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Veteran H&St. Jo engineer lost his life at Hannibal after compromised bridge collapsed

This photo shows Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad’s steam engine number 30. The engine that crashed into the Minnow Branch when the bridge collapsed in 1875 was engine number 25. Archie Hayden, who supplied this photo, said that the two engines would have been similar in appearance. Engineer Frank Bradley lost his life in the 1875 accident. CONTRIBUTED BY ARCHIE HAYDEN


An atypical storm enveloped the Midwest the weekend of July 31-Aug. 1, 1875, dropping unprecedented precipitation across parts of Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. Along its path, the torrential rains left behind flooded communities, ruined crops and washed-out rail lines.

Hannibal, built upon river bluffs, is particularly vulnerable to such weather events, as a series of creeks - which lie nearly dormant during droughts - swell beyond capacity during heavy rains. These meandering waterways carry runoff from the west to the east, the eventual terminus being the greatest of all North American rivers: The Mississippi.

But before that runoff can reach the river, it must pass through the valleys where people and nature co-exist: The bottomlands.

During this particular major storm, the Minnow Branch reacted as it typically did in 1875, and continues to do today: collecting runoff from the Marion County farm fields, woodlands and hillsides. The normally still waters gain momentum as the volume increases, stripping vegetation from vulnerable banks, and carrying the debris along with it, slapping rock cliffs and overflowing into the lowlands, regardless of habitation. The forces effectively tear down what man has built up.

Minnow Branch meanders across West Ely Road where Mason and Miller townships intersect, then winds its way toward U.S. 61 just to the south of Jimmy John’s sandwich shop at 345 N. U.S. Highway 61. Directed by engineering beneath the highway, it ventures south underneath Kentucky Fried Chicken, across James Road, and down into the valley near Spruce and Hope streets, before reaching Market Street at South Arch. It ventures south from this major roadway until it nears the old path that Lindell Avenue once took.

That’s where chance and circumstance met in the darkness of Saturday night, July 31, 1875.

Old Reliable

Frank Bradley was recognized to be one of the oldest engineers working for the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad; the railroad itself was nicknamed “Old Reliable.” While only 38, he had been with the fledgling railroad since its earliest days, and carried with him a vast amount of accumulated knowledge.

The railroad, which was conceived and constructed in the decade prior to the start of the Civil War, carried passengers and freight 200-some miles between Missouri’s two rivers (Mississippi and Missouri).

Well respected and admired by his peers and the populace, Bradley had the plum job on this date of “running” the 10 p.m. passenger train – No. 3 – across the state. The trip began at the H&St. Jo station on South Main Street.

The old steam engine – Number 25 - pulled the tender, baggage and passenger cars along the tracks, picking up speed as it neared Lindell Avenue. Just to the west was the Minnow Branch bridge, which this veteran “runner” would have crossed many times prior.

But this night – with the rain still falling – was unlike any other. Bear Creek was beyond its banks just to the south. Minnow Branch, with all its force, carried with it debris picked up along its route and was rumbling along at an estimated 20 miles per hour. The wooden trestles of the bridge – engineered to sufficiently carry the weight of the multi-ton engine – had been compromised by the before-mentioned conditions. The darkness of the night reflected in the time: 25 minutes after 10 o’clock.

As the engine and tender started across the bridge, the first wooden trestle creaked and moaned, then gave way. The engine began slipping into the roaring creek below. George Hubbard, who was temporarily working at Frank Bradley’s side, reached for something to hold on to, and braced for the inevitable. He heard Bradley exclaim: “My God, we are gone up!”

Submerged and still inside the cab of the engine, Hubbard felt Frank Bradley pass by.

Hubbard swam to safety, and listened carefully for the cries from the other crew members.

All answered the summons of safe being, except for one:

Frank Bradley.

The darkness of the night was compounded by the engine and train lamps that were extinguished during the calamity. Rather that starting an immediate search, a few from the crew made their way back to town, pleading for assistance. Friends and company supervisors answered their calls for help, and rallied at the Minnow Branch in order to search for the missing engineer.

He wasn’t found, however, until daybreak. The water had receded, and Frank Bradley’s lifeless body was found perched upon the creek’s bank tangled in a pile of driftwood. His hands were frozen into a death-grip on a tree branch, which he had clung to for his life.

A coroner’s jury was called. The cause of death was surmised to be by drowning, as an injury to his head wasn’t sufficient to cause death.

The conductor for the fateful trip was H.C. Foote. Mrs. Foote was credited with designing the funeral wreath that topped Bradley’s casket, carrying the message: “Faithful to the end.”

Rail pioneer

An article in the Hannibal Clipper newspaper dated Aug. 2, 1875, noted that Bradley had worked for the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad for some 16 years, which dates his employment with the company to 1859. H&St. Jo’s first passenger train from Hannibal arrived on the newly completed tracks at St. Joseph that same year - on Feb. 14, 1859.

The family

Frank Bradley left to mourn his loss a wife, Josephine McCarty Bradley, and four children: Mary A. Bradley, born in 1864; William A. Bradley, born in 1867; Margaret Pauline Bradley, born in 1869; and Catherine A. Bradley, born in 1874.

The funeral

The Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad offered a special train car from Brookfield to Hannibal so that Frank Bradley’s colleagues could attend the funeral.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineer’s Monthly Journal described the scene:

“About 1 o’clock this afternoon the friends of the deceased began to assemble at the residence, South Hannibal. At two o’clock a procession was formed, after which the concourse moved to the Catholic church (in the 500 block of Church Street) in the following order:

“Hannibal Cornet Band, followed by the railroad employees and Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, on foot. Next in order were the hearse and eight pallbearers, the latter consisting wholly of locomotive engineers. The hearse, as is the invariable custom, which followed by carriages. Railroad officials in carriages came next in order, the remainder of the procession being made up of friends and acquaintances, and forming what is known as a general concourse. About seventy five vehicles were in the procession, making it the largest funeral cortege that ever appeared on our streets. At the conclusion of the services the body was taken to St. Mary’s cemetery for interment, the entire congregation following the remains to their last resting place.

“The railroad employees on foot numbered two hundred and forty, which number included the members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers.”

Widow remarries

Josephine Bradley married John J. Tracey in 1878, and they settled in what is believed to be the same house where she and Frank Bradley lived. (In 1871, Frank Bradley’s address was the corner of Sixth and Clay. In 1866, his residence was described as being on the east side of Clay.)

The address became 602 Clay Street, which was later renamed Fulton Avenue. It was on the southeast corner of Clay and Sixth. Sixth later became Cypress.

The Bradley children attended the nearby old South School, which was constructed on Birch Street in 1875, and served the neighborhood until 1890.

After she remarried, Josephine gave birth to another daughter, Nellie Tracey, born about 1879.

At one time her new husband, John J. Tracey was roadmaster for the St. L., K and N.W. Railroad. In later years, he worked as a railroad contractor, with projects in California, as well as other states.

In 1900, Josephine Bradley filed for divorce from her husband, claiming abandonment. She cited the reason for their separation: His jealousy over the children she had with Frank Bradley.

By the time John Tracey died in 1908, he had accumulated about a half dozen residential properties in Hannibal, which were presumably passed on to his only survivor, daughter Nellie. At the time of her death in 1944, Nellie lived at 602 Fulton Ave., the same house where she grew up.

Accomplished ‘runner’

Prior to his death, Frank Bradley accomplished a feat which made mention in the newspapers of the day.

In 1874, the Macon Republican reported that Frank Bradley ran the steam-propelled train 100 miles in one hour and 45 minutes on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad with the Hannibal and St. Jo engine number 25. “The time can hardly be excelled,” the newspaper reported on Dec. 3, 1874. Bradley had been commissioned to take a group of men on a hunting expedition to Texas. On the way home, he made the entire trip in 26 hours.

This is the same engine he was running at the time of his fatal accident the following July 31.

Rail pioneers

The Atchison Daily Champion offered a brief tribute to Frank Bradley’s railroad career in its Aug. 4, 1875 edition.

“He commenced railroading as a brakeman on Conductor Farwell’s train, and afterward changed his life to that of a fireman. In eighteen months’ service, by his taste for machinery, diligence and attention to his duties, he so thoroughly learned the business that he was put in charge of an engine, and his subsequent history has fully justified the estimate his employers placed upon his abilities at that time.”

Next week: Conductor Farwell’s contribution to early railroading.

Many thanks are due to Archie Hayden, who assisted with the research and photos for this story.

Mary Lou Montgomery retired as editor of the Hannibal Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Her collective works can be found at

This historic photo shows a steam engine crossing at the Minnow Branch west of the downtown terminal in Hannibal, Mo. Archie Hayden said to the right is the old Lindell Avenue. The branch swells with rain runoff, and on the night of July 31, 1875, the creek was running at 20 miles per hour and was six feet in depth. Engineer Frank Bradley lost his life when the bridge collapsed and the engine fell into the water. CONTRIBUTED BY ARCHIE HAYDEN

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