Tuesday, March 4, 1930 was an ugly day for Ceres - one of those days that scars a community for years.
Teacher Raye Day Simpson had plans to leave the campus of Ceres Grammar School at noon to have lunch with her new husband, James Simpson. They had married the previous November at a Methodist Church ceremony attended by many notable Cereans, including Alma McKnight who sang a selection. The 24-year-old electrician employed with the Turlock Irrigation District was going to pick up his pretty 24-year-old wife, and as was their custom, they scooped up her younger siblings who were students at the school.
Because it was raining, James showed up at the Lawrence Street campus and parked the car and ran inside to fetch his charming young bride. Lunch was always a special time for Harry Edd Day, 13, and his younger sister, Mary Eloise Day who had turned seven on Jan. 17. They both looked up to their older sister and her new husband. James seemed like an older brother.
James and Raye escorted the children through the rain to the car where the the rain was tapping hard on the rooftop. James turned over the engine and steered through downtown to their home on the west side of the tracks. The newlyweds lived with her parents, Rayford and Lemoyne, who lived in a house less than a block away from the tracks. Ceres was small then and downtown ended at Sixth Street. James cut through downtown to reach Whitmore Avenue - called the Hughson Highway in those days - then headed west. He crossed the highway, which was grade level in those days, and the car bounced over the Southern Pacific tracks.
The lunch, probably prepared by Lemoyne, would be the last meal for all four.
Perhaps they took too much time at lunch and there was a pressing need to get the teacher and students back to the campus for the resume of class at 1 p.m. The four again braved the heavy rain in a dash to the car and James drove eastbound on Whitmore Avenue toward the tracks just past the cemetery. Because the tracks approached Whitmore at an angle much sharper than a 90-degree, a driver had to crane the neck behind and left to make sure all was clear. A moment of laziness, a stiff neck or an insidious moment of carelessness could result in tragedy. In all likelihood the side windows of Simpson's car may have become fogged up as the windshield wipers had trouble keeping up with the downpour. It was just before 1 p.m. and James had to get his precious cargo back to the school.
In 1930 there was no thing as automatic crossing arms to hold back approaching automobiles from tangling with steam engines. Approaching from the north was the southbound Noon Flyer passenger train, chugging along at an estimated 55 mph.
Without looking to his left, James eased off on the accelerator to ease the ride over the tracks. It was the last thing James Simpson would ever do.The grinding sound of train versus the hard shell of the car could be heard throughout Ceres as the car crumpled like a tin can by the force of the train. There may not have even been time to scream.
Everybody aboard the train felt the crash but couldn't immediately see what had occurred. The train stopped farther down the tracks, its passengers held up and left with thoughts of the victims. Some offered up prayers for the victims, little realizing the extent of the casualties.
From the service station on the east side of the highway, an employee witnessed the crash as the family car was contorted into an unrecognizable shape. According to the Modesto News-Herald, the car "clung to the cowcatcher of the locomotive for a moment and then was hurled aside, a tangled, twisted mass of wreckage." The car and its four crushed occupants were pushed and rolled by the train down the tracks more than 300 yards.
Death was swift and sure. Those who responded to the gruesome sight would never be able to erase the sight of the human carnage. One of those was likely Ceres fire chief Will Ham who led the all-volunteer department. According to the newspaper "Identification of the mangled bodies was impossible until relatives and close friends of the family had made a minute examination of the clothes." Coroner Carl Shannon and his deputy, Charles Karr, were called to the site to help scoop up the crushed flesh and bone to Modesto where the Sovern Funeral Home processed the ghastly remains.
Pushing past the horror and grief, everyone tried to make sense of the crash. The service station witness didn't think the train engineer saw the car "until he was directly in its path" and certainly never pulled down on the cord to blow the locomotive's steam whistle. The following day the Modesto paper reported that Joseph G. Hunter, the transportation engineer with the state railroad commission sent his assistant engineer E.F. McNaughton "to study the crossing situation to determine whether the accident was caused by lack of adequate protection or any other condition that could be corrected."
There was nothing that could be done except maybe heed other drivers to be more careless than Mr. Simpson had been. It would not be for another 20 years that modern crossing arms were invented and installed at crossings throughout the United States.
News of the horrific crash spread quickly with the impact received hardest at the school where Walter White was principal. A school lost a well-loved teacher and classmates lost friends. The impact was greatest when word reached Mrs. Lemoyne Gardner Day that three of her children were killed in a horrific manner. Lemoyne shared her grief with two other children, Charles and Emma Lee Simpson, 19, and her sister Emily Tewell of Ceres. The entire community felt the grief as Raye, in particular, was socially popular in Ceres.
In Auberry, east of Fresno, Mr. and Mrs. Addey Boyd Simpson received the horrifying news that their son and his wife and family were all dead. There was some solace in the fact that they probably never knew what hit them and didn't suffer.
A large crowd turned out in large number for the 2 p.m. funeral service held that Friday at the Methodist Church at Lawrence and Sixth streets. Rev. H.J. Richards, who had officiated the marriage of the couple months ago, tried to get past his own sense of grief and do his best to console the crowd. He spoke of a loving God who prepared a better place for the dead.
Classmates had a difficult time coming to terms with the local tragedy. So troubling was the news to classmate Sheldon "Shel" Helsley and his siblings that each one had trouble sleeping and when they did nightmares haunted them.
All four were laid to rest, all in a row, at the Modesto Citizen's Cemetery on Scenic Road in Modesto. When broken-hearted Lemoyne died in June 1964 there was no question where she wanted to be buried - right alongside the four.
The next time you journey over the tracks via the Whitmore Overpass, keep in mind that just underneath you is a place where four souls lost their lives; and be thankful that progress, assisted by machinery and raised roadways, have all helped us lead safer lives on the roads in Ceres.