Regional Reports from across the state
(page 4 of 5)
Baton Rouge/Plantation Country
Train Wreck in Lettsworth
There is a green and shady, almost eerily quiet stretch of Louisiana Highway 1 where a railroad crossing stands adjacent to an abandoned structure that was once a general store. I find it funny in a peculiar way that when someplace seems “eerily quiet,” it’s usually silently screaming with some sad story it wants to tell. Beneath the trees, a bold black-lettered sign reads “Lettsworth,” and if you’re travelling along Highway 1, you cannot help but cross these tracks. In my first remembrances of such journeys as a little girl, on my way to visit relatives, my older brother always intoned in a sepulchral voice, “There was a bad train wreck here in the ‘50s,” without fail, even into adulthood. Driving past this spot alone as an adult, no matter how many times, I likewise found myself saying, “There was a bad train wreck here in the ‘50s,” without knowing exactly what happened.
Perhaps it’s taken too many years for the just-what-the-hell-happened-here syndrome to set in, or maybe I’ve gotten over savoring the eeriness of the spot enough to delve into some historical detective work. Learning about what happened at Lettsworth was a moment whose time had come.
At approximately 7 a.m. on an August morning in 1951, a troop train bearing 288 soldiers bound for the Pacific Ocean and Korean War and secretly launched from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina had made its way into the Bayou State, traveling some 60 miles above Baton Rouge on a single track. Traveling New Orleans-bound from the opposite direction on the same track was the Southern Belle, a streamlined passenger train that was part of the Kansas City Southern Railroad line.
Kenneth Mounger, who ran the now-abandoned general store next to the train tracks, was awaiting the usual 7:03 a.m. appearance of the Southern Belle. According to Stu Beitler of GenDisasters, a website that chronicles such events, Mounger said the train was late that particular morning.
“This morning,” said Mounger, “she appeared late, and when I saw this troop train going by headed in the opposite direction, I turned to my wife and said, ‘What’s that train doing on the track when the Belle is due?’... A few minutes later, I heard a terrible crash.”
For an unknown reason, the troop train had ignored a signal to move to a side rail to give the passenger train right of way. On a double bend 1 mile away from Mounger’s store, the two trains engaged in a shattering head-on collision, both travelling at 50 mph.
Oil gushed from a diesel engine and exploded into flames, hampering rescuers trying to save the victims. Marines who escaped the wreck began administering first aid to the passenger train victims and then their own men. Rescue workers had to hack their way through the swamp to reach the disaster victims. Farmers who lived along the track gathered at the wreck laden with mattresses, blankets and quilts to offer the victims. Before ambulances could arrive, work trains reached them, and the Marines placed the injured on the trains until the ambulances could make their way through the swamp.
One Marine was trapped in a car right after the impact. The burning oil was about to engulf him when his Marine buddies grabbed a large section of dislocated rail from the track, bored a hole in the car and rescued him.
Victims were dispersed to clinics in nearby Morganza, New Roads and Baton Rouge. Sixty-five people were reported injured, with one missing and eight who didn’t survive.
Adding even more nightmare to the tragedy was the story of 9-year-old Aubrey Stears Jr. of Lettsworth. Aubrey was galloping furiously on his pony to see the wreck when a car hit them. Both the boy and his pony were killed.