George Poell looked out the locomotive’s window as soon as he felt the pull of the emergency brakes. A small child was wandering along the tracks, and the train was bearing down fast. It would not stop in time.
By David L. Bristow, Editor
In 1905 George Poell was a railroad fireman, soon to be a hero. One day the Grand Island resident was shoveling coal into a locomotive’s red-hot furnace as the train rounded a curve. Suddenly the train lurched as the engineer put on the emergency brake. Poell looked out the window to see what was wrong.
He saw a child walking on the track, a toddler with blond curls bobbing.
“The little fellow seemed to have heard us,” Poell recalled, “and in his childish way appeared to turn partly around and then toddle off straight ahead of the engine, as if to run away from us and beat us.”
The train was near Powell, northwest of Fairbury. Reports of the train’s speed vary widely; Poell described it as “a pretty good rate… on a down grade with a heavy train.” It was not going to stop in time.
Knowing the engineer could not leave his post, Poell crawled out of the cab and climbed forward along the locomotive’s running board until he reached the “pilot” or “cow-catcher” at the front. From here, he “snatched the child from certain death, and threw it to the side of the track,” said the Chicago Tribune, but in the process tumbled from the pilot and “was dragged 300 feet, bumping over the ends of the ties. His right foot was torn off at the ankle, both arms were broken, and his flesh frightfully torn and bruised.”
But Poell survived and was hailed as a hero. Just before Christmas, Poell received a letter from President Theodore Roosevelt informing him that he had been named the first recipient of a new medal of honor recently authorized by Congress, the Railroad Lifesaving Medal.
“No man could have shown greater coolness, skill and daring, or more heroic indifference to his own safety,” Roosevelt wrote.
The president added that “It is not in my power to make you any material amends for the crippling injuries you received,” and it went without saying that the railroad would take no responsibility for its former employee, even though he was injured on the job and the boy he rescued was the son of a station agent. It was up to local people to provide for the disabled twenty-five-year-old.
Poell posed for a photograph (above) with the boy* he rescued; prints were sold to raise money to buy a small house for Poell and his wife. The young man needed a desk job, so Hall County voters soon elected him county clerk. Later the Poells moved to Kansas, where George died in 1952 at age seventy-one.
* * *
And that’s the end of story about George Poell, but how did the story begin? Meaning, how did we learn about him in the first place?
Part of the fun of history is that one story often leads you to another. Earlier this year a History Nebraska colleague, David Calease, sent me an article about a railroad fireman who rescued a child from the tracks by climbing onto the cow-catcher.
But it wasn’t the story of George Poell in 1905. It was an article about Marion Lux of Lincoln in 1907. The incident happened along the Burlington tracks between Seward and Milford. Like Poell, Lux made his way to the cow-catcher—but Lux’s story ended differently:
“With all the force at his command he hurled himself from the front of the rapidly moving locomotive, grasping the child around the waist as he fell. Over he rolled, the girl held to his side in a clasp of iron, and just as the wheels of the engine were about to crush the pair, he succeeded by a superhuman effort in throwing himself over the rail into safety.” (Lincoln Evening News, Sept. 30, 1907)
Unlike Poell, Lux did not lose any limbs. For some reason he did not receive the Railway Lifesaving Medal, but like Poell he was awarded the privately-funded Carnegie Medal. In 1920 the Elm Creek Beacon reported that Lux and his wife traveled to visit the girl and her family in Oregon where they were now living. The two families had been friends since the rescue and “Mr. Lux… feels an almost paternal interest in the child,” now fourteen years old.
This 1920 article was the starting point. None of us here had heard of this rescue. I looked up 1907 newspaper reports about Lux, and one of them made a passing mention of George Poell’s deed two years earlier.
This, in case you’ve wondered, is why it takes historians so long to write books and articles. The whole field is strewn with rabbit holes ready to entice the curious.
*Yes, that’s a little boy in the photo. In Victorian times and into the early twentieth century it was common for little boys and girls to wear dresses. It made diaper changes easier, but is also evidence that even in such a highly gendered society, gender distinctions were not emphasized until children became older. At the time of “breeching,” a boy would be given a haircut and dressed in short pants. (As another example, here’s what future president Franklin D. Roosevelt looked like at age two, in 1884.)
Top photo: Union Pacific train in Genoa, Nebraska, circa 1910. History Nebraska RG1298-11-3
George Poell photo: Chicago Tribune, Dec. 29, 1905.
Carnegie Hero Fund Commission [annual report] (Pittsburgh, PA, 1907), 31.
“Christmas Note from President,” Lincoln Star, Dec. 26, 1905, 3.
“Fireman’s Brave Act Saves Life,” Lincoln Evening News, Sept. 30, 1907, 1.
“Fireman’s Heroic Act May Cost Him His Life,” Lincoln Evening News, June 28, 1905, 8.
“Hero Tells Own Story,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 29, 1905, 5.
McDowell, Charles P., “The Railroad and Highway Lifesaving Medals,” Planchet Press Newsletter 5, No. 2 (Madison, VA: Planchet Research Group). Poell was the first recipient announced, but was the second to actually receive his medal in 1906.
“Poell Gets First Medal,” Nebraska State Journal (Lincoln), Dec. 26, 1905, 7.
“Ravenna News,” Elm Creek Beacon (Neb.), Oct. 15, 1920, 3.
Children’s clothing and “breeching”:
Goran Blazeski, “Most Victorian-era boys wore dresses and the reasons were practical,” The Vintage News, April 8, 2018, https://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/04/08/breeching-boys-2/.
“Breeching (boys),” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breeching_(boys).
Lynn Downward, “19th Century Children,” Finery, November 1, 2011, http://www.gbacg.org/finery/2011/19th-century-children/.