Lizzy at the Crossing

This is a true story told to me by my Grandma Joesephine…

“Giddy Up Cowboy! Giddy up old boy! Great Grandma shouted as she cracked the whip. The ladies were approaching the railroad crossing, but so was a fast moving train. She cracked the whip one last time as her buggy dashed across the tracks. Unfortunately, she was just a bit slow. The monstrous Locomotive’s cow catcher smacked the rear wheel of her buggy, rolling it over. The ladies were catapulted through the air landing, in the sitting position, near the tracks. Mrs. Reohner landed in a large mud puddle causing an immense splashing of the brown muddy water. Miraculously, except for a for a few bruises and scrapes neither one was seriously hurt. Cowboy, the buggy horse was unhurt.

It was on that gray, cold, raining morning back in February of 1903 that Great Grandma Maria’s hatred for trains started. She and her neighbor, Mrs. Roehner, were on an early morning excursion to Gilroy, six miles away in south Santa Clara Valley, to trade some fresh milk and eggs for provisions. Great Grandma hitched Cowboy, her fastest horse to the buggy. For some reason she forgot to tightly cinch up several of the leather straps, which is probably what prevented Cowboy from being injured when the train hit the buggy.
“My God Mrs. Roehner, do you think old Cowboy can handle this load? We have over 600 pounds between the two of us and the cargo!”
“Ya Maria, Cowboy will do fine. We’ll just go slower.”
Great Grandma couldn’t get Cowboy up to his normal trotting speed that morning. She felt that perhaps it was the combination of the cold weather and the heavy load. He could have been reacting to the loose hitch straps.
Glancing to the south towards town as Cowboy trotted along, pulling the over loaded buggy towards the Masten Avenue Railroad crossing the ladies could see and hear the enormous locomotive of the commuter train approaching at a high rate of speed. Great Grandma had the amusing habit of racing trains to the crossing. She had done it dozens of times in the past and had always beat the train.
After smashing into the buggy and tipping it over, the locomotive’s steel wheels threw out sparks and squealed and slid along the steel tracks applying it’s brakes. It finally came to a stop quite a distance down the track. Puffs of black oil smoke billowed out it’s stack. Chug, chug, woof, woof, woof was all great grandma could see or hear with all that white steam shooting out along the tracks as the train backed up to the accident. The conductor and several other railroad men got out and gave first aid to the ladies.
They left a man to watch Cowboy and the wrecked buggy while they took the ladies, onto the train and then to the hospital in San Jose for medical treatment. Cowboy, miraculously, was unhurt. The railroad offered to pay for the damages. They were very nice to Great Grandma even though the accident had been her fault. She accepted a brand new buggy from them to replace the wrecked one and money to cover the cost of the eggs and milk she had been taking to town, but she refused to take a new horse as Cowboy hadn’t been hurt in the accident. The family was relieved and happy that Great Grandma gave up racing trains after this incident. Her obsession with beating the train to the crossing seemed to be over—at least for a number of years.
Such was not the case, since many years later she decided to take the train on again.
Great Grandpa Joe reluctantly retired his horses and buggies and replaced them with a newfangled horseless carriage called an automobile, because Great Grandma Maria wanted one. After all it was the twentieth century she kept saying over and over. She finally got her brand new shiny black 1915 Ford Model T Sedan, with canvas top and isinglass side curtains. All she could say about it was “I’ll bet this old girl can go like the wind!” She never drove it because she couldn’t get use to the feel of the steering wheel or control pedals. She thought it should have rains instead. Great Grandpa Joe refused to drive it because he said he didn’t trust machines. They weren’t predictable like horses and just weren’t safe!
So the chore of driving was assigned to my Grandma Jody and her brother Carl who affectionately called their first family automobile “Lizzy” which was short for Tin Lizzy, the Model T’s nick name in those days.
Grandma recalls the bright, sunny July morning back in 1920 when great grandma asked
her to drive her to town to pick up some groceries. She went to the front and cranked up
Lizzy with the steel hand crank as the spring loaded starter by the name of “Ever Start” didn’t work. They used to refer to it as “Never Start” for that reason.
As the motor popped, spit and coughed to life great grandma got into Lizzy and sat my Dad, Bud, who was less than one year old on her lap after placing my Aunt Edna, about 3 years old, in the back seat. Remember, they didn’t have seat belts in those days.
As Lizzy chattered down the dirt and gravel road called Masten Avenue towards the railroad crossing she would cough, hesitate a bit and backfire as Model Ts were wont to do when cold. Grandma fiddled with spark levers and choke control knobs a bit and finally the popping stopped as the putt, putt, putt of the motor became steady.
Approaching at a high rate of from the south was the Southern Pacific Flyer a very fast, enormous and powerful steam locomotive, pulling a train of commute cars to San Francisco. The Flyer was known to achieve speeds in excess of 100 MPH on this stretch of track.
As this huge oil eating, smoke and steam belching steel monster, weighing tons, approached the Masten Avenue crossing grandma could hear the wailing of it’s exceedingly loud steam whistle—WOO AH WOO! WOO AH WOO! A massive plume of shadowy black smoke issuing from it’s smoke stack flowed low along the tracks for miles. As grandma got closer to the crossing she could hear the ding, ding, ding of the colossal locomotive’s warning bell. It’s head light was on and was so bright it could be seen miles away even in bright daylight. There were no warning lights or crossing arms in those days. It was up to the motorist to check railroad crossings for approaching trains before going across them.
Grandma pulled the hand throttle down and started pulling on the hand brake lever to stop Lizzy to allow the train to pass, but great grandma would have none of that! She reached over, grabbed the throttle and slid it to the wide open position as she yelled “Giddy up Lizzy, Giddy up old girl!” Grandma Jody didn’t have time to react or dare contradict her Mom. All she could do was let go of the brake handle, hold the steering wheel firmly and pray. Lizzy zoomed across the tracks seconds before the flyer roared past. The very loud clamor and rumbling of the enormous and monstrous locomotive completely drowned out the sound of Lizzy’s motor. Grandma could feel the locomotives thunderous vibration through the wooden floor boards and metal parts of the car, but little else. The heavy odors of oil-smoke and the feel of warm steam vapor filled the air. Grandma felt the heat radiating off the locomotive as it thundered past. The steam whistle continued roaring out it’s defiant warning while it’s bell clanged loudly. The engineer stuck his arm out the side window of his huge steal monster shaking his fist, shouting something grandma couldn’t quite make out. It sounded like he was yelling something about the rear end of a horse! Grandma thought, that’s odd, I’m not riding a horse—silly man! She smiled and waved back at him with her white gloved hand.
Great Grandma Maria was laughing like a crazed hyena. Grandma Jody was unnerved.
“What are you trying to do Momma? We have little Bud and Edna with us!”
“Oh, don’t worry Jody, that iron monster out of hell missed us! Wait till I tell your father about Lizzy at the crossing. She’s fast. We had to be doing 30 mile an hour! He won’t believe it! You’re my witness Jody”, Said Great Grandma Maria as she affectionately patted Lizzy’s door.

Lizzy at the Crossing

Edward Henzi

Clear Creek, United States

  • Artist
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Artist's Description

This is the true story of how my great grandma raced trains to the crossing. Back in 1903 she didn’t quite make it, but then years later when she had her first Automobile
A Ford 1915 Model T Tin Lizzy she tried it again…

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