memory, imagination, and a pretty little creek

See those trees? Not just the ones along the bike path–the ones in the distance. They’re new. Relatively new. New since 1877, anyway.

In 1877 this whole area was flat. Really flat. Nothing but field–field and a small creek called Little Four Mile Creek. It may only be a small tributary of the larger Four Mile Creek–which, by the way, is significantly longer than four miles–but the Little Four Mile is big enough to seriously fuck up a train. Which is exactly what happened to a small Chicago & Rock Island express train at around 2:30 in the morning of the 28th day of August, 1877.

It was raining that morning. Had been for a while. Raining hard and at two-thirty in the morning it had to be so very dark. I can sort of picture it in my mind–the train running along at speed, the metronomic clatter of the engine, nothing for the engineer to see, hurtling through that dark laminar landscape. He couldn’t possibly have seen that the heavy rain had flooded the tiny creek and undermined a culvert, collapsing the small bridge.

The engine was pulling a baggage car, three coaches, a Barnum & Bailey advertising car (along with a 13-man paste brigade–the people who spread out through the town pasting up posters advertising the coming of the circus), and at the very end–a sleeper car.

Everything but the sleeper went into the flooded creek.

Eighteen bodies were recovered that day. Two more were recovered later, having been carried downstream in the flood. Most of the passengers, fortunately, were in the sleeper car, which remained almost magically on the tracks. In a way, this disaster very likely prevented an even larger disaster. The next bridge–a little over a mile away, crossing the larger Four Mile Creek–had also washed out.

They built a temporary bridge the following day and the day after that the trains were back on schedule. A few days after that, they built a new permanent bridge over a reinforced culvert. The trains still run along those tracks, they still cross that bridge. The photograph above (shot from the bicycle bridge over the creek where the train wreck occurred) shows the ‘new’ bridge, though you can’t really see the creek below.

The next photograph, also taken from the bike bridge, shows the creek in the direction in which the bodies were carried away. It’s a pretty little creek, isn’t it. Frogs, minnows, lots of red-winged blackbirds. All very quiet, aside from the birds, all very still.

There’s a small plaque beside the bike path, and a bench where you can sit and rest and listen to the birds. You could probably scramble down to the creek itself and walk in it, if you didn’t mind first passing through a gauntlet of thorny bushes and stinging nettles. If you were diligent and determined, you could probably still find bits of wreckage.

I stayed there for maybe fifteen minutes, resting, drinking water, listening to the water in the creek, and to the squirrels bickering with the blackbirds, thinking about the twenty people who died that night 135 years ago, not more than fifteen yards from where I sat. I tried to imagine the last thing the engineer saw, the last thing he might have been thinking, barreling through the rain in the black Iowa night.

This is what writers do–construct a narrative out of the merest wisps of fact. In truth, the engineer almost certainly couldn’t see much of anything at all, and he likely wasn’t thinking about anything in particular. One moment he was just keeping the throttle company–all by himself in a rainy, horizonless darkness–and the next moment he was dead.

I don’t believe in ghosts or spirits. I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife. But I believe in the power of memory and imagination. And there’s something wonderful in the fact that after one hundred and thirty-five years, that engineer and his nineteen dead passengers and crew continue to exist in memory and imagination.

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