Christmas Miracle Occurred as Result of Crash

Christmas reminds us of life’s miracles. This is a story about a Christmas miracle that occurred in Mom’s family during the heart of the Great Depression. Many of the story’s details were provided to Mom by her oldest brother Lawrence, who was called Hank by family and friends. Mom shared the story with me when I was a boy.

The story’s setting is Moore’s Run, a small unincorporated eastern Ohio settlement midway between Bridgeport and Bellaire along Ohio State Route 7, where Mom’s family, the Secrists, lived from the early 1900s until the mid-1980s. Moore’s Run was an impoverished Appalachian holler, named after the narrow meandering creek that flowed in a west to east direction through the Moore’s Run area. The creek itself was named after the Andrew Moore family, which originally settled Moore’s Run in the mid-1890s.

By the time I was born in 1951, 40 or so hardworking families lived in Moore’s Run, many of which were related by birth or marriage. These families lived in wood frame and insulbrick-covered houses along both sides of Moore’s Run Road and on the steep hillsides surrounding the run. In addition to Mom’s immediate family, several of her maternal aunts, uncles, cousins, and second-cousins lived in the Moore’s Run area at the time of this story.

Mom’s family lived next to the Butler family and its nine children. Brady Butler was her mother’s (Mary Butler Secrist’s) youngest brother. The Secrist family lived in a small, single-story wood frame house, which for many years was painted yellow with bright green shutters and trim. Many Moore’s Run families were attracted to the Ohio Valley in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by jobs in area steel mills and coal mines. Mom’s father, Thomas Henry Secrist, moved to the Bridgeport area from the Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati area in 1899 for a roll turner job at the old Wheeling Iron and Steel Company in Wheeling.

Mom’s Christmas story takes place in 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, which created extreme hardship for millions of Americans, including the Secrist family, who had eight children, ranging in age from 8 to 25, living at home at the time. To make ends meet, Mom’s older brothers worked to help support the family during the Depression years. Her father was fortunate enough to keep his job during the Depression, although his work hours were reduced by half because of the nation’s anemic economy.

Eastern Ohio’s weather was bitterly cold during the Christmas season of 1935, with temperatures fixed in the single digits a week before and a couple of weeks after Christmas. By Christmas Eve, the brutal cold was accompanied by very high winds, causing deep snow drifts that made the dirt and gravel roads in Moore’s Run impassable.

The Secrist family had one car, an old black 1924 Ford, which wouldn’t start because of the frigid temperatures. Without the car, Mom’s father, Pop, as she called him, and her three oldest brothers Lawrence (Hank), Edgar, and Paul had to ride the Route 7 streetcar back and forth to work in the Wheeling area. Out of desperation, Depression era workers did their best not to miss work, even on bad weather days, fearing they would lose their jobs to other hungry workers.

Hank, who was the oldest child and always the first to arise in the morning, descended the creaky uneven wooden basement steps to stoke up the old gray coal furnace. Mom listened fearfully to the furnace roar like a lion as each shovelful of coal landed in the furnace’s fiery belly. She had nightmares of the old furnace exploding and burning down the house, which happened to a nearby family a couple of years earlier. From her bed, she watched a thin stream of sooty gray smoke belch from the cast iron furnace register in the bedroom, which she shared with her three older, soundly-sleeping sisters, Marie, Laverne and Dorothy.

Pop, Hank, Edgar and Paul were out of bed at 4:30 a.m. on this Christmas Eve morning. They were determined to get to the streetcar line early, ensuring themselves standing places on the Bridgeport streetcar, which usually stopped for passengers at 6 a.m. on Route 7 at Moore’s Run. With heavy sleepy eyes, Mom peeked through the bedroom door, watching her mother, still in her hairnet and curlers, shuffle about the kitchen in her light blue woolen nightgown and frayed knitted burgundy slippers, as she filled the four men’s black metal lunch buckets with apple butter sandwiches and containers of canned peaches.

The four men pulled on their heavy faded blue corduroy work coats and caps and trudged out the front door at 5:30 a.m. Mom waved a worried goodbye to Pop and her brothers from the heavily frosted living room window. She sensed the danger posed by the winter storm that rattled the house window shutters and blew thin wisps of snow under the front and living room doors. She watched as the four men kicked a narrow path through the deep snow on the porch and front steps in the morning darkness. Soon they were out the stubborn front gate and disappeared down the dark snowy road.

The men’s walk to the streetcar line was arduously slow because of the knee-deep snow and the harsh blowing wind. Eventually, Pop and the boys reached the stop, where they joined a waiting line of 10 or so other half-frozen men who shuffled from side to side trying to warm themselves. The electric streetcar was late, which wasn’t unexpected due to the winter storm. Pop and Hank tried their best to light hand-rolled cigarettes at the stop, but the wind was too strong, snuffing out the matches, preventing them from enjoying their early morning smoke. At 6:30 a.m., the yellowish-white headlights of the slow-moving streetcar were faintly visible in the distance. As the streetcar came to a stop at the Moore’s Run station, Pop and the boys saw the car was already packed, with little room for additional passengers. However, with some careful maneuvering, all of the men from Moore’s Run were able to cram into the dimly lit streetcar.

Because of the harsh weather, the usual 10-minute ride to Bridgeport took 25 minutes. Pop and the boys had to transfer lines in Bridgeport for their ride to Wheeling. Hank and Pop knew they were going to be late for work at the mill, which started at 7 a.m. Paul and Edgar, on the other hand, still had plenty of time to get to their department store jobs, which started at 8:30 a.m. Just as the four dismounted the Bridgeport streetcar, the Wheeling-bound car slowly pulled into the station. The four men crowded onto the Wheeling car, and within minutes the streetcar was inching its way across the Bridgeport Bridge to Wheeling Island.

The eastbound lane of the bridge was heavily snow-covered and very icy. As the streetcar gingerly made its way down the steep incline at the west end of bridge, the streetcar quickly skidded out of control. The conductor sounded the shrill streetcar horn and rang its clanging warning bell, punctuating the early morning silence. Immediately, a bolt of fear rushed through the streetcar. Pop and the boys tightly gripped their handrails to steady themselves as the streetcar jumped off its track. The situation grew unbearably tense as the streetcar slid in the direction of two westbound motor cars that struggled to get to the top of the incline and onto the bridge.

From the rear of the streetcar, Pop saw what was coming. He shouted at the top of his lungs for everyone to brace themselves for a crash. The head-on collision with the first car was unavoidable. The second car barely managed to get out of the way. The streetcar headlights shined directly into the soon to be struck car, showing the terrified faces of two men in the front seat. Upon impact, there was a horrific bomb-like explosion, followed by the gut-wrenching sound of colliding, grinding and tearing metal as the streetcar forcefully drove the passenger car backwards for at least 20 yards to the distant left side of the road. After the snarled vehicles came to rest on the hillside, panicked screams filled the air, which were quickly followed by the lingering cries and moans of the passengers. Then, bright white and yellow flames erupted and enveloped the front ends of the vehicles. The fire’s outbreak sparked an hysterical rush of people, struggling to escape the mangled streetcar.

At impact, Pop and the three boys were violently thrown into the thick crowd of streetcar passengers. All four were alive, but unable to push their way out of the pile of human bodies on the floor. Arms and legs flailed in all directions as the passengers tried to free themselves.

Hank was the first to break loose. One by one, he pulled people from the aisle floor and pushed them through the open rear door. Finally, he reached Pop, Edgar, and Paul and shoved them through the door. By now, thick black smoke filled the streetcar’s interior, making it almost impossible to breathe. Pop worked his way back into the streetcar and lifted and dragged several passengers out of the car. Pop and Paul were bleeding from head wounds. Edgar was spared any physical injuries. Hank’s hands were badly cut and burned from his rescue efforts. All four men were visibly shaken by the crash.

As Hank finally leaped out the rear streetcar door, he saw two men working to free passengers in the front compartment. He rushed to the front of the streetcar, and just as he was about to lend his help, he noticed that the two men in the crushed passenger car were desperately trying to get out of the left car door. With herculean strength, Hank pried the car door open and dragged the two men to safety just seconds before the vehicle burst into flames.

Hank returned to Pop and his brothers, who were shaking and trying to hold each other up in the blowing wind and snow. By this time, fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars from Wheeling and Bridgeport had arrived at the crash scene. The firemen were amazed that, while many people were seriously injured, not one person had died from the early morning crash. As police officers interviewed survivors, many told the story of how four men, two from the front and two from the back of the streetcar, acted quickly and courageously to extricate all passengers from the streetcar and passenger car. It was a true miracle that nobody died in the fiery crash.

Just as Pop and the boys were about to climb into the back of an ambulance headed to the Wheeling Hospital, two bloodied men in business suits stopped them. They identified themselves as the driver and passenger of the crushed car, and quickly extended their hands to thank Hank for coming to their rescue before their car caught fire. They introduced themselves as Howard and Elliott Stephens, the owners of an industrial supply company in Wheeling.

Elliott insisted that Hank give him his name and address. Hank awkwardly obliged, explaining that he simply did what needed to be done, and that no thanks was necessary. With that, Pop and the boys climbed into the waiting ambulance and were taken to Wheeling Hospital for examination and treatment.

About two o’clock that afternoon, as Pop and the boys were leaving the hospital, they found a heavily-bandaged Elliott Stephens waiting for them in the hospital lobby. Mr. Stephens announced that he wanted to drive them home to Moore’s Run. Pop protested at first, and then after looking at his tired and bruised sons, he accepted Mr. Stephen’s offer. As they exited the hospital, Pop and the boys found a dark blue Packard limousine awaiting them. The driver, wearing a long black topcoat, hat and shiny gloves, quietly greeted the group and opened the car’s backseat door for Pop and the boys.

As they drove to Moore’s Run, Mr. Stephens asked what type work Pop and the boys did for a living. Mr. Stephens nodded after listening to them, reached into his inner coat pocket, and pulled out a white envelope, which he handed to Pop, saying it was the least he could do for Hank and the family since Hank saved his and Howard’s lives. A completely stunned look appeared on Pop’s face as he gently opened the sealed envelope, which contained 10, $20 bills; more money than he or the boys could earn in three months. Pop profusely thanked Mr. Stephens, saying the money would be a big help to the family during Christmas and into the coming year.

A half hour later, the limousine struggled its way down snowy Moore’s Run Road to the Secrist house. Pop and the boys thanked Mr. Stephens in unison. Mr. Stephens smiled, and as the four men climbed out of the car, Mr. Stephens said he had one more thing for the Secrist family. With that, Mr. Stephens opened the car trunk, asking the boys to help him with the bags which filled it. The bags contained enough groceries to feed the Secrist family for a month or more. Tears filled Pop’s eyes as he heartedly shook Mr. Stephens’ hand. Everyone exchanged Merry Christmas tidings in the road, as Mom and her sisters stared out at this unexpected Christmas Eve scene. Pop and boys went inside the house, Mr. Stephens’ car slowly drove away, and everyone in the Secrist house hugged, cried, and cheered.

Until Hank told the story at dinner, nobody was aware of the day’s events and the miracle that graced the Secrist’s Christmas of 1935.

Postscript: This story combines nonfiction and fiction. The fictitious parts are the details about the actual streetcar accident and the heroic roles played by Pop and the boys. To the best of my knowledge, the rest of the story is true based upon my family history research and various stories shared with me by Mom, Grandma Secrist, and my aunts and uncles.

The impetus for this story comes from a recent Thanksgiving weekend family visit to Mom’s (Shirley Secrist Iannone’s) grave in Linwood Cemetery in Blaine, Ohio, which is located along the National Road (U.S. Route 40) midpoint between Bridgeport and St. Clairsville. While my brother Doug and I were kneeling next to Mom’s grave, I felt a need to do something to help people remember Mom and the Secrist family. A feeling of loneliness and sadness overcame me as I thought about our ancestors being left behind in tilting hillside graves in the almost forgotten Linwood Cemetery.

Everyone needs to believe in miracles in one form or another. In reality, the gift of life itself is our biggest shared miracle. That is what this story is really about. Our everyday lives are constant dances between fiction and nonfiction. Life is creative by nature. As the author Eckhart Tolle says: “Life is the dancer and we are the dance.” This story uses the Christmas season of 1935 to remind us of this miraculous dance.

Don Iannone grew up in Martins Ferry and St. Clairsville in the 1950s and 1960s. He consults in the healthcare and economic development fields, teaches college writing, and is the author of five poetry and photography books. Since 1972, Don has lived in the Greater Cleveland area. He may be reached by email at: diannone@gmail.com.

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