Taking Time for Safety: The Train Collisions that Led to a Safer Way of Life

Let's begin today's post with a trip to Renwick, Iowa, population 482. Its the spring of 1937, and the last day of class for Renwick Independent Schools. To teachers and students in the small Cerro Gordo county town, the last day of school meant a field trip to Smith Park for an outdoor picnic and some fun & games! Baseball, a few laughs with friends, and crisp spring air was a great way to wrap things up before the summer recess. Sounds like a little slice of heaven, doesn't it?  The tradition was captured that year on film by a man named Robert McGowan, and lucky for us...his great nephew uploaded it to YouTube.

Let's back up a minute. At 2:21 into the clip, the narrator says the following statement: 

"That's Patsy Turner...was the one on the left. She's one of the ones that was killed in that bus accident."

The bus accident she's referring to involves a Rock Island train and a Renwick school bus, and it happened just 5 months after this film was taken. Many of the older high school students in this film were victims of the crash, related to someone who was, or perished themselves that fateful day.

A clipping from The Daily Iowan, October 23rd, 1937      Photo Credit: The Daily Iowan

Since the industrial revolution, fatal accidents involving man and machine have been commonplace. Think of it as one of the acceptable tradeoffs for being able to complete a task more quickly with machines than with human power alone. Newspapers would report the gristly details of a rural car wreck, or townspeople would gather at an urban factory where a worker was gravely injured. Its what we did, and in today's 24 hour news cycle...we still do. Ever slow down to pass a car wreck on the highway? Sure you have. Humans always gravitate towards tragedy.

The 1937 Rock Island Rocket collision between a school bus and a streamlined diesel passenger train at a railroad crossing in Mason City, Iowa was different. The awful circumstances in that crash marked a turning point in the burgeoning diesel passenger locomotive era, and set into motion new safety rules that we follow today. This week we look back on that horrible October day in 1937, study the accident, and learn what positive developments took place shortly thereafter.

Silver Streaks

A sketch from the US Patent Office application for the Budd Company's streamlined diesel locomotive.      Photo Credit: US Patent Office

Just three years prior to the Mason City incident, the sun began to set on the steam locomotive era thanks to the highly-publicized debut of streamliners such as the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad's Pioneer Zeyphyr. Named after Zephyrus, the Greek god of the west wind, the stainless steel beauty broke barriers in 1934 with innovative new spot welding patents and stainless steel construction methods. Propelling the machine was a Winton diesel V-8 engine which developed 600 horsepower and turned electric traction motors which generated the torque needed to move the train. In May, 1934, a "dusk to dawn" publicity run from Denver to Chicago's Century of Progress Fair would help usher in the next generation of passenger rail service. This would be a shot in the arm for railroads weathering the Great Depression. The new train made the trip in just 13 hours, 5 minutes while running an average speed of 79.5 miles per hour. During one leg of the blistering journey, the Zephyr's engineer,  Jack Ford, was able to push the streamliner to a wicked 112.5 miles per hour. The land speed record in 1934 was 130.6 miles per hour. All of this at a time when the average car would struggle to reach 55 miles per hour and urban dairy delivery routes were still carried out by horse and buggy.

A Burlington Route commemorating the Pioneer Zeyphr of 1934.       
Photo Courtesy of William Eric McFadden
During the publicity run, safety was paramount. Burlington diverted all other trains along the Zephyr's route. Crews double-checked the rails and ties to make sure there were no unsafe connections. Finally, all grade crossings were manned by flagman to ensure that any car, truck, or pedestrian would not get in the way of the "Silver Streak"...a nickname given to the train by reporters after witnessing the Zephyr in motion.

Something that new diesel trains didn't do compared to their steam engine predecessors was emit large plumes of coal soot into the air. There was still a fair amount of exhaust but they didn't leave a large trail like the old steamers, and as a result, motorists at crossings couldn't see the oncoming trail of smoke in the distance...an early warning that a speeding train would soon pass by.

The Rocket Blasts Off
To follow the Burlington Route's lead, other railroad companies rushed to order new 'streamliners' to ferry passengers to and from the nation's bustling cities. Companies like the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific, otherwise known as the Rock Island line. In 1935, while competitor Burlington enjoyed increased ridership with their new Zephyr trains, Rock Island remained bankrupt. The struggling carrier had been dealt a blow thanks largely to the Great Depression and the dust bowl caused them to lose a great deal of once-lucrative agricultural freight business. With the appointment of CEO Edward Durham that year, the company needed a miracle worker to turn things around. That miracle worker was a former Fort Worth & Denver railroad manager named John Farrington. His first order of business was to scrap older locomotives and equipment to build capital. Once collected, the money was used to place an order with Electro-Motive Corporation for 6 new streamliner locomotives slated to enter service in 1937. The result, was the smaller, sleeker TA series of trains that Rock Island called The Rocket.

The highly stylized 1937 Texas Rocket looks like its speeding, even while standing still.      Photo Credit: Wikipedia
A total of 5 Rocket routes were laid out for the 6 train sets.

The Texas Rocket ran from Fort Worth to Houston, Texas.
The Rocky Mountain Rocket ran from Kansas City, Missouri to Denver, Colorado.
The Peoria Rocket ran from Chicago to Peoria, Illinois. 
The Des Moines Rocket ran from Chicago, Illinois to Des Moines, Iowa.
The Kansas City Rocket ran 2 trains that ran from Minneapolis to Kansas City, Missouri.

Once put into service, the Rockets quickly became known as the "speedsters of the rails", praised by passengers for their amenities such as wide seats, comfortable ride and cocktail bars. The Budd-built articulated cars had ample room for roughly 120 passengers. While the fields of golden wheat and sweet corn passed by outside their windows, Rocket passengers were treated to breakfast offerings, complimentary stationary and all the comforts of home. Hauling all of this luxury was a 1,200 horsepower EMC V-16 diesel engine...twice the cylinders and twice the horsepower as the Pioneer Zephyr. As the name implied, the Rocket trains were quick and with enough success, could help put Rock Island on the road to financial recovery.

The Mason City Accident
On the morning of Friday, October 22nd, a group of 28 high school students and three teachers from Renwick High School hopped into a school bus and headed to the Cerro Gordo county seat of Mason City. Home to numerous industrial sites, Mason City was largely a manufacturing town in the early 20th century thanks to its limestone deposits and desirable rail access. Portland cement and ceramics companies were the largest employers in the region and the Renwick High School commercial class teachers wanted their pupils to experience potential employers first-hand. Companies such as Mason City Brick and Tile Company, which claimed to be one of the city's oldest businesses. The company started in 1866, thanks to its close proximity to the Mason City and Fort Dodge rail lines. As demand for paved roads and infrastructure grew, companies in Mason City provided cement, ceramic drainage pipe and precast concrete steps for city job sites across America.

Mason City Brick and Tile Company in the early 1900's. Students were leaving this factory when the accident occured.      Photo Credit: Samuel Calvin / University of Iowa
As the factory tour wrapped up shortly before 4 o'clock, the students boarded the school bus for the 59 mile return trip to Renwick. With any luck, they'd be home just in time for supper. The bus driver, 35 year-old Rex Simpson, closed the doors and put the transmission into gear. As he let out the clutch, the bus lurched forward and began to cross the set of Rock Island railroad tracks nearest the factory. With the loud teenage payload, he didn't notice the large red locomotive that was headed straight towards the center of the bus. He didn't see the plume of smoke as was customary with the older steam trains. He didn't see any bells or flashing lights because the railroad crossing next to the plant didn't have any. It was too late to stop, too late to speed ahead, and all that anyone could do was watch in horror as the Kansas City Rocket, bound for Minneapolis on a Friday evening, tore through the wood-bodied school bus and dragged it 500 feet before depositing its twisted remains and the lives of 10 people on the side of the tracks.

A scene from the Rock Island Rocket crash of 1937     
Photo Credit: The Olewein Daily Register / IA GenWeb
Onlookers gasped in horror as the moans and screams of the victims were heard across the brick yard. Driver Rex Simpson survived the initial crash, and was heard sobbing as workers from the nearby factory rushed to the aid of the children. Simpson later died of massive internal injuries sustained in the crash. Corwin Peer, a 15 year-old student was quoted in The Daily Iowan as saying he was so shocked that he lived through the ordeal, that all he could think of was finding his girlfriend...16 year-old LaVonne Helmke. Helmke survived the crash but was hospitalized with minor injuries. Peer survived the crash while sitting in the very last seat of the bus.

Initially 9 victims perished in the crash, but the death toll rose to 10 the following day. Two teachers, the bus driver and 7 students lost their lives in a spectacular collision. A United Press clipping vividly paints a picture of a "glistening new Rocket" cutting through the wood-bodied school bus as it "popped like a watermelon". Other reports detailed a field of blood-stained clothing and helpless arm-flailing youths waiting for paramedics to arrive.

And we think today's media is sensational.

The Kansas City Rocket was delayed 1 hour and 15 minutes before the engineer was told to press onward to Minneapolis and complete the journey. He was replaced by a new engineer and crew in a nearby Manly, Iowa switchyard and the trip was completed that night. None of the train passengers were hurt in the incident. 

The Aftermath
Immediately, investigators from The Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific descended on Mason City to investigate the crash. One of the first to respond was the Rock Island Superintendent from Des Moines, Mr. C.L. Bakke. Mr. C.J. Brown, the manager from Kansas City also arrived at the scene later that evening and the initial investigation concluded that the Rocket was indeed traveling at a low speed, 20 to 25 miles per hour through Mason City at the time of the crash...a reasonable speed. The engineer of the Rocket, George R. Simpson, was badly shaken by the incident and said he was unable to see the bus due to large stack of freshly-made bricks that lined the sides of the rails. This also obstructed the view for the bus driver, and contributed to the collision. This detail suggested poor thinking on the part of Mason City Brick & Tile Company. Because the crash occurred on private property, no additional warning measures were mandated at the grade crossing where the fatal wreck occurred. This accident was simply a case of happenstance. A series of unfortunate events that combined to equal the worst possible scenario.

The Flying Ute Crash of 1938

Just one year after The Kansas City Rocket crash in Mason City, another deadly train / school bus collision in Sandy, Utah occurred. A bus carrying 39 students was demolished by a Denver Rio Grande & Western freight train named The Flying Ute in a blinding December snowstorm. Utah buses were required to stop at railroad crossings, but not to open the doors to see or hear if a train was approaching. The two drivers were unable to see one another due to blinding snowstorm.While making up time lost by the blizzard, The Flying Ute slammed into the bus as it crossed a grade crossing.

Newspaper headline from the Flying Ute crash.      Photo Credit: Ludington Daily News

In all, 26 perished in the crash, marking the worst school bus accident in U.S. history. This incident, along with the fresh memory of the Mason City crash, led to the federal mandate for school buses to stop at all railroad crossings and open the door to make sure a train was not approaching. This case is often cited as the reason for increased school bus safety and awareness in the United States, as well as section 392, subpart B of Federal Commercial Motor Vehicle code.

"The driver of a commercial motor vehicle specified in paragraphs (a) (1) through (6) of this section shall not cross a railroad track or tracks at grade unless he/she first: Stops the commercial motor vehicle within 50 feet of, and not closer than 15 feet to, the tracks; thereafter listens and looks in each direction along the tracks for an approaching train; and ascertains that no train is approaching. When it is safe to do so, the driver may drive the commercial motor vehicle across the tracks in a gear that permits the commercial motor vehicle to complete the crossing without a change of gears. The driver must not shift gears while crossing the tracks."

Making it Right
The updated TA locomotive circa 1941 with the secondary "gyralite" warning lamp installed.
In the years following the crash, Electromotive Corporation engineers supplemented the TA locomotives headlamps with a second light for safety. You can see in this postcard from the early 1940's that the second gyrating warning light, or "gyralite" was located much lower than the original lamp and provided a sudden and random beam that served as a warning to any driver or pedestrian at a grade crossing. In fact, the US Patent for the lamp mentioned the financial implications of not adding such a revolutionary safety feature.

Here's a selection of the legal text from US Patent 2,353,082 for a gyrating warning lamp:  

"To the railroads, not only is it a question of physical damage or personal injury, but a financial burden as well. An animal not worth a great deal to an owner suddenly becomes invaluable when it is struck by a train."

In an effort to protect railroad companies from litigious farmers, (or crash victim's families), a gyrating safety lamp on new EMC trains would help make trains safer. Trains use a similar method of warning lamps today.

Grade crossings were made safer in the 1950's across the US thanks to the research carried out by The Southern Pacific Railroad and Stanford University, which led to the development of the automatic grade crossing signals that we still use. The approaching trains close electrical relays that engage the audible signals and flashing lights. Trains as far away as several thousand feet can trigger the signals, giving motorists and pedestrians ample time to stop. 

Renwick Moves On
The people of Renwick were able to recover from the deadly Rocket accident of 1937. Families buried their loved ones and healed in their own private ways. Survivors healed their physical and emotional wounds as well. Children grew up, played baseball, sang in the choir at church and got jobs as young adults.

The 1937 Chevrolet school bus that replaced the one destroyed in the Mason City crash.      Photo Credit: Robert McGowan Family / YouTube
A new school bus was purchased later that year, a 1937 Chevrolet with a steel body...to replace the wood-framed style bus that was destroyed. Newer steel construction techniques pioneered by train builders were adopted by school bus manufacturers such as The Wayne Corporation, which stressed the increased safety of steel in their sales literature. 1937 was also the first year that Blue Bird Body Company began manufacturing all-steel buses. It seemed that the times were changing for the better, and the sturdy yellow and black Chevrolet school bus was proof that something good could come out of something bad.

The 1937 Chevrolet bus shown in a 1940 Renwick Homecoming Parade.      Photo Credit: Robert McGowan Family / YouTube
Remember Corwin Peer, the 15 year-old boy who survived the crash and said he was concerned about finding his girlfriend? Corwin Peer married his high school sweetheart, LaVonne Helmke in 1942. Both survived the accident and lived a long fruitful life in Parkersburg, a small town 80 miles west of Renwick. Both have since passed away.

Corwin Peer, seen waving to the camera in May, 1937.       Photo Credit: Robert McGowan Family / YouTube
The reason I chose to write about this story was because I'd never heard of it until recently. Fascinated by trains, I was pulling up pictures of the Rock Island Rocket for a local history group one afternoon. I came across the image of the Mason City crash and became fascinated with the juxtaposition of this gleaming, newfangled gargantuan train of tomorrow and a series of innocent victims from a locale similar to Thorton Wilder's Our Town. It was also surprising to find such great film footage from a personal collection on YouTube with a connection to this small Iowa town's darkest hour.

In all the press coverage of the incident, one common thread woven throughout is the amazement of the "new streamliners". It wasn't called a killer machine, but a beautiful beast that stirred the imagination and wonder of onlookers, even as it took the lives of their neighbors and children. I can't imagine what it would have been like to catch the first glimpse of a groundbreaking invention such as that...in that awful setting.

The laws that are on the books today are there for a reason. There are names and faces that go along with the rules we follow, and perhaps even question or poke fun at. I wouldn't have understood the significance of such a historic event as the Mason City crash or subsequent Flying Ute crash that forced lawmakers and engineers to rethink our way of life. Thankfully I get it today, and I would imagine if stories like this were highlighted more, today's youth would recognize why the bus driver asks everyone to be quiet and wait for a few seconds before crossing a set of railroad tracks.

In the grand scheme of things, isn't safety worth the wait?

Links & Acknowledgements

*Perhaps the most complete newspaper story on the accident is available in this archive copy of The Daily Iowan from October 23, 1937.

*You can also obtain a great deal of knowledge from the reports compiled on The IA GenWeb page about the crash.  

*Details on the history of Electromotive Corporation and Rock Island Rockets came from their Wikipedia pages, personal document collections over the years, and Streamliner Memories. 

*A touching news article on the Flying Ute crash of 1938 can be found at the Desert News website.


  1. Thank you Daryl for posting this story...these are examples of history we can still learn from and give some meaning to the losses suffered by these families. Lilian Ceder, one of the fatalities from the Mason City crash, was my 1st cousin. Thanks again Hank

  2. Hank, you are most welcome. Thank you for sharing your comments and sorry for your loss so long ago. Hope you are well, and thank you again for getting in touch.


Post a Comment

Thank you for your feedback on Throwin' Wrenches.

Popular Posts