THIS ARTICLE CONCERNS THE DEATH OF MY GRANDFATHER, EVERETT HUGH WOODBURY, IN A SPECTACULAR ACCIDENT AT A RAILROAD CROSSING IN CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS IN 1945.
[photo caption] CRUMBLED BY EXPRESS TRAIN
The cab of the truck in which Everett H. Woodbury lost his life when hit by the “Minute Man” in Cambridge is shown nearly a half mile from scene of crash. Cab was carried from Sherman st. grade crossing to Walden st. bridge on train’s cow-catcher.
The first article is transcribed verbatim (with errors) from a long, two-part newspaper clipping (see scans at the end of this article) and is followed by a transcription of a separate short clipping. No date appears on either clipping nor identity of the newspaper that is the source of either. According to family history, Everett Woodbury’s death occurred around 13 March 1945. The Lowell Sun clipping at the bottom substantiates that it took place 21 March 1945.
(Can anyone tell me the road number of the Boston & Maine locomotive that struck my grandfather’s truck?)
[headline]…DIES AS TRAIN WRECKS TRUCK
Driver Is Killed as Crossing Gates Are Raised by Error and Traffic Proceeds in Path of Express
Waved into the path of a speeding “Minute Man” express train by a gate-tender who said he became confused and failed to hear the signal of the express, a Cambridge coal truck driver was instantly killed and at least six other motorists barely escaped the same fate at the Sherman st. grade crossing in North Cambridge last evening. Everett H. Woodbury, 46, of 2131 Massachusetts ave., North Cambridge, who came down from Bangor, Me., two years ago to take a driver’s job with the H. L. Carstein Coal Co. of 47 Coggswell ave., Cambridge, was the victim.
His truck, sixth in line of a vehicular stream waved by accident across the grade crossing by Gate-Tender Bernard J. Gibbons, 60, of 22 Beech st., Cambridge, took the full impact of the speeding engine of the “Minute Man” on an express run from Chicago to Boston and was scattered into hundreds of twisted pieces of metal and carried for nearly a half mile along the tracks.
Only by a fraction of an inch did a passenger car in which three persons were riding escape a similar fate. The unidentified driver managed to speed up his motor and pull into a zone of safety just before the express train came hurtling down the tracks on its fatal trip. A passenger car directly in back of Woodbury’s truck managed to come to a stop a bare six inches from the train’s path.
But the heavy, two-ton coal truck, caught directly in the centre tracks of the crossing was smashed to bits. The back end was tossed feather-like to the eastbound tracks, 20 feet away, and bit by bit the rest of the battered truck was ripped and smashed along the half-mile stretch as the speeding train ground to a halt some 800 yards away from the crossing.
The driver was tossed from his cab to the cowcatcher and became wedged under the front end of the train’s engine. It required an emergency crew nearly 30 minutes to cut him free, but doctors said he had died the instant the truck was smashed at the crossing by the speeding train.
The fatal accident, first on that grade crossing in more than two decades, was caused when the gatetender, Bernard Gibbons, raised the bars at the edge of the six-train tracks and signaled on a double line of automobile and truck traffic that had been halted only a few minutes before, at 5:56 p.m. to allow two trains, a westbound local and an eastbound freight train to proceed over the crossing.
The freight pulled suddenly into a siding just before it reached the Sherman st. crossing, Gibbons said, and the local train steamed slowly over the crossing and pulled up at a signal station where the conductor got off and entered the building to make a telephone report.
Believing the rail traffic ended, Gibbons said he raised the bars and signalled the trains [original article says “trains” but clearly meant “traffic”] over the crossing. “I became confused” he said, “I didn’t hear the signal of the approaching express train. It just appeared . . . suddenly . . . and before I could lower the bars again the train was bearing down on the column of cars.”
Gibbons said he was rooted to the spot and didn’t see the fatal crash. “All I saw,” he murmured, ”was the train and the slowly moving line of vehicles. Then I heard a crash . . . I don’t remember anything else.”
By a strange quirk of fate Woodbury’s helper, Michael Leahy of 11 Montgomery st., North Cambridge, nephew of Police Chief Timothy F. Leahy, escaped his driver’s fate because he left the truck to accept a ride home from a friend only a few minutes before the crash.
Leahy, who usually rides to the company’s garage on Richdale ave., only a few hundred yards from the accident scene, last night got off the truck at the corner of Rindge ave. and Sherman st. and waved his co-worker a “good night – see you tomorrow.”
Police found three pairs of rubbers strewn along the tracks and believing the Leahy was also a victim of the crash searched the scene for more than three hours trying to find a trace of him. He collapsed on learning the fate of his driver.
A witness to the fatal crash was 10-year-old Albert Girouard of 134 Sherman st., whose house is directly across from the grade crossing. Albert told police he was sitting by his bedroom window looking over the tracks when the crash happened.
“I saw the bars go down and saw a long line of traffic halt,” he said, “then I saw the bars go up again, and just at that minute I saw the ‘Minute Man’ approaching. I tried to shout, but it was no good. Five of the cars got over all right. The truck was caught right in the middle of the crossing and was hit directly on the cab. Half the truck was split apart and dumped to the side. I watched in horror as the rest of the truck was carried along the rails, dropping off bit by bit, until the engine was dropped near the Walden st. bridge.”
Everett Hugh Woodbury, the victim, was identified at Watson’s Mortuary, Cambridge, by his employer. He was a native of Winthrop, Me., and had resided in Bangor, Me., for many years before coming to Cambridge to work two years ago. His wife still resides in Bangor. A son, Donald, is in the navy serving aboard a ship in the Pacific.
[From another clipping:]
Killed as Gates Open Accidentally
CAMBRIDGE, March 22. (UP) – When a gate tender at a Cambridge crossing accidentally raised the gates last night, Everett H. Woodbury, 46, Cambridge truck driver, drove his coal truck into the path of a passenger train and was killed.
[From yet another unidentified newspaper:]
INQUEST ON TRAIN VICTIM APRIL 5
Judge Arthur P. Stone set April 5 for an inquest in the Third District Court, East Cambridge, into the death of Everett H. Woodbury, 46, coal driver killed by the Minute Man express in North Cambridge. The date was announced following a conference of Chief Timothy F. Leahy and Dist. Atty. George Thompson.
[End of quoted newspaper clippings.]
NOTES ON THE ABOVE
I only found the foregoing lengthy article and smaller clippings in late 2003, when I was 53 years old, in some things my late father left behind, five years after his passing in 1998.
Nobody talked about my grandfather when I was a kid. I knew that he had left my grandmother in Livermore Falls, Maine, with five children, and he had worked in Cambridge during the war. It was clear that my grandmother resented him, and I thought it was for his dying that she was angry. I knew that he had been killed by a train somewhere, and somewhere along the way I was led to believe that my grandmother believed he might have committed suicide-by-train.
Hugh, probably high school photo
That’s all I ever gleaned, and once I was grown I didn’t inquire further. In the mid-1990s, after our grandmother was gone, one of my cousins, Danny, began researching the family tree, tracing the wives of my father’s bigamist brother, Donald, and turning up some missing first cousins in Indiana, whom Danny brought to Maine for a “re”union. But there was still no talk of Hugh, (Everett Hugh), our grandfather. Then my father died in 1998, and many of his old papers came to me. The newspaper clipping in the attached document came from that collection.
Hugh pouring something from a bottle to a glass
In 2004, when I had a stopover in Boston while traveling alone to someplace farther, I used the information in the article about Hugh’s death and took a taxi to find the railroad crossing in Cambridge described in the article. It’s a phenomenon that won’t happen often in anyone’s lifetime; it’s virtually unchanged in 60 years. It’s only a few blocks from the Harvard campus. The taxi driver found Walden Street first and we crossed the short, high bridge over the tracks under which Hugh’s truck cab came to rest.
Then the taxi driver drove around and connected with Sherman Street. He waited for me while I explored the crossing and studied the site. There are still two sets of tracks that cross Sherman Street. Even though it was after dark, thanks to the streetlights the Walden Street bridge was clearly visible a half mile away, along with the brick building whose side appears in the newspaper photo. The houses around the crossing are all at least 60 years old and would have been the ones standing at the time of the wreck. Both Sherman Street and Walden Street are narrow, and the bridge is a short (60 to 80 foot) gondola-style bridge that very likely was the one there at the time of the wreck. Since the article isn’t dated (and the newspaper identification is missing), I mistakenly believed that the clipping was from 1944, so last year I thought I was standing on the site on about the 60th anniversary of the accident. That, in fact, came a year after I was there.
In the summer of 2004, using the Internet, I researched the name Albert Girouard, the 10-year-old witness to the accident, and found two listings in Massachusetts by that name. I wrote to both. I received one reply, from a woman responding for one of the two gentlemen but sent from a third address, so I don’t know which one she represented, explaining that he was not the one in the article. I never heard from the other.
Then, in my cousin’s genealogy, I discovered that I was off by a year in Hugh’s date of death. I wrote to one aunt, my father’s sister, Virginia, and she agreed that we should meet some day to talk, but she was perpetually busy and so we procrastinated – until she suddenly died. I’ve also found a document, signed by Hugh’s mother to permit him to enlist, and on it she attests that his name is Hugh Everett Woodbury…
Hugh in a colorized photo
But I haven’t explained yet what, to me, is the most intriguing part of this story.
The Minute Man Express was a Boston & Maine train. For road engines, the B&M had 25 modern Berkshire locomotives (wheel arrangement 2-8-4) and ten modern Pacifics (wheel arrangement 4-6-2) on the roster at the time of the accident, all built by Lima Locomotive Works. It is a near certainty that it was one of these that struck my grandfather’s coal truck, and I would certainly like to find out which one, because four years after his father was killed, my father was let out of the Coast Guard and went to Florida with a friend and met a young school teacher on the beach and married her there, and then I was born (in 1950). The young teacher, my mother, was from Lima, Ohio. When I was a year and a half old, they moved us to Maine to live briefly with my grandmother, then to Lima, where I grew up. Upon arriving in Lima, my father immediately took a job at Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton Corporation, successor to the Lima Locomotive Works, and I have a treasure trove of photos and documents from there, some of which he brought home from work, some of which he later collected, and some of which I have continued to collect.
He also started me down the lifelong ambition to build a respectable model railroad. Our first joint effort was a card-tabletop HO “layout” started when I was about five years old, set up in my parents’ bedroom. I recall sneaking into their room to run it myself, and I still have the plastic shell of a Burlington diesel, partially melted on top, evidence that I had played with the train on that little card table and failed to shut it down completely afterward. (I had been caught but forgiven.) He collected several model railroad pieces as I was growing up in Lima, all of which I still own, and while I was still young we built a large flat layout on two sheets of plywood laid up in an L-shape. In the meantime we dabbled in Lionel as well.
My father’s source for most HO equipment was Ralph Molder, owner of Molder’s Brake and Spring in Lima. At times, I visited the huge layout in Ralph’s basement. Does anyone else remember that shop nowadays?
When I was an older teenager, we finally returned to Maine. I finished high school in Farmington, (Sandy River & Rangely Lakes country, with plenty of evidence still around then), left for college and the Army (ask me later about living in Monterey for a year just before John Allen died), and then came home, married my wife in 1975, had children, and dreamed of building the ultimate layout.
In 2000, my wife and I moved to our present home, which has the basement space I need, and which is almost completely cleared of the residue from moving. I’m forcing other things to allow me the time to secure and clear the area. And it was in the process of clearing the space that I turned up that clipping.
So I wonder: Did my father, early on, learn something about the locomotive that had struck his father? Did he then make an association with the girl on the beach and conclude that there was some “destiny” involved? Even if not – and yet what a profound coincidence that he found her – did his interest in model railroading somehow grow out of a morbid fascination with his father’s death?
My mother, who is still living, doesn’t know. None of us will now know what he knew or thought. But I would be most pleased of all to find, in someone’s recollection or in a record of that accident, the number on the side of that locomotive involved in that wreck. I have a list of all the nearly 7,000 locomotives built by Lima, what railroad purchased them, the road numbers, and other specs. I have received replies from a couple of historians. One of the gentlemen, who is with the B&M Historical Society, said it was either number 3717, 3718, or 3719 that was pulling that train. The other historian says that number 3717 was assigned to that run consistently in 1945. Those numbers are among the ten Pacific-type (4-6-2) locomotives, numbers 3710 – 3719, built by Lima for high-speed passenger service on the B&M.
It is a further irony that, in the summer of 1976, I worked at the Museum of Science in Boston, and number 3713 was on static display in front of the museum at that time. (I knew it, of course, as a Lima locomotive at that time, but didn’t associate it with anything so personal then.)
I also wrote to the current Cambridge Chronicle and the City of Cambridge asking about records of the Third District Court of East Cambridge, to see whether there might be identification of the number of that locomotive. The City kindly replied that the records were unavailable, but they did send me additional glossy photos of the twisted cab of the coal truck, taken the next day after it had been hauled off the tracks.
There it rests, and so, it seems, must I.
David A. Woodbury