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Gene Ramsay's History Blog

Are you a history buff who can't get their hands on enough stories about Norcross? You've come to the right place! In this blog, local historian Gene Ramsay will take you on a journey to Norcross' past to discover the people and culture who laid the foundations for the city we know and love today. 

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Jan 28

Oliver P. Ford, Fireman

Posted on January 28, 2022 at 10:24 PM by Gene Ramsay

Off to the right of the lane that splits the Norcross City Cemetery in half you will find a distinctive gravestone adorned with a striking carving of the head of an ax, as shown in the photo below.  It marks the site of the burial of the mortal remains of Oliver P. Ford.  Here is his story.

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Oliver Ford, born in 1867, was raised near Norcross.  His parents were Middleton (“Milt”) and Lydia Jackson Ford, who had married in 1851 in Gwinnett County.  They farmed in the county’s Pinckneyville militia district (the corner of the county where Norcross is located) and raised a LARGE family –

  • the 1870 census lists eight children in the Ford household, with Oliver, two years old at the time,  being the youngest 
  • by the time of the next census, in 1880, the Fords had five additional children!

When Oliver was a young man the Richmond and Danville Railroad had just been built passing through Norcross (it is called the Norfolk Southern today) and he went to work as a fireman for the line.  Today we associate firemen with putting out fires, but Oliver Ford’s job in 1889 was the exact opposite –locomotives burned wood or coal in those days to power the train, and Oliver’s job was to keep the fire going. A train typically carried a staff of a conductor (assisted perhaps by porters), who dealt with the passengers, and an engineer and fireman in the locomotive up front who kept the train moving. Inside the locomotive sealed pipes filled with water ran through a heated firebox, creating steam under high pressure, and the steam was then diverted into a reciprocal piston system that translated the heat energy in the steam into the motive energy driving the wheels of the locomotive.  

After working for a year for the railroad Oliver Ford made what turned out to be his last run at his fireman’s post on the evening of November 11, 1889. The Atlanta Constitution newspaper told the story of the events that night under the headline “A Terrible Tragedy”:

The north bound passenger train on the Richmond and Danville road left the union passenger depot on schedule time.  This train is a fast mail, and always runs on time.  The conductor, Mr. Francis, and the engineer, Mr. James Bell, are railroad men of long experience.

Monday night the train was running on time, with no thought of any trouble ahead. When the train rounded the curve at Lula the engineer was astounded by the light of a freight car just ahead of him. Reversing his engine, he used every effort to stop the train and stood like a veteran at the throttle until his engine struck the caboose of the freight train that stood on the main line.

Nobody, save the brave engineer and his heroic firemen, had any idea of the impending danger ahead. Both hoped that the engine would slow up in time to prevent a collision.

But the engine kept going.

There was a terrible crash, and with a shudder the passenger cars ran back a few feet and stood still. 

Everybody knew that a terrible catastrophe had occurred, and in less than a minute a party of rescuers were on the scene.

The newspaper gives no precise details of the physical damage caused in the “terrible crash”, but in this kind of wreck the locomotive’s steam engine boiler would likely have exploded and the locomotive would have caught on fire. 

It was reported in the story that engineer Bell was injured in the crash - his right leg suffered multiple broken bones and he had severe bruises and other injuries.  As a result his leg was amputated by a local physician, but within a day or two his medical condition had improved and he was seen to be on a path to recovery.  

However, fireman Ford was apparently killed instantly - his dead body was found in the debris of the wreck, and the newspaper described his horrific injuries in sufficiently grisly detail that I will omit them from this article.

The Constitution article did include a short description of Ford’s life and planned burial:

Young Oliver Ford was born and bred near Norcross, and was only twenty-one years of age. He was a bright young fellow, and stood in line for early promotion. He entered the service of the railroad company a year ago, and was always reliable and was considered thoroughly competent.  His parents live near Norcross, and there his remains were carried yesterday, and the funeral will occur at a country graveyard near Norcross today.

He was a member of Comanche tribe, No. 6, I. O. R. M., and the brethren of the order will attend the funeral.

What was the I. O. R. M. that counted Ford in its membership?  In the late 1800s and early 1900s numerous fraternal organizations were active in the USA, and the I. O. R. M. was one of these – the initials stand for the Improved Order of Red Men.  This men’s society had a patriotic orientation, and traced its roots back to pre-revolutionary Boston, where in 1773 members of the Sons of Liberty secret society disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians and staged the Boston Tea Party, protesting against “taxation without representation”.  The I. O. R. M. established chapters across America in the 19th century, with officials and local chapters taking titles based on American Indian culture.  Many of the members assembled elaborate costumes based on their ideas of native culture, wearing these at society gatherings. The photo below shows members of a local I. O. R. M. tribe in Ohio in their regalia circa 1900.

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Several US presidents, including both Roosevelts, were members of the I. O. R. M.  Today it has faded away - its membership dropped from half a million in 1935 to fewer than 20,000 by the end of the 20th century.

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