This central area of Yell county is generally safe from most destructive weather forces. Tornadoes tend to go either north or south, a peculiarity of our geology which has been studied & written about. We set on an solid block of hard sandstone & black shale, which tends to completely isolate us from any small tremors that may make it this far from earthquakes occuring on the New Madrid Fault, or the closer Enola Swarm and Magnet Cove area fault. But this area DOES have flash floods....always has. (Not my house though, it's on top of a hill. ) By flash floods, I don't mean the kind which occurs from a levee break, but the type which happens when the ground seems to just decide instantly to not soak up any more water, causing extremely rapid, but usually short-lived, rises in creek levels.
April 1st of 1909 started out with a light sprinkle. (Some of the older locals seem to remember their parents saying it was 1910, since both years had lots of rain & several floods in the area....but the exact day seems to be a sure fact, being the first of the month) The rain had actually started well before daylight, light but steady. The first log-train arrived at the mill around 9:30 that morning. Reports were given to the mill officials, by the engineer, about the state of affairs in the creeks he had passed over that morning. Everything was business-as-usual, the creeks were flowing at just the volumn expected from this type of drizzle, nothing to be alarmed about. This news was sent out via horse & rider to Mr. Asher, letting him know that all was well, but to just keep a watch on things. The rider returned back to the mill at about the time the train had completed unloading it's logs. He notified the superintendant of the mill that everything was fine, the message had been delivered, & that Mr. Asher was well, dutifully keeping an eye on things, & had a nice fire going in his pot-bellied stove to fend off the chill in the air that day, and to dry out after his hourly trips down to the creek. There was no reason to be concerned, which relaxed any bit of tension the mill-boss may have been having.
The train left the mill headed south for another load shortly after the crew had eaten their lunch. There was still a steady sprinkle, no more/no less than what it had been doing for the last 10-12 hours. Within 15 minutes they had rounded the first curve before dropping into the little creek crossing. It hadn't changed at all in the 4 hours or so when they had crossed it coming the other way. The large iron pipes buried in the rail-bed were easily handling the flow of water coming out of the little marsh, flowing southward towards the river. The shallow & somewhat swampy depression here had about the amount of water in it which was to be expected after this type of rain event. This wasn't the FIRST time the engineer had driven a train through this area....he had been making 2 runs per day, 6 days per week, for the last 3 years or so. Nothing he saw on this trip was any different than anything he had already seen many times in the past. And even as the train started pulling out of the little creek bottom, right there at the bottom of the little ridge was another sight he had seen a hundred times already....Mr. Asher leaning against a tree, whittling on a piece of cedar, checking the condition of the creek-water. Mr. Asher waved a greeting at the train. The engineer, a Mr. Zary Cambert, waved back, blew a short greeting from the train's whistle, rounded the curve, and throttled up for the trip back into the mountains for the day's last haul. Cambert had no way of knowing then, that he would be the last person to ever see Mr. Asher.
Somewhere south of today's Nimrod Dam, after the train had crossed the river & entered the mountains, Mr. Cambert would later confirm that the drizzle had stopped & the sun had even broken through the clouds. This was sort of a mixed blessing however. As the warm sunlight hit the wet ground, it caused low-lying groundfog. This reduced visibility, which was compounded by the fact that the tracks dropped into Long Hollow after they crossed the Fourche Mtn., south of the river crossing. They followed the very bottom of this deep valley all the way to the loading area south of Rover. This fog settled into the valley & stayed there. So as to have a better chance of seeing an obstruction on the tracks, such as the Whitetail Deer which were numerous in this area (still are), Cambert had no choice but to slow down a great deal. Normally this 2nd & last load of the day would arrive back at the mill in Plainview right about dark. The night-crew would unload it & the train would be ready to head back to the woods very early the next morning. (In these days, men had no idea what a wimpy "8-hour work-day" was, but more like 14 hours) However, with this fog-forced slowdown, he could already predict this was going to be a REALLY late day.
Finally arriving at the logging site, after a painfully slow trip up the valley, the actual loading of the train went rather quickly. The mules & men were dried out from the miserable rain they had worked in all morning & were full of energy in this warmer air. Cambert used a temporary track siding spur & wye at the site to swap ends with the engine. He topped off with coal from the coal-dump while the cars were being loaded, and by the time he was done with this, the train was ready to head back to the mill. Even better, the fog had now lifted, which just might, if he pushed it hard enough, allow him to gain enough on the lost time to only be an hour or so later than usual. He was of course pulling much more weight than coming in, but this return trip was mostly down-hill. Clouds had reappeared, cooling things down again, which is probaly what caused the fog to go away. But it was only clouds this time & no rain anywhere to be seen. But what he & the logging crew had no way of knowing in this time before instant communication, is that 10 miles NE of where they were, on the opposite side of the Fourche Mountains, a brief but very intense storm known today as a Rogue Supercell, had just dumped nearly 6 inches of rain over the town of Plainview. This monster thunderstorm blew up within minutes, rained itself out, then dissipated as quickly as it had appeared, leaving only light clouds behind.
The trip back towards the north side of the river was just as Cambert had hoped...very fast & easy. Water never even crossed his mind, as the rain had been ended for a few hours now. If anything, water level in the mountain creeks that were crossed may have even fallen a bit. Seeing "light at the end of the tunnel" so to speak, the prospect of an earlier ending to what he had previously thought was going to be a very long day, had him in a much better mood than earlier. Still though, running later than usual, darkness fell upon the train about half-way between the river crossing & the straight-stretch below just below the ridge of Mr. Asher's shack. The foot-path from this shack met the tracks about 200 feet east of a slight curve, which was a couple thousand feet east of the creek crossing. This straight-stretch is where Asher would stand when water was over the tracks ahead. He of course had the schedule of when the train should be there, always knowing when it had passed by going the other direction also. And he & the engineer had worked together for so long that they kinda knew what the other was thinking. The watchman would know when the engineer would be running a little faster than usual, such as on a night like tonight, so in that case Asher would arrive at the straight-stretch a bit earlier & walk further east up the tracks. this would give the engineer more time to slow down if something was wrong up ahead. And Cambert knew what type of situation would cause the watchman to take his post further up east, or what type of situation would cause Asher to not ever show up at all with the lantern. He took his job very seriously, as he should have. And for this, the company treated him well. If Asher wasn't standing out on the eastern approach, beside the tracks with a flag or lantern in hand, then it was a 100% guarantee that all was well from there on to the sawmill.
And so this is how Cambert's train finished off most of the several-mile-long straight stretch, full steam ahead, only throttling down to about 3/4 speed as he got nearer to Mr. Asher's spot & the gentle curve right before dropping into the creek bottom. Straining his eyes, looking as far ahead as possible, Cambert could see no hint of red light in the distance. This was good news, excellent news, since he was very tired from this long day. But just to be safe, he even dimmed the light on the front of the train down quite a bit, letting his night vision work as hard as it could to catch a dim bit of red. There simply wasn't any. Asher was not down by the tracks. So that meant only one thing....there was nothing of concern between here & home. Cambert finally relaxed completely & settled back in his seat. The train rounded the gentle curve & started the slight downhill grade towards the creek. The engineer turned the switch which put the train-light back at full brightness, looked back up & ahead ...... and saw an unending sheet of jet black swampy water.
There was no time to react at all. Cambert would testify later, at the committee which was put together to investigate the accident, that he didn't remember jumping from the train, nor telling his brakeman to jump. His brakeman testified similarly, that he didn't remember hearing Cambert say anything, nor remember jumping off himself. The impact was almost instantaneous & there really wasn't time for words or even to think. The next thing that both of them claimed to remember, after seeing the water, was that they were both laying on their backs, just a couple feet from each other, about 20-30 feet away from the tracks, almost exactly beside the position where Cambert had turned the light back on full brightness. They had no idea how they got there, but were far enough away that the entire train...all 10 cars...safely shot past them, slamming into the water one after the other, kinda like an accordion.
Of course we have no way to actually see how this happened exactly, but it probaly looked a bit like the below pictures, only alot more violent:
Somehow or another, both the engineer & the brakeman came out of this mess with only muddy clothes. Being as the time between seeing water & impacting water was literally just a couple seconds, they SHOULD have wound up scattered amongst the pieces of their train. Taking stuff like luck, Murphy's Law, & simple reflex into account, the very BEST that should have happened here is that they immediately jumped off the train, landed 3 or 4 feet away from the tracks, then gotten smacked by, or buried in a pile of logs. How & why they both wound up several yards from the tracks, in almost the same identical area, was something they never quite figured out.
Something else no one figured out is what happened to Mr. Asher. During the clean-up phase, crews were put to work searching the swamp for a body, working eventually all the way south to the river. They found nothing. And something else was missing from the shack & the area also....Mr. Asher's coal-oil lamp. The wreck clean-up took a little over a month & the search for Asher's body was called off then also. The logs were pulled the rest of the way to the mill by teams of mules. About half of the log-cars were able to be patched up & eventually put back in service, the other half were cut up & sold for scrap. The big & solid-built locomotive had some damage to the front & rear, but the boiler luckily didn't explode. A rail-crane was brought in from the Cotton Belt yard at Pine Bluff & she was put back up on the hastily repaired tracks. Being as these tracks had pretty much already served their purpose & most of the biggest cedars had now been harvested, Fort Smith Lumber made the decision to sell the engine to Cotton Belt & she was towed to Pine Bluff when the crane went back. The tracks were gradually ripped out & salvaged, although some logging was done for the next few years by mule-team. About 10 years after the accident, the Fort Smith Lumber main sawmill burned to the ground. It was never rebuilt & the second sawmill was eventually sold to private individuals. It continued to operate until about 1970, when it closed down & was demolished.
Several years after the main sawmill burnt, a CCC camp was started up on the old site. When the remains of the old mill was being removed to make way for this camp, something odd was found in a remote corner of the site. There was a stone set in the ground, which had an obvious man-made rectangle cut into it. Whatever fit into the hole, if anything ever did, was never located. A couple feet away was a pyramid-shaped rock with a very weathered, almost invisible cross carved into the top. Laying around this was a couple more small broken pieces & a piece or two of old concrete. No name, date, or anything was on either rock, only the dim cross on the biggest one. There were no signs of an actual grave there, like a depression, mound, or area of soil which looked different:
The CCC crew, having been brought in from Wisconsin, didn't know the story of the train wreck & the missing man. They did however have the feeling that these stones meant SOMETHING, although none of them could agree on just what. Most thought they designated a grave, even though it appeared there had never been one dug there. But just to show respect, they left the rocks where they found them. They built a concrete slab for the pyramid to set on & also pulled the other stone out of the ground, poured concrete under it, & replaced it...assuring that it would never sink below ground level.
But right up to just a couple decades ago, there were several elderly locals who knew exactly what those stones were for. These were people who had been employed at the sawmill when the accident happened. A.C. Asher had no family that anyone knew about, but he had plenty of friends. His very best friend was Zary Cambert, the engineer who trusted Asher with his life. Cambert knew what had happened on that horrible night. During the weeks after the accident, recovering from the stress, he started filling in the gaps & piecing together the events. He learned of the heavy, isolated rain event which had occured while he was on the other side of the mountain. He went back to the accident scene several times by himself, carefully trying to remember exactly where the train was at each stage of the accident. He compared his own memories to those of his brakeman. And it soon became clear to him. Cambert's version of what had happened could never be proven without a body, & part of the story wouldn't even be believed by most people, so he rarely talked about it. But he confided in a few of his closest friends, who kept that story alive through the generations, for us to ponder upon today.
Asher had indeed performed his job that night, just as he had on every rainy night in the last several years. But Mother-Nature tried to work against him this night. That sudden & enormous down-pour had occured right at the exact time when the area below Asher's shack was primed for a flash-flood. The ground was already soaked to the point of saturation from the previous 12-16 hours of steady rain. The little marsh at the top of the creek was already full, ready to overflow. The cotton fields north of there all had water standing in them, with nowhere to go but downhill. All it needed was a little push. Asher, noticing that the train was running late (because of the fog, remember), realized he had no way of knowing exactly when it would arrive. He saw the huge storm building right over the area, so knew there was a good chance of a sudden rain swamping the tracks. To ensure that he was able to both keep watch on the creek, and catch the train in plenty of time, he sorta camped out at the half-way point....watching in one direction, waiting in the other direction. This half-way spot would have been right around the curve in the tracks, just SE of the creek. Unfortunately for him, this was also right inside the edge of the floodway.
As they are known to do, and as their very name suggests, the flash flood caused by the Supercell literally turned the floodway into a debris-choked river in seconds. Asher most likely was pummeled to death by limbs, branches, & possibly small trees which were caught in the flood, before he had a chance to even drown. The flash flood continued south, soon emptying it's contents into the swollen & rapidly flowing Fourche River. Everything that had been a part of the flash flood was tossed, tumbled, & broken apart as it was quickly taken downstream.
What was left behind was almost a half-mile of now somewhat calm water, about 3-5 feet deep. The flood might have even ripped apart some of the track there, which didn't really matter however. A log-train slamming into that water took care of that part just fine. Asher never had a chance....but he still had a job to do. There was now no one to warn the rapidly approaching train to slow down. He had never thought of his job as saving a train from wrecking. Instead, he looked at it as saving a couple of friends from being killed. So the very last thing he was able to accomplish on this Earth, even though his physical body was dead, was to give the two men aboard that train a very powerful shove overboard, seconds before they would have met the same fate as the train.
The few friends of Cambert's who were trusted enough by him to hear this version of events, knew that the man firmly believed this is what happened. Cambert had no body to bury, but he knew Asher deserved better than a simple obituary. And every person at Fort Smith Lumber who were aware of the exact events that night knew that also, even if they wouldn't mention it out-loud. So Mr. Gardner, the mill-owner, made sure that a nice quiet corner of the place was given to the engineer, so he could make a small memorial to the friend who had saved his life.
But Asher never quit his job, and it's been a hundred years since he was killed. There's no train through there anymore, not even a set of tracks. The shack is long gone & the old foot-path can barely be traced. However, the same area still occasionally floods. The same little creek still flows. And the same little marsh is still there, now inhabited by beavers. There is now a modern gravel road nearby which occasionally floods also. His timing isn't just right for some odd reason, in that the few people who have seen Asher waving his lantern, have done so on mostly clear nights, not rainy ones. But hey, that was a hundred years ago. No one can blame him for getting the correct nights mixed up a little bit.
Soon, we'll see if we can add to the reports of a strange & unexplained light between the old rail-bed & where Asher's shack once was. To get in the correct area to see the lights, you'll have to follow the trail of a night-cache which will lead you close to the approximate location of the old shack. This one will most definitely not be for the easily spooked, timid, or the faint of heart. Are you brave enough to go into this area at night? Will you be one of the few lucky ones to see Mr. Asher's coal-oil lamp out there in the dark woods?
I am .... and I have:
Notice will be placed at top of Part I, with link to the cache-page, as soon as it's ready to hunt.