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A family tragedy, 92 years later

Auto-train wreck near Eagle Lake resulted in largest single-family funeral in state history

The gravestone of John and Sarah Arnold, with two grave markers to the right for their six children killed.  Photo by Scott Thoma

The gravestone of John and Sarah Arnold, with two grave markers to the right for their six children killed. Photo by Scott Thoma

On a somber Sunday afternoon just over 90 years ago, eight coffins rested inside Hemnes Lutheran Church in Minneota, Minn., each one containing the remains of a member of the same family.

Well over 2,000 people arrived in 600 automobiles, horse and buggies, and on foot, to attend the largest single-family funeral in Minnesota history.

According to the July 11, 1924, issue of the Minneota Mascot, the enormous outpouring of those paying their respects forced the funeral to be held outside the church, with four ministers taking turns preaching while standing on the front steps.

Among those standing in front of the large gathering was 17-year-old Seward Arnold, who came from Diamond Bluff, Wis.

Seward Arnold was one of eight children to John and Sarah Arnold, who were both killed on July 3, 1924, when their 1918 Oldsmobile 45 was struck by a passenger train at a crossing in Eagle Lake.

Also killed were six of Seward’s seven siblings that were in the vehicle. Only his brother, Luther, 19, survived the horrific accident that occurred just after the noon whistle sounded in Eagle Lake.

Seward was the only Arnold family member that was not in the automobile; instead staying back on the farm in Diamond Bluff to attend to the cattle.

Killed instantly in the accident were John Arnold, 51; Sarah Arnold, 48; and their children Anna, 22; Marvin, 12; May, 10; Martin, 8; Lillian, 5; and Herbert, 2.

Sarah Arnold grew up in Minneota as Sarah Teigland. She and her family were making the 215-mile journey from their farmstead in Diamond Bluff to Minneota for a Fourth of July family reunion. Eagle Lake is 119 miles southeast of Minneota.

Sarah’s mother, Anna, eight siblings and many other relatives eagerly awaited the arrival of the nine Arnold family members for the reunion. Sarah’s father, Sjur, had passed away several years before that.

But instead of this being a celebratory family reunion, it ended in tragedy.

The eight deceased family members arrived in Minneota the next day in pine boxes by train, while Luther Arnold recovered from his injuries in a Mankato hospital. Luther and Seward were both informed of the deaths of their parents and siblings the following day after positive identifications had been made by other relatives living in the Mankato area at the time.

It was decided that the eight bodies would be buried in Hemnes Cemetery across from Hemnes Church, which Sarah had attended growing up in Minneota.

“It is amazing to think of this happening – nearly an entire family gone in an instant and two young boys left behind to somehow go on with their lives,” said Minneota City Administrator Shirley Teigland, who is the great-niece of Sarah Arnold.

“It’s wonderful to know how Sarah’s family stepped in and gathered the boys into the larger family of uncles and aunts and cousins. I remember Luther much more than Seward, but both went on to live very fruitful lives of which their parents would have been very proud of, I’m sure.”

The Accident

Luther suffered internal injuries, as well as injuries to his head, back, left leg and left pelvis. He was questioned by authorities the day after the accident in the Mankato hospital.

As written in the July 4 edition of the Mankato Free Press, Luther explained that the family had originally planned to stop at his aunt and uncle’s home south of Mankato to visit before continuing to Oak Grove, Iowa, to visit more relatives. They then planned to travel to Minneota the morning of July 4.

With John Arnold behind the wheel, the family was about to cross a railroad track outside of Eagle Lake on Trunk Highway 7 heading west.

To the south and heading north was a Northwestern Passenger #6 train with engineer L.G. Hartel, of Winona, conductor H.G. Butler, of Winona, and fireman H.P. Klinger, of New Ulm, in the engine. Crew members approximated the speed the train was traveling at 30-40 miles per hour.

According to the Free Press article, there were no crossing arms or flashing lights at the intersection, and John Arnold apparently did not see the train coming, Luther told authorities.

“I remember hearing mom scream,” Luther said from his hospital bed. “And I saw the train coming and that was all I remember until I woke up.”

Hartel and Klinger told investigators that they saw that the Arnolds’ automobile was traveling at a high speed and did not seem to be slowing down as it approached the crossing.

Hartel first began blowing the train whistle in an attempt to thwart the disaster. Klinger also blew the whistle.

Upon hearing his wife scream, John slammed on the brakes. The narrow tires, customary on automobiles of that era, likely made it more difficult to stop.

According to the train crew’s version of events in the Free Press, the automobile began to fish-tail before coming to a rest in the middle of the tracks just prior to the train slamming into the driver’s side.

It took nearly a quarter of a mile for the train to come to a complete stop near the depot at Eagle Lake, dragging portions of the Arnolds’ vehicle along with it.

Witnesses who were first on the scene explained the gruesome sight to the Free Press that the Arnolds’ car was “battered to bits.” The bodies of all nine of the Arnold family had been strewn for many yards down the track, and all but one was likely killed upon impact.

Only Luther was found alive and was quickly whisked off by ambulance to the emergency room at Immanuel Hospital in Mankato. Luther spoke briefly to medical personnel before falling out of consciousness.

Blue Earth County Coroner G.A. Dahl was in charge of trying to identify the “nearly unrecognizable” bodies.

The Car

The Arnolds’ family vehicle was a seven-passenger black 1918 Oldsmobile 45 convertible with Wisconsin plates.

Between the front and back seats were two jump seats that could be folded down to allow those in the back seat more room. Although the vehicle was designed to seat seven adult passengers – two in the front, two in the jump seats, and three in the back seat – the Arnolds had nine passengers seated comfortably because several of the passengers were so small.

According to Luther’s recollection to authorities when questioned in the hospital and relayed to the Free Press, John Arnold was driving and his wife was in the front passenger seat. Between them were the two youngest children, Lillian and Herbert. Luther was in the back seat behind his mother with his sister May to his left and his oldest sister Anna next to her.

Marvin and Martin were seated in the two jump seats.

Seatbelts were not used in vehicles at that time.

The only known photo of the Arnold children and some of their cousins fishing at a family picnic in Diamond Bluff, Wis., a month before the accident. Contributed photo

The only known photo of the Arnold children and some of their cousins fishing at a family picnic in Diamond Bluff, Wis., a month before the accident. Contributed photo

The Family

John Arnold was born in Norway in 1873, and Sarah Teigland was born in Nordland Township in 1876. They were married in 1901 and first lived in Madelia before moving to Hendricks and then to Foxholm, N.D., before settling in Diamond Bluff, Wis., in 1922.

Besides farming, John Arnold also worked for American Woolen Mills of Chicago as a traveling salesman.

Following the accident, Luther spent nearly a year in the hospital recovering from his injuries. Seward left the family farm and moved in with his aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. John Gjervig, of Mankato, so he could be closer to his brother.

The Arnold Brothers

After Luther recovered from his injuries, he attended Augsburg College for one year and then got his master’s degree at the University of Florida.

Seward followed his brother to Florida to attend college at the University of Florida.

Luther and his wife, Clarette, were married 69 years but did not have any children. Luther passed away in 1997 at the age of 92 from cancer.

Luther became a chemistry professor at the University of Florida. He was instrumental in starting a high school science fair program that still exists today.

Seward and his wife, Dorothy, were married 60 years and had one son, William. Seward died in 1987 at the age of 80 from complications of a bleeding ulcer.

Seward became a credit consultant in Ohio for several years before becoming the vice president of the Atlantic Bank in Jacksonville, Fla., for many years before retiring.

William Seward, 74, is now the last remaining male in the Arnold family line. He and Linda have two daughters, Shauna and Jana.

William, who was a pilot for Delta Airlines before retiring 15 years ago, remembers traveling with his father, Seward, and his mother back to the scene of the accident about 10 years ago.

“We were outside looking at the intersection, and there was a man sitting on the porch at his house a short distance away,” recalled William. “He came over and asked who we were. When we told him, he said he had something we might want.”

The unknown man went inside his house and came back out a short while later. He was holding several items that his father had found in the ditch following the accident and had held on to them for many years. These items included John Arnold’s gold pocket watch, the metal registration plate that had been affixed to the inside driver’s door of the car, and the clock face that had popped off from the dashboard of the car.

“He gave us those items, and I still have them today,” said William.

After they visited the site of the accident, William and his parents traveled to Minneota to visit the Arnold family gravesites.

The Funeral

The funeral services and interments were held on July 6, three days after the accident.

The eight closed caskets were placed inside the church for people to pay their final respects. But by the time the funeral was scheduled to begin, there were so many mourners present that services were moved outdoors.

The throngs of mourners attending the service outside the church stood in the sun in a semi-circle in front of the church or sat in their cars parked on both sides of the church for nearly three hours.

Two large graves were dug with four wood vaults in each one that would receive the eight coffins for interment.

A large memorial marker bears the names of John and Sarah Arnold, while two small markers a few feet to the east bear the names of the six children.

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