Fatal train collision

The mystery of Bloody Run

SAUBLE TWP — The head waters of the Sauble River, called Bloody Run since the turn of last century, tell a tale of its waters turning red with the blood of lumberjacks when a train loaded with logs and workers derailed and fell down an icy slope one frozen December day in 1885.

Over the years, some people dismissed the story of Bloody Run as lore, but details have surfaced in recent years showing this catastrophe did happen, and points to a cover-up by the lumber company.

Allen J. Wilder, of Albion, lured by the curiosity of the name Bloody Run while on a fishing trip to Lake County in 1939, interviewed older people in the vicinity. He wrote an article from stories he collected, constructing his own version of what seemed most factual.

As the story goes, R. G. Peters’ logging crew, consisting of lumberjacks from Sweden, and perhaps other countries such as Russia and Lithuania, were on their way back from Peacock to Eastlake, Manistee where Peters had a mill. Their route was on Peters’ three-gauge Manistee and Luther Railroad, which was in the process of construction from Eastlake to Luther. The seven flatbeds were filled to capacity with heaping piles of logs with lumberjacks seated on top. The conditions were snowy and icy, and the engineer cautioned against the ride to Eastlake, but the conductor was pressed to make the trip. Although the conductor wasn’t trained, he took over driving the train.

Wilder’s account states, “With smoke belching from her funnel, the train started, gradually acquiring headway, then quickly picked up speed upon reaching the head of the slope and became a mad runaway thing. The inexperienced conductor his control lost, was powerless to prevent the ghastly catastrophe to follow.

“Rushing down a thirty percent gradient, the engine was bounding and crazily lurching over the rough road bed, ever being hurtled forward by that irresistible momentum of the big logs behind. At the bottom of the valley and over a little trout stream, when the light engine started to make its climb to higher ground, the heavily loaded flats behind quickly buckled; and the forward ones catapulted in a nose dive into the sandy soil; coupling pins broke; cars piled up; stakes were smashed from their sockets; huge binding chains snapped and flew through the air like small pipe stems.

“The logs released from their fastenings rolled down the embankment; splinters and bark showered the air; and with it was the sickening crunch of human bodies mingled in an extricable mass of arms, legs, heads, car wheels, pike poles, peavies, axes, ice, snow and debris, accompanied by the groans and shrieks of dying men whose life blood now crimsoned the clear waters of the brook.”

Wilder’s account said the casualty toll was about 20 men, immigrants from Sweden, Russia, Lithuania, Ireland and Canada. Another account, a poem by E. M. Averill, called “Bloody Run,” printed in 1941, claimed the victims were “seven mighty Swedes.”

Clarence Vicent, who grew up in Peacock, said he did metal-detecting at the Bloody Run site years ago and found old spikes, busted train wheels and parts of an exploded train boiler which was later scrapped. He counts these finds as proof the wreck was more than just a story.

Vicent and other local historians wonder what became of the bodies of the lumberjacks who were killed at Bloody Run. It is speculated they were most likely buried above the crash site on the higher ground.

No death records or burial records in Lake County, or Manistee, account for a mass number of men who died the same day.

Peters, a millionaire, major employer in the local area and owner of the R. G. Peters Salt and Lumber Co. in Manistee County, would have a lot to risk if this tragedy was made public. Immigrant lumberjacks, who may not have had any family this side of the Atlantic, and who made the logging camps their home, may have been viewed as more expendable than someone like Peters.

A small item in the local items column of the Manistee Standard, printed Dec. 19, 1885, points to Saturday, Dec. 12, 1885, being the day the Bloody Run accident occurred.

The obscure clipping said, “Seven cars and a snow plow were wrecked on Peters’ railroad Saturday. Most of the cars were demolished and William Carus, brakeman, was severely injured.” Dec. 19, 1885.

The weather conditions seem to fit the story. It was reported in the Dec. 12, 1885, issue of the Manistee Standard there was three-fourth inches of ice on Portage Lake near Onekema, in Manistee County, and a foot-and-a-half of snow accumulated.

There appears to have been more than just the brakeman riding the doomed train. The Jan. 2, 1886, issue of the Manistee Standard carried the obituary of a lumber inspector whose death resulted from injuries in a (vaguely recorded) lumbering accident, “Mr. James Roberts, well known in this city as one of the oldest lumber inspectors in this section of country, died at the Metropolitan Hotel Wednesday morning of this week. Several weeks ago he was slightly injured down the railroad at some place, by falling from a load of logs.”

The vagueness of these newspaper items are out-of-character for the newspapers of the old days, when reports of accidents made headlines and were all too detailed.

Reports of accidents on Peters’ railroad were scattered throughout the Manistee Standard for months following the accident that wrecked the seven cars and snow plow on Dec. 12. Most of these accident accounts reported no injuries, but one accident, witnessed by three men and which resulted in two deaths, placed Peters in some hot water. With the public attention the accident received, this time the Manistee Standard wasn’t so vague in its reporting.

The July 24, 1886, issue of the Manistee Standard reported, “Last Monday while a train of 46 cars, loaded with lumber and logs, on the Manistee and Luther RR, was coming down to Eastlake, just at the point near the county line between Lake and Manistee Counties on the down grade, a reach, 14 ft. long, between two cars, near the middle of the train, broke, dropping the ends down upon the cross ties. Of course the end of the reach that dropped in front of the car plowed into the ground and lifted the end of the car up, throwing it off the track, and piling up the load of logs. The next car ran into this, and each car behind did the same, until the force was lost.

“Antoine Hansen and Otto Bensen, two men who had got on, paid their fare down to Eastlake, and who had been sitting on the top of a load of lumber on one of the cars, were covered up in the crash. Prosper Poitras and John Carlson, two laborers, and a farmer who lived nearby, saw the accident, and Poitras and the conductor took Benson and Hansen out of the wreck. The latter was crushed to death, and the former was terribly bruised, his legs and arms being broken in several places. Both were placed on the train and taken to Eastlake. The dead man was buried in the pauper’s graveyard, and Bensen, after being brought to Manistee Hospital, died Thursday noon.

“A coroner’s inquest was held at East Lake immediately by Justice Dougherty, but was not lawful, and Coroner Sullivan held another Thursday , at the Court House, in this city, resulting in the rendering of a verdict in accordance with the facts stated above, and censuring the management of the road for gross negligence in not providing suitable accommodations for passengers.”

Peters’ character and decency was called into question when he would not allow $2 worth of clothes from his company store to dress the corpse who died on scene of the railroad accident.

Furthermore, because of the tragedy resulting in the death of the two passengers, a petition was circulated in Manistee asking the Railroad Commissioner to investigate the condition of the Manistee and Luther Railroad in regard to the safety of the traveling public.

Around the one year anniversary of the Dec. 12, 1885, wreck, Peters shut his railroad down for the winter. Whether he was haunted by the agonizing memory of the fatality of the lumberjacks, which he swept under the rug, or prompted by officials to shut his railroad down during the winter season for safety reasons, is unknown.

“R. G. Peters has closed up his Manistee & Luther railroad for the winter, and transferred his rolling stock, plant, etc. to his Filertown rd. which he expects to clean up if possible this winter, but the chances seem slim,” as printed in the Manistee Standard, Dec. 17, 1886.

Wilder’s article from 1939 on Bloody Run told of the locals claiming the site of Bloody Run being haunted.

Whatever the grim facts were pertaining to Bloody Run, clues of what may have happened are surfacing, but the facts are buried with the bones of the men who died and whose burial place is unknown, and the truth is buried with Peters, the conductor, and the brakeman, who rest in proper burials.