "aroused from beds by the clang of church and school bells" as Four Mile Creek ran out of its banks. The bells were used when it was realized there wasn't enough time to go house-to-house to spread the flood warning.
After midnight Wednesday, Feb. 24, a railroad disaster was averted by Jesse Huston, a Seven Mile resident and Pennsylvania Railroad section hand. He alerted and stopped an eastbound PRR passenger train before it reached a 60-foot washout at Seven Mile.
Part of the Big Four (New York Central) line near Monroe also had been undermined, but train crews were warned before approaching the area.
Wednesday night, Feb. 24, when he departed Hamilton, the motorman on the northbound interurban car wasn't aware of the worsening situation in the Coke Otto, Overpeck, Seven Mile and Trenton areas. After rounding a curve north of Coke Otto, he saw water on the tracks. Assuming it was only about four inches deep, he proceeded, but quickly stalled.
He tried to back the car toward Hamilton. That maneuver failed because the depth of the water had reached four feet. Fortunately, another attempt to continue north got nowhere. If that had succeeded, the car would have crashed east of Trenton where the track had washed out.
In the early hours of Thursday, crew members on the interurban had no way to communicate their danger. They weren't aware if anyone knew their plight, or if rescue was possible.
An interurban passenger, identified only as a traveling salesman from Springfield, Ohio, suggested prayer. "Then all of the passengers kneeled and the salesman prayed to save the occupants from death. The service ended with a psalm," the Cincinnati Post reported. "The seats were then turned into beds for the women and children. The men stationed themselves at the doors and did guard duty for the remainder of the night."
At daylight Thursday, the stalled interurban car was pulled out of the water.
# # #
Watch tower considered for Hamilton fire detection
By Jim Blount
Visualize a high watch tower in downtown Hamilton, manned by one or more men scanning all parts of the city for evidence of smoke or fire. That was part of a fire protection plan considered in 1884 as the city approached a major improvement -- activation of a municipal water system.
In 1882, by a lopsided 81.3 percent, Hamilton voters approved formation of a city water system. In 1883, the Ohio General Assembly passed the necessary enabling act. City council authorized $300,000 in bonds for a reservoir, wells and mains to distribute water through the city that had 12,122 inhabitants, according to the 1880 census. That averaged about $25 per resident in 1883, or more than $500 today, allowing for inflation.
The first water flowed July 19, 1884. The 37-mile system had a pumping capacity of 300,000 gallons a day and served 2,604 customers. The system also supplied 300 new fire hydrants -- a dramatic upgrade from unreliable cisterns and water buckets. Other sources were the river, canal and hydraulic, when they weren't frozen or dry because of drought.
Starting in 1827, Hamilton had a volunteer fire department. It was an imperfect system. Although each company had nearly 100 members, it was uncertain if enough men would answer an alarm and how long it would take them to arrive at the fire scene.
Some citizens volunteered for the fire companies because of a valuable perk. Volunteers were excused from paying a city street tax or performing road work in lieu of the tax. Training was rudimentary and often ignored.
By the end of the Civil War (1865), there were three horse-drawn steam fire engines at three stations and the firemen were paid, not volunteers. The department was headed by an elected fire chief.
In 1883, as the water system progressed, the 30-man department operated three steam engines and a ladder truck.
The availability of hydrants around town promised to change the way the department fought fires. A few months before completion of the water system, Hamilton city council considered some alternatives for fire protection. In March 1884, a newspaper reported one possibility that included closing existing fire stations, selling the property and building new and additional stations.
The report said, "in the first place, the [water] works will be thoroughly tested for at least six months after they have been turned over to the city, and no disposition will be made of any [fire] engine until council is satisfied that the works will do as expected."
"If the test is satisfactory," the article said, an "idea is to sell all of the present property belonging to the department."
A new feature would be "a [fire] house and tall watch tower in the very center of the city" on a site formerly occupied by a blacksmith shop, "in the rear of the opera house" (the Globe Opera House at the southeast corner of High Street and Journal Square).
"On this tower a man should keep watch continually," the writer explained. "This should be the station of the reserve engine which should answer all alarms from the suburbs. The bell upon this tower should be struck by electricity and the alarm communicated to all the other stations."
The writer didn't identify the source of electricity. There was neither a public nor a private electric-generating system in Hamilton in 1884. Municipal electric generation started in 1895.
According to the 1884 proposal, "in the First Ward [West Side] a reel house should be built further up Main Street than the present engine house and in a more central locality. The Third Ward house would be placed somewhere on [North] Third Street near Heaton, and the Second Ward [station] moved further down towards the southern part of the city."
It was suggested that "a fifth [fire] house would be erected on extreme East High Street, so that it could answer alarms either from the Fourth or Fifth Ward."
Despite the plans, there were no changes in Hamilton fire protection after the start of municipal water service, except a political one. Beginning in 1885, the fire chief was appointed by the mayor instead of being elected by Hamilton voters.
# # #
Ox College continues to serve community
By Jim Blount
Ox College -- a reminder of the decades when Oxford was home to female institutions of higher education -- is alive and well. The building at the southwest corner of High Street and College Avenue in Oxford housed students for the last time in 1998, when it was said to be the oldest surviving women's college building in the United States.
Ox College -- for 70 years a Miami University women's residence hall -- began a new life in December 2000. That's when Miami University trustees authorized a long term lease with the Oxford Community Arts Center. The OCAC had formed two years earlier with the purpose of preserving and finding new uses for the structure.
For about five years, OCAC has been converting the building into the Oxford Community Arts Center, home of a community theater, art gallery, studios for artists and other varied uses. It also promotes arts education in providing programs and activities for many ages and interests. For example, a children's educational garden was developed on the grounds this year. During the summer, the garden was the site of a related educational program for ages 6 through 11.
Ox College -- on the National Register of Historic Place since 1976 -- was the popular abbreviation for the school's formal name, Oxford College. But Oxford College wasn't its original designation.
It began in 1849 as a modest two-story brick building, housing the Oxford Female Institute. The school, chartered Feb. 23, 1849, was financed by Oxford residents. It was directed by the Rev. John Witherspoon Scott, who was the OFI president until 1855.
Scott was the father of a future First Lady, Caroline Scott Harrison, an 1853 graduate of OFI. Scott was no stranger in Oxford in 1849. He had joined the Miami University faculty in 1828 and was ordained by the Presbytery of Oxford in 1830.
The Presbyterian clergyman remained at Miami until forced to leave in 1845. Scott directed the Oxford Female Institute for six years, until 1855, and was president of a rival school, the Oxford Female College for four years (1855-1859).
OFI's 1849 building had its first expansion in 1856 when a three-story building on its south side was attached at the second floor by a latticed walkway. Eventually, the present building would combine four structures.
Financial problems during the Civil War, 1861-65, and following years led to the closure of several colleges, male and female. Oxford Female Institute and Oxford Female College avoided collapse by uniting in June 1867 under the Oxford Female College name.
It became Oxford College April 29, 1890. A new corporation, Oxford College for Women, was formed June 6, 1906.
Tougher state standards led to another transition in 1928. "The state of Ohio decreed two years ago against two-year courses in home economics," stated a letter to Oxford College alumnae. "The second blow from the state came this spring when they decreed that this was the last year our girls could be awarded teacher's certificates in Ohio."
"Our college has not paid its way since 1924," the letter said. In a Dec. 8, 1828, agreement, Miami University acquired Ox College property and assumed the school's debts.
More than the building has survived under the direction of the Oxford Community Arts Center. With assistance from several organizations, some Ox College memories also have been preserved in a collection compiled by Diane Stemper. Building Memory, Inventing the Future Year Book is described as "a collection of images and stories charting the historical progress of a building."
An example is an excerpt from a 1913 publication by the Student Self-Governing Association: "Student restriction: keep off High Street. Do not go off the block without a chaperone." It added that chaperones are required for going to a physician; walking in the evening; to "drive, to ride, to go automobiling;" for all engagements with men; for all games away from college; and for "picnics in the country."