Tragedy on the Honey Bee Line: The Sahara Grotto Interurban Crash of 1927

One hundred years ago Indianapolis was center of a wide-ranging network of interurban lines which branched out of downtown in a web of routes throughout the state of Indiana. The ruins of this lost system of transportation still exist throughout the state, and a few of these remnants will be the subject of a future post. But this post looks at a tragedy associated with one interurban line that a reader of this blog brought to my attention a few months ago (An Indianapolis Star Retro Indy article also mentioned this in 2014). The line at issue departed from downtown Indianapolis and roughly paralleled Massachusetts Avenue until near Brookside Park where the line took a more easterly direction. The map below shows the route of the interurban represented by the dotted line. The heavy green line in the middle is Emerson Avenue.

Indianapolis history Marion county indiana map
City of Indianapolis (1917) Credit: Map Collection, Indiana Division, Indiana State Library

This line was nicknamed the Honey Bee-Line, and provided interurban service to New Castle. I couldn't find any relation between this name, and the nickname for the old Bellefontaine Railroad (the "Bee" Line), which ran to the north, to Pendleton and Muncie. The was operated by the Union Traction Company from 1910 to 1930, when ownership was transferred to another company.


On Friday, October 14, 1927, a truck towing a large trailer approached the Honey Bee Line crossing on Emerson Avenue, near 24th Street, on the northeast side of Indianapolis. On board the truck and trailer was a large party of revelers, members of the Sahara Grotto drill team and their families, who were on their way to a barn dance near Fort Benjamin Harrison. The Sahara Grotto is a fraternal organization, composed of Master Masons. At the same moment the truck and trailer crossed the interurban tracks, at 8:45 pm, a Honey Bee Line car was heading south towards the crossing. The truck managed to get off the tracks, but the trailer was struck by the oncoming car. The destruction was substantial and the trailer was blown apart, with victims and debris spread over both sides of the track for a stretch of 200 feet. The human toll was initially 17 killed, and 7 injured, all from the trailer. Some victims succumbed to their injuries later, eventually raising the death toll to 21.

Indianapolis News interurban map honey bee line
Indianapolis News, October 15, 1927

The passengers on the interurban car were unhurt, but the motorman and conductor were both injured, the latter suffering burns to his hands and face, while the former's position in the front of the car resulted in his injuries. Police and medical services immediately responded to the scene, as did hundreds of onlookers, and the injured were taken to city hospital. Some of the injured would succumb to their wounds in days following the crash. Harry Smith, a member of the Indianapolis Police, was on the truck and reported at the hospital that he had seen the interurban car coming and called a warning to the truck driver to speed up: “The truck speeded up. We were off the tracks, but a splintering crash-and the trailer disappeared.”

Indianapolis star interurban crash Indianapolis history
Drawing of the crash site looking north. Credit: Indianapolis Star, Oct. 16, 1927

Hall Titus, the conductor, was injured, but the News reported that he assisted with the rescue and recovery of victims, some of whom were trapped in wreckage on the front of the car, until an official of Union Traction Company arrived on the scene from downtown and ordered him home. Once home, he realized his injuries were more severe, and went to the hospital. Titus told investigators that he had been in the rear of the car when he heard the motorman hitting the car’s whistle. As he moved forward to the front of the car to investigate, it impacted with the trailer. Titus believed that the heating stove in the car fell over and struck him, causing the burns to his person. The images from the News and the Star, below, show the remains of the wagon, as well as the damage to the front of the interurban car, surrounded by onlookers not long after the crash.


Authorities immediately arrested Titus, along with the motorman of the interurban, William Merrill, and the driver of the truck, Harry Stewart on manslaughter charges. An investigation by the Public Service Commission was initiated, along with an inquest by the Marion County coroner. The investigation looked at the actions of the truck, including its speed, and whether the driver was distracted by the noise of the revelers onboard, or whether his sight was impacted by the headlights of an oncoming automobile. As to the interurban car, the investigation would look at the visibility of its headlight. whether it was running on time (as well as its speed), and if the whistle was sounded. The signals and notices at the crossing on Emerson would also be evaluated. The image below shows the scene the day after the crash. The signs calling attention to the dangerous crossing are clearly visible on the right side of the image, and in the background.

Indianapolis history interurban crash Honey Bee Line
Indianapolis News, October 15, 1927

Interviews of survivors on the truck, as well as other individuals who were nearby the crash site, were conducted by the coroners office, and by David Matthews, railroad inspector for the Public Service Commission. Several Grotto survivors reported not seeing any light, or, at the very least, a very dim light, from the approaching interurban car. Stewart, the driver of the truck, had his eyesight and hearing checked (both were normal), and the investigation found he had been alone in the cab of the truck, and no one had been standing on the running boards. On October 21 investigators returned to the scene of the crash and conducted visibility tests using another interurban car to determine how bright its headlight was at a lower, dim setting, and the full setting. The image below shows the view the motorman of an interurban would have from the front of the car. This image was taken near New Castle, but is representative of the visibility from an interurban car.

Photo courtesy of William Hazen (Twitter: @WilliamHazen7)

By October 25, the investigation by the Public Service Commission was completed, and a report was being prepared. On November 2, Marion County coroner C. H. Keever, who was performing an inquest into the crash, announced that his forthcoming report would recommend that Merrill, the motorman of the interurban, and Stewart, be subject to a grand jury for consideration of charges of involuntary manslaughter. The Public Service Commission investigation made various findings in its report. While the survivors of the accident said that they saw no headlight, or that it was very dim, a woman who lived nearby reported that she could see the bright light of the car. Additionally, testing done by the commission indicated that even when dim, the light of the car should have been seen by the truck driver. The report also faulted the overloading of the truck, which had difficulty pulling the trailer and the passengers, and was often operating in only second gear. This somehow impacted the brightness of the truck's lights, which combined with the driver not being familiar with Emerson Avenue, prevented him from being aware of the crossing, and contributed to the crash.


Blame was also directed towards an unnamed member of the Sahara Grotto group, who had been driving a private car behind the truck and trailer. Prior to reaching the Emerson Avenue crossing, this person, who was not identified in news reports, passed the truck and trailer, and upon reaching the tracks paused when the driver spotted a light coming from the right (east). However, this person was unsure whether this was an interurban, or a car on a road alongside the tracks, and continued forward, crossing the Honey Bee tracks, and the adjacent railroad tracks. The commission suggested this person should have warned the truck of the light, but did not. The commission also reminded drivers and common carriers to exercise caution when crossing tracks, and obey all signals and applicable laws.


Indianapolis history interurban honey bee line sahara grotto
Indianapolis Star, April 17, 1928

In April of 1928 members of the Sahara Grotto and their families, along with members of the Indiana State Police and others, gathered at the crash site at Emerson and the interurban track for a memorial. 21 white crosses were placed at the crossing in memory of those killed, which was in addition to two crosses which had pre-existed the crash as a result of an earlier fatal crash. The result of the criminal proceedings against Stewart and Merrill could not be found.


The Honey Bee Line ceased operations in the late 1930's, a fate which was shared by the other interurban lines in Indiana. In the city there is little sign of the old interurban line, although the adjacent railroad line (at the time of the crash, the Big Four) which ran parallel to the Honey Bee Line in this part of the city, is still in use. In certain places the right of way for the interurban line can still be seen on maps, and in person. The crossing where the Sahara Grotto crash occurred was near 24th and Emerson, and is now covered by the Emerson overpass over the railroad tracks. The 2021 aerial image below shows the Emerson Avenue crossing, with the red line marking the route of the interurban.



Sources


Indianapolis News: October 15, 1927, October 18, 1927, October 21, 1927, October 25, 1927


Indianapolis Star: October 16, 1927, October 22, 1927, November 2, 1927, April 17, 1928


Indianapolis Times: October 19, 1927, November 2, 1927


Union Traction Company of Indiana - Bulletin 62,

https://palni.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/winona/id/545


Map of Marion County (1917), https://indianamemory.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15078coll8/id/2892


Indianapolis-New Castle Traction, Indiana Transportation Blog, https://intransporthistory.home.blog/2019/09/04/indianapolis-new-castle-traction/



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