GAZA—There is a spot on 435th Street near the southeast corner of the O’Brien County town of Gaza that will forever live in infamy for one family.
Chuck and Shirley Virgil of rural Sutherland and several of their family members recently met at that specific site on the road where there is a fading reminder that railroad tracks once crossed through the unincorporated community from the northwest to the southeast.
The various Virgil relatives — including Chuck’s brothers Robert, 76; Merle, 74; and Lyle, 63 — gathered at that spot Friday evening, July 12, to observe the 100th anniversary of a tragic car-train collision.
Nine people were in the car, five of them were killed.
“We just realized, through the years, that the effects of the accident never end,” said the 71-year-old Chuck. “It goes on through each generation.”
“It’s harder to believe that we’re the ages we are now than to believe it’s been 100 years since the wreck,” said Robert, who lives in Norton, KS.
A century ago on that fateful day, 35-year-old Lillie (Black) Virgil, three of her children — 8-year-old Blanche, 6-year-old Mabel and 22-month-old Thelma — and the Rev. William Kennedy were killed in that crash.
Lillie was Chuck’s paternal grandmother and her three daughters would have been Chuck’s aunts.
Kennedy, who had just turned 40 on July 3, 1919, had been the pastor of the Gaza Congregational Church at the time of the collision, which occurred Saturday evening, July 12, 1919. The Ayrshire, Scotland, native left behind a wife, Margaret, and five children who were all under 9 years old at the time.
Forty-six-year-old George Virgil, Lillie’s husband and Chuck’s paternal grandfather, had been driving the family’s Chevrolet car at the time of the collision and was not injured in the crash.
George and Lillie’s 12-year-old daughter Ethel also was in the car, but “only had to have her arm reset, which was broken in an accident two weeks previous,” according to an account in the Sutherland Courier.
The couple’s sons Floyd and Harold, 10 and 3 years old at the time, were “seriously injured, both receiving bad cuts and fractures about the face and skull,” and were taken to Ward Memorial Hospital in Primghar to recover from the crash.
‘Had a big effect’
Harold, the father of Chuck and his five brothers, never talked much about the collision.
“My father growing up without a mother had a big effect,” Chuck said. “He would have missed so much of the maternal training, and paternal training as well, with having your father just kind of existing.”
According to newspaper accounts at the time, Kennedy had been visiting the Virgils’ home, which was located three-quarters of a mile east and a half mile south of Gaza, earlier in the day before the collision, helping to shock grain — oats specifically.
After supper, George, a pregnant Lillie, six of their nine children and Kennedy piled into the Virgils’ vehicle to take the pastor back to his home in Gaza.
As the sun was setting, the car was traveling west on the dusty road toward the community as it approached the Illinois Central Railroad crossing just southeast of town.
According to the Courier’s account at the time, “At this crossing, there is quite a dip in the road, also a high bank and a snow fence on the north side besides a field of corn, grown full height, which greatly obstructs the view of an approaching train.”
“It talks about that the train tracks were lower than the ground around them,” said Shirley, Chuck’s wife. “It was like there was quite a rise there. They possibly didn’t even see it until they were right on them.”
Just as the Virgils’ vehicle was going over the railroad crossing, a southbound work train — made up of an engine and a caboose traveling backward — came down the tracks, struck the car’s passenger side and pushed it for a distance of about 600 feet before the engineer could bring the train to a stop.
‘I just killed my family’
Chuck recalled a story he had been told about the aftermath of the collision.
“The homestead was not too far from the accident site and that’s where George’s mother lived,” Chuck said. “When he met her later, he said, ‘I just killed my family.’
“Most of the verbal details that we have — more of it came from my mother, Pearl, who got it from a neighboring couple who was really close to my grandparents and parents,” he said.
He remembered that Harold was discharged from the Primghar hospital on his fourth birthday, which was Aug. 10, 1919.
“What we know for sure is that my father received a payment from the railroad,” Chuck said. “He received a payment from the Illinois Central Railroad, which he could not claim until he was 21.”
Ethel, Floyd and Harold all survived the crash. George and Lillie also had three children who were not riding in the car at the time of the collision: 18-year-old Cora, 17-year-old Carrie and 15-year-old Grace.
Chuck noted that the crash had occurred eight days after the Fourth of July in 1919 and that Lillie had just celebrated her 35th birthday on July 3 that year.
“After the accident, my grandfather, with his surviving children, never celebrated Christmas,” Chuck said.
“They never celebrated any of the holidays or birthdays, but they did celebrate the Fourth of July because that would’ve been his last holiday with his family. They never celebrated Christmas, but the Fourth of July was a big deal,” he said.
‘There’s a big tie’
All of the Virgil family members who died from injuries they suffered in the car-train collision are buried at Doyle Cemetery, which is located about six miles northeast of Gaza.
To the Virgil family, their relatives’ grave markers serve as a reminder that life is fragile and should not be taken for granted, and that people need to always be careful while driving and be aware of their surroundings.
Chuck, Shirley and some of the other Virgil relatives — who live in other parts of Iowa and around the United States — visited the graveyard after stopping at the site of the crash that has affected their family since.
George died at the age of 70 on Feb. 23, 1943.
He is buried at Doyle Cemetery next to his wife, Lillie, and their children Blanche, Mabel and Thelma.
When asked what the Virgil family members had planned for marking the 100th anniversary of the collision, Chuck said, “Just being there. Just remembering. Reminisce, talk about it.
“We never knew my grandmother or my grandfather, but there’s a tie there,” he said. “It’s just to fill the void. That’s going to be the final closure perhaps.”