Blame sought in 1908 Windsor railroad explosion

Rhonda Chalfant - Contributing Columnist

Rhonda Chalfant

Contributing Columnist

Following the explosion of a MK&T Railroad car at Windsor the morning of Sept. 15, 1908, (not Sept. 16 as I incorrectly reported last week), caused 10 deaths that day and four additional deaths in the next few days. The cause of the explosion was known: cans of powder in a train car had exploded when someone threw a lighted match at a pile of powder that had been spilled on the platform. The injured were taken to the Katy Hospital in Sedalia for treatment.

Accusations of guilt and denials of fault came quickly and were reported in several newspapers. The reports raised many questions about guilt, blame, and the accuracy of the reporting. The Sedalia Democrat reported several witnesses claimed to have seen and heard Freight Conductor A.F. Herschberger, a 40-year-old resident of 211 E. Fifth St. in Sedalia, light a match and say he was going to scare the black men, whom he referred to with a racial epithet, on the platform. Herschberger, considered by the railroad to be a trustworthy and reliable employee, “emphatically denied” this accusation, and according to the Democrat, instead blamed the explosion on one of the black men.

W.J. Cochran, a reporter from the St. Louis Republic, in Sedalia to report on a Democratic Party event, went to Windsor, questioned witnesses, and filed a report on the explosion. He also claimed to have interviewed Herschberger at the hospital. He reported Herschberger blamed Station Agent Frank Yake caused the explosion when he “carelessly” threw a box out of his way, not realizing it contained dynamite. He also reported that Yake’s cigar had caused the explosion.

Herschberger, who was originally expected to survive his injuries, died at the Katy Hospital the day after the explosion.

A coroner’s jury, convened by S.T. Cotton, acting coroner for Henry County, met Sept. 17, and heard witnesses describe the event. They decided Herschberger was indeed to blame. However, questions still existed as to the exact nature of the explosion. A Democrat reporter interviewed John Akers, one of the witnesses.

Akers said Herschberger lit the match, intending to scare those on the platform, but not intending to ignite the powder. However, while lighting the match, the lit match head popped off and into the train car where the cans of powder were stored. This testimony would suggest that while Herschberger was foolishly careless, his original intent was not to cause an explosion.

The Kansas City Times reported on the various accusations and denials. It noted that many of the supposed interviews could not have happened. The railroad had a vested interest in making anyone but one of its employees seem guilty, as it feared massive lawsuits that would have required it to pay damages. In addition, The Times noted that once Herschberger was at the hospital, no one but railroad officials had been allowed to speak with him. Thus, the reports of a bedside interview were false.

The truth of the motive for the event will probably never be known. Fourteen people had died, others were burned or otherwise injured, and their families grieving. The coroner’s jury’s verdict that Herschberger was guilty, while it damaged his posthumous reputation, did allow the families of the victims to collect damages from the railroad. Next week’s column will explore these lawsuits.

Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.

Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.

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