By Brad Dison
Late on the Friday afternoon of December 5, 1901, E.L. McKeen, a local milkman in North Tonawanda, New York, was delivering his milk as usual. This was in the era before automobiles were commonplace, so McKeen delivered his goods in a wagon pulled by a single horse. He took his time whenever he made his rounds so as to not put unnecessary strain on the horse. When moving at a slow pace, the horse could work all day with just a few, short breaks. If the milkman hurried the horse, it required much longer and more frequent breaks. The milkman usually seemed to be in no hurry whatsoever.
On this day, the milkman made his deliveries as if he had all the time in the world. His load consisted of numerous small cans and large barrels of milk. At every intersection, the milkman casually looked both ways to make sure no other traffic was coming. When he neared the railroad crossing at Lincoln Avenue, the milkman coolly looked down the railroad tracks. The milkman saw the Lockport train heading his direction on the tracks of the New York Central railroad. The milkman, unable to properly gauge the speed at which the train traveled, decided that he could make it across in plenty of time.
The train, being the fastest mode of transportation of the era, barreled through the town at a speed that many people thought was impossible only a couple of decades earlier. The engineer blew the train’s whistle as a warning, but the milkman paid little attention to it. The engineer engaged the train’s braking system, but it was unable to stop in time. Just as the horse stepped onto the tracks, the Lockport train struck. The horse took the brunt of the violent impact and flew through the air. The milkman and his wagon slammed against the train. The cans and barrels of milk exploded in a large white gush and covered the milkman. The force of the impact reduced the wagon to nothing more than kindling wood and scrap iron.
Witnesses to the collision rushed to the milkman’s aid. The horse was dead. They feared the milkman was dead as well, yet in the pile of debris, they noticed movement. The milkman, covered from his head to his feet with cold milk, shivered as he dislodged himself from the pile of broken wood and iron. Some of the townspeople helped the milkman stand up, and asked if he needed medical attention. The milkman reassured them that he was just fine. He escaped with barely a scratch.
Several of the witnesses relayed another incident which happened three and a half years earlier at the same crossing at about the same hour by a milkman. In that incident, which occurred in early May of 1897, a milkman was crossing the railroad tracks at the same intersection when he was struck by the same train, the Lockport train. That collision nearly killed the milkman. He spent the next couple of weeks confined to his home recovering.
The townspeople brought up yet another incident in which another local milkman was struck by a train. About five years earlier, a milkman was walking, seemingly without a care in the world, along the railroad tracks between North Tonawanda and Gratwick when he failed to get off of the tracks in time. The train struck the milkman but only slightly injured him.
As the townspeople spoke of the three separate incidents in which trains had hit milkmen in the vicinity, McKeen confidently told them that trains were unable to kill him. Because of his belief that he was invincible, at least with trains, McKeen was willing to take chances most people would be too afraid to take. You see, it was not three different milkmen in the stories the townspeople told, but one. It was McKeen who had tempted fate and survived being hit by a train on three separate occasions.
1. The Buffalo Commercial (Buffalo, New York), May 21, 1897, p.6.
2. The Buffalo Times, December 6, 1901, p.2.