ELKTON — On a cold grey February day a few years ago, Lance McPherson, a special agent for the federal government, called to to ask for some helping with solving a family history mystery associated with an old, inoperable pocket watch, which was in his custody. On this trip, he was seeking to uncover information about the curious timepiece, its hands forever frozen in time at 8:35.
The odd relic had nothing to do with his job, however, as it was a family heirloom, which belonged to his great grandfather George Benjamin Askew, an engineer on the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad. The watch was a central part of a genealogical mystery, which he was trying to solve as family lore carried down through generations had it that Askew died in a railroad accident in Elkton.
This 105-year-old story was what caused the investigator with the Office of Personnel Management to become the family history detective, seeking out the circumstances and facts surrounding his relative’s death and the curious object that had been handed down from relative to relative.
McPherson noted that over the years he tended to be the family historian and wound up with many family documents. Once he decided to begin the search for the bits and pieces, he began by examining an autobiography written by his grandmother. Only 12 years old at the time of the accident, she wrote “Oh’ what sadness hovered over our once happy home.” She also notes that the engineer’s body was recovered the day before his birthday, nine months and nine days after he feel into the icy water of the Big Elk Creek.
McPherson, having the basics from this document, searched online genealogical databases, which gave him census registers and other digital evidence. That examination produced the framework, but he wanted to color in the details. That was going to take some old fashioned investigative work.
With the date and location of the accident in hand and still seeking to piece together the chain of events, we turned to some other sources for help. Aging old newspapers contained clues, as the weeklies headlined the story about the railroader’s “odd death.” These publications are often a treasure trove of information for anyone doing genealogical research. As doors continued opening, we located the coroner’s inquest report. He used that detailed insight to do some fieldwork observations, surveying the natural environment along the creek where bridge abutments from the railroad remain in the area where the body was recovered.
Here is the story these documents tell. Before the sun came up on Chesapeake Bay on Saturday, Jan. 3, 1903, 38-year-old engineer Askew eased extra freight No. 161 out of the Baltimore rail yard for a routine early morning run to Philadelphia, one that he made many times during his 18 years on the rails. Up for a promotion to an engineer on prestigious passenger runs in a few days, he surely thought this one would be a piece of cake as he looked forward to returning home to his wife and five children. The new position would mean shorter runs and more money.
Rumbling northward over the Susquehanna, nothing marred the run. However, as he approached Elkton about 8:43 a.m., the train whistle screeching for the station and crossings, a valve acted up. As the locomotive rushed toward the Big Elk Creek, he reached out beyond the cab to assess the problem. Suddenly his head struck one of the girders of the narrow bridge, violently throwing him from the train.
The train’s fireman, seeing him whirled out of the cab, brought the train to a hurried stop. The crew rushed back to the bridge, but all they found was his blood stained cap and a ragging torrent of a creek. Unable to find Askew, they backed to Elkton to get aid. Help rushed to the spot and before too long a large crew of railroaders were dredging the stream. A heavy overnight storm flooded the area, so the water was raging and workers were unable to find the body. Finally, the railroad company offered a $50 reward for the recovery of the body.
While the family grieved, winter slipped by, giving way to summer, but still the beloved father’s body remained unfound. A waterman gathering driftwood noticed a corpse in brush a mile below the tracks in October. He immediately thought the body was that of the long missing railroader. His identity, though obvious by the crushing injury to head, was clearly established by finding Askew’s watch, keys, and lodge book in his clothing, the Cecil Whig reported.
Through his family history detective’s work, McPherson notes that he had “an interesting revelation.” The news account in the local newspaper indicated that the accident occurred “around the time the railroad watch stopped at 8:35. The revelation came when “I realized that I had that watch in my possession. No one ever noted that it was his watch or that it had spent nine months and nine days underwater with him,” McPherson said.
In wrapping up this case, however, he noted that “the watch and identity are now back together after 105 years.”