Tag Archives: trains

THE VALENTINE HEARD ROUND THE WORLD STOPPED IN TOLEDO

It’s Valentine’s day, and one of the largest and most enduring valentines ever received in the United States happened this week, some 63 year ago, in 1949. And you may not know it, but a piece of that once famous valentine resides in Northwest Ohio.  It was called the “Gratitude Train”, or the Merci Train.  A 49 box car train of thank you’s extended to the citizens of the United States from the citizens of France.   Each of the cars filled with hundreds of gifts, artifacts and treasures, large and small, from the French people, as a heartfelt expression of gratitude for the American’s outpouring of love in the form of the famous “Friendship Train” of 1947.

This was the train that Americans sent to help French families get back on their feet after enduring the ravages of World War Two.  The Friendship Train, first proposed by columnist Drew Pearson inspired some 20 million Americans to donate enough items of food, clothing, medicine, money, toys and books to fill 700 boxcars that traveled the nation’s breadth on its way to New York where it was shipped to France.

Overwhelmed by the generosity of the Americans, the French citizens in February of 1949 reciprocated, sending their own Merci Train to the Americans.   It arrived in New York Harbor by ship on February 2nd, 1949 and each state was designated to receive one of the boxcars. The gifts in the 49th car were to be divided between Washington D.C. and the territory of Hawaii.

The Merci Train Arrives in the U.S.

In Ohio, the small four wheeled World War I era boxcar, known as a Voiture, or a 40 and 8 car because it could either carry 40 men or eight horses , arrived in Cleveland on the 10th of February.   Thousands of residents of that city, along with a host of public officials flocked to visit the special wooden boxcar and to view the gifts packed inside. From Cleveland, the car would  make several stops in other cities around the state, including Toledo, where Mayor Michael V. Disalle (who would later become Governor),  and a welcoming committee turned out on a cold February day at Union Station to feel the warmth of the grateful French nation.  Inside the Ohio boxcar was a collection of items that included art, wine, cheeses, toys, books, clothing, needlework , French family heirlooms, war medals, and letters from individuals who personally offered their thanks for all the Americans had done.

Merci Boxcar Now Displayed at Camp Perry

So whatever happened to that boxcar?  Well, it’s right here in Northwest Ohio,  proudly displayed at Camp Perry near Port Clinton.  In fact,  it has been at the Camp since 1950, where it was taken after the Ohio tour in 1949. The gray wooden boxcar was parked on the grounds of the military post in Ottawa County and then largely forgotten over the years.  But  in 1986, a group of local volunteers and historians,  brought the car and its meaning back to life with a restoration effort.  In November of that year, the freshly renewed piece of history was dedicated and opened to visitors at Camp Perry.   And over the past 25 years it has been restored two more times.  In 1998, after suffering tornado damage  and again in 2006, when it got a new coat of paint and a display of plaques from the various French Provinces where the train had first traveled in France.   The “voiture” is currently parked under a partial canopy, amid a larger display of other military artifacts of tanks, guns, and aircraft and is available to visitors to behold,  however, only the exterior of the boxcar.  The interior of the car is empty.  Removed of its precious payload some 60 years ago, the whereabouts of those items are mostly lost.  The Ohio State Historical Society has about a half- dozen of the items, and even they are no longer on display, but in “storage” in Columbus.  The photos of the items, however, can be viewed  on their website. They include a bust of General Lafayette, a wedding dress, a copper kettle and an antique French doll.

Value of Train Measured In Meaning, Not In Treasure

So while the proud old “voiture” boxcar that rests at Camp Perry may now be empty, its significance is not.  For those who can appreciate what this meant to the American and French alike, it is filled with memories of how the citizens themselves  of two nations can indeed forge common bonds of friendship and can reach across the ocean to make a real difference.  Drew Pearson, the newspaper columnist, would observe later that the exchanges between the two countries had prompted millions of American and French children to begin pen pal relationships, predicting that many of these young Trans-Atlantic friendships might endure for decades in the future. I wonder if they have?  But also wonder why this Valentine’s Day story is so seldom told or taught in history books of World War Two.  The  story of not how war is waged, but how peace is waged.

Other links on this story you may enjoy.

http://www.mercitrain.org/

http://www.ameshistoricalsociety.org/exhibits/events/friendship_train.htm

http://www.thefriendshiptrain1947.org/

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The Seneca County Train Disaster, the Deadliest in Northwest Ohio

Downtown RepublicI love to ride trains. There is a feeling of romanticism that washes over me as the steel wheels roll and rumble on the rails beneath, taking you not just to a place, but  to a place in time.  During such a journey it’s easy to conjure up those days when our grandparents and relatives used the rails as their primary means of rapid transit.  But those travels were often filled not so much with romance, as with smokey cars, hard seats, rougher rides and the potential for disaster.  Rail accidents and wrecks were all too common in those days.  So much so,  they may have been regarded as we think of car accidents and traffic dangers – a day-to-day reality that we’ve come to accept, or at least acknowledge, as a cruel cost of modern living.   And so it  was, 125 years ago this week in 1887, when on the bitterly cold morning of January 4th, an eastbound freight train and a west-bound B&O passenger train met head-on on the tracks near Republic in Seneca County.  Newspaper accounts said the Baltimore and Ohio passenger train, with two sleepers, a smoker car and 65 people aboard, was traveling at 60 mph when it ran head-on into the stalled freight train about 11 miles east of Tiffin near the small village of Republic. The engineer of the passenger train said by the time he saw the stalled freight on the tracks it was too late to stop. He managed to jump to safety before impact and watched in horror as the two locomotives collided, then rose in the air together, as if in a deadly dance, before crashing to the ground.

The impact was thunderous, awakening nearby farmers from their early morning slumber.  At least three of the cars of the passenger train telescoped  into each other, including the smoker car where at least 15 people were seated. Witnesses said a fire was sparked after the crash and there was little hope for the men women and children inside the car. Many were burned beyond recognition as the car caught fire.  In all, it is said that as many as 22 people were killed, but no one knows for sure. A dispatch from a Tiffin reporter said.

    ” Fire broke out in the smoker car and soon spread. Many were killed outright, others wedged in between broken cars and were slowly consumed. The screams were heartrendering. No assistance could be given until a  farmer awakened by the crash came with other neighbors and worked like heroes to save the perishing. As of this writing, nineteen bodies have been discovered, They lie burned and disfigured in the snow beside the tracks.”

The tragedy could have been worse, for no one in the sleeper cars was  killed because, according to one news account, a quick thinking survivor was able to get out of the burning cars and uncouple the sleeper cars from the flaming wreckage and push them away from harm’s way.   According to the Republic Ohio community website, some of the unidentified bodies were taken  to the Republic town hall for a mass funeral, then taken to a local cemetery and put in a mass grave, buried as “unknowns”.   One of the saddest tales of that night was the story of the Joseph Postlewaite family of West Virginia who had just sold their 10 acre farm to relocate to Missouri.  Mr. Postlewaite had all of his assets on him, amounting to over a thousand dollars in cash and checks.  He and two young sons were seated with him in the sleeper. They all perished in the blaze, and their assets were lost to the flames. His wife, meanwhile had remained in the sleeper car with three other children. While she and the three children survived,  she was left a widow, with only 50 cents to her name.  I have yet to discover whatever happened to the widow Postlewaite and her children.

It’s been over a century since that terrible night, but the memory of the great train disaster at Republic is  kept alive by many locals who insist that on certain nights they can see a “ghost train” on the tracks that still run past the south flank  of the village.  A light, they claim, from a phantom train can be seen cutting its way through the darkness of the Seneca County countryside, flashing past the local Farewell Retreat Township Cemetery where many of the “unknown” victims rest to this day.

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Update on the sad tale of “Owney the Postal Dog”

After a review of the Toledo Blade article regarding this sad episode from  June 11 of 1897, it appears the name of the policeman who shot Owney was not Fred Free (or Freeman), but was a Patrolman Smith(no first name given). It also seems that Owney was not killed immediately after he reportedly bit a mail clerk at the train station, but his execution was delayed until the next day owing to the fact that the first policeman who was ordered to shoot the globe trotting pooch, refused to do so.   As a result, so states the article, that Postmaster Brand had Owney chained to a post until the next day, and then..

“Shortly after 4 o’clock yesterday, Patrolman Smith took the dog to an alley behind the police station and with a shot put an end to the career of the famous pup.”

Sgt. Beth Cooley, at the Toledo Police Museum says she is searching for the records of a Patrolman Smith who might have served on the department at that time. The Chicago Tribune had reported that the officer who shot Owney was Fred Free, but after some research into the records, Sgt. Cooley says there was no Fred Free on the department, but there was a Fred Freeman who was a Toledo policeman during that time. That could have easily been the mix-up, but the Blade said the executioner was a Patrolman Smith.

It’s also noted from this article that it had been decided before Owney was executed to have his remains stuffed and mounted and sent to the Post Museum in Washington D.C. Perhaps this was an atempt to mollify the thousands of postal clerks and others around the globe who loved the dog, as it was noted by the Blade reporter at the time that Owney’s tragic killing would “bring down the wrath of the heavens” upon the heads of those involved in Owney’s death.

Not sure if such wrath was ever visited upon Toledo.

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Owney the famous postal dog met his tragic demise in Toledo

Some historical events Toledo can lay claim to and be proud of,  others,… not so much.  The Owney the postal dog story is one of the latter. This week, the U.S. Postal Service will pay tribute to the famous little postal pooch by honoring him with his own postage stamp which will officially celebrate Owney as one of America’s great animal heroes, if not the first.  If you don’t know the story of Owney, it all started by in 1888 when this scruffy Irish-Scottish Terrier  mongrel took up residence in the Albany, New York post office.  It is recounted that Owney loved the scent of the mail bags and began riding the mail wagons and then one day hopped onto a rail car and started riding the trains. It was here where Owney’s legacy was carved.  Within a few years, Owney managed to travel on these cars quite extensively and quite independently, and as he appeared at various postal stations along his routes, postal employees would affix a postal tag to his harness and collar.   He soon became laden with hundreds of tags as he routinely criss-crossed the United States on the rail cars. He even ventured in 1895 on an international journey and showed up in Japan, parts of Asia, and Europe until he safely returned to the U.S. and his home in Albany.  In short Owney was a star , perhaps the first “dog-star” in the United States long before Lassie and Rin-Tin-Tin.  He was beloved by postal employees and members of the general public alike who wanted to get a glimpse of this famous world traveling mutt.

But not everyone loved Owney. In April of 1897, the Chicago Postmaster was disgusted by Owney’s presence on the rail cars and postal stations, calling him a mongrel cur who was nothing more a nuisance to employees and that he should be banned from the rails. His remarks were widely reported at the time, and who knows if his sentiments were shared by others.  A few months later, on June 11th, 1897, Owney had made his way to Toledo and it would be his last. There are several varying accounts of what took place, but according to the Chicago Tribune, when Owney got to Toledo’s Union Station, a postal clerk called a newspaper reporter and photographer to get some pictures and a story. The clerk had chained Owney up to a post to keep him there while awaiting the arrival of the photographer. One account says that Owney detested being tied up or restrained and starting protesting loudly and when the clerk tried to get him to quiet down, Owney bit him on the hand. That action prompted the Toledo Postmaster, Rudolph Brand, to call for a policeman to come to the scene and that an officer named Fred Free, shot and killed Owney while he was still chained to the post.  The Chicago Tribune called it an “execution”.  While other newspaper accounts(perhaps engaging some damage control), said Owney had been running loose and “had gone mad” when he was shot.   We may never know exactly what happened in Toledo, or why Owney met his fate that day, but Owney’s legacy was hardly forgotten. When word surfaced around the nation that the famous mail-pooch’s stamp had been cancelled,  mail clerks throughout the country raised funds to have the cinnamon colored terrier  stuffed and preserved. His mounted body was eventually given to the Post Office Department’s headquarters in Washington.   It remained there, on display, until 1911, when it was transferred to the Smithsonian in Washington where Owney has been on display in a glass case, ever since.   Now 114 years after his death in Toledo, Owney is not only getting his own postage stamp, but his mounted remains have been restored and his exhibit, which includes hundreds of his postal tags will be displayed prominently at the museum.

If you know more about Owney’s travels and experiences in Toledo, including his death, please share. I will post any additional material here.

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The Toledo Trunk Mystery, A Grave Robbing Tale

 

 

It was known as “Toledo’s Trunk Mystery”  and for a while in 1886, it was probably the most talked about story of the day. Not  just in Toledo, but around the world as it made headlines in many major newspapers. And no doubt it would be just as attention grabbing today, for this story was not only sensational, but  laid bare the grisly truth of grave robbing by medical schools. A story that began in a Toledo train station where the lifeless body of a young woman was found in a large trunk. As the New York Times relates the story on September 11, 1886, the trunk had been put on the Wheeling and Lake Erie train earlier in the day in Bellevue, about 40 miles east of Toledo.

  

“Among the assortment of trunks that arrived this forenoon was one from which there came a terrible odor. It was placed in an isolated spot and the authorities were notified. When the detectives broke open the trunk it appeared to be filled with straw, but on pulling out a quantity, the officers found the body of a young woman. She was of medium height with blue eyes and brown hair. The clothing was of fine quality, indicating that the victim was of a family in good circumstances. In the mouth, a lot of tissue paper had been stuffed.”

Police stayed with the trunk and waited for someone to claim it and and finally a man did. He was promptly arrested and identified as Martin.E. Wilson. He told police he lived near Bellevue, Ohio and didn’t know the contents of the trunk but had been given money by “certain parties” to take the trunk to Toledo where he was to turn it over to a Dr. Hill from the Toledo Medical College on Lagrange Street. Dr. Hill, however, later said he knew nothing about it. A subsequent investigation by the Lucas County Coroner’s Office concluded that the woman had died of consumption a day or two earlier and without any foul play, but for some reason this woman’s body had been spirited away before her burial. The coroner even noted there had been puncture marks under the arms for embalming. By the next day, however, more information was forthcoming and it was revealed that the body was that of Belle Bowen, the 17-year old daughter of a well-known and “prosperous farmer” John.M. Bowen. She had died of consumption(tuberculosis) and had been buried in a small cemetery near Attica, but her grave, still fresh from the Friday burial, was exhumed that same evening. It latercame out at trial that Wilson had worked under the light of a full moon that September night to pull her body from the grave and then put it into a large trunk before loading it on the train to Toledo with a final destination at the Toledo Medical College. When news of what appeared to be a “grave robbing” surfaced, indignation grew rapidly. And it was widely speculated that this might have been part of a regular system of grave robbing that had been taking place to help medical schools obtain cadavers for research and training. The Bowen family doctor, an H.G. Blaine was arrested. It was alleged that the man who took the trunk to Toledo, Martin Wilson was his assistant and the two of them had conspired to steal the body of young Belle. Wilson also faced charges, along with several staff members of the Toledo Medical College. Back in the Attica and Bellevue area, neighbors and townspeople were irate. A number of men threatened to lynch the two medical men if they returned to the area. Meanwhile, farmer John Bowen traveled to Toledo, with the empty coffin of his daguhter to reclaim his beloved Belle.

In the ensuing trial, it was learned that the 35-year old Wilson was a medical student who had been offered free tuition by the Toledo Medical College to bring them cadavers which were rare in those days since there was no lawful way to obtain them. Wilson was eventually convicted and sent to prison, while Dr. Blaine was cleared of charges, claiming that he didn’t know Wilson had stolen the body and had merely helped him buy the large trunk.  Blaine eventually returned to practice and moved to Willard Ohio. The staff members at the college were also cleared of wrong doing.

Today, Belle Bowen’s body lies undisturbed, and otherwise undistinguished in her grave at the tiny Omar cemetery near Attica, alongside her parents and other family members. There is no notation of how famous she was in death in 1886 when much of the world knew her name and her macabre story.

The practice of grave robbing was apparently in vogue for a number of years in the Toledo area, for only ten years later after this case made Toledo famous, another Toledo doctor was arrested for stealing corpses from the Toledo Infirmary cemetery. Dr. F.O. Hunt was charged with stealing the body of Edwin Cartwright from his grave. The New York Times reported that the coroner at the time, said he was believed to be “part of a gang of professional ghouls operating here for several months and reaping a rich harvest”.

  

 

 

 

 

 

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