Nebraska Historical Marker: Rock Island Wreck Site, 1894
Jamaica North Trail, Lincoln, Lancaster County, Nebraska
View this marker's location 40.744646, -96.71242
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A northbound Rock Island train was derailed from this trestle on August 9, 1894, resulting in a crash, massive fire, and the deaths of eleven passengers and crew, despite the heroic action of Harry Foote, brakeman, who rescued many. G. W. Davis, convicted of the crime in 1895, was paroled ten years later by Governor John Mickey, who noted "grave doubts" as to his guilt. Aside from questions of guilt, Davis's motive and whether he acted alone also remain matters of conjecture.
Considered the deadliest case of mass murder in state history, eleven people were killed when a train derailed on a bridge outside of Lincoln apparently as a result of sabotage. The exact nature of the case remains a mystery.
On the night of August 9, 1894, a train traveling northward along the Rock Island Railway crashed. As it crossed a trestle bridge over the Union Pacific line at around 9:20, the rails split and the engine, with two cars, fell off the bridge, falling 40 feet and crashing on the ground. The engine then burst, lighting the collapsed bridge on fire. The Nebraska State Journal described the wreckage:
It was an awful sight. The flames mounted high in the heavens coloring the entire southern sky a brilliant carmine while the moonbeams fell upon the glowing mass below from which mortal shrieks of agony and pain were heard to issue.
Eleven people perished in the crash, mostly as a result of being crushed by the wreckage; only one man died in the fire. Col. C.J. Bills, Jay McDowell and the train’s brakeman, Harry Foote, survived the crash and worked to save the remaining passengers. As a result of their action, fifteen passengers from the rear car were saved.
Col. Bills and Mr. McDowell went to find aid, but since the wreck occurred in what was then a remote area outside of town, firefighters were not able to reach the site. The entire pile of wood had to burn out. Meanwhile, Harry Foote, who had broken his foot, remained at the site but heard the cries of some of the railroad employees trapped under the train. He bravely went into the wreckage and managed to save the baggage-master and the messenger.
Some locals came to inspect the scene. One of them tripped on something and discovered a crowbar, some fishplates (iron bars used to connect rail ties) and some metal fasteners. He reported this to the railroad men. When the crash site was investigated, wrench marks were found on some of the rail ties. These facts combined suggested that someone had intentionally sabotaged the rail line. The railroad lost an estimated $30,000 in the crash.
Later, Harry Foote recalled seeing a large black man carrying a lantern after the crash. He had called out to the man for help, but he ran away. Upon hearing this, City Detective Malone began to search for a black man in the area. He learned that a black man named George Washington Davis had been seen leaving the wreck area. A lantern and revolver belonging to Davis were found at the Negro’s Club in Lincoln, thus seeming to confirm the man’s guilt. Davis was born in Washington in 1855 but had recently moved to Nebraska. He had served time in prison on several occasions leading up to the crash, most recently being released from the state penitentiary in 1892. Malone found him at a nearby farm he was known to stay at. Davis was quiet and did not insist on his innocence but did not confess, either.
Davis’ first trial was held in March of 1895. At the conclusion of the trial on March 16, Davis’ attorney claimed that Davis was a scapegoat for the Rock Island Railroad so they could avoid paying damages. He compared Davis to Jesus and said that the witnesses were being paid by the railroad to testify as they did. The jury was given conditions for conviction by the judge: if they wanted to convict Davis of first degree murder, they had to prove he removed the rail ties and had malicious intent in doing so; otherwise, they could convict him of second degree murder, if they could prove he had removed the ties without intending to kill people. Davis’ attorney’s speech apparently had a big effect on the jury; while the majority of the jurors seemed to be for conviction before, after the speech the jury voted 7-5 for acquittal, resulting in a hung jury. Davis was given a second trial that ended on January 4, 1896. The second jury convicted him of second degree murder and sentenced him to a life sentence of hard labor. The only time Davis spoke during either trial was at the conclusion of the second trial, when he maintained his innocence. The judge said there was no possibility for a second trial, but that Davis should be lucky he wasn’t given the death sentence. Davis’ conviction was opposed by many, especially in the black community, who thought he was unjustly charged. They said that his conviction was based on circumstantial evidence.
Davis was paroled by Governor John Mickey in 1905, who said that “diligent and close consideration has led to the conviction that all ends of justice have been fully served and to grave doubts as to the guilt of said convict.” He was paroled to a farmer in Beemer and disappeared from the historical record. No one else has ever been charged with the crime. The exact nature of the wreck remains a mystery. The wreck became the subject of Joel Williamsen’s novel Barrelhouse Boys, which is based on historical records from Lincoln newspapers. The novel and Williamsen’s research into the subject renewed public interest in the story, culminating in the placement of a historical marker at the site of the crash in 2010.
Duggan, Joe. “Epilogue: A forgotten mystery of death and destruction.” Lincoln Journal Star (February 22, 2010). http://journalstar.com/special-section/epilogue/epilogue-a-forgotten-mystery-of-death-and-destruction/article_2e0de0cc-1fc6-11df-9c5b-001cc4c002e0.html Accessed October 7, 2014.
Duggan, Joe. “Historical train crash marker dedicated southwest of Lincoln.” Lincoln Journal-Star (August 9, 2010). http://journalstar.com/news/local/historical-train-crash-marker-dedicated-southwest-of-lincoln/article_5ab20594-a3e8-11df-8280-001cc4c03286.html Accessed October 7, 2014.
Nebraska State Journal (August 9, 1894). http://journalstar.com/original-story-from-death-by-fire/article_a946fcfe-1fc8-11df-80d0-001cc4c002e0.html Accessed October 7, 2014.
Nebraska State Journal (August 11, 1894).
Nebraska State Journal (March 17, 1895).
Nebraska State Journal (March 19, 1895).
Williamsen, Joel. Barrelhouse Boys. Alexandria: Joel Williamsen (Self-Published) 2009.
See Nebraska Historical Marker Program for more information.