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"Death in the Ballawalla"

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Death in the Ballawalla

Otto Peterson was the first to smell the smoke because he was a light sleeper. He awoke and quickly yelled to wake his fellow travelers, grabbed his cornet case and jumped from the platform off the train. Going 40 miles per hour next to the Missoula river their car was soon engulfed in smoke and flames. When Otto leaped from the train he landed on his head in a snow drift. It saved his life, but for several others it was too late. A half-dozen negroes in the secret ‘Ballawalla’ apartment would never wake up and since they were behind a ‘blind’ walled partition, they were trapped by the fire with only a trap door in the bottom for escape.

They were all members of a traveling troupe of Uncle Tom actors who had just performed in Ritzville, Washington the previous day. It was the morning of March 16, 1901 and help was a long way off. Missoula, the place of their next scheduled engagement, lay 65 miles to the east. Their train should have arrived there at 09:30, but wouldn’t today.

The ‘Ballawalla’ compartment held a half-dozen negroes allegedly to avoid paying anything extra for their fare. The trap door in the bottom of their compartment could have given them an exit but none of them used it. For them there was no way out. Before long they were dead, ‘literally burned to cinders.” And sadly, nobody would ever know about it. The secret compartment kept its secret even while the Missoula County coroner, John Hayes, later examined a few fragments of charred bones that had been gathered from between the N. P. tracks. On receiving news of the accident, he boarded a rescue train that was dispatched immediately. Discovered mainly in “one place”, the bones were burned beyond recognition. Did history erase the passengers of the secret ‘Ballawalla’? It sure did.

The accident occurred near a small station named “Olive” between Paradise and Plains, Montana. Like the secret passengers on board the N. P. train, no record exists of this small station in today’s lore. The troupe had just left from Spokane and was next scheduled to perform in Missoula at the Empire theater that evening. And the day following at Butte, Montana.

Otto Peterson wrote his story about it more than a decade after it happened in 1901, and got it published in 1916, in the little known “Monthly Band and Orchestra Journal” published in Cincinnati, Ohio by the Fillmore Music House. Otto was a dedicated trumpet player who liked to write and write he did. Along with other fascinating tales he took us to the little-known world of the traveling troupers who trekked across the country performing anywhere that was available - be it in tents, barns, grandstands, or opera houses – you name it. His article was titled “Troupology.” The title somewhat resembling ‘apology,’ it may not have been accidental when he wrote his account of this tragic day.

Otto was a member of Ed F. Davis’s famed traveling stage play extravaganza, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Michigan Impresario Ed. F. Davis built his career out of staging this play as did many other stage practitioners of that era. The play still drew crowds even half a century after the story was written. The Uncle Tom theme has even spawned a modern movement in today’s academia which has tagged the subject with the short sobriquet UTC.

The impact of Harriet B. Stowe’s 1852 classic novel will probably never be accurately accounted for, but Ed. Davis didn’t worry about that. His traveling troupe was bent on entertaining folks across the country, though it be mainly north of the line of the deep, old confederacy. A Butte Montana paper quoted Davis saying they had been in all states, except 3, and all major cities, except New Orleans. Other Uncle Tom touring shows had encountered southern hostility in the form of tossed fruit and vegetables in some places. Davis no doubt learned to pick his venues carefully.

The Davis Uncle Tom Company had performed around the country for a long time and it received good reviews from many places. The Ritzville, Washington newspaper billed them warmly a few days prior to their appearance there. “It is said of the Davis Company which plays at the opera house in Ritzville, Friday evening, March 15, that every performer in his or her particular line is an artist. They carry forty people, an immense quantity of special scenery, many new and novel features, including the thrilling and inspiring American military spectacle, during which is a reproduction of the blowing up of the battleship Maine.”

The same newspaper then panned their performance on March 20th, in a spiteful harangue of unusual vitriol:

“The Uncle Tom’s Cabin Co. gave a poor show Friday night to a splendid house. With such a fine audience we are at a loss to understand why they should have rendered so rank a performance. Had they opened the show at 8:30, the regular time, instead of an hour earlier and not omitted the specialties and last act of that great drama, and taken the morning passenger, which, if they had carried out their contract, would have been their train, then the fearful accident costing the lives of four of their troupe, would in all probability have been averted. The manager of the company further displayed his utter disregard of the eternal fitness of things after the horror occurred by reporting no casualties and undertook to carry out his engagement at Missoula Saturday night, which was finally cancelled, but requiring some pressure to do so. The outfit needed a kick sufficient to jar their organization and they doubtless got it at Horse Plains, Mont., when they discovered that the fiery element had full charge of their car.”

The train finally stopped and soon backed up the tracks to where the group of wayward passengers had landed in the snow. A number of them had gotten off the burning car safely and were lined up helping the others. One of “unfortunates,” John Boelmens, had to be rescued after he frantically plunged into the nearby Missoula river because he had become a human torch. He would become the fourth known fatality of this sad event when he died later at the Sister’s Hospital in Missoula. His death would be described as a blessing by his stage mates and others.

Ed. Davis’s custom train car had worked marvelously until this tragic accident. Specially built in 1895, the car was 80 feet long and held 3 apartments, with sealed partitions that separated animals, actors, and Ed. Davis’s private family stateroom. It carried an assortment of Siberian Bloodhounds, 4 ponies, 2 horses, 5 donkeys and two steers, “all well trained” in a 20-foot stable partition at the back end of the car.

Accounts of the incident vary on how many passengers traveled on this car. The numbers 17 and 22 are mentioned in two separate newspaper articles. A small kitchen at one end provided a cooking area with a large iron stove. The only exit lay past this kitchen area and it proved to be out of reach for several trapped passengers in the smoke-filled sepulcher. That the majority of the troupe survived unhurt was a miracle.

One act of heroism came to light when they reached safety. The actor William Huntington reentered the burning car after it became known that children were still trapped there. He rescued 4 little children while suffering burns and the smoke himself. A witness, the cornetist H. A. Vandercock, described it as follows:

“I witnessed the heroic work of Billy Huntington and a young bandman named Murray, and if I ever saw deeds of heroism it was from them. It seemed impossible that a person could take a breath in the fiery atmosphere of the burning car, but they entered at the cry for aid from Mrs. Seamon to save her children but no one expected they would ever come out alive.”

Otto Peterson lost one of his shoes in the snow and shock must have been upon him and his companions by then. He found the shoe, put it back on, and then tried to comprehend what had happened. He remembered that it was terribly cold as they ran up and down the track in an attempt to get warm. Dressed in their night clothes, some of them had only blankets for warmth. The burning car had been detached, yet the other passengers soon came to the aid of the theater people.

Upon arriving in the city of Missoula help for them came quickly. Passengers were given clothes and “quarters at local depot hotels.” Members of local organizations such as the Masons, Elks, and Knights of Pythias also gave assistance. Telegrams were sent to known relatives of the dead. The manager of the local Empire theater even proposed a benefit performance that evening, but the wisdom of that effort was not supported. When he returned the following morning from the site of the accident, Coroner Hayes took the remains he had found to the local Hayes and Marsh morgue. Local people were fascinated by the incident and didn’t hesitate to gather and gawk, looking at the remains.

“The Morgue of Coroner Hayes was thronged yesterday with people desiring to see the remains of the unfortunates saved from the burned theatrical car. It was a ghastly sight that met the eyes of the throng, for placed in a blanket on a table in the room were the charred bits of bone, the whole which would not have filled a half-bushel measure, which was all that remained of the bodies of Bert Reed, Minnie Herst and Rene Lucasse.”

Initial reports of the fatalities were confusing to say the least. One newspaper headline from a Butte newspaper stated that Davis had acted “Queerly,” while another newspaper stated outright that members of the company had “tried to conceal news of the disaster.”

A Butte newspaper also stated, “Coroner Hayes was notified of the tragedy and went to the scene of the wreck, taking coffins with him, but the manager of the theatrical company denied that any of his people had lost their lives. Even members of the company insisted that no one was missing, and they had made arrangements for an evening performance at Missoula.”

One account stated that their car carried 17 people, while another said 22 people, yet the number never specifically accounted for 6 blacks who were secreted in the ‘BallaWalla’. The Missoula newspaper at the time, the weekly Missoula Fruit Grower and Farmer, wrote a good account and published it a week later, on March 22, 1901. The accident occurred on March 16 six days earlier.

If real knowledge of any extra passengers was going to come to light, the Missoula paper had plenty of time to make it known. They didn’t & probably couldn’t. The silence on the subject depended completely on the cooperation of Davis and his passengers and if true, must have weighed heavily on their minds as arrangements were being made for the dead.

The closest thing to an acknowledgement of any secret passengers came from H. A. Vandercock when he stated the following:

“The only manner in which I can account for the fire’s origin is that the cook ignited something in starting the morning fire, as it was the usual hour for such service. For my part I am more than grateful to have escaped without one thread of clothing – as is the case of many of the company – but the thought of those boys perishing like rats in a trap is prostrating to we, who have known them, as good fellows and performers for months.”

A coroner’s investigation at the direction of Hayes stated the following:

The Coroner’s Jury Verdict

The jury investigating the cause of death of the four persons who lost their lives in the fire of the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” company car on Saturday last, completed their work yesterday and returned the following verdict.

“We find that Bert Reed, Jno. Boelmen, Minnie Hearst and Rene Lucasso came to their death by being burned in the burning car of the Ed. F. Davis Uncle Tom’s Cabin company on the morning of the 16th of March, A. D. 1901, near Paradise, Montana. We further and (sic) that the fire was caused by a fire carelessly started in the kitchen stove.”

Last Updated on Tuesday, 07 March 2017 22:49