GUEST SPEAKER – Len Thomas of the Swartz Creek Area Historical Society spoke at the Shiawassee County Historical Society, Sunday, Jan. 24 about the history of Durand train crashes. In addition to providing a comprehensive history of both the 1903 and 1923 incidents, Thomas also displayed scene photos that captured the gravity of the tragedies and disproved a commonly-held misconception about one of the wrecks. He also talked about current events during the hour-long discussion. (Independent Photo/ GRAHAM STURGEON)

The Shiawassee County Historical Society hosted Len Thomas of the Swartz Creek Area Historical Society Sunday, Jan. 24 for a discussion of two historical Durand train wrecks.Approximately 30 people came out to hear the presentation, which focused on the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train disaster of 1903 and the Knights Templar wreck of 1923.

Thomas, a self-described “circus buff,” gave detailed histories of both wrecks and added additional details and commentary. One part of the historical account that is often misremembered, according to Thomas, is that all the animals aboard the circus train of 1903 perished. Thomas presented photographic proof that four of five elephants survived the crash, as did many of the other animals. “It is too bad that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey have stopped using elephants,” he said. “This next generation of children will miss out on that unique experience.”

While the rest of the presentation was filled with interesting information, Thomas brought the tragedies home to those in attendance when he related the histories of the few county residents who were lost in the disasters, most notably Frank Persall and Joseph Parker. The two good friends and Durand residents died as a result of the Knights Templar crash.

Thomas also pointed out that nearly everyone from the village of Durand came to the aid of the injured on both occasions, and that Durand’s Richelieu Hotel was used to house and treat the injured.

Thomas reported that both crashes were deemed to have been caused by a failure to properly maintain the railroad tracks, after human error and brake failure were ruled out. Twenty-eight People died in the circus train wreck and seven died as a result of the Knights Templar wreck.

Historic Train Wrecks was last modified: January 29th, 2016 by Karen Elford