Leafing Thru History - Tragedy strikes country school

by Steve Kastorff

During this pandemic period it has been a time for us to discover things different to do to fill our days.  One of those things could be to uncover more history of Henry County.  On the road of discovery, one could drive around the county and read the many historical markers lining the many Henry County rural roads. 

   Traveling west out of Atkinson on Route 6, there is one of these markers.  At the corner of Route 6 and 1900 East sits a small stone in front of a couple of trees. This stone has carved into a phrase which serves as a reminder of a sad tragedy that happened in Henry County during the month of May in 1931.

  May 4, 1931 was the last day of school for the students and their teacher, Miss Helen Scott, at the Grand View country school.  Miss Scott was finishing her second year at this school.  Prior to this position, she had taught three years at the Pritchard School north of Atkinson.  She had come to the Atkinson area with her parents who ran the town’s creamery for the last eight years. She was also active in the community, and was teaching Sunday School at the Atkinson Congregational Church.

    This last day of school was also the 26th birthday of Miss Scott.  She decided to celebrate this great day by taking her students to pick wild flowers to decorate the schoolhouse that afternoon.  They also collected wood for a fire during the celebration.   She took the students in her car to the nearby train tracks.  Once there the group walked along the tracks looking for their treasures.

     While walking on the tracks, the group had to cross a trestle bridge that spanned Spring Creek.  At about noon, the Rocky Mountain Limited passenger train was traveling east towards Atkinson at about 50 miles per hour.  The train usually left Rock Island at 12:01.  However on April 26, 1931, the schedule was switched for that train and on May 4th the train departed Rock Island at 11:10 in the morning.  This schedule change less than one week before the end of the school year would come into play as the tragedy unfolded.

   As the train made its way towards Atkinson, the engineer and the fireman saw figures on the bridge and both men thought they were section workers.  However, the group on the trestle was the children and their teacher from Grand View School.  When the train of eight cars was about a quarter mile from the bridge, the engineer and the fireman both realized that the figures on the trestle were children not workers.  The engineer blew the whistle and put on the emergency brake.  As the train crossed the bridge, it had slowed to around 30 miles per hour.

   Just before the train came upon the bridge, the students began to run off the bridge.  Several made it to the bridge’s edge and ran down the embankment to safety.  One boy jumped the trestle, landing in the sand eight feet below the bridge. He then began yelling for the younger students to also jump.  However, in all of the panic, two of the younger students sat down on the trestle close to the tracks.  Miss Scott reacted quickly. She kicked off her shoes and ran towards the young students sitting on the trestle.  She was able to reach one student and push her off the bridge to the safety of the sand below.  The last two students left in the path of the eastbound train were 8 year old Beulah Peterson and 7 year old June Mason.  The race was on as the train slowed, and Miss Scott ran as fast as she could.   The train’s cowcatcher reached the two students first and collected them along with their teacher.  The cowcatcher then tossed the trio into the air.  All three would die in the accident that afternoon. 

   The tragedy was witnessed by all of the students from the rural school bringing a very sad end to the school year. The school lost Beulah was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Peterson who lived just a short distance from the school.  June began school at Grand View at the age of 6 and was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Mason who also lived near the school, 

  The sad event still can be honored by all today by stopping by the small stone at the corner of Route 6 and 1900 East.  Engraved on the stone are the words “ May 4, 1931 three people lost lives in a train accident teacher Helen Scott, students June Mason and Beula Peterson were killed when crossing the railroad trestle over Spring Creek.  The class of sixteen children were returning from a picnic at Spring Creek Grove when caught on the trestle as the train approached.  This stone and trees are dedicated to their memory.”