Did you ever stop to think about how your life could change in the blink of eye? Every morning each of us gets up and assumes that each day will turn out just fine, but then something happens that changes the course of our lives forever. It could be the birth of a child, being diagnosed with a dreadful disease, or simply losing your job.
Take, for example, the story of Sigel Castle. He was born in Albia, Iowa on November 27, 1862. At 24 years of age, he married Ida Chedester, after which the newlyweds moved to South Dakota. Between 1888 and 1900, the couple would have six children. In order, they were Roy, William, Rena, Earl, Eva, and Laura, who was born on April 7, 1900. Just two months later, Mrs. Castle would pass away. While neither her exact dates of birth or death are known, she was approximately 32 years of age. This left Sigel to care for their six children, all under the age of twelve.
Five years later, on January 24, 1905, Sigel would marry his late wife’s younger sister Edith Mary Chedester. He was 42 and she was 27 years old at the time of their union. Together the couple would have three additional children: Bertha Irene, Sylvia Mae, and the youngest, Evelyn Helen, who was born on May 21, 1916. At the time of Evelyn’s birth, all but one of Sigel’s six children from his first marriage were adults.
Many years later, Evelyn would write, “Papa was a kind and loving father to me. I remember him most as a quiet man, who sat by the table at night and read by lamplight. He worked hard.”
She had equally kind words to say regarding her mother: “It is hard to write of my Mama, my whole world revolved around her and no one has ever taken her place. She was a small woman, with dark red hair piled high on her head. She wore long skirts down to her ankles. She walked with a limp as she had been hurt when she was young. She had fallen from a horse and hurt her hip it had not healed right. I remember picking sweet wild strawberries with her, of being caught in a hailstorm and running with her as they came down ‘big as hen eggs.’ The memories are endless.”
On June 2, 1925, Sigel Castle would once again face the loss of a loved one. His second youngest daughter from his first marriage, 28-year-old Eva Amanda Castle Harvey, died of cancer. She was survived by her husband Clarence and their four young children.
I spoke with Perry Reeder, Jr., Evelyn’s son and Sigel’s grandson, and he told me the following:
Perry Reeder: Well, one of his favorite daughters from that older family died of cancer. And it made him so he didn’t want to be around there anymore and he wanted to kind of get a new life. So he sold everything and they moved.
Evelyn, who is no longer with us, wrote about what happened next: “After her death Papa decided to move out to Oregon. He bought a car and since he didn’t know how to drive and (wasn’t about to learn). He asked Otis Angle (my sister Bertha’s boyfriend) to drive us out. We left South Dakota in late July 1925. We stopped first at my brother Earl Castle in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, for a short visit with him and his family. We then went through Wyoming to Yellowstone Park to see Old Faithful. How that model T Ford made it over those high passes is a miracle.”
She continues, “Later, coming down the Columbia River in Oregon we stopped at Multnomah Falls. There was a small store there and Sylvia Mae and I were allowed to buy some cup cakes. This was my first experience with store-bought cup cakes. So I started to take a bite out of mine and Mama said, “Don’t eat the paper Evelyn!
“We went to Portland, Oregon to visit my uncle Emmett Jay Castle and his son Merwyn. Otis Angle stayed in Portland to get work. On August 13, 1925 we started to our new home in Eugene, Oregon.”
It was at this point that 16-year-old Merwyn Castle was recruited to drive the car to their final destination. He was an inexperienced driver who had obtained his license just three weeks earlier.
Perry Reeder: I don’t know in them days if they had to even apply for a license. All they had to do is to be able to drive.
Merwyn was at the wheel as he drove the jalopy southward from Portland. Mrs. Castle sat beside him in the front seat while Sigel and the couple’s three children were in the back. As the sun was setting on Thursday, August 13, 1925, Merwyn came upon a portion of the road just north of Harrisburg that was being paved. This forced him to make a detour across the railroad tracks that ran parallel to the road.
Without looking, Merwyn turned the car up a short grade to cross the tracks. What he didn’t see was that the southbound No. 33 Southern Pacific train was coming up from behind at an estimated 50 mph (80.5 km/h).
Perry Reeder: The detour run parallel to the tracks for a couple of hundred feet or maybe more. Merwyn probably was, was not looking behind him, you know, the train would be coming from behind. And he would be turning to his left and going across the tracks. I’ve been to that crossing and that crossing is a raised, you know, like six or seven feet off of the level ground and it raises up for gravel for the train tracks and they were probably on that and, the way I would see it, and he and he probably never even noticed the train coming from behind him.
The occupants of a car waiting to cross from the opposite side of the track yelled out a warning to Merwyn, but he could not hear them over the deafening sound of the approaching train and its whistle. Engineer Harvey Carpenter was at the throttle when he spotted the car just as it was crossing over the tracks. He didn’t see it until the last second because the car did not have its headlights on. There was little that Harvey could do. He immediately jammed on the locomotive’s emergency brakes while blasting its whistle in a last-second attempt to get the car cleared from the tracks.
It was too late. The train rammed into the car nearly dead-center. Harvey Carpenter watched in horror as his locomotive pushed the automobile along the tracks for several rail lengths before it was finally pushed off to the left of the train.
As awful as you can imagine that this accident was, it was far worse because the car was open-topped. The scene can only be described as gruesome with body parts scattered along the tracks.
62-year-old Sigel Castle, his 47-year-old wife Edith, and their two daughters, 18-year-old Bertha and 15-year-old Sylvia all lost their lives in the accident. Their bodies were taken to a local undertaker and Uncle Emmett Castle arrived the next morning to arrange for their burial.
Perry Reeder: Yeah, they were all so badly beat up, you know, that they just buried them in one grave that I know.
A quick check on the Find-A-Grave website confirms that the four are buried under one gravestone. It simply reads
BERTHA SYLVIA EDITH SIGEL
AUGUST 14, 1925
Perry Reeder: Well, we’ve been down to the grave. And this is like, you know, 40 years later or even longer, maybe 50 years later, and the track is still in the same place and the graveyard is relatively close. But about five miles from where the accident happened. The graveyard is north of where the accident happened. And the train still goes down through there and when that train comes thundering down through there and you’re standing at the graves… You know how trains are: they make a lot of noise and bump and bang the cars together as they go and you can kind of feel the vibration and if you’re standing there in the evening it kind of was a little bit spooky if it’s a still day. It’s spooky if you know the people who are buried there and the accident happened just a little ways away from there.
At the time of the accident, newspapers were quick to report that the Castles were on their way to the Harrisburg hop yards to help in the harvest before heading off to Eugene where Sigel had accepted a position on a dairy farm, but Perry said that this was not true.
Perry Reeder: We’ve always known that the articles about them being hop-pickers was untrue. That was made up by some reporter. Well, he was a teacher first. Then he did some farming and then he did some logging. You know, part times.
The truth is that Sigel was headed to Eugene to purchase a farm of his own. His descendants believe that Sigel must have had enough money with him to at least make a downpayment. Any money that Sigel may have had on him, which is thought to have been a fairly large sum, disappeared at the time of the wreckage.
So, what happened to the driver of the car, Sigel’s nephew Merwyn Castle? Surprisingly, very little. He was found lying in a daze next to the wrecked car. His only injuries were a few bruises and a cut on his eyebrow.
Perry Reeder: You know he was most likely just flipped right out of the car and he had a bad cut on the eyebrow and that’s about the only injury he had. He walked away from it.
Right after Harvey Carpenter stopped the train, he immediately jumped out to offer any assistance that he could. It’s unclear who made the discovery first, either Harvey Carpenter or the train’s conductor, identified only as Mr. Caffin, but they found an incredible surprise on the cowcatcher; the metal grate on older trains that would push cattle and other objects off of the tracks. There, against all odds, 9-year-old Evelyn Castle was found hanging from the cowcatcher. Badly injured, she had somehow survived the impact with the train.
No one can say with any certainty how she ended up there. Maybe it was due to pure luck, but Evelyn remembered it differently. She had been sitting on her dad’s lap at the moment of impact and as the train was being dragged along, she said that he placed her on the cowcatcher.
Perry Reeder: If you could imagine they were both traveling along side-by-side there for just a second or two and he probably just saw a chance to lay her on it and keep her from the car from; the car was being smashed while he was doing that and then it rolled and flipped.
They say that time slows down during an accident and this may have been no exception. You also need to keep frame of reference in mind: both the car and the train were moving at the same exact speed as basically one unit for several seconds.
Perry Reeder: You can see what he was thinking. He could probably see what was going to happen. And so he just pushed her over there and hoped that she would; all the cars flipping around and things would miss her. But it was his only chance. Because he was probably, I don’t know, but he was probably sitting behind Merwyn. And so he probably just thought, well, here’s her only chance and that was an open-top car so he just lifted her up and pushed her over there.
After Evelyn was removed from the cowcatcher, it was clear that she was in urgent need of medical attention but no physician was available locally. The decision was made to transport both Evelyn and Merwyn to a hospital in Eugene, which lies about twenty miles (32 km) to the south. Both were placed aboard the train – the same train involved in the accident – and Harvey Carpenter opened up the throttle. Upon arrival in Eugene, a waiting ambulance rushed Evelyn to the hospital.
Years later, Evelyn described her injuries: “I had a broken arm, which they put in a cast from my shoulder to my wrist, some cuts and bruises. I suffered mostly from shock. I was not released from the Hospital until two weeks later. I was unable to walk and had to be in a wheel chair.”
As she recovered, Harvey Carpenter was held blameless for the accident. Unbeknownst to Evelyn at the time, at the end of nearly every run, Harvey Carpenter would go to the hospital and bring her flowers and gifts. But none of those material items could erase his guilt. The thought of Evelyn clinging on to that cowcatcher continued to be a burden on his mind.
Perry Reeder: It bothered Harvey Carpenter because he said when he was driving the train that he would see her constantly. The first time he’d seen her on the front of the train bruised. But, Harvey felt guilty. Even though he was innocent, he felt guilty about it and he was haunted by it.
Upon her release from the hospital, a woman obtained permission from Evelyn’s Uncle Emmett to take her to a local hotel that she owned. The mayor of Harrisburg had presented Evelyn with $10.00 (about $150 today), but when she awoke the next morning, the money was gone. When questioned about it, the proprietor told Evelyn “Someone has to pay for your keep!”
Two days later, Emmett Castle came to get Evelyn and took her back to his Portland home. Since his wife had been previously committed to the Oregon State Mental Hospital, he was unable to care for her. He opted to place Evelyn with another family.
“They took me to church every night. They would put me on a platform and get down on their knees and howl and pray aloud. This frightened me so much, I would cry and beg them not to take me.
“I finally got so bad that they thought I was losing my mind. I had crawled under a stationary table with stationary benches on either side. I wouldn’t come out so they put a blanket in there for me and closed the curtains. They talked in whispers around me. My arm hurt me, the cast was still on it,” Evelyn writes.
Her next memory was that of someone whispering to her, “It is the man who killed your folks!” She described what happened next: “I saw a big, tall man with a look of shocked disbelief on his face. This was the first time to my knowledge that I had ever seen Harvey Carpenter, of course I didn’t know his name at the time.”
It was clear that Evelyn was not adapting well to her new home, so the court stepped in and ordered that she be placed in the care of the Portland Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society. While there, Harvey Carpenter continued to visit with her.
“Harvey Carpenter, who was the engineer on the fateful train and his wife Alta came to visit me at the Orphanage. They got permission to take me out for a visit to their beautiful home. After having me there for a week or two, they decided to legally adopt me.”
Initially, the court ordered that Evelyn be placed in the care of the Carpenters, but her uncle Emmett Castle contested that decision. A jury decided on November 3, 1925 that full custody of Evelyn should be granted to the Carpenters.
Legal challenges continued until January 11, 1926. That’s when Judge Jacob Kanzler ruled in the Carpenters’ favor. He stated, “The court is glad to decree this adoption because the future welfare of the little girl is now provided for.”
Evelyn writes, “Harvey and Alta Carpenter were in their late 40’s. Both of them had been married and divorced before. They had only been married two years before they adopted me. They took me into their home and gave me everything a little girl could want. Harvey Carpenter became the most wonderful Dad a girl ever had. But even with all this it took me months to get well and I didn’t go to school until the next fall, I had missed a year of school.”
She continued, “After I got well, I took piano lessons, dancing lessons, and learned to roller skate with the kids in the neighborhood.
“In the fall of 1927, we moved from Portland to Dallas, Oregon. In this little town I finished growing up.”
I asked Evelyn’s son Perry what Harvey Carpenter was like:
Perry Reeder: He was real popular person. He was a real nice guy. He became a hero after he adopted my mother and my mother loved him because he just would do anything for her and he was well-liked all his life. My younger brother, Harvey was named after Harvey Carpenter. His name is Harvey Carpenter Reeder. So my mother thought a lot about Harvey Carpenter. She idolized him.
It was on June 30, 1943, after forty-five years of continuous service, that 66-year-old Harvey Carpenter would one last time climb into the cab of the Northbound train headed out of Eugene. In retirement, he took on a number of different jobs. At one point he served as the chief of police in West Salem, Oregon. At the age of seventy, he became the keeper of the Oregon Senate’s north door. He was 83-years-old when he passed away in San Francisco on April 5, 1960. He was survived by his wife Alta, his daughter Annette from his first marriage and, of course, Evelyn.
She writes, “On August 8, 1936, I married Perry Charles Reeder. We have four children. I didn’t know there was a depression until then, but I soon found out. We had quite a struggle raising our family.”
During the Second World War, the couple decided to leave Portland for a more rural way of life. In 1944, they settled in the failed resort town of Bayocean, Oregon. Perry explains:
Perry Reeder: It was like, it was going to be a boardwalk of the West. That’s what they wanted it to be. So they had rich people lived out there, but they all abandoned it and us poor people could, like mom and dad, could rent a nice place for near nothing. And that’s how we lived.
Evelyn would work different jobs to help support her family, which included being Postmaster of the Bayocean post office from 1950 through 1954.
Perry Reeder: We were lived under poor conditions by today’s standards. We were a poor family but everybody else in the whole countryside was poor, lived the same standard we did. So, we didn’t know any different. We just existed from payday to payday. And we would all go to the movie on Friday nights. We had quite an upbringing.
Today Bayocean no longer exists, having long been washed into the sea by coastal erosion.
As we spoke, it was clear that Perry looked back on both Bayocean and his childhood with great fondness. In fact, he penned the book Bayocean: Memories Beneath the Sand with his daughter Sarah MacDonald, which you can find on both the Amazon and Barnes & Noble website
I asked Perry if his mom had suffered any long-term effects from the accident:
Perry Reeder: No. It would just be mental if she had any. But she didn’t manifest anything. She seemed to have left it behind somehow.
Sadly, Evelyn Helen Castle Carpenter Reeder, the proud mother of four children, passed away on June 11, 1985 at the age of sixty-nine.
Perry Reeder: When she died, she died of cancer, of pancreatic cancer. And when I was at her bedside and she was calling out to daddy. And I think that she only called her real father daddy. I think she called the Carpenters, I think they he she called them in a more formal mama and papa. But she was seeing daddy when she was dying. Right at the very last hours. In fact, an hour before she died she was yelling daddy. So she was always thinking about that accident. I mean it never left her. So you might say that it did have an effect on her. Well, it obviously did.
It clearly did. And to think that one single event, which had lasted but a few seconds, completely changed the course of her entire life.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.