Off the tracks

By Greg Hoersten

May 21, 2014

LIMA — Ruel Steen was a hard man.

Known as “Lima Slim” to the hobos he chased, Steen was a railroad detective for the Chicago & Erie who fiercely protected the railroad’s property and routinely beat trespassers. “Lima Slim, he would kill you if he catch you on a train. … He would shoot you off, he wouldn’t ask you to get off,” one man told author Studs Terkel for his 1970 book “Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression.” In 1936, according to FBI records, Steen made more arrests than any other law enforcement officer in the nation. When the 48-year-old Steen died “peacefully in bed,” according to his Oct. 10, 1939, obituary in The Lima News, his friends seemed genuinely amazed he hadn’t died at the hands of some criminal.

On a misty evening a few days before Christmas 1932, Steen nearly came to a violent end, though not at the hands of a criminal.

Shortly before 9 p.m. Dec. 21, 1932, Lima Slim was in the SJ Tower, which stood in the northwest angle of the intersection of the Chicago & Erie and Detroit, Toledo & Ironton (D.T. & I.) railroads about a mile east of Lima. The tower housed an interlocking machine that was controlled by an operator or leverman. The operator would pull various levers, which aligned switches and signals through a series of trackside pipes.

“I was up in the tower about two minutes before the train came,” Steen told the News on Dec. 22, 1932. “I talked to Charles Aldrich as he sat at his telegraph instruments in the tower. Charley said, ‘No. 7 will be late. It’ll be here about (8):55 and it should be here before that.’” The 69-year-old Aldrich had worked for the railroad for 40 years, and he was right about the time.

At 8:55, Erie train No. 7, westbound from New York to Chicago and running behind schedule, roared out of the early evening gloom, jumped the tracks and plowed into the tower Steen had just left. “It was an awful sight as the engine somersaulted three times,” Steen told the News.

“I rushed over to the coach where the passengers were screaming. I broke out a window so they could get out. As each one came from the window, I helped by taking an arm. There were about 35 men and women, but no children,” Steen told the paper. “We found the fireman’s body in the mud and water, but we couldn’t find the engineer’s. Poor Aldrich’s body was under the wheels of a coach.”

“Aldrich’s body was thrown clear of the tower, which immediately burst into flames after it crashed to the ground and broke into a thousand pieces,” the News wrote Dec. 22, 1932. “The blaze started from the tower stove which fell in the middle of the wooden debris.”

The Associated Press reported “Lima firemen fought the flames desperately but were limited to the use of chemical equipment as no water supply was available.” Doctors, nurses and ambulances were rushed to the scene.

The body of the train’s fireman, Earl R. Swihart, 48, of Huntington, Ind., was found “imbedded in mud and water” a few feet from “the huge hulk of the engine, a twisted mass of steel.” The front of the locomotive ended up more than 500 feet west of the cross-over where it left the tracks. The body of the engineer, Court Scott, also of Huntington, Ind., was located the following day under the 350,000-pound locomotive. Eleven passengers were injured as were a mail clerk and three other railway employees.

The train’s engine and tender as well as eight cars, including a passenger coach and Pullman sleeper car, left the rails.

The following morning the gawkers and investigators arrived with the sun.

As more than 100 Erie and D.T. & I. employees worked to clean up the debris, using a huge crane to lift the locomotive off Scott, “thousands of curious sightseers visited the scene,” the News observed. “Many of them volunteered their services to the railroad in helping clear the track. … One group of spectators at the scene of the wreck made themselves comfortable by building a large fire out of splintered railroad ties from the wreckage.” Workers removed hundreds of bags of mail from the train.

Investigators, meanwhile, quickly put the cause of the derailment on excessive speed. “I believe one of two things happened — either the engineer lost his bearings or he fainted,” a railroad inspector told the News. “He may have been ill, too, and I am checking on the possibility. I am certain that the switch had been lined up properly by Aldrich.”

At the time of the derailment, the inspector said, Erie train No. 7 was being switched back to the westbound tracks. The train, he added, had been switched to the eastbound tracks at Kenton to pass two slower westbound freight trains. No. 7 was 1 hour and 24 minutes late when it stopped at Kenton.

On Dec. 27, 1932, the railroad estimated the cost of the derailment at $250,000 after announcing the locomotive and a baggage car would have to be scrapped.

In its official summary of the accident investigation, the Interstate Commerce Commission confirmed the suspicions of the early investigators. “This accident was caused by the failure of an engineman properly to control the speed of his train approaching a cross-over, and by his subsequent failure to obey the indication of an interlocking signal.”

The engineman, 30-year railroad veteran Scott, “made little or no reduction in the speed of his train, believed to have been at least 60 miles per hour, as it approached the cross-over at SJ Tower …,” the report continued, adding that Scott was “alive and attentive to his duties” immediately prior to the accident. Railroad policy set speed through cross-overs at 10 mph.

The report concluded that, under the circumstances, “it was impossible to say why the engineman failed to approach the cross-over with his train under full control.”

Twenty-two years earlier, in September 1910, eastbound Erie train No. 4 derailed nine miles west of Lima at Conant. One person was killed and at least 37 injured.

SJ Tower was rebuilt but was destroyed by fire in the mid-1970s.