Maplewood History: Crossing to Safety


With apologies to Wallace Stegner, crossing to safety or more accurately, crossing safely as been an area of concern for railroad communities for a long while.  Generations have lived in close proximity to the railroad tracks.  Very many have lived right next to them and still do with unfenced yards.

Though all sorts of constructions and devices have been created to protect folks from locomotives, now and then the unthinkable occurs. I have been aware of numerous near misses and catastrophes during the time I have lived just a half block or so from the tracks. In not one of those instances has the locomotive deviated from its usual course. It seems like they would be simple to avoid but still tragedies occur.

Recently I have been looking through some old newspaper archives. I wasn’t looking specifically for articles about accidents. The word I was searching was Sutton. That brought up a couple of reports of accidents that I thought might be of interest to readers of this space. Originally I started to title this article, “By Accident”. Then I realized that it was also about attempting to cross the railroad tracks safely and why that sometimes didn’t work.

I would like to say thanks to all of you who support this effort. I greatly enjoy the back and forth with many of you.  It is also very nice to connect with those of you who understand the importance of historic preservation issues and ideas.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas.

The Missouri-Pacific railroad was laid across James Sutton’s farm in 1853 bisecting it into two pieces. I’m guessing this 1898 view of the Canterbury underpass was taken from the south side. Courtesy of the Maplewood Public Library.
The back of the prior photo.
I am guessing that this photograph was shot from the north side. Arbor Avenue runs into Maple at this location today.  This exact site was the subject of an  earlier post that dealt with paranormal activity.  Courtesy of the Maplewood Public Library.
Thirty-eight years later, in October 1936, Mr. and Mrs. William Eckman lost their lives trying to cross the railroad tracks just a few hundred yards west of the underpass. From the St. Louis Star-Times.
I was at first curious if the building in the background was in Maplewood but now I don’t believe it was. I’ll explain why in just a few photos.
This is an interesting photo because in the background we can see part of the Greenwood Historic District.  The building in the center, built in 1903 once housed the Sutton Station Saloon, has just recently been restored by the Maplewood citizen and architect, Patrick Jugo.  There must have once been a great many of the watch towers.  Now all have disappeared.
This photograph, taken in the 1940’s judging by the cars, shows the same intersection from the other side of the tracks. The view is to the north. The watchman on duty at the time of the Eckman’s crash said he heard the bell signal from the watch tower at Big Bend just a short distance away. His unfamiliarity with the job caused him to pull the levers that lowered the gates the wrong way resulting in the gates being up and the crash that followed. When I first read that, I imagined that they probably had a small electric bell inside each tower to signal one another of an approaching train. Then I noticed the bell on the exterior of the tower in this photo. It was on the outside! Does that mean they had to sit up there in the winter with the window open so they wouldn’t miss hearing the signal? It definitely seems like a very flawed system. Notice the bus crossing the tracks. I believe I might have gotten this photo from Joyce Cheney, my co-author of the Maplewood History book.
From the St. Louis Star-Times, Nov. 25, 1941, seven years after the Eckman crash, the system was still flawed.  Shame, isn’t it?  This crash cost young Stanley Barnes his life. The watchman claimed that an automatic signal device that warned him of oncoming trains was faulty.  It was inspected and no fault was found.  Most likely it was human error once again. The building in the background is different than the one in the background of the wrecked coupe.  My guess would be that both vehicles had been towed to a different location from where the crashes occurred.
The victim who lost his life, 18 year old Stanley Barnes.
Maplewood Councilman Ralph K. Kalb was quoted in the St. Louis Star-Times as being in favor of depressing (lowering) the railroad tracks 20 feet to eliminate the crossing hazards at Sutton and Big Bend. This wouldn’t happen at Big Bend until 15 or 20 years later. It never happened at Sutton.  (The newspaper article got Ralph’s middle initial wrong.  It was T.)  The home that can barely be seen beyond the bus is shown in the painting that follows.
This 1960 painting by Ruth Grubb depicts the transition of this property from a traditional home to the American Legion Hall building which is currently at that location.  Unfortunately Post 103 has closed .  Maplewoodian Ken Massey operates his auction out of the Legion Hall building at present. This painting is a gift from the folks at the American Legion Post 103 to our historic collection. It is currently in my basement on its way to the Maplewood Public Library to join two other of Ms. Grubb’s paintings.  I have found no other evidence to indicate that this was the 2nd oldest home in Maplewood as Ms. Grubb has painted in the lower right hand corner.  I suspect that it was not.
Ms. Grubb’s 1960 painting of the intersection of Big Bend Blvd with the railroad tracks at Greenwood Blvd.  Notice that the watch tower is of different construction than the one at Sutton.  Ms. Grubb’s (or someone’s) list of things featured in this painting follows.  This painting is in the collection of the Maplewood Public Library.




  1. I wonder if you were supposed to be able to hear a bell from one place to the next. I am thinking more of a call system that was conveyed over a phone or electric line. It also looks like there are wires running to the towers. So maybe it was even a telegraph type system.

    I know the railroads have been bought and sold, joined together with other railroads. wonder if anyone else knows about the towers, maybe even the Museum of Transportation?

  2. Doug, you mentioned having the windows open to hear the next tower give warning. I suspect that they had a schedule posted that a train was due thru at 11, 1 and 3 and they did not have to have the windows open all day and night. I also noticed in both the photos and the painting what appears to be a smoke stack coming out of the roofs of the buildings so they had some heat in there.

    Any idea where or when those buildings came down and where they went to. I am thinking they would make a perfect chicken coop for one of the Maplewood homes or a small storage shed unless they were just pushed over and destroyed. Maybe we ought to find plans and make a replica for a playground or backyard.,

    • Mark, Perhaps there was more than one kind of bell involved. The watchman said that at about 9:50 he received the usual bell signal from the tower at Big Bend and Greenwood. He knew from the signal that it meant an eastbound train. He also said there was a warning bell ringing at Sutton when the crash occurred.
      I don’t have any idea what happened to the towers once they were no longer used. The tower at Sutton looks like it may have been of a standard design with curved iron supports in a concrete footing. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Well Doug–Sobering post at this holiday time. Thank you. And I can’t tell you how inspiring it is to see one of my favorite poets referred to in a post about my home town!

    • Phyllis, I truly would have loved to have had an uplifting subject right before Christmas. None came to hand though. I’m glad you found something agreeable about it. Thanks for your comment.

    • I can’t say for sure, Gregg. Ms. Grubb’s 1960 painting above depicts the original crossing. I’d say she was either painting from life or a photograph so I don’t know for sure if we could say the original crossing was there in 1960. My home lost its front yard during the construction of the viaduct and the widening of Big Bend. The owners at the time that happened couldn’t stand the loss so they moved to Cuba, MO and rented their home. I moved in in December of 1975 and bought the home from them in June of 1976. In my dim memory I believe they told me they had moved out prior to 1965.

  4. When I was an engineer on the miniature train at the Museum of Transportation you would be surprised how many vehicles run or try to run the crossing gates.. The miniature locomotive weighs approximately 3 Tons and I am sure it could do serious damage to a passenger vehicle and the people inside and we know there will be children in the vehicle.

    We continually preached safety and don’t think you got by this time, but time may do be on your side next time. Never try to out run a train you may lose!

    • I agree with you 100%, Sarge. I remember one day many years ago I was riding my bicycle around Forest Park. It was in the spring. When I got to the old entrance to the Zoo just down the hill from the Art Museum there were several emergency vehicles just inside the Zoo entrance gates. I found out later that during a test run something had gone wrong and the engineer of the Zoo’s miniature train had been killed.
      Trains, miniature or not, deserve respect. Much thanks for your comment. Should I have called you “Top” instead of Sarge?

  5. Hi Doug – I enjoyed this article. I’m always curious, as I drive along both Greenwood and Canterbury, the origin of those street names. Did you, or could you, research that?

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