The Rev. Robert Lee Jr. remembers well the immediate aftermath of the great train wreck on the Tensas River at Clayton in 1920.
The horrible event, possibly one of the worst such accidents in the U.S. that year, came during a time when the rail system moved the country. Trains were the major mode of transportation for people and goods of every description.
Seven lives were claimed in the accident — five passengers, and two railroad employees. Eight more were injured — six passengers and two employees.
The train was moving so slowly — from six to 15 miles per hour — that many of the passengers and crew foresaw what was going to occur but were helpless to do anything as the engine and two of the four cars ran off the bridge and plunged into the icy water.
The tragedy began at 6:45 a.m., Saturday, Feb. 3, 1920 — a misty, foggy, cold morning — when the steamboat F.A. Norwood whistled for the Clayton railroad bridge to raise its center span as train No. 806, an engine and four cars, was racing from Vidalia toward the Clayton depot. The train was running late. Engine 8657 pulled one baggage car, one combination mail car and coach, and two coaches, in that order. All of the cars were made of wood.
Lee's father — Robert Lee Sr. — was one of the four men who turned a wheel to raise the draw span. Rev. Lee was only six years old at the time and arrived on the scene just minutes after the accident.
In those days, flags and lanterns were used as signals.
The train had left Vidalia, the district terminal, at 6.05 a.m., 20 minutes late and arrived at Clayton at about 7:03 a.m., "coming to a stop," according to a government report on the accident, "with the pilot of the engine approximately 773 feet south of the draw span of bridge No. 48."
The bridge watchman on duty for the Missouri-Pacific Railroad later told government investigators that when he heard the whistle of the F.A. Norword he immediately placed red flags 250 feet on each side of the draw span and signaled the opening of the bridge at about 7 a.m. "with the signal lamps on the center pier burning brightly."
According to the accident report, the watchman said that at "about 7.05 a.m., from his position on the draw span, he saw train No. 806 arrive at the station at Clayton." He saw the engine's headlight and "a minute or two later the train proceeded, ran over the flag which he had placed at the south end of the bridge, and fell into the river."
The watchman told investigators that he "as well as some men who were on the south end of the bridge shouted and made every effort to attract the engine crew's attention to the danger, but neither the engineman nor the fireman were on their seatboxes and the engine was still working steam when the accident occurred."
Lee's father was among the few eyewitnesses to the worse train disaster ever in Concordia Parish when the railroad engine and two cars plunged into the rain-swollen Tensas River.
Lee recalled that as the engine car, the baggage car and "the colored car," which was where black passengers were seated, plunged into the cold water, screams pierced the countryside.
"My father said he heard those screams until he died," Lee said.
Shreveport served as regional headquarters for the rail line and a day after the accident, The Shreveport Times reported that the "Tensas River is swollen from recent rains, and it is believed the bodies have been carried far down the river. Little hope of finding the bodies is entertained, although railroad officials and citizens are dragging the river."
But Lee said it soon became apparent that many of the dead were caught inside the cars and unable to get out despite frantic efforts by men to rescue the victims.
A fisherman, Willis Warren (Lee's future father-in-law), was running nets and got close enough in his boat to save one woman, Lee recalled.
Area rivers continued to rise for several weeks and by May, Gov. Jared Parker asked that assistance be provided residents of Concordia and Catahoula parishes. It was noted that farms "have for some time been overflowed from the excessive floods in the Black River." The Tensas flows into the Black at Jonesville.
The bridge, said the report, was "of the deck girder type, having a total length of 450 feet; at each end there are two fixed span 75 feet in length and in the center there is a draw span 150 feet in length which is pivoted in the center and operated manually from the center pier. There is no framework on the bridge which projects above the level of the track; the rails were about 10 feet above the water, which was about 38 feet deep at the time of the accident."
News of the accident drew onlookers from great distances. For days, Lee said, "people stood on both banks of the river as bodies and train cars were pulled from the water. There were a lot of people gathered, probably more people in Clayton than there's ever been."
The government report revealed that the "engine landed upright on the bottom of the river bed and was badly damaged; the baggage car landed between the engine and the center pier and was demolished, while the combination car landed on the opposite side of the engine and was so badly damaged that it was afterwards destroyed. The engine and both cars came to rest approximately parallel to each other and at right angles to the track. With the exception of the first pair of wheels of the first coach, the two rear cars of the train were not derailed or damaged. The passengers killed were riding in the combination car; the employees killed were the fireman (C.B. Castel) and the baggage and express messenger (Sam McCallum)."
From the baggage car, a bunch of bananas floated to the surface of the river. Lee's father carried the bunch home and hung it on the porch.
"That was the first bananas I ever saw," Lee said.
The Shreveport Times reported that a tragedy occurred at the Clayton railroad bridge eight years earlier in 1912, when the steamer Concordia struck the trestle and sunk, killing 11.
Lee recalled that the steamboats Bessie Ann and Mary Bell also navigated the Tensas at Clayton with "their big lights flashing." The steamboats would stop at landings on both side of the river and pick up cotton, cattle and other goods as well as deliver products.
After months of investigation, the federal government determined that the Clayton train accident was caused by the failure of the engineer "to keep a proper watch of the track ahead and to observe that the drawbridge had been opened."