On the morning of Sept. 16, 1908, the peace and quiet of Windsor, a small town approximately 25 miles southwest of Sedalia on the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad, was shattered by a violent explosion. The cause was thought to be a practical joke gone terribly wrong. The results were deadly.
The Katy train had just pulled into the Windsor station. The depot agent was marking the documents necessary to record the arrival of the train. Several African-American hotel porters met the train to bring visitors’ baggage from the depot to the hotel. Several draymen had come to the depot to haul freight to various customers in Windsor. The brakeman, baggageman, and freight conductor were busy at their duties with the train.
Several passengers, including white and black miners who worked at the mines southwest of Windsor, were standing on the platform. A number of teenage boys, who probably should have been at school, were hanging around the depot. A hobo was trying to hop a ride on the train.
One of the rail cars was carrying 10 cans of blasting powder. Some of the powder had spilled and a drayman had swept it into a small pile on the depot platform. Conductor Hershberger, witnesses said, thought he would “have a bit of fun with the waiting passengers and loungers” around the depot. He lit a match near the powder, thinking a small explosion would result. Instead, the powder ignited, blowing up the cans of blasting powder in the train car.
The blast was heard 50 miles away. The ground shook “as if (rocked) by an earthquake.” The depot was destroyed, as was the train car. Debris from the depot and car scattered in all directions. The explosion created a large hole in the ground under the spot where the car sat.
Seven people were killed instantly. Three others died the next day at the Katy Hospital in Sedalia. Most were young. Several were railroad employees. One man, James McCabe, 30, was a brakeman from Sedalia. Ernest Igo, 21, a baggageman, was from Windsor. Frank Yake, 36, the depot agent, was also from Windsor.
The teenagers killed included Walter Box, 14, Charles Davis, 12, and Elmer Keech, 16, of Windsor.
One hotel porter, John Walker, 28, was killed. Miners killed included Howard Kerns, 20, of Windsor, and Ira Malone, 32, of Bowen. Transient Henry Graystone, 65, also died.
Twelve other people were injured and were being treated at the Katy Hospital. Most were expected to live. The injured included transfer men John Hall, 70, and Clinton Sands, 35, both from Windsor; hotel porters Sam Willis, 23, and William Savage, 30, also of Windsor; draymen Frank Hall, 35, and Douglass Lee, 30. Other injured included miner Rolla Jones, 26; farmhand A. J. Reynolds, 50, of Windsor; John Bround, 30, of Montrose; John Akers, 35, of Windsor; and Rolla Pierce, 24, of Bowen.
The last of the injured was Herschberger, 40, of Sedalia, who was accused of setting the fire that caused the explosion. Next week’s column details the events, including lawsuits, that followed.
Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.