by Stu Venable
Personal Journal of John Haunt November 1872
Some time ago, I was told by the conductor, a tall gaunt man with graying beard and mustache, that we passed through the Utah territory. We spoke briefly of the parched nature of the landscape, the sparse signs of life being only the occasional scrub brush, tenaciously hanging on to the cracked clay earth, sapping the last bits of moisture to sustain its mean existence.
That such events happened in this forsaken landscape has not escaped my notice. For it is in these strange alien wildernesses, the gaps between civilization and order, that mankind finds the true threats.
After my brief conversation with the conductor, I closed my eyes to rest,. Fitful as my sleep would be with the constant jostling of the rail car, I felt a pall of uneasy fatigue and was hopeful some sleep would lighten my spirits. Our trip thus far had not been without complication. Since we entered the Wyoming Territory several people in my car and others had fallen ill with a fever.
The first had been Abigale VanderHorst, a sturdy woman from Pennsylvania who occupied the seat next to mine. Although I had reserved the seat nearest the window, I relinquished the seat to Mrs. VanderHorst, in deference to the fact that this was her first trip on a rail car. She was on her way to visit her son, who according to her recounting had made a small fortune mining in California. Her illness began with a fever, her perspiration evident even in the cool early morning hours. It was soon followed by a rasping cough and fainting spells.
I informed the conductor that Mrs. VanderHorst was taking a turn for the worst, whereupon the conductor moved her to the caboose car that had been converted to a rolling infirmary. He informed me that several passengers had taken ill with similar symptoms.
In the day that followed three more passengers in my car alone were moved to the infirmary car, where now eleven victims of this illness now laid unresponsive and feverish. According to the conductor, Ogden would be the nearest stop where there might be enough inhabitants with knowledge of medicine necessary to take on such patients. Protests to the conductor from the travelling companions of the ill fell upon deaf ears, as the fear of other passengers was palpable, each one fearful they might contract this same sickness.
By the time the train reached Ogden, nine of the eleven had passed on. According to the conductor, who was assisting a middle aged man with some medical knowledge in the infirmary car, red and black lesions formed on the faces and bodies of many of the ill just prior to their expiring. He said the lesions looked much like hideous burns, and the ill, who had been unresponsive and docile, began screaming in agony, a few even complaining of the burning.
Through the rest of the Utah Territories, no other passengers fell ill, which was much relief to all, but many still felt uneasiness, suspecting that some passengers may hide their illness for fear of being abandoned in the wasteland, where medical care was sparse.
I woke from my uneasy sleep to a sudden lurch, indicating that the train was slowing. We could hear the squealing of the brake well above the concerned murmurs of those aboard my car. There was much consternation among the passengers, as were were far from our next scheduled stop.
I felt some alarm as the intensity of the braking suddenly increased, throwing me against the back of the seat in front of me. I meant to excuse myself to the woman sitting in front of me, but refrained as she had tumbled forward as well and was now attempting to recover her seat. I offered my hand, for which I was graciously thanked. Still the de-acceleration continued at an alarming rate.
I heard screams from some passengers, no doubt fearful that we were fast approaching some sort of collision or obstruction upon the track.
Then as suddenly as the braking had started the brakes were released, and our forward momentum was again unimpeded. Nearly everyone had recovered their seats when again the brake were applied, but this time only for a brief moment before we again felt the steady sensation of free momentum. The brakes were then applied a third time and again just as suddenly released.
One man, an academic from Rhode Island named Pendleton, immediately stood to leave the car, voicing his intention to report his displeasure of the haphazard application of the brakes to the conductor, whereupon the brakes were applied a fourth time, causing him to stumble and fall, impacting his head upon a iron chair railing. Several passengers rushed to his aid, careful to keep the railing in hand so at to maintain their footing.
It was then that the conductor entered our car, announcing “there is a runaway train on the track. The engineer is try to match its speed. Please stay seated and hold on.” He looked down at Pendleton with some concern and announced that he would send the medical man forward to tend to him.
Some time later, the conductor allowed me to scale the iron ladder to the top of our train car, whereupon I would have an unobstructed view of the runaway train ahead of us.
The train moved along the desolate landscape at a slow pace, perhaps slightly faster than a man could run. The plume of smoke and steam, clearly visible from the engine at the front of the runaway train, indicated the engine was still operating.
Our engineer made several futile attempts to make contact with those aboard the runaway, but each blast of the whistle went unanswered. We expected a blast from the other train’s whistle, or at least a waiving hand from one of the train car windows, but we heard no noise and witnessed no such signal.
It was at this time that I informed the conductor that I was familiar with the operation of steam engines, having spent several years of my youth working such machines at a thread bobbin mill. I then volunteered my services to go aboard the runaway train and bring the thing to a stop so some manner of solution to our situation could be found.
I was taken forward to the engine car where I met the engineer, Maxwell Hurst, a short man with a thick German accent. He and I consulted regarding this situation, and both of us agreed that at this point, it was unlikely that the engineer of the runaway train was incapacitated. This train, Mr. Hurst explained, left the last station several days before our train, and if the furnace was untended, it would have burned out and would be cold now (this meaning the train would not be moving and there would be no report of smoke or steam from the engine.
Mr. Hurst postulated that the engineer of the runaway might be partially incapacitated, being only able to load enough coal to keep the train moving at this slow pace, perhaps hoping to reach a station before he expires.
It was then agreed, in consultation between the engineer, the conductor and myself, that I would go and investigate the runaway and attempt to gain control enough to bring the engineer aboard.
I was on a small steel catwalk that jutted forward past engine, the gap between our train and the runaway being expertly narrowed by Mr Hurst, when I first caught a glimpse through a window of the contents of the runaway’s caboose.
They too had turned it into a makeshift infirmary. The corpses were piled atop one another, each carelessly wrapped in linens or blankets, with bits of limbs visible, showing the black and red burn-like lesions.
I steeled myself as I leaped to the railing of the runaway’s caboose.
End of Part I