Charles Frank Thomas Sr. (1854 – 1927 ) and his brother Warren (1860 – 1896) grew up together in Canton, New York. In the late 1870’s they were part of the distance walking fad that “gripped the country” around that time. According to a newspaper article “In every city in the land there were walking matches, and even every little hamlet had its walkers”. Canton built an indoor track to host these walking competitions and “the Thomas boys, Frank and Warren, showed remarkable staying qualities and made records that compare well with the amateur walking records of the day, as they toiled off anywhere between a few hundred laps to ten and twenty miles. […] The time[s] made by Frank Thomas were of interest to the readers of the local papers.”
In 1896, when Charles was 42 and his brother Warren was 36, their mother Lois Pond (1823 – 1896) died. At her funeral, Charles approached Warren about a job working with him for the Central Vermont Railroad. Warren accepted the opportunity and shortly afterward Warren was working the freight trains with his brother: Charles as a conductor, and Warren as his brakeman. The newspapers of that time make it clear that these train crews were competitive with each other, each trying to to do a certain run in the fastest time possible. Stories were printed when a crew would break the previous record. The newspapers were also full of stories of workers being crushed between cars or killed in collisions, so it was a very risky and dangerous job in general.
Charles was the conductor, and the conductor often rode in the caboose of the train. There was usually a desk back there, and even cramped living quarters where the conductor would keep records and handle business. It was his job to keep the train on schedule and decide when to reduce or increase speed to avoid other trains, falling behind schedule, etc. The train had three other crewmembers, a fireman who stoked the fire under the boiler, an engineer, who monitored the pressure and controlled starting, stopping and speed, and a brakeman. The brakeman’s job was to walk along the top of the cars while the train was in motion and apply individual brakes on each of the cars of the train. It was, as you can imagine, a job fraught with its own dangers. The conductor and crew members in the front of the train would communicate with each other using lanterns that they’d hang outside the window of the caboose or engine.
To get every last ounce of speed out of the old steam engines, the crew would sometimes over-ride various safety valves that were meant to prevent dangerous built-ups of pressure. It’s reasonable to assume that this is what happened on the night of December 4, 1896. The train was running from Brattleboro, Vermont to New London, Connecticut and was running fast to make up time. Charles was conductor, Warren was his brakeman, and there were two other crew members: Otis Hall, the 30-year-old engineer, and his 20-year-old brother Benjamin Hall, the fireman. Warren had only been with the railroad about eight weeks. The freight train consisted of Engine No. 155 and twenty-six cars full of freight.
Shortly before 7:30pm, Charles was in the back of the train and the other three crewman were in the engine room at the front of the train. He heard three long whistles from the locomotive that signaled him there had been a decoupling; the cars of the train had come apart between the 10th and 11th of the twenty-six cars. The back end of the train was now a runaway since the train was on a downgrade at the time of the decoupling, and it was up to Charles and his part of the crew to set the brakes manually on each car to stop the back section before it hit the engine or anything else. They sprang to work as they had been trained to do.
For their part, the team in the engine had to speed up even more to get away from the back section safely. Warren Thomas took his post on top of car number five to watch for the rear section of the train and give signals to the engineer. Just outside of Eagleville, CT, a dangerous built-up of pressure occurred in the locomotive and the boiler exploded.
After getting his section of the train stopped, Charles heard what sounded like a gunshot ahead. He sprinted toward the front section of the train only to find a grisly scene awaiting him. The explosion of the boiler had been so violent a 30-foot section of the track had been ripped out and hurled through the air, shattering a wooden telegraph pole near the tracks. The detonation had blown the engine into the air, flipping it over, and as it crashed to a halt, the car Warren had been standing on piled through the wreckage killing him instantly. Charles found his brother’s body under the hot mangled steel of the engine, his skull crushed and his body scalded. The body of fireman Benjamin Hall was thrown nearly 100 feet ahead of the crash landing between the rails; he also died instantly. The engineer Otis hall sustained terrible injuries and died two hours after the crash without regaining conciousness. Charles was not injured. Detailed accounts of the accident appeared in different newspapers shortly after the accident. Warren’s widow was compensated $1000 from an insurance policy he had with the Macabees.
On July 21st, 1899, Charles Sr. was once again conductor on a freight train, and his son Charles Frank Thomas Jr. was working as his brakeman. Charles Jr. was only 21 years old and a newlywed. He had married Mabel Rodden (1878 – 1943) on March 20th, three months earlier in Saint Albans, VT.
They were expecting their first child together; Mabel was seven months pregnant. Charles Jr. was walking along the tops of the cars setting the brakes when the train passed over a bridge. Normally this wouldn’t have been a problem, but some workmen had set up a temporary scaffolding on the bridge in order to paint it. For some reason (it may have been night time) Charles didn’t see the danger and he was struck by the scaffolding and killed when the train passed.
His wife gave birth to their daughter two months later, and the family named her Charlena Francis Mary Thomas to honor her dead father. In 1900 Charlena and Mabel were living with Charles Sr. in Brattleboro, VT. In 1903, Mabel married Lawrence Ellis in Brattleboro, VT, and she and Charlena went to live with him.
Charles Frank Thomas Sr. died at his son’s house in Canton when he was 72 years old. His obituary described him as “quite an interesting man to talk with, for he had an excellent knowledge of the men and things of those early days and could tell them and write about them intelligently”. His obituary made no mention of the accidents that claimed the lives of his brother and son. Mabel Rodden Thomas Ellis died in 1943 in Brattleboro at the age of 64.
Charlena Frances Thomas was briefly married to Harvey Foote and worked for the Vermont National Bank. Her family called her “Auntie Chickie”. She always kept the Thomas name, even after her divorce from Mr. Foote. On Mother’s day in 1977 she announced to her family, “I hope I don’t die in my sleep, I won’t have my teeth in! Dont give away my patent leather pumps, all my diamond rings are in the toes.” She died a few months later, in her sleep, and her family checked ALL her shoes. She was 77 years old.
I actually got in touch with one of the living descendants of Charlena Thomas. When Charlena died she left a desk to her family. Inside that desk were several unidentified photos hidden in a compartment. We are guessing these are photos of the Thomas family as they are not photos of the Rodden side. So far the men in the photos are unidentified, but I like to think they might be Warren Thomas and Charles Jr.