First Train - First Disaster
Submitted by: Gary Leabman, Museum Founder, City of Hermann Caboose Museum
The year was 1855. The railroad industry was in its infancy, but expanding rapidly from the east coast to the west. The Pacific Railroad wanted to be the first to reach its namesake, but more money was needed to go across the State of Missouri. They had completed the track from St Louis to Jefferson City, but had used up all the money supplied by investors and the legislature.
So a big banquet was planned to celebrate reaching the state capital, and to ask elected officials for more money. Over 600 invited guests and dignitaries on board from towns along the route included the mayor and two former mayors of St Louis, Henri Pierre Chouteau, the entire St Louis City Council, religious leaders, and several state legislators.
The train left St Louis after great fanfare with music and oration as scheduled at 9 AM on the morning of November 1st.
The Chief Structural Engineer, for the Pacific Railroad, Thomas O’Sullivan, had told the president of the railroad that although the Gasconade River Bridge was not quite finished, it had been reinforced with timbers before a loaded gravel train tested the strength. No problem developed on test rides, and he had confidence in knowing that the load of rock was 4 times heavier than 8 passenger cars. Even though a severe rain storm blasted the area the previous night, the train rolled out of St Louis on time.
The train stopped in Hermann to pick up leading citizen, Charles Eitzen, and several others. Shortly after the train departed Hermann a large boulder was spotted on the tracks ahead. It took 30 minutes to clear the tracks while rain pummeled the workers. A few minutes later, as the train approached the almost finished Gasconade River Bridge, the Chief Engineer consulted with the railroad president. Should they slow down to cross the bridge or try to get to Jefferson City on time?
They proceeded at full speed.
The bridge faltered, sending the passenger cars, except one, into the swirling waters or onto the muddy bank. The weight of the cars pulled the locomotive backwards into the abyss. The engineer was pinned under the wreckage, and fearing drowning in the raging river, begged for someone to shoot him. His rescuers wouldn’t do it; eventually freeing his badly mangled legs from the muddy bottom. He died two months later. The chief engineer died instantly, as did the son of the founder of St Louis, president of the St Louis City Council, and a former mayor of St Louis.
Miraculously, Charles Eitzen survived with minor facial abrasions although he was in the first car. No Hermann residents were killed, but most suffered injuries.
The Leimer Hotel in Hermann served as a morgue and hospital for survivors. Eventually the confirmed death toll quickly rose to 31 (later 43 from injuries) in the first major disaster in railroad history in the United States.
Since opening on July 4, 2020, the City of Hermann Caboose Museum uses a diorama to tell the story of the Gasconade Bridge Disaster and many other stories about the coming of the railroads to the Missouri River Valley.
The Missouri Humanities Council was the major contributor to the $30,000 effort by volunteers to convert a faded, rusting caboose from a storage space to a FREE museum in the downtown Historic District. The Independence Day Freedom Fest in 2022, saw the addition of a bronze life-sized Conductor statue at the entrance, again with major funding from the Missouri Humanities Council.
Gary Leabman, Museum Founder, firstname.lastname@example.org 314-280-9944
BIO of Gary Leabman
Gary Leabman graduated from the University of Missouri School of Business in 1971. He entered the family business, Peerless Restaurant Supples in St Louis, and led the organization into computer technology. Within a few years he was a speaker at the industry annual trade show about his custom computer software. Just prior to selling the business in 2005 (including a branch in Columbia) Mr Leabman led his installation crew to Camp David where they installed a new kitchen designed by his company. The commander of Camp David said it was the first time any contractor completed their work on time and under budget.
Mr. Leabman has served on many boards including:
FEDA Food Equipment Dealer Association
Salvation Army Harbor House, St. Louis
Flora Place Association, St. Louis, President
Hi-Pointe Loft Association, St. Louis, President
BluCity Spaces Association, St. Louis, Treasurer
Community Improvement District-Downtown St Louis, Treasurer
Historic Hermann Museum, Director and Re-enactor
Hermann in Bloom, Founder
City of Hermann Caboose Museum, Founder
Hermann Park Board, Director
Village Dog Park, President
Member: Sierra Club, Missouri River Relief, Missouri Botanical Garden
Gary and his wife, Marsha Nyberg, established Spirit Hill Guest House and Gardens in Hermann, Missouri in 2000. In 2010 they installed a geothermal system to heat and cool the 3500 sq ft home and business plus solar panels in 2022. His Tesla Cybertruck is expected in early 2023. Gary is a Master Gardener active in community gardening in Hermann. He performs as “Steamboat Bill and Mike Fink” for tour groups visiting the Historic Hermann Museum. Gary enjoys kayaking, loves rivers, and organized a cleanup near Hermann Riverfront Park which recycled 85 tires pulled from the Missouri River.
501 W 4th
Hermann, MO 65041