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July 20, 2017

Some Railroad Heroes

Some Railroad Heroes

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

I’ve talked about railroad wrecks before, particularly ones that were caused deliberately.  For the flip side of that, we can look at a couple of people who made a spectacular effort to save lives before or after a train wreck.

First is Richard H. “Dick” Neff (1864-1939), a brakeman and baggage master for the Lake Erie & Western Railroad who lived in Indianapolis.  His connection to Hamilton County happened in May of 1892, when heavy rains (like the recent ones) caused the Lake Erie and Western track to wash out north of Fishers.   Neff was part of the crew of a passenger train traveling from Chicago to Cincinnati which was due into Indianapolis at 3:30 AM.

When the train hit the washout, the engine and cars rolled off the track into the ditch.  The engineer was pinned by wreckage and Neff was thrown from the car into the water.  Fortunately, he was not badly hurt and was able to get back on his feet.  He recovered his wits quickly and realized that a fast express freight train was running on the same route and was due to come through in five minutes.

He started down the track to signal for the freight to stop.  However, his lantern, which he needed to wave to give the signal, had stopped working.  It was probably damaged or full of water.  Thinking quickly, he grabbed a lantern that lighted a nearby switch – he actually had to break it off of the switch stand.  Using this, he was able to signal the express.  Despite all of the damage, there were no fatalities.

The same train crew was involved in severe accident near Peru in January of 1893.  In this one, the engineer was killed and Neff was severely injured.  However, he was still able to signal an oncoming train and prevent further tragedy.  Neff retired from railroad after that, working for a gas company and as a merchant policeman (security guard).

The next hero was Max Steckle (1879-1950) who lived in Atlanta and was the day telegrapher at the Noblesville station.  On December 26, 1901, a fast passenger express was just leaving Noblesville heading south when Steckle received a message that a fast freight had just left Fishers heading north.  Neither train crew knew about the other and there was no way to signal them.  (No radios or text messages in those days.)  They would be meeting head on.  Steckle knew that he had to stop the passenger train – immediately.

The report in the Noblesville Ledger[i] about the incident said Steckle jumped from his chair and ran through the station door. However, the Indianapolis News[ii] and Indianapolis Journal[iii] reports said he had gotten out even quicker by leaping through the station window and knocking out the glass and frame.  He landed on the tracks and ran towards the rolling train, as the Ledger said, “with the speed pf a greyhound”.  The report said “by an almost superhuman effort”, he was able to catch a railing on the last car and pull himself aboard.  The News said, “It took speed and endurance, but the nervy operator had both”.

Once aboard, he pulled a signal cord which rang a bell in the engine.  (An emergency cord would put the brakes on and the train needed to move to get out of the way.)  The passenger train stopped and backed into a siding just moments before the freight came through.  Interestingly, the warning message that set this off had been from a train dispatcher in Peru.  He had received separate messages from Steckle and the station agent in Fishers, and realized an error had been made.

Steckle received a commendation from railroad officials and was promoted.  The Indianapolis Journal called it a “gallant deed”.  The report about the incident was picked up by newspapers in Pennsylvania and New York.  Steckle got married in July of the next year and worked in railroads until his retirement.

[i] Noblesville Ledger, December 27, 1901, p.1.
[ii] Indianapolis New, December 27, 1901, p.1.
[iii] Indianapolis Journal, December 28, 1901, p. 2.