CLARKSVILLE — After midnight June 2, 1916, the No. 19 Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific, a passenger train headed from Waterloo to Minneapolis, attempted to cross the bridge over rain-swollen, raging Flood Creek at a crossing near Packard and Clarksville.
The engine and a few cars passed over safely, but then the span failed. A coach and its occupants went into the water at 3:10 a.m. In the carnage, 17 people died — 16 immediately in the crash or flood, one later because of injuries.
Survivors on one side of the swollen creek found their way to the home of Francis Edeker’s grandparents. His mother was a 4-year-old child at the time, but Edeker remembers hearing her stories about people in bandages that night.
Edeker, the community and the Clarksville Public Library on Saturday will mark the 100th anniversary of what became known as the Flood Creek train wreck. Remembrance Day will be from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the crash site.
Visitors can reach the scene by going north out of Clarksville on Iowa Highway 188 and following signs, according to organizers.
Signs will also lay out the chain of events and relevant locations of that ill-fated few days. Edeker, a railroad man and collector, will have a history and displays set up at Trains on the Farm, his private museum.
Trains on the Farm is at 30215 170th St. near Clarksville.
Also Saturday, Mary Buffington, author of “Night Train to Nisswa” and “Who Were They? The Victims of the Flood Creek Disaster,” will talk about her research.
Representatives from Butler County Conservation will also share information about the floodplain and watershed.
Newspapers across the country published accounts of the tragedy and subsequent recovery efforts. The Iowa Recorder noted railroad crews and engineers were aware “bad track” was a possibility because of the heavy rain in Iowa. One train stopped in Shell Rock, another in Manly because of the conditions that night.
A work crew surveyed the line, however, and its train passed over the bridge near Packard. The span appeared sturdy.
The Iowa Recorder in Greene told what happened: “The engineer says the track seemed all right but when he reached the bridge he slowed down, though the work train had passed over it a short time before and this gave confidence that the bridge was safe.”
The narrative continues, “The engine crossed the first span and remained on the track, the tender and baggage coach and smoker also got across, but had jumped the track, the day coach filled with people, then broke away and rolled into the water, while the first Pullman spanned the space between the abutment and the first pier, the second Pullman remaining on the track.”
On June 4, 1916, the Cedar Rapids Republican noted nine bodies had been recovered, three people were known missing and three others were not expected to survive.
The story included a description for a victim not yet known: “An unidentified woman, age about 50, five feet tall, brown hair, turning gray, wore an opal and diamond ring, right thumb crippled, having been broken and improperly set.”
Those identified included Ruth Kober, 19, and Doris Kober, 16, of Waterloo, according to the Iowa Recorder. Flora Van Vliete, 64, of Traer, was also among the dead.
Olive Kober of Waterloo was listed among the survivors suffering from shock and exposure. Ruth and Doris were her daughters. Van Vliete was her mother.
Olive Kober later settled with the Rock Island railroad for her daughters’ deaths. The agreed sum was $5,500.
Members of the Waterloo fire department aided the rescue and recovery work.
The Oelwein Daily Register on June 3, 1916, reported the flooding also washed out four railroad bridges near Decorah.
Edeker has photos and stories about the wreck.
“It could have been a lot worse when I look at it,” he said.
Only one car went completely in the water. That coach alone held 60 people.
“Otherwise, it could really have been a disaster. ... There was a little bit of luck. Not a whole lot.”
The train wreck, a much more common event at the time, seemed to catch people’s imagination. Edeker thinks the facts — at night while many slept, a coach submerged in a raging river — contributed to the interest.
Estimates conclude up to 50,000 spectators visited the site after the crash, and cars and buggies were parked up to 2 miles away on both sides of nearby roads.
“It was quite a thing, and a lot of people in Iowa don’t know about it,” Edeker said.