Regional Reports from across the state

(page 4 of 5)

Baton Rouge/Plantation Country

Quirky Places

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.

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Reader Comments:
May 21, 2013 11:54 am
 Posted by  RebMac

Jeanne,

It's nice to see someone take an interest in events from long ago. This accident was the worst the Kansas City Southern has ever had. Thirteen souls were lost that August morning; all six employees in both locomotives, six passengers of the troop train, and the troop train's conductor. Eighty-two were injured, many seriously.

The track upon which this wreck occurred is abandoned, now - it is located a mile and a half north of the LA1 intersection you describe (the photo you published is actually of a location about two miles north of the actual wreck site). In fact, you will follow the existing tracks there north a couple hundred feet, then follow the still evident abandoned roadbed that diverges to the right/north up in to the woods. I would be sure to be prepared for the wildlife, for the area becomes heavily timbered and is swampy. The wreck location is just a hundred feet or so south of the tree line that opens upon a large open field. You will clearly be able to see the old roadbed continue across that field in a broad sweeping curve to the northeast. I don't remember anything that marks the spot, other than an eerie feeling that something terrible once happened in that place.

The worst part about this wreck is that it could have been prevented. I invite you to read the report of the ICC - http://ntl1.specialcollection.net/scripts/ws.dll?file&fn=6&name=S%3A%5CDOT_56GB%5CRailroad%5CWEBSEARCH%5C3419.PDF (you'll have to cut and paste); it tells a story of ignorance, arrogance, and tragedy - especially in light of new technologies of the day.

Thanks, again, for covering this wreck. Thirteen forgotten souls have been remembered.

Pat McCarthy

May 22, 2013 01:26 pm
 Posted by  JMFrois

Dear Pat,

Thanks very much for your kind comments and additional details about what happened. It's very gratifying to for me to receive a sensitive and informed response like yours to one of my stories. I always wondered where exactly the wreck took place and now you've given me an excellent picture. I think some kind of marker should be there; or even a historical marker on Hwy. 1 where the track crosses, because, paraphrasing your words, these souls should be remembered. I will definitely read the ICC report--I deeply appreciate that you've sent me the link to the actual report and took the time to respond to my story.

Best Wishes,

Jeanne Frois

May 25, 2013 05:12 pm
 Posted by  RebMac

Jeanne,

I was stunned to receive your very kind reply to my note on your piece about the wreck of the Southern Belle - so much so, if felt I should somehow respond.

So, thank you for your reply. My grandfather was a civil engineer for the KCS, and that wreck took the lives of four of his close friends. He grieved over it for years. Naturally, I was drawn to the story; I only wish he had lived long enough for me to talk about it with him.

I just ordered a copy of your book "Louisianians All," and am looking forward to reading it. Thank you, again.

Pat McCarthy
Jackson, Mississippi

May 29, 2013 02:37 pm
 Posted by  JMFrois

Dear Pat,

It was my pleasure to answer you. As a little girl I traveled the trains with my family and can still feel the spell they wove around us; your grandfather was part of the romance--and tragedy--of trains. I'm so sorry he lost four good friends in the wreck and it's only natural he would be haunted by such a loss. I understand why you would have wanted to talk about this with him. I would have loved to talk to him about it myself! Thank you so much for doing me the kindness of ordering my book. "Louisianians All" was a special project to me, a labor of love during a magical time of my life when I was surrounded by loving support on a few sides that I'll always cherish. I sincerely hope you enjoy it.

Best,

Jeanne Frois

Sep 1, 2013 03:14 pm
 Posted by  scheely

Jeanne - Thank you for the excellent article. My father is a member of the 1st 90 mm AAA Gun Battalion that served in Korea. He has published a book, "A Brief History of the 1st 90 MM AAA Gun Battalion, USMC". My father included a chapter on the train crash. The book is self-published and he makes additions as he receives photos and stories from Marines when they find out about the book. I would love to include the picture of the track now and a link to your article if you would approve? I am currently working on a 7th revision. He received photos of the crash from a Navy Corpsman, Bill Kayatta who was pulled out of the wreck by use of the rail tie. I was sad to learn of the loss of the boy on his horse. Please let me know about the photo and feel free to pass my note onto the other gentleman who posted. Thanks again for the article.

Jan 24, 2014 01:12 pm
 Posted by  JMFrois

Dear Scheely:

Just found your wonderful post this morning, nearly five months after--sorry! Congratulations about your father and the book, it sounds like a cherished, wonderful project. Give me a few minutes to run your request about the photo and link to the article by my publisher, Errol and I will let you know. Sorry to have kept you waiting so long! Best wishes and I'm so glad you enjoyed the article. Jeanne

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