In mid-20th century America, a heartwarming Rockwellian drama played out in living rooms every Christmas Day. Presents were opened, and the room became a happily confused welter of ribbons and wrapping paper, punctuated with all manner of shiny new toys.
A radiantly cheerful fire crackled in the fireplace. The air was filled with the sounds of juvenile glee. But one discordant note sounded in the midst of this merriment. For one boy, Christmas had not turned out to be all he hoped. The pile of bright new presents before him lacked one crucial item. Bravely, he feigned satisfaction, little knowing he was but an unwitting player in a greater drama.
Then, as if by magic, Father produced one final present: a large, flat box. The mopey lad came alive in a sudden burst of Christmas morning enthusiasm. His eyes glowing, he frenetically tore off the wrapping paper and all but destroyed the box in his haste to open it even though he knew exactly what was inside: an HO-scale model train. His Christmas was now complete.
The afternoon was spent in an idyllic father/son project of assembling the tracks. By dinner time, Junior was adeptly running his own railroad—coupling and uncoupling trains, operating the switches, and skillfully guiding the train over the yards of track winding throughout the living room.
And, sure as death and taxes, before bedtime Junior staged his first model train wreck.
Fortunately for American railroads back then, most children were content staging head-on collisions between scale models of the Cannonball Express and the 20th Century Limited. But throughout the middle of the last century, mayhem at 1/87 scale was not enough for a small, hardcore group. These baby-faced train wreckers preferred playing with real rolling stock.
Even the casual student of 20th century railroad history knows that these youngsters fought their long-running war with a bitterness exceeding that of the legendary railroad strikes. Their antics liberally littered the tracks of America with shattered railcars and mangled bodies, with casualties heavy on both sides. As one veteran railroad detective put it, “Ask any railroad police officer what his principal worry is and there is little doubt that his reply will be juveniles.” Give American youth a free hand and rail traffic would grind to a thundering halt.
Even fragmentary statistics—and railroads prefer to keep them as fragmentary as possible—tell a grim story. Reportedly over 75 percent of all cases of track tampering, signal resetting, and barricade building in the good old days were traced to children. The plight of the Long Island Railroad in 1931 offered a rare glimpse of the rail yard as a playground for a menacing breed of “Little Rascals.” Out of desperation, officials mounted a publicity campaign aimed at school principals and clergymen to help curb “mischievous and malicious practices” of local kids on railroad property.
The railroad had already arrested 326 boys in the first four months of the year. The crimes read like the laundry list of dedicated saboteurs. Equipment stolen or vandalized. Rocks thrown and guns fired at passing trains. Some enterprising lads put stolen lanterns to use, waving locomotives to unscheduled and potentially lethal stops. But the hands-down favorite was piling debris on the tracks. In those few short months, track workers and railroad police removed iron rods and tire rims from the electric third rail, and boards, auto parts, rocks, and at least one small building from the tracks proper. And this was no Depression-era aberration. In the ’40s and ’50s, around 80 kids under 14 were killed, and a good many more maimed, each year on railroad property. It’s a safe bet they weren’t all taking a shortcut to the library.
Probably the most widespread, yet least-reported phase of this long running conflict can be summed up in a simple phrase: trains make great moving targets. At times, it seemed as if passenger trains could proceed through certain areas only if accompanied by a shower of stones punctuated with the occasional bullet.
Newspaper accounts of this brand of juvenile devilry are few and far between; railroads liked to keep the incidents quiet to prevent a rash of copycat attacks. Typical incidents include one in the Bronx in 1934, when a trio of boys, none older than 10, enlivened the evening commute by pegging some 13 trains within an hour, injuring 23 passengers. In 1947 in nearby Queens, five more young lads were apprehended following a similar spate of broken windows and injured passengers.
They steadfastly maintained their innocence, only copping to innocently throwing rocks at wheels, tracks, and overhead wires. It was the forever un-apprehended “other boys” who had done the real damage. It wasn’t unusual for lines caught in a “stoning” fad to report a thousand broken windows and a hundred injuries in a year. And shootings, while rare, were far more lethal. In August 1953, a 13-year old boy taking a few pot shots with his friends down by the tracks managed to kill a brakeman.
But stoning and shooting at trains were just small potatoes ... kid stuff, if you will. They only offer momentary thrills. Real kicks, as any enterprising young vandal can tell you, come from real train wrecks. Imagine 20 tons of locomotive suddenly torn, as if by magic, from the rails. Behind it, the cars scattered about like ninepins. Wood, metal, and glass are smashed together in an entangled mass. The roar of the crash gave way to the ominous hiss of steam. And that boom—could it be a boiler explosion? Any child witnessing this horrific spectacle can have but one reaction: Cool!
Children were not implicated in any of the major malicious derailments of the 20th century. This was not for a lack of effort on their part. It takes technical knowledge, hard work, and careful choice of location to cause a massive derailment. Time and time again, children demonstrated no shortage of these first two qualities of the successful train wrecker. But, impulsive little devils that they are, they just couldn’t be bothered with trudging 50 miles out into the middle of the desert to kill a few dozen more people. Much like big brother’s gang’s preference for local rumbles,they preferred the convenience of indulging in their hobby close to home. They may have never caused a major wreck, but the little fellows were behind a startling amount of trackside mayhem and carnage.
One is struck by the effort these young vandals put in. It’s difficult to decide what shocked parents more. Was it the fact that the apple of their eye callously destroyed thousands of dollars of property while possibly maiming or killing a few innocent people in the process? Or was it the fact that their son, who reacted to a request to take out the garbage as if it was banishment to a Nazi labor camp, voluntarily spent hours hauling hundreds of pounds of debris uphill to pile on the tracks?
Perhaps the most elegant and least work-intensive means of wreaking havoc along the rails was the simple reset switch. Imagine the look on the engineer’s face when his train, traveling at full speed, took a sudden, unexpected detour onto a siding. Well! That was a Kodak moment in anyone’s book.
Switch tampering is easier said than done.Railroads routinely keep them locked and only distribute the keys to authorized personnel. Most switches also trigger a signal when they are thrown to warn an alert engineer and remove the essential element of surprise. But the system isn’t foolproof and children are no fools. When all goes well, the results are truly sublime. The express train hurtles along the main track. Suddenly, it’s as if a giant hand brutally pushes it aside. Within seconds, locomotives and cars are flying akimbo, possibly colliding with other trains on adjacent track. It ends with rolling stock turned to piles of mangled wreckage—all from the clever manipulation of a few levers.
Kids of all ages got into the act. Police investigating a minor yard derailment in Washington in the ’50s were surprised when the only person they could place near the mis-set switch (which had been accidentally left unlocked) was a 4-year-old boy. But they were stunned when said preschooler demonstrated just how he’d thrown the switch to cause the wreck.
But switch setting is generally the work of older, wiser naughty children. One of the most memorable wrecks of this type was the work of William G., the son of a sharecropper. At 15, he was perhaps a trifle old for “naughty child” status, but he was still in 7th grade.
One day in 1950 outside Holland, Missouri,the barefoot lad carefully set the stage to reenact a scene he’d seen in a recent movie about the Dalton Gang. Armed with a hacksaw, he sawed through a switch lock and reset the switch for the siding near his father’s farm. To avoid any last-minute braking by the engineer, he also smashed the signal light so the switch looked like it was still set for the main track. As the next train wasn’t due over the line until early the next morning, he walked back home and went to bed. He later claimed he never intended to derail the train. He just wanted it to veer onto the siding and veer back onto the main line as some kind of a big joke. Ha! Ha!
William was safely in bed when the Memphian, the crack Memphis-to-St. Louis express, thundered by at 2:30am. It took the switch at 57 mph. The results were no joke. The locomotive and the tender were torn from the tracks, tumbling onto their sides and dragging two baggage cars with them. Two passenger cars also derailed. The locomotive was so badly smashed it took rescuers four hours to free the body of the engineer, the wreck’s lone fatality. The fireman had been seriously scalded by the steam but was thrown clear and survived. Twelve passengers also suffered minor injuries. It didn’t take too long to catch William. This had been a long-term project of his. Other farmers spotted him the previous week, trying to break open the lock without a hacksaw.
A less elegant, more labor-intensive, and far more popular way to keep trains from running on time was simply piling junk on the tracks—the more, the better. Rare is the train track without a plentiful supply of stones, rocks, spikes, and other industrial debris conveniently located nearby. A little sweat, some elbow grease, and a bit of luck, and any boy could be his own train wrecker.
This was how one of the most dramatic and successful examples of juvenile train wrecking happened. The scene was the small town of Walton, Indiana; the year, 1947. One day after school, Jack S.,12, and his 11-year old pal Lysle G. amused themselves by riding their bikes around the village. By dusk, a light snow began to fall. The boys were bored; one can only do so much riding around a community with a population of barely 700. When Jack said, “Let’s go over and wreck a train,” his suggestion fell on receptive ears.
The lads rode over the tracks. They started by putting a plank on the tracks. They stepped back to admire their handiwork. It didn’t look like much. So they added a few steel fence posts. Better, but still not good enough. Nearby was a roll of wire fencing weighing almost 200 pounds. They laboriously dragged it 20 feet uphill to add to their rapidly-growing barrier. After heaving it on top of the plank and posts, they stepped back with a sigh of satisfaction. Now, that was a good, substantial barrier. They’d like to see a train get by that one.
But slowly, reality set in. They realized that they’d just piled several hundred pounds of junk on the tracks. And as soon as a train hit all that stuff, they’d be in a whole lot of trouble. So they reacted the way any naughty child does when he or she loses their nerve: they went home.
That is how the young train wreckers missed the biggest show ever to play Walton. An hour later, a passenger train hit the barrier. The train stayed on the tracks—at first. But the wire was hopelessly ensnared in the locomotive’s front wheels. It pushed the roll of wire along until the wire snagged a switch in the center of town. This jerked the front of the locomotive from the rails, sending it careening along the track bed and tearing up 2,000 feet of track before the rear wheels finally left the rails. The engine, now free of the tracks, spun around and fell over. It dragged six other cars with it. They crashed into a grain elevator and freight cars on nearby sidings. When the wreckage was finally cleared, the toll stood at four dead (the fireman and three passengers) and 23 passengers injured.
It didn’t take the police very long to crack this one. The following week, they hauled Jack in for a few burglaries he’d pulled the weekend before the train wreck. But they had a pretty good idea that his naughtiness went beyond a few B&Es. Nonchalantly, in the middle of a bunch of questions about the break-ins they asked him, “Say, did you put the wire on the track before or after dark?” Jack blundered straight into the trap. He innocently answered, “Why, it was after dark.” The cat now out of the bag, he quickly told the whole story. Lysle quickly joined his pal into the clink.
At first, some people doubted that such little fellows could drag all that junk up onto the tracks. So, for the benefit of the police and the papers, the boys staged a reenactment. As the cops filmed and the scribes scribbled, they demonstrated exactly how, grunting and heaving, they’d hauled that heavy roll of fencing up onto the tracks. To the amazement of spectators, it only took them 15 minutes. And they had just as much fun the second time around. As one reporter described the scene, “At times, they smiled and appeared to be enjoying the ‘play,’ apparently not fully aware of its tragic implications.”
The halcyon days of juvenile train wrecking have passed. The roar of locomotives has been replaced by the thunder of trucks in the nation’s transit industry. Tracks have been abandoned and train traffic reduced, even as a network of heavily-traveled freeways has spread across the land. The bulk of thrill-seeking youngsters have been carefully removed from urban cores to remote suburbs zealously zoned to keep railroads out.
For many deprived children today, the Christmas model-train wrecks will be as close as they will ever come to the real thing. The decline of American railroads has had one fringe benefit for workers and passengers: no longer are the shiny rails the tracks of temptation.
Vintage train wreck photos by born1945.
John Marr is the former editor of the zine Murder Can Be Fun.
This article originally appeared in Murder Can Be Fun and has been republished with permission.