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Ohio troop train collision remembered 70 years later

Train on the railroad tracks. (PxFuel/Released)
September 15, 2020

A horrendous sound the morning of Sept. 11, 1950, woke June Markley from a sound sleep, making her sit straight up in bed. It was the last good night’s sleep the then-13-year-old would get for a while as images from the day would stick with her.

A rail disaster 70 years ago near West Lafayette, Ohio, killed 33 soldiers and injured another 278.

Bob Jones, 17 at the time, can still vividly recall the strewn body parts and pools of blood.

The wreck was a major historical event that changed many lives and served as a testimonial to how the people of Coshocton County pulled together in a crisis.

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The crash

The wreck occurred in the early, foggy hours of Sept. 11, 1950, when the Spirit of St. Louis, a passenger train with 240 people aboard, crashed into the back of a Pennsylvania Guard troop train that was heading for Camp Atterbury in Indiana.

The troop train was carrying the 28th division, the 109th infantry regiment of Carbondale and Honesdale, Pennsylvania, and the 109th field artillery battalion from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. All were on their way to complete training after being called into service during the Korean War.

After a rupture in the air-brake hose stalled the troop train for about five minutes near West Lafayette, the passenger train, en route from New York to St. Louis, plowed into the rear of the stopped train around 5 a.m. The training was traveling at 48 mph and members of the field artillery unit were resting. The train’s engineer would later testify he was running late and going too fast.

Rescue teams burned through the steel with acetylene torches to remove trapped bodies from the wreckage. All dead and injured were from the troop train, according to the Interstate Commerce Commission. The bodies arrived in Wilkes-Barre three days later, where 200,000 people lined the streets to pay their respects.

Lasting tributes

A memorial maker was placed on Ohio 93 near the railroad tracks in West Lafayette, less than a mile west of where the crash occurred. Local historian Dan Markley of the West Lafayette Historical Society has also preserved many remembrances of the day such as photos, newspaper clippings and even a cot used by soldiers traveling on the train.

Dan was 12 years old at the time of the disaster and lived behind the Coshocton Armory. He remembers lying on a bank and watching soldiers being carried into the building through the back door.

The historical society worked with the Age of Steam Roundhouse Museum in Sugarcreek for a virtual Steam to Victory event that commemorated the disaster on Friday and Saturday. Social media sites of the museum featured a series of posts and videos exploring aspects of wartime railroading, materials related to that history and information and images depicting the troop train collision. Some items will also be on display in the museum’s exhibit building in September and October.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a large public ceremony to honor the 70th anniversary was not held. A private ceremony featuring reenactors in period military uniform and the placement of a wreath was conducted at the memorial on Ohio 93.

Vivid memories

June Markley, Dan’s wife, lived on Seventh Street in West Lafayette. The crash woke her up. Her mother told her not to go up to the railroad tracks, but she did anyway. Her brother worked for the railroad as a welder and helped cut the wreckage to free the soldiers.

“I saw all those bodies. I didn’t sleep or eat for a week,” she said. “My brother, he couldn’t sleep or eat either.”

Jones, president of the Coshocton County Korean War Veterans Association, worked in his father’s restaurant, Dobby’s, at the time. He was getting ready to open for the day when Bill Wallace, then-owner of the Coshocton Tribune, came in. He had taken an ambulance from Glass Funeral Home and was looking for help.

Jones went with Wallace without knowing what was happening. He was filled in as they flew down the curvy roads through the early morning fog. He and Bill put injured on gurneys and put them in the ambulance.

“I saw heads. I saw arms. I saw ears. I saw everything. There was a big pool of blood,” Jones said.

After being turned away from a site in West Lafayette and Coshocton Hospital, they took the injured to the armory. After unloading, Wallace was ready to go back for more, but not Jones.

“Bill said, ‘C’mon we’re going back up.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not going back up, you’re going back up, but you’re not getting me back in that ambulance,’ ” Jones said. “I just couldn’t see any more of it. We got stuck in the blood while we were trying to get out of there. The wheels were just spinning on the ambulance, I’ll never forget that.”

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© 2020 the Akron Beacon Journal