Two Men and a History of Coal and the Rails

Two Men and a History of Coal and the Rails

Debby O. Close No Comment
Mining Stories

The following miner’s history and a railroad engineer’s experience and legacy in the days of coal-powered locomotives was submitted to Miners’ Memorial by daughter Joan S. Hamilton and granddaughter Jackie Finley, respectively.

Elza B. Shead was born on April 26, 1896 near Gross, Kansas. He was the son of Ralph and Nancy Krieger Shead. He was one of seven children. He grew up on a farm and worked in and around the coal mines of the Arcadia-Gross area prior to entering the army in 1917. Although the names of the mines in which he worked are not available, he was listed as a miner on his military records. He served in France and elsewhere in Europe in Batteries C & D, 130th Field Artillery during World War I. He was under the command of General John J. Pershing.

After the War, he returned to the Arcadia area and was married to Lydia Duvall. They had two children, Leola and Crystal. He went back to work in the nearby mines. Lydia died and is buried in the Sheffield Cemetery. In the early 1920s he went into partnership with four other men. The five of them owned and operated the Jack Rabbit Mine in Worland, Missouri. Records indicate that in July 1923, they had their coal tested. Other records and checks are also available. They continued to operate this mine until the Great Depression forced its closure.

On May 7, 1923, he married Mary Ann Jenkins, the daughter of John and Estelle Waggoner Jenkins. She was born on January 19, 1909, in Litchfield, Kansas. She was raised in the coal camps of Crawford County. Elza and Mary Ann eventually had ten children: Goldie, Montcella, Velma, Clarence, William, Joan, Barbara, Philip, Jerry and Marilyn. They all graduated from Mulberry High School, with the exception of Marilyn who was in the first graduating class of Northeast High School.

During the time they lived in Worland, a train ran over Elza’s foot. His leg was amputated several inches below the knee. That gave him the nickname “Peggy” for his peg leg, along with “Shorty” because he was only five feet, three inches tall. Later, when he moved to Cockerill in the early 1930s, he got the first of several artificial legs.

He was employed as a truck driver for WPA. During World War II, he was employed at the Army Ammunition Plant in Parsons. He also farmed after the family moved to Curranville in 1936. He was active in the Disabled American Veterans, as well as the American Legion. He died on September 10, 1960. Mary continued to live in Curranville until her death on May 29, 2003. They are both buried in the Old Arcadia Cemetery. With the exception of Goldie, Crystal and Leola, all the children survive at this time.

Jackie Finley writes that her grandfather, Joseph Allen Buckley, loved to talk about his years of piloting a Frisco train from Arcadia through Pittsburg to Cherryvale, Kansas from 1892 to 1923.

In the early days of Pittsburg and the mining industry, the colorful steam engine had a long cow-catcher in front, a big smoke stack, and boilers that were stoked with coal by the fireman. The locomotive pulled two or three passenger cars which were the main form of transportation at that time.

An engineer, like my grandfather, sat on the right side of the cab with one hand on the throttle and the other hand operating the whistle that warned everyone of its location or arrival at the station. He leaned out the window to watch the rails ahead and waved to the people as the train passed. My grandfather told me that sometimes he would have the fireman throw a little coal off the side for people who lived near the track.

In the Pittsburg Headlight account of my grandfather’s death on August 25, 1938, it stated, “Railroading was crude compared to that of today, and an engineer was forced to cope with many unique situations. On one occasion while Mr. Buckley was piloting his engine through Weir, a stray bullet struck him in the neck.”

Then on August 26, the day of my grandfather’s funeral, Brinkerhoff wrote a complimentary editorial about the eighty-five year old pioneer. “Joseph A. Buckley had been piloting railroad locomotives for 43 years when he retired in 1923. He took a throttle back in 1880 when locomotives were frail creations constructed along peculiar lines and without a great deal of speed. For 31 years he pulled the Frisco passenger train between Arcadia and Cherryvale, a train that became know as “Buckley’s special.” Everyone along the route knew the engineer, and had he wanted to run for office he could have carried the towns overwhelmingly.”

Many of these people were the same emigrants from Italy, France, and the Balkan nations who rode the Frisco railroad from Kansas City to southeast Kansas to work in the coal mines.

My grandfather would have been pleased to know that my husband, Norman Finley, would be firing a steam locomotive over some of the same tracks he used earlier. Norman had a run from Pittsburg to Midway on the Frisco Railroad during World War II. Each day at four in the afternoon, a small engine pulled empty cars out and returned with full cars loaded with coal from the area mines. Many nights, about midnight, I listened for a train whistle to blow the familiar “long-long-short-long” tones that meant my husband’s train was returning to Pittsburg. I couldn’t rest until I heard the rattle of his dinner bucket as he came up the walk to our porch.

The mining industry provided jobs for many families in bygone days in the Pittsburg area. It was a remarkable era. I’m glad that my grandfather and husband had a hand in making lives better for those who traveled the rails.