By Earl Goldsmith
Some of this information came from an “Only in Oklahoma” Oklahoma Centennial article in a 2007 Tulsa World. The rest came from various issues of the Henryetta Daily Free-Lance, research by the Henryetta Public Library staff, and an old photo we had at our house while I was growing up.
Henryetta’s greatest tragedy occurred just before 6 a. m. Sunday, August 18, 1929, when a northbound Frisco passenger train derailed at the Texaco pump station at the south edge of town and 13 passengers were killed.
As the Frisco approaches Henryetta from the south, it goes down a grade to the east for over a mile and then swings north as it nears the city limits. That morning, Engineer Pete Wolfe of Sherman, Texas was making good speed and safely passed the Creek mine switch and another switch, but the switch into the pump station siding was open. The engine split the distance between the main rail on the left and the switch rail on the right and ran on neither rail until a crash piled four cars and the engine into a twisted mass. The engine fell on its side; the tender (coal car) jumped over it and passed to the north; the mail/express car crossed the side track and stopped upright on the Texaco lawn; the baggage car fell across the main line; a chair car shot forward and stopped by the engine and the next chair car ended crosswise behind that; the Pullman stayed on the track and came to an upright stop. The engine’s boiler burst and live steam filled the chair car that had stopped by the engine. The passengers in the forward end of that car were scalded, literally cooked, by steam. When the conductor came running from his Pullman position to the engine, Wolfe and fireman, H. A. Bryant, also of Sherman, couldn’t be found.
Pump station employees ran to the scene and people who lived nearby and heard the explosion soon began to arrive. Dr. Bollinger, the local Frisco physician, arrived and had injured passengers taken to Henryetta Hospital for nursing care. Most other local doctors, including Dr. Boswell who lived fairly near the site, arrived very soon. The first aid crew of Atlas Coal Co. arrived and helped remove the dead from the wreckage. Most deaths were in the Jim Crow forward section of the chair car, so most were Negroes
Ambulances took the dead to the Buchannan Funeral Home morgue and the injured to the hospital. Ten injured were taken to the hospital but some just got first aid treatment and left. Others were seriously injured. The Henryetta hospital didn’t have a colored ward, but both white and colored were taken in and given care. Just three injured passengers remained in the hospital by the end of the second day.
After fireman Bryant’s body, was found and identified by his 32nd degree Masonic ring, twelve bodies were at the morgue by noon. The engine’s boiler was raised in the afternoon , and engineer Wolfe’s body was found under it and was taken to the morgue by 4 p. m.
The scene was one of horror. The dead were stewed, but indications were that they had suffered little, as the scalding steam ended their lives almost instantly. A woman was found standing up, dead. A man had his watch in his hand as if checking to see if the train was on time.
Over 4,000 people went to the scene. It was horrible , but a lily pond near the pump station and just east of the railroad presented a contrasting peaceful scene. Oddly, the mail clerk said his first impression was that it wasn’t much of a wreck until he saw that his car had jumped over the rails and stopped on the lawn near the pump station.
Frisco officials hurried from Tulsa and Sapulpa to do what they could to help the injured and help local Frisco agent, H. G. McKinstry, and others determine the cause. Examination revealed the open switch’s lock and chain were gone, but no marks were on the upright switch. Railroad men thought the engineer had sensed the danger because he’d blown the whistle and applied the airbrakes, believing he could stop the train on the siding. But the switch was only partially open and the train split the distance between the tracks and derailed. Late in the day, the lock and chain were found about 100 yards away. That meant the switch had been thrown by someone.
Frisco and government officials conducted a short investigation and questioned the section crew, the train crew, and others they thoughty might have knowledge. By Tuesday noon, they announced that the wreck was caused by malicious tampering and the guilty person(s) would be found.
In the investigation, it was determined that, in addition to blowing the whistle and applying brakes, engineer Wolfe had time to close his fires and the gas valves to prevent gas from making contact with the boiler fires and causing an even greater explosion.
It was also discovered that one of the bodies removed from the train was that of the colored cook for the private car of Tulsa Frisco Division Agent C. T. Mason, of Sapulpa. The cook was on a leave of absence and happened to be aboard the train. Richard Dixon, a 102 year-old colored doctor from southern Oklahoma, had planned take the train to go see a sick son in Claremore that morning, but had a premonition not to go. Following his premonition, he escaped being in the train’s Jim Crow section. A passenger in the last car had been in Dallas and intended to return to Tulsa by airplane. His wife had contended that flying wasn’t safe, so he took the train.
One person questioned just after the wreck was George Washington Darnell, a section crew workman who had been fired by the section foreman, a man named King, the day before the wreck. There were early suspicions that he’d thrown the switch, but that idea was dismissed because he had helped Frisco employees clear the wreckage. Officials then concluded it was the work of vandals.
Nothing of significance happened for sixteen months, but in early 1931, George Darnell was arrested in Parsons, Kansas. A neighbor had heard Darnell and his wife arguing and heard her threaten to tell authorities he’d caused the Henryetta train wreck. The neighbor called the police and 36 year-old Darnell was arrested. When arrested, he cried and said he was glad it was finally over because he could feel dead people’s hands all over him. He also told officers that his conscience had bothered him and that was why he’d helped clear the wreckage.
Mrs. Darnell, also taken into custody, said her husband told her on the eve of the tragedy that he was going to cock the switch near the pump station to cause section foreman King to lose his job. (“Cock” the switch meant he’d just partially throw it, causing rails to separate with the switch signal not indicating it had been thrown.) She said she tried to talk him out of it, but he wouldn’t listen, telling her nobody would be hurt because a freight train would reach the switch first. He left the house about midnight and came home about an hour later. She said that the next morning, he told her there’d been a train wreck and went to help clean the wreckage and remove the dead. By then, he knew the freight must have been late and the passenger train had arrived first. The tragedy haunted the couple and they moved to Parsons, Kansas in June, 1930,.
Darnell was returned to Oklahoma and pled guilty to the murder of the engineer and fireman before District Judge J. Harry Swan in Okmulgee. He cried when shown photographs of the wreck.
April 6, 1931, Judge Swan sentenced Darnell to life in prison at the McAlester state prison. He cried when he heard the sentence before an overflow crowd. Judge Swan said he’d talked to several of Darnell’s acquaintances and had sentenced him to life imprisonment rather than death because he’d decided Darnell’s mental capacities were deficient, adding that the misery of recalling the tragedy again and again would be greater punishment than the electric chair.
Darnell spent his first six prison years voluntarily performing the dreaded job of cleaning septic tanks, supposedly because he was so upset by what he’d done. Through the years, his only correspondence was with a sister in Norwalk, California who was killed in a car that was struck by a train in the late 1940s.
The pardon and parole board considered his case several times until parole was approved in 1966 by Governor J. Howard Edmondson. He’d served nearly 35 years and was 73. The parole terms were that he was to work on a California farm where he’d receive board and room and $200 a month to use for other living expenses. Of interest, while he went to California, it wasn’t by train. He died a few years later in Okmulgee. I don’t know what happened to Mrs. Darnell.