The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio


January 8, 2012

Was Effie Neely on the Pacific Express No. 5?

She said she was, but documents, daughter-in-law cast doubt on claim

— Was Effie Neely the last survivor of the Ashtabula Bridge Disaster when she died in 1960 at the age of 101? Or had time tinkered with her memory, causing Effie to confuse that disaster with another train wreck from which she narrowly escaped?

Her great grandson, Robert Butcher of Ashtabula, said that while a newspaper article quotes Effie as claiming to be a survivor of the Ashtabula Disaster of Dec. 29, 1876, his grandmother, Effie’s daughter-in-law, dismissed the story. Butcher said that his grandmother’s version of the story was that Effie was in a train wreck, but not the famous Ashtabula Horror that killed nearly 100 persons.

“When that story came out, (his grandmother) told us she wasn’t on that train, it was another train wreck,” Butcher said. “But there was no love lost between my grandmother and great-grandmother.”

When Butcher, 82, was a young boy, his parents divorced and his grandparents took on the task of raising him and his siblings. His mother, Ruth, and Effie also made their home with them.

He says Effie was not one to spin yarns about the disaster. He learned about her claims only through the newspaper clipping.

He remembers Effie as the family matriarch and a caring but tough lady who certainly had the qualities of a survivor.

“When (Butcher and his siblings) were 9 or so, she’d slap us on top of our heads with this ring she had. It had a big setting in it,” Butcher said.

“I can remember her sitting in her rocking chair,” Butcher continued. “She never cut her hair; she always wore it in a bun. She would do some of the cooking and cleaning around the house.”

Her long hair was an object of fascination for Effie’s grandsons, Jack and Bill. Butcher recalls hearing stories of one of the boys distracting his grandmother while she was in her rocking chair and the other boy tying her long hair to the chair while she was thus distracted.

“Then they would tease her to get out of the chair,” Butcher said. “They were full of the devil.”

Effie’s life can be pieced together from newspaper articles written about her as she approached the century mark. A Cleveland News article from Oct. 2, 1958, states that she was born on a Jackson County, Ohio, farm on Oct. 3, 1858. Her maiden name was Claar. Effie married William Neely on Feb. 2, 1882, and they had one son, Claar Alexander Neely, born Sept. 9, 1888.

Butcher said Effie worked at the state penitentiary as a cook in the early days of their marriage. They relocated to Cleveland, where she worked as a seamstress.

William died in 1904, and Effie never remarried. Claar Alexander was her only child.

It was in the Cleveland News article that Effie claimed to have been on the ill-fated train. It states that she was returning from an excursion at Niagara Falls when the disaster occurred.

In that story Effie claimed that she was pinned between two tiers of seats after the train plunged into the gulf. Her head was cut and bleeding. Someone pulled her from the wreck before the flames claimed the car. The Cleveland News article states that Effie heard them say “They’re carrying Effie out. She’s dead.”

A story published on the occasion of Effie’s death in 1960 claimed that Effie was returning from Niagara Falls with her unnamed boyfriend, who did not survive. The Cleveland News story does not mention the friend’s name.

But the historical record does not support Effie’s story, however. The list of survivors does not include an Effie Claar; indeed, no survivor with an address of Jackson County is on the list of survivors or deceased. The closest name on the survivor’s list is Ettie Hamlin of LaFayette, Ind.

The Niagara Falls story is intriguing, however, because of the Chatsworth Train Accident, Aug. 10, 1887. It involved an excursion train filled with 500 passengers on their way to Niagara Falls from central Illinois. Eighty passengers lost their lives in that disaster.

In 1958 Effie told the Cleveland News that her secret to living to 100 was to “Work hard, mind your own business and don’t mind a little pain.”  The last piece of advice was something she followed even as she shared it. Effie broke her hip at the age of 95 and the doctor told her family she would never make it out of the hospital, but she proved the doctor wrong. Although she spent her final years in a nursing home, Effie was sharp and active at 100.

Butcher said his great grandmother was cremated and, eventually, buried with her family back in Jackson County.

“I kept her with me on the kitchen table for about two years,” Butcher said. “My uncle had moved out to Las Vegas. He knew where she wanted to be buried in Jackson County, and when he finally came back for a vacation,  he took her (ashes) down to Jackson County and took care of it.”

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