The Great Train Wreck of 1963

By Charles Chappell '64
Professor of English

Editor’s note: This article grew out of Professor Chappell’s talk delivered on April 19, 1999, as a part of the “Legends of Hendrix” program, a series of lectures sponsored by the Hendrix Student Senate. It was originally published in the Summer/Fall 1999 edition of Hendrix Magazine.

Whenever alumni who attended Hendrix during the early 1960s encounter one another by chance or get together on social occasions, almost invariably the conversation eventually centers on one or more of the following questions:  “Were you there the night of the train derailment?”  “Did you help steal the beer from the smashed boxcar?”  ”How much beer was taken, and what happened to it after that night?”  “Did anyone from Millar Hall get arrested or find himself in big trouble with Dean Meriwether?”  During the 36 years since the occurrence of the most famous railroad wreck in Hendrix history, countless stories, fables, prevarications, myths, legends, hyperbolic excursions into memory, and other assorted narratives have been passed back and forth among alumni and kept alive for future generations of Hendrix students. Perhaps the time has arrived to attempt to reconstruct what actually occurred on April 26, 1963, on the railroad tracks running from northwest to southeast directly in front of Millar Hall on the western edge of the Hendrix campus.

Not one word in print or a single photograph of this train wreck appears in any 1963 issue of The Profile or in the 1963 edition of The Troubadour. However, Dr. James Lester includes the following two tantalizing sentences in his 1984 definitive volume Hendrix College: A Centennial History :  “Legend also surrounded the derailing of a freight train that included a carload of beer in front of Millar Hall in April, 1963. Despite repeated assurances from railroad and college officials that Hendrix students did not remove any intoxicants from the wreck, campus mythology always contended otherwise” (225). Fortunately for posterity, The Log Cabin Democrat, Conway’s hometown newspaper, covered the derailment extensively in several editions and also supplied information that was picked up and included on their front pages by Arkansas’s two statewide dailies, The Arkansas Gazette and The Arkansas Democrat.  In addition to these valuable sources, several eyewitnesses and participants also provided crucial facts used in the preparation of this article, and the help of these members of the Hendrix family is gratefully acknowledged: Robert W. Meriwether '49, Emeritus Professor of Education, Political Science, and American History, and the original Hendrix Dean of Students; Albert M. Raymond, Pittman Professor of Biology Emeritus, former Associate Dean of the College, and Hendrix’s foremost authority on railroads; and several anonymous former residents of Millar Hall who are not certain that the statute of limitations on theft from interstate commerce has expired. Mac Murphy ’97, reporter and photographer for The Log Cabin Democrat, graciously searched his newspaper’s archives and then expertly created the photographs of the Log Cabin’s pages that accompany this article.

Late on Thursday night, April 25, 1963, Hendrix students in residence on campus or in nearby apartments were busily studying or preparing assignments for the next day’s classes, staring at television sets, talking on the telephone, participating in bull sessions, or engaging in other nocturnal pursuits. A few people blessed with 7:40-a.m. courses or with early-morning jobs (such as working in the dining hall) had already gone to bed. In those benighted days of gender inequality, all of the residents of Galloway and Raney Halls had already signed in and were locked into their cozy dormitories for the night. As Thursday ended and Friday began, a few chronic insomniacs wandered the two floors of Millar Hall looking for a card game, a conversation, or another excuse to stay up longer and justify to themselves the sweet temptation of sleeping until lunchtime the next day.

At 12:55 a.m. a Missouri Pacific freight train consisting of 141 cars and pulled by a four-unit locomotive engine banged and clanged along the tracks approximately 200 feet from the front door of Millar on its journey from Coffeyville, Kansas, to Little Rock. On a car near the middle of the train a journal burned off (a journal is that portion of the rotating axle which turns in a bearing), and a wheel dropped from the car, causing the car to leave the tracks, with other cars also being wrenched left and right at odd angles, some of them smashing into other cars.

The derailed cars, tossed to both the east and the west sides of the track, tore up more than 300 feet of track between the Independence Street and the Mill Street crossings, closing both of these crossings for more than seven hours. A few of the cars left the tracks farther north and closer to Millar Hall, blocking the Clifton Street crossing and forcing residents of Millar the next day to crawl over the couplings between stalled cars in order to walk across Washington Avenue to the main Hendrix campus. A total of 23 cars derailed, with 20 of them carrying cargo of some sort: plywood, steel pipe, flour, animal feed, and cases containing 12-ounce bottles of Miller High Life Beer.

Some of the derailed cars turned over, while others landed on their sides and twisted into grotesque shapes. Some cars came to rest parallel to the tracks, but others wound up horizontal to them. Two stationary cars (not ones connected to the train) that were sitting on a siding at the Conway Grain Company near the Mill Street crossing were ripped open by hurtling derailed cars. Both of the stationary cars spilled their loads of soybeans onto the surrounding terrain. The engineers in the lead locomotive managed to bring the train to a stop near Saint Joseph Catholic Church at the southern edge of the downtown Conway business district. Railroad officials estimated that before the wreck the Missouri Pacific train measured approximately one-and-a-half miles in length.

The tremendous cacophony of the derailment immediately attracted to the tracks those residents of Millar who were still awake, as well as assorted night owls from Martin and Couch Halls on the main campus. Various denizens of Millar who by nearly 1 a.m. snored raspily while happily dreaming of the liberal arts and sciences were abruptly jolted from their beds by the sounds of clashing metals, screeching brakes, incessant warning bells, and persistent sirens. One alumnus of Delta Alpha Millar Nu ( the mock fraternity invented and populated exclusively by proud residents of Millar Hall) reports that the ceaseless honkings of several stuck automobile horns on a freight carrier awakened him. A milling group of male students from all of the dormitories and from apartments within close proximity to the campus soon was excitedly examining the derailed cars and conversing in wonderment about the most exciting event to occur near Millar Hall since the spring of 1962, when Mansour Beheshti, an international student from Iran, had slaughtered a goat in a bathtub on the north end of the second floor of Millar, cooked the goat’s carcass slowly through the night over an open pit in the Hall’s backyard, presided at a Saturday afternoon picnic attended by residents of Millar and other members of the Hendrix community, and thus initiated the hallowed Hendrix springtime tradition of the Goat Roast.

As the students strained their eyes in the dim light of a few streetlamps, trying to make sense of the chaotic scene spread before them, one enterprising sophomore clambered onto a boxcar tilted partially on its side, pulled vigorously upward on an ajar door, and shouted, “Look here, guys! BEER! FREE BEER!” Within a few seconds the sophomore was handing contraband cases of brew out through the small space afforded by the twisted doorway to a hastily formed line of eager fellow Hendrix students, many of them stalwart residents of Millar Hall who were aided by delegates from other sectors of the campus community. One participant calls this impromptu social organization a “bucket brigade,” and its energetic crew managed hurriedly to relieve the boxcar of the burden of several cases of beer--no one seems to remember exactly how many, with most estimates ranging between six and twelve. Welcome to Miller (Millar) time!

Fear of the imminent arrival at the tracks of the Conway police or Missouri Pacific railroad detectives, apprehension that College officials would soon appear, and a realization--”Ah ha!”--by the man at the end of the line that he held in his arms a FREE collection of twenty-four bottles of intoxicating amber malt beverage all combined to cause each owner of a load of beer booty to beat a hasty retreat in the darkened direction of Millar Hall. The looting sophomore at the boxcar’s door turned with a case in hand and found to his surprise that he no longer enjoyed the convivial companionship of his erstwhile accomplices in spontaneous crime. Feeling quite conspicuous in his new solitude, this principal perpetrator leaped down from his perch and also disappeared northward into the night.

Women and men who attended Hendrix before the liberalization of the social rules that took place starting in the late 1960’s will clearly recall the strict rule dictating the absolute prohibition of the consumption of alcoholic beverages by Hendrix students--with the penalty usually being suspension from school for a prescribed period of time or even expulsion. Certainly a select few brave or foolhardy Hendrix males and females would sneak a drink or two on occasion, but anyone who sipped the nectar from the fruit of the vine, chugalugged the finest product of the brewer’s art, or succumbed to the temptations of the demon rum did so in full knowledge that he or she was taking a serious risk regarding continued official connection to Hendrix College. While the temptation to pilfer the displayed cases of beer from the wrecked train was too powerful for many prowlers to resist, all of the beer buccaneers had enough good sense to avoid quaffing any of their loot on the spot. Instead they hauled the cases to the backyard of Millar Hall and hid them deeply in the thick hedges lining the western border of the dormitory’s property.

At approximately 1:30 a.m. the telephone rang at the Conway home of Robert Meriwether, Dean of Students at Hendrix. After Mr. Meriwether answered with a groggy “Hello?”, the following conversation ensued:

 “Dean Meriwether, this is Officer [Blank] of the Conway Police Department. There has been a train wreck in front of Millar Hall, and you’d better come on over here.”

“Have any Hendrix students been injured?”

“No.”

“Were Hendrix students responsible for the wreck?”

“No.”

“Has any Hendrix property been damaged?”

“No.”

“Is there any danger of fire or explosion?”

“Well, no.”

“May I then ask why you are calling me, please?”

“Because some of your boys from Millar Hall have broken into a boxcar and stolen some beer.”

As Dean Meriwether dressed before driving the short distance to the site of the derailment, he thought to himself, “I certainly don’t want to have to expel 53 Millar men.” Arriving at the tracks, he met the Hendrix night watchman and several lingering students, but of course no beer was in sight. Meriwether told the students that he and the night watchman would be going to a nearby all-night cafe for a cup of coffee and that they would return to Millar in about an hour’s time to make certain that all was quiet on the western front of the Hendrix campus. Their eventual patrol of the halls of the dormitory revealed only total peace and stability and no displays of Miller High Life, so the Dean returned home reassured that no beer-soaked bacchanalian blowout would transpire in Millar Hall during what remained of that late-April night.

Early on Friday morning, April 26, the merry band of Hendrix brigands loaded the purloined cases of beer into automobile trunks and drove to the remote northern shores of Beaverfork Lake, the Conway city reservoir that also served as a popular nocturnal romantic destination for Hendrix couples in those wistful days preceding visitation hours in the residence halls by members of the opposite gender. Shielded by thick stands of trees clumped close to the water’s edge, the brew bandits either dug deep holes and buried their contraband or tied thick ropes to wooden crates and lowered bottles of beer into the water, by the latter strategy employing an ecologically sound method of chilling their beverages. Meanwhile, back at the tracks, a railroad crew that eventually grew to 40 laborers busily worked at the massive job of clearing the area of wrecked cars and tracks, using cranes, bulldozers, and all kinds of heavy trucks as well as muscle power. The crew built a detour around the destroyed sections of track, and the first train used the alternative route at 6 p.m. on Friday.

The time has arrived for a true confession. If gentle readers will indulge the author of this article as he shifts into the first person, self-consciousness will become a theme for only a brief few sentences. In April, 1963, I was pleased to exist as a junior English major at Hendrix and to be completing my third year of residence among the membership of Delta Alpha Millar Nu. The two windows of the room that Simon Bookout and I shared on the second floor of Millar faced eastward across the front yard and toward the railroad tracks. During the tumult, clamor, and moiling frenzy of the Great Train Wreck of ’63, both Simon and I--SLEPT SOUNDLY THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRE EPISODE! And to this very day we are both EMBARRASSED TO THE POINT OF MORTIFICATION!

When my alarm clock chirped at its customary 6:30 on Friday morning, I stumbled to the window (wondering why I was still hearing bells even though I knew that I had pounded the alarm button on my clock), raised the windowshade, and stared in open-mouthed awe at railroad cars stacked atop one another while strewn all over the landscape, as emergency personnel, railroad workers, and gaggles of gawkers swarmed the scene like agitated bees. My shouts awakened my roomie from one of his legendary bouts of sound slumber, and together we ran out into the hallway and grabbed the first Millarite whom we encountered, babbling pleas for an explanation. One of our next-door neighbors responded, “You idiots! Did you really sleep through the wreck? And didn’t you get any of the beer?” Our humiliated answers, which persist to this day, were these: “Yes, we never woke up”; and “Did you say BEER?”

During the next several days, as the railroad crew cleared the tracks and hauled away the ruined cars, Simon and I had plenty of opportunities to survey the damage and to talk with the preening Millar pirates who carried out the Great Beer Heist, but because we snoozed away throughout the night we missed out forever on the chance to participate in this sterling chapter of Hendrix history. On most mornings Simon worked, as he liked to say, “on the scrap line in the chow hall,” and I, simpleton extraordinaire, had blithely volunteered for the thrill of attending a first-period class six days per week.  As a result, my roomie and I usually hit the sack around midnight, and we always locked our door because we did not want to endure any of the typical Millar night-stalker pranks, such as having dead rats tossed onto our beds while we slept; being inundated by wastebaskets full of used Kleenex, cigarette butts, orange peels, and rancid water; or suffering a bombardment of tennis balls soaked in lighter fluid and set afire. Also, we had become accustomed to the nightly din in the hallways, including the occasional roar of a motorcycle that one particular classmate enjoyed steering down the second floor corridor at his customary 2 a.m. In retrospect, I am not surprised that Simon and I could sleep through the Armageddon of a massive railroad derailment. However, even after the passage of more than three and one-half decades, whenever I realize what fun I missed, I shake my head ruefully and sigh.

As best I can determine, this article represents the first attempt since 1963 to piece together a narrative of the major events of that epochal post-midnight event. And by now every reader must acknowledge that I, one-half of the Millar Hall winning team in the Rip Van Winkle contest, may legitimately serve at best as a tangential witness to the Great Train Wreck. Fortunately, contemporary electronic technology makes possible the gathering of information from alumni who may have served as members of the infamous bucket brigade or who may have walked along the tracks that fabled night and observed memorable actions, legal or otherwise. Still more alumni may have talked to some of the beery bandits and be able to flesh out the story with colorful anecdotes. Anyone who would be kind enough to furnish further information about the Great Train Wreck of 1963 may post a comment by clicking on the comment box at the end of this story. You will then have an opportunity to post your memories on the web site for the world to see.

Others with stories to tell may want to write via the postal system to me here at Hendrix (please check this magazine’s masthead for the mailing address). Warning: any communication may find its way into print in a future edition of Hendrix. Whether anyone chooses to add to the historical record by e-mail or by regular letter, I promise that anonymity will be preserved, if the writer so desires. (Do some of you members of the Hendrix Bar Association know the period of time that must elapse before a spontaneous beer burglar may stop feeling like a fugitive?)

I will especially appreciate assistance with these questions:

  1. A major party occurred inside and outside Millar Hall sometime in the few days following the derailment. The requisitioned Miller High Life served as the festival’s principal liquid refreshment. I remember the party clearly, mostly because my good friend the Rat led one of his legendary faith-healing revivals, a religious rite that was sonorously accompanied by the terrific guitar picking and singing of the immortal Benjamine M. Everyone who attended had a grand old time until some local Conway neighbors complained about the level of noise, and the gathering eventually broke up. Did this full-tilt boogie occur on Saturday night, April 27, or the next weekend? Logic would suggest that the new owners of the Miller beer would not want to wait seven or eight days to enjoy the pleasures of their bounty, but a squiggle of memory tells me that the later date may be correct. Can anyone recall?
  2. Several people who were at the scene report the presence of a boxcar loaded with cases of bourbon, with the wrecked car already being protected by policemen while the beer car was bereft of security forces. Can anyone fill in details on this part of the event? Did anyone from Millar Hall attempt to boost any of this much more expensive and potent booze?

Railroads have always been a fact of life at Hendrix. The tracks at the western boundary of the campus have existed longer than has the College, and all alumni will remember the sounds of the train whistles and crossing bells that drowned out a few moments of a concert in Reves Recital Hall, a poetry reading in Staples Auditorium, or a performance of a play in CabeTheatre. During the first hours of April 26, 1963, the tracks in front of Millar Hall became the epicenter of collegiate activity, and the Great Train Wreck has become an indelible part of this academy’s collective consciousness. For many years to come ’60’s alumni will likely continue to ask “Were you there when the train derailed? Did you get away with any of the beer?”

Responses clear up some mysteries

Publication of this article drew numerous responses, some of which were published in the Winter 2000 edition of Hendrix Magazine. The date of the party was confirmed as Saturday, April 27, 1963. Photos supplied by Bob Holden '65 showed a boxcar not quite full of Schiltz beer, not Miller High Life. Several other people admitted to sleeping through the train wreck. No one could (or would) verify the existence of a boxcar full of bottles of bourbon.