In 1923, two of the modes of transportation in Bureau County were the automobile and the Interurban. The Interurban ran from North Main in Princeton to Bureau Junction and beyond, with the tracks running south on Main as far as Bryant Nursery. From there the tracks ran southeast past the Bureau Valley Country Club and crossed the road that connects what we now know as Route 26 and Lake Arispie. The Interurban had a stop called Shaeffer’s Crossing on this connecting road. The hill was known as Weise Hill. The headlines in the Aug. 16, 1923, edition of the BCR read, “Interurban Hits Auto; Four Dead.”
On Sunday, Aug.12, 1923, Andrew Carlson and his family had spent the morning at the Charles Frazier residence not far from their own home. Andrew was a farmer in the area and lived with his family not far from Shaeffer’s Crossing. Carlson’s family consisted of his wife, Amy nee Tolene, age 30; son, Roland, 6; Helen, 7 and Doris, 7 months. Helen and her brother were in the rear seat of their Ford with her father, mother and sister all in the front seat. Andrew was eating an apple as they headed home.
On that morning of Aug. 2, Reuben Reed of Joliet was the motorman on Interurban Car 262 headed toward Princeton. His Interurban was carrying four passengers and a conductor and traveling at about 25 miles an hour. At about 10:55 a.m., when about to traverse Shaeffer’s Crossing, Reed saw a Ford about to intersect his path. Reed blew the whistle and applied the brakes but was unable to stop before hitting the automobile. The Ford was overturned then dragged about 140 feet and slammed against a switch stand, dragged another 12 feet and wedged between a telephone booth and the street car. All the occupants of the automobile were thrown out. Reed immediately went to help the victims but found that Andrew, Roland and Doris were dead. Amy Carlson was still alive but unconscious and badly injured.
Axel Tolene, who lived nearby, was at his well in the front yard at the time of the accident and witnessed it firsthand. He rushed to offer assistance and had his son, Edwin, call for doctors and an ambulance from Princeton. Unknown to Tolene, this was the family of his niece, Amy Carlson. Shortly after, Harry Carlson and his family were on the scene. Harry helped to load the bodies and the injured Amy Carlson onto the Interurban, not knowing it was the family of his brother, Andrew. The family’s injuries were so substantial that they were unrecognizable.
Seven-year-old Helen had also been thrown from the automobile at the time of the collision. She chased the Interurban until she came across her parents’ bodies lying next to the tracks. Helen then ran past her home and a mile up Weise Hill to the residence of J.A. Swanson. She opened the door and ran in falling into Mrs. Swanson’s lap, breathless and unable to talk. When Helen finally was able to speak, she told Mrs. Swanson of what had happened and said her mother was unable to speak. Helen was left with the Swanson’s daughter, while Mr. and Mrs. Swanson went to the scene of the accident. It wasn’t until the Swansons told who the victims were that everyone realized the family was that of Andrew Carlson. Harry Carlson left to inform his parents. Amy Carlson died at 4 p.m. that day at the Princeton Hospital. Helen was not told of the death of her family until the funeral.
A corner’s jury condemned the crossing. A clump of willows obscured the view of the tracks from the west, and the crossing bell did not always work. It was suggested that motorists would be required to come to a full stop before crossing.
Helen was raised by her Uncle Harry and family and lived her life in Princeton. She was married to Martin Olson in 1936, raised one daughter, and lived until Jan. 17, 2001. Years later, Helen told a family member the day of the accident when she ran up the hill, angels had carried her.
Sources: Bureau County Republican, Aug. 16, 1923; Bureau County Tribune, Aug. 15, 1923; and Larry and Vicki Mongan; Vicki is the daughter of Helen.
Princeton resident Todd Borsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.