In the early morning hours of July 8, 1921, engineer and businessman William Francis Bohlman was at the throttle of Southern Pacific’s Engine No. 745 on his regular run from his home in Sanderson, Texas, to Valentine. In the cab with him was fireman Charles F. Robinson; at the opposite end of the freight train was brakeman Earl Stirman stationed in the caboose. As the train approached Paisano Pass around 5:00AM, the locomotive suddenly came to a halt and a thunderous explosion echoed across the land. William Bohlman lay dead beside the tracks.
The boiler explosion ripped No. 745 apart. The mangled engine cab flew 200 yards from the tracks, while the 80 metric ton boiler landed upside-down about 30 feet from the wheel chassis, which remained perfectly in place where the train stopped. The force of the blast did, however, cause the tracks to bend under the strain, creating a noticeable dent in the line. Bohlman’s lifeless body, found badly burned and gashed with a hole clean through his head, was thrown 60 feet. Robinson was found alive some four miles from the scene, unconscious but without apparent serious injury.
What might seem like a simple accidental boiler explosion–a common form of accident involving steam locomotives–turns out to be a strange tale which leaves more questions than answers. It’s not just the fact that No. 745 was a brand new locomotive from the Algiers Shops operated by Southern Pacific that makes this incident so puzzling. The events leading up to the explosion, as reported by the two surviving men, are equally strange:
“When he recovered consciousness, the fireman said the last he remembered was when he finished sanding the track on the heavy grade near Toronto, a flag station. He had rolled a cigarette and was about to mount the seat when he lost consciousness. [Fireman] Robinson has an ugly gash on the back of his head and is severely bruised as the result of his falling or being hurled from the moving train.
Earl Stirman, the brakeman who witnessed the explosion [from his position standing four cars behind the engine], says he saw a “tall slender man in black” run from the train and make off across the mountain a moment before the explosion occurred… Robinson told the coroner both he and the engineer had noticed a man riding a few cars back from the engine. Thinking he was a tramp stealing a ride they paid little attention to the man…”
Whether the hole in Bohlman’s skull was caused by a bullet or a piece of shrapnel from the exploding boiler could not be determined with absolute certainty. Shortly before a hearing was held, Robinson put a bullet in his own head. (At the time, no one was aware that he had suffered trauma to his brain; the swelling and bruising severely effected his mental state, leading to his suicide ten days later.) Stirman was questioned, but found to have no motive to kill his friend and coworker. The mysterious “man in black” was never found or identified, either, but if he did exist and was behind the incident, he had some knowledge of locomotive operation: the injectors which supplied water to the boiler had been cut off, which was what caused the engine to explode.
Paisano Pass is in Presidio County, just 12 miles east of Marfa–home to the mysterious Marfa Lights, with documented sightings dating back as early as 1883 when the town of the same name was first settled. Strangely enough, that first recorded sighting by cowhand Robert Reed Ellison was driving a herd through Paisano Pass when he saw the flickering lights in the sky.
A “tall slender man in black” fleeing a possible murder scene and vanishing without a trace in a place known for strange lights in the sky. Add to this that, according to legend, a fortune in gold bars stolen from Emperor Maximilian and the Mexican treasury (or even the rumored “railroad engineer’s gold ore ledge”) are said to be hidden in the area, and you have a place teeming with fantastic tales.
It might surprise you to know that the locomotive involved in this horrible tragedy still not only exists but is operational. Officially retired in 1954, the engine was on display in Audubon Park in New Orleans until 1984. Eventually, it fell into the hands of the Louisiana Railway Heritage Trust and was fully restored in 2004. The Louisiana Steam Train Association in Jefferson, Louisiana, currently cares for the aging iron horse and occasionally tours with the engine in Louisiana and Mississippi. Let us hope no other mysterious men in black decide to blow it up again.