Monday, March 21, 2016

Crescent City, Florida Train/School Bus crash. Decemer 14th, 1933

Crescent City Florida School Bus/Train collision December 14, 1933

If you ask the great majority of people who are not Floridians about the interior regions of The Sunshine know, the areas that you can't see either the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico from and that don't have either 'Beach' or 'Key' affixed to their name...they'll likely tell you that most of the interior of the Florida Peninsula is taken up by swampland...the Everglades primarily...and while hauntingly beautiful, it's entirely uninhabitable. They'd actually be pretty close to right if they were referring to the southern quarter or so of the state, as well as a wide strip in the northwestern part of the peninsula. What they don't realize, however, is that there are also scores of small towns throughout most of non-coastal Florida as well as one large city... some burg called Orlando, which, as we may recall, is host to a theme park of some renown.

The interior of the Florida Peninsula will fool people in other ways. The great majority of it is not swampland. The more rural parts of Florida are unarguable as beautiful as it's never ending coastline, with the north-central part of the state actually boasting some rolling hills as well as several big lakes. One of those lakes is thirteen mile long Crescent Lake, situated in both Putnam and Flagler Counties. The small and pretty little burg of Crescent City's tucked into the southwestern shore of Crescent Lake, and that's where we're traveling for this post as we head back to December 1933.

Train-school bus collisions had taken an almost four year hiatus after double-slamming the Cleveland Ohio area in January 1930...long enough for human nature to take over and for people to get a bit complacent again.. You know, the overly optimistic thought 'It hasn't happened in X years, so it won't happen...'  Unfortunately that theory is always disproved.

December 14th 1933. The weather was foggy and cool...for Florida...but not even vaguely cold, as a makeshift school bus trundled down Old US-17 just a shade over three miles south of Crescent City. This vehicle...a mid 1920's truck chassis with a home made wooden bus body mounted on it...was a far cry from what we consider a 'school bus' today, BTW. It wasn't yellow. The kids aboard the bus sat on benches running the length of the interior of the bus body, with their backs to the windows. The windows didn't have glass in was Florida, who needed glass windows, even in December...but it did have canvas curtains that could be lowered to cover the window openings in case of rain or other inclement weather. On that particular December morning there was a good bit of 'Other Inclement Weather', in the form of heavy fog, courtesy of Crescent Lake, even larger Lake George, and the numerous other smaller bodies of water spotted throughout Putnam County. 

The school bus involved in the Crescent City accident probably looked a lot like this one...home made wooden body with glassless windows, perimeter seating, rear entrance, and all.   These rides were just about as crash worthy as a cardboard box. Also note the dark color. Yellow wouldn't be a standard school bus color until the mid or late 30s.

Though the bus pictured here is a good bit newer than the Crescent City bus...note the dual rear wheels and beefier chassis, as well as actual does show the rear entrance that was pretty much standard on new school buses right on up to the early 30s, with more than a few of the bodies being made by the locality's vehicle maintenance or carpentry shop. Buying a bare chassis, then building a home made body for it was a lot cheaper than buying a complete new bus.  With the Great Depression limiting the resources school districts had available to replace aging buses, wooden bodied, rear entrance buses like this were common...especially in rural areas...right on up into the 40s.


The last stop before the bus headed back north, back to Crescent City, was a small community called Silver Pond Grove, situated on a small lake called Silver Pond. Here US 17 (Also known back in 1933 as Florida State Route 3) paralleled the the Atlantic Coast Line tracks and a dirt road branched off of 17 and crossed the tracks to lead back to Silver Pond Grove. Robert Teuton was one of the several people who lived in the tiny community, and the two Teuton children as well as several other kids boarded the bus at the Silver Pond Grove stop. Originally the bus had crossed the tracks and picked the kids up near the Teuton home, then turned around and crossed the tracks again in order to head to Crescent City, but Mr Teuton (As well, very likely, as several other sets of parents) had decided that was just far to many times for  the bus to cross the busy ACL mainline. Mr Teuton, therefore, had made a turn-around in the 75 or so foot wide strip between the road and the railroad right of way so the bus wouldn't have to cross the tracks. 

But on that fateful morning two weeks and change before Christmas of '33, neither the Teuton kids nor any of the other kids who boarded the bus there were at the bus stop. And apparently sixty-three year old D.R. Niles, the driver of the bus decided to drive up to the Teuton house to pick them up, because that morning he decided to cross the tracks. But I have a feeling he had noble reasons for doing so. The fog was cut-it-with-a-knife thick that morning, and he was thinking about the kids in Silver Pond Grove having to walk across the tracks all but blind, possibly not seeing an oncoming train and walking onto the crossing in front of it as a result. It'd be much safer for them if he picked them up at the old stop. The fact that he was getting ready to do pretty much the very same thing he didn't want them to do likely didn't even occur to him.

The fog was so heavy that Niles could barely see the tracks as he slowed to make the turn. Behind him twenty-seven elementary school age kids, wound up with the energy that only kids that age possess and even more excited than normal due to the pending arrival of a certain Mr Claus in just more than two weeks, raised a cheerful ruckus. Niles, who'd been driving the bus for years, ignored them as he swung the bus to the right, onto the dirt road...he'd pick the Silver Pond Grove kids up, turn around at the Teuton house as he'd done before the turn-around was built, then head back towards Crescent City,

It was just shy of 7:45 AM as he made the turn. As the bus swung off of Rt 17 an Atlantic Coast Line freight train, with Engineer R.A.Howell at the throttle, was northbound, hurtling through the fog.. He passed the whistle board for the road into Silver Pond Grove, reached up left handed, and started yanking the whistle cord, the steam whistle screaming the long-long-short-long that's been the traditional grade crossing warning signal for more than a century out into the foggy Florida morning. The same fog, though, tended to absorb the sound and the kid-centric noise aboard the bus finished drowning it out. 

A general satellite view of the area of the accident, with the accident crossing circled in red, and the route of the bus denoted by blue dashes.  Crescent City would be north of the crossing, Silver Pond's in the middle of the view. Though it's more built up than it was in 1933, this area is still pretty rural.
Satellite view of the accident crossing.with bus and train direction of travel denoted as well as the approximate locations of the turn-around and the Teuton home. The Northeast corner of Silver Pond is visible in the bottom left corner of the view. Silver Pond Grove was the last stop before the bus headed back for Crescent City, and the resident of one of the houses had made a turn-around for the bus between the tracks and road, specifically so the bus wouldn't have to cross the tracks to turn around. On the morning of the accident the kids...who would have had to cross the tracks on foot...weren't at the bus stop. I have a feeling that bus driver D.R.Niles decided to cross the tracks so the kids wouldn't have to risk walking across the tracks in the heavy fog, but sadly, Niles did exactly what he was trying to keep the Teuton kids and their neighbors from doing...crossed the track without seeing an oncoming train.
As the approach to the crossing looks today...Florida RT 15 and US-17 share the same right-of-way here.  Though the view's from the wrong lane (The Google Street View car was obviously driving away from the crossing when these were taken) you can still get a feel for what Niles saw as he approached the intersection. Remember, it was extremely foggy on that December morning 83 years back. The bus stop/turnaround was probably on the far corner of the intersection...but that  morning there were no kids waiting there. Niles, very likely looking at the fog and thinking about the hazard to the kids if they tried to cross the tracks with little or no visibility, decided to drive up into Silver Pond Colony to pick the kids up.  The train would have been approaching from behind him, and would have been two or three hundred yards away at this point.

Niles' approximate view as he was getting ready to make the turn (Remember, this is from the wrong lane). He may have checked to see if the kids were walking towards the turn-around here, but he'd already made the decision to drive up into the Colony. Don't know if those trees were there in 1933 or not...but as you'll see in a bit, that's actually a moot point.

With the exception of the crossing signals and gates, and the road being paved to just beyond the crossing, this view probably hasn't changed much in 82 years and change. Though the train was only a football field or so away, no one heard or Niles.

Remember the moot point I mentioned above? Again, this view hasn't changed much since December '33. While it was foggy that morning, If Niles had stopped right here, and looked down the tracks...just as this view's doing...he'd have see the train...First the shadowy outline of the locomotive looming out of the fog like an oncoming ghost-ship, then gaining substance and form as it thundered past the crossing, dragging a long freight south. If he'd stopped and looked, the only thing the kids on the bus would have been was a little later getting to school. Sadly though, he didn't stop, and tragedy resulted..  .

I could find very little detail about what happened next, but from the way the one article I did find sounded neither Niles, the kids on the bus, or the train crew had even the barest instant of warning before the locomotive broadsided the bus, blowing the wooden body apart like a ceramic coffee mug struck by a hard-swung baseball bat, sending the chassis tumbling off of the tracks and ejecting everyone aboard the bus explosively as the wooden body blew apart. The kids sitting with their backs towards the right side of the bus...the side that was hit....never had a chance. Ten of them of them died instantly, four of the bodies were found sprawled across the locomotive's pilot and front platform by the train crew after they slid for a thousand feet plus before coming to a stop. One other, critically injured, died a day or so later in the hospital. Everyone else on the bus was injured, several of them critically.

Howell yanked the brake handle into emergency an instant after they hit the bus just aft of directly broadside, sending the long freight into a spark-throwing, screaming slide for about a quarter mile before it got stopped. The train crew and possibly another passing driver or two probably made the notifications. The area was pretty sparsely populated back in 1933 and telephones were not all that common at all in rural America of 1933. They probably had to run up to the Teuton home...if it had a call it in. If the Teuton's had no phone, then there would have been a desperate search for one.  Then once they did get help on the way it took a while for said help to get out to the scene.

Crescent City has had a fire company since 1918, so ultimately that rural harbinger of tragedy...the house siren...was wailing into the foggy morning air, volunteers leaving work, running or driving to the fire house, and going white as the saw the call type and location (Probably something like 'School bus hit by train 17 at Silver Pond') scrawled hastily across the chalkboard that was prominent near the door of every volunteer fire station in the land back in the days before pagers and radios. The rigs...simple,but efficient rigs, probably on commercial chassis, and definitely far simpler and more sparsely equipped than today's rigs...headed south on US 17, followed by sheriff's deputies.

Calls were made to every nearby town with an ambulance for additional help, but that help would be awhile arriving. Palakta...a twenty-four mile drive north of Crescent City, twenty seven miles from the scene and with just shy of 7000 residents, the only city of any size in Putnam County, and Deland, County Seat of neighboring Valusia County and thirty miles south of the scene...were the closest towns besides Crescent City with ambulances.

At the scene, the train crew, after setting flares and guarding the rear of the stopped train to avoid an even worse disaster, did what they could for the injured along with the area's few residents, all of them straining their ears, desperate to hear the howling of approaching sirens. One young lady, named Louise Hardy, woke up in the damp grass next to the road as other kids cried in pain near by, tried to stand, went down as her leg folded under her, then passed out. She'd remain in a coma for three days before waking up in the hospital in Palakta to find that she'd lost one of her sisters in the accident. Another one of her sisters had suffered minor injuries. Her own right leg and knee would never be the same. 

The first Crescent City rig rolled up to a scene straight out of a nightmare...remember, this was long before firefighters had anything but the most rudimentary first aid training, if that. All the guys had was loads of compassion. The crew on that first arriving rig, along with a couple of sheriff's deputies, were quickly overwhelmed, and probably felt about as alone as anyone's ever felt until more help, in the form of additional ambulances, rolled in. At least the fog was burning off, making it easier to work, but they had another problem. Parents had found out about the accident, and frantic parents stormed the scene, inadvertently getting in the way of rescuers as they searched desperately for their kids. Some had the unspeakably horrible experience of finding their children's bodies.

Crews hustled to get the injured transported and the bodies removed to the morgue, and little thought was given to notifying the parents who hadn't found their kids as to whether their children were dead or alive, or where they had been taken until well into the incident. Several of the kids were taken by private car to the home of Crescent City Baptist Church's pastor, the Reverend Walter D Knight as well as to the nearby office of Dr D.R. Ford . Only the four worst injured kids as well as Niles were taken to the hospital in Palakta, and the frantic parents, with no information as to whether their kids were alive or where they were, set out on the heartbreaking search that was (And often still is) a sad part of any mass casualty incident..

Today a similar scene would have looked like an EMS convention, with a couple of dozen ambulances lined up, awaiting patients as their crews, assisted by some of the dozens of firefighters on the scene packaged the injured, got IV's started, and otherwise readied them for transport, In a rural area like Putnam County, it's a good bet that a medical helicopter or two would be on the ground as well.

Putnam County in 1933, however, didn't have the modern luxury of lots of Fire/EMS resources. Actual field treatment of trauma patients was three decades and change in the future. Medical helicopters... heck, helicopters in general...were the things of science fiction, and there weren't a quarter as many ambulances available to respond to the scene back then as there are today. And the ambulances that were available were nothing more than fast rides to the hospital..their crews had, at best, very basic first aid training that was be all but useless when confronted with victims of the kind of major multi-system trauma that results from an accident of this nature.

The injured were loaded two and three to a unit, with no immobilization or packaging at all, and the ambulances headed for the hospital with sirens screaming and the drivers' right feet trying to shove the accelerators through the floor. As an example, one young lady named Nelly McGrady remembered sitting in the lap of a teacher who'd responded to the scene and who rode in with two of the kids...Nellie, and another child lying on the stretcher. Nellie would spend her eleventh birthday in the hospital, and it would be a sad birthday, She had lost a brother and sister in the accident.

Niles was seriously injured in the accident, but would survive. The investigation into the accident was done quickly...the train was on it's way north, to Jacksonville about an hour after the accident. The investigation was, apparently, pretty rudimentary and the cause pretty obvious. Niles didn't see or hear the train, and didn't stop before crossing the tracks. He was apparently turning onto the dirt road leading back to Silver Pond Grove to turn around. He was found negligent, with the coroner's jury stating that there were enough places to turn around...including a turn-around that had been graded for that specific purpose...that he shouldn't have even had to cross the tracks to do so.

The sad thing is, he may have driven up into Silver Pond Colony that morning to make things safer for the kids who lived there. Normally they would have had to walk across the tracks to get to the bus stop/turn-around, but Niles, seeing the fog, very possibly drove into the Colony so the kids wouldn't have to cross the tracks in the fog. Sadly, he ended up doing exactly what he was afraid they would do...crossing the tracks without seeing an oncoming train.

  This despite the fact that Niles was actually considered to be one of the safer drivers in the area (This seems to be a common theme in these earlier accidents). Niles was a broken man in the later years of his life, though many really didn't cast blame in him, blaming the fog instead. Believe it or not, the thought 'Maybe drivers should always stop at railroad crossings' hadn't really yet germinated, probably because everyone else did the same thing when driving. Also, there just hadn't been that many bad school bus-train accidents yet. 

The bus after the crash...the fragments and boards in the foreground are some of the remains of the bus body. This is the picture that was on the front pages of newspapers nationwide the next morning. Looking ta this, I'm surprised that anyone survived

The media (Spell that newspapers back in '33) was all over this one, though, requesting info and pictures and the one pic that became this accident's signature image...the overturned chassis, twisted like a pretzel, with the shattered remains of the wooden bus body surrounding it...caused thousands of people to draw in shocked breaths as they looked at it with their morning coffee, so while Niles wasn't blamed by the citizens, and no official action was taken against him, the thought 'If he had just stopped...' had to have occurred to some people.

The children who lost their lives that morning:

William Smith, Evelyn Smith, Frederick Smith, and Merle Smith
Hazel McGrady and Eddie McGrady
Elsie Bertha Gorton
Willard Owen

All of the Smith children were siblings...Frederick and Merle were twins.
Hazel and Eddie McGrady were also brother and sister.

<***>Notes and Links and Stuff<***>

The other posts in this series
in the order they were posted.

March 1972

October 1971

August 1976  Conasauga Tenn.  March 2000   Sandy, Utah Dec 1938  Proberta, California Nov 1921  Shreve and Berea Ohio Jan. 1930  Crescent City, Florida December 1933  Rockville, Maryland April 1935  MAson City, Iowa Oct. 1937 Eads, Tennessee Oct. 1941


This is another example of 'The Further Back You Go The Harder It Is To Find Info'. Even though this accident was a major news story as 1933 drew to a close, there is very little info available on-line about it. The Putnam County Courier-Journal published a retrospective article about the accident back in the early 90s, but unfortunately it was never made available on-line, though the crew at that fine paper has promised to go through their archives (Bit of interesting trivia...printed newspaper archives are called the paper's Morgue) to find it.

The best info I found was actually on my Genealogy site (Itself basically a compilation of old newspaper stories) and some of that info had to be taken with a grain or so of salt...I'll hit a couple of the concerns I had with the info further down in the 'Notes'

Suffice it to say I had to do a good bit of speculating on this one, but as always, I hope I managed to make it readable, informative, and as accurate as possible with what I had to work with. So...on to the Notes!


Almost every multiple fatality train/school bus accident (And, in fact, multiple fatality school bus accident in general) has taken multiple children from at least one family, but the Crescent City crash multiplied that horror exponentially when four children from the same family...the Smith  family...died in the crash. Two of the Smith siblings were twins. Another family...the McGradys...lost two children in the accident with another seriously injured.


Had Christmas not been fast approaching, this accident could have been even worse. Know all those ferns houses get decorated with during the Holiday season? One of the local industries was the raising of those very ferns, and as demand for them went into overdrive several families who raised them kept their kids home to help with cutting them and readying them for shipment.


While what is now US Route 17 is the main road through Crescent City, and is the road that the bus made that fateful right turn off of, that apparently was not the road's only numerical designation back in 1933,when the accident happened. 'Seventeen' (Also known as The Ocean Highway and The Coastal Highway) was built in 1926, so it probably coexisted with a state route then as it does now. One of the three articles I found about the accident identified it as State Route 3. But there's a catch...the current Route 3, which is the road leading to the main entrance of Cape Canaveral (AKA Cape Kennedy) is nowhere near Crescent City. There is, of course, a reason for this. 

 Route 17 through Crescent City being co-designated Florida State Road 3 through Crescent City was a very early designation of the road, and was changed to State Road 15 when the State roads in Florida were renumbered in 1945. Florida State Road 15 still runs concurrent with US 17 from Jacksonville to the Georgia State Line...right through Crescent City, and right past the still extant road into Silver Pond Grove, where the now signal protected crossing where the accident occurred 85 years ago is still in place..


One of the things that made me look askance at the articles that I did find about the accident, and a good example of how you have to read between the lines sometimes when doing research, was a statement...supposedly made by Engineer Howell...that the southbound bus turned left onto the road and crossing. One problem...ain't no way. Route 17 (Then, as noted above, also Florida State Road 3 back then) followed the same approximate right of way then as it does now, the very same at the location of the accident, and the railroad right of way has been exactly where it is now for well over a century. And the turn into Silver Pond Grove has always been a right turn for southbound vehicles. Either Howell misspoke, the reporter who wrote the story misheard him (And if that's the case it couldn't have been a local reporter) or a combination of the two. I had to apply a little bit of common sense to this one...Niles, of course, turned right off of Route 17.


In April 2002 an Amtrak passenger train derailed about a mile and a half from the crossing, killing 8, and inspiring the publication of both of the articles I managed to dig up about the are the links.
An article about the accident from the Florida Times-Union, out of Jacksonville, published back in April of 2002, shortly after the derailment mentioned above in 'Notes'
Another article from April 2002.

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