Anyone who tries to navigate through Hamilton knows the persistent inconvenience of the railroad system, how sometimes the only way to get from one side of the town to the other is to funnel through the underpass on High Street or the overpass on Grand Boulevard. But there are those among us who can remember before those options, when the entire city came to a standstill when a long train came through.
Before the Jack Kirsch underpass alleviated much of that inconvenience in the 1980s after sixty years of planning, even the busy High Street thoroughfare ground to a halt several times a day. Even ambulances and emergency vehicles.
More than mere inconvenience, there were safety issues. Back in the days before automated barricades, railroads would sometimes hire watchmen to stop traffic at the busiest crossings. Still collisions were frequent.
In 1930, after a car-train collision hospitalized an entire Shandon family of seven, killing one, when Dewey Smith, driving west on High Street in his six-year-old sedan, Smith came up on a long line of cars and impatiently tried to go around them, unaware that the cars had stopped for an on-coming freight train and of the watchman waving his red lantern.
“Screams and a grinding of brakes rent the air,” the Daily News reported. “More than a score of persons who witnessed the crash ran to the aid of the children and their parents, who were tossed helplessly about, some in the street and some within the wreckage of their automobile… The hardest police officers virtually wilted at the horrible scene which met their eyes… The little girl… was complaining that her feet were cold.” A four-year-old and a two-year-old child were pulled from the wreckage.
The Evening Journal described the crossing as “one of the most treacherous in the up-town district. A train approaching from the north is not visible to the west-bound motorists until it is upon the crossing. A brick building on the northeast corner of the crossing obstructs the view of the driver. The crossing is poorly lighted. It is not protected by electric flash or bell signals.”
There had been dozens of other car/train collisions at that crossing prior to the underpass. Not all of them were fatal, but one particular encounter had national repercussions, the involving a sixteen-year-old dancer from Cincinnati on October 14, 1937.
Doris Kappelhoff had for six years been part of a popular dancing act, Doris and Jerry. Jerry was Jerome Doherty, and for six years, the duo had been a popular act at the Netherland Hotel, the Cincinnati Club, and other area venues. A few days prior to the collision, they had signed a five-year contract with a casting company that provided dancers to the movies. Doris and her mother Alma had sold all of their belongings and were preparing to move to Los Angeles.
The day before they were to depart (or maybe two weeks–sources vary), Doris and Jerry went to Hamilton for a going-away party thrown by friends, Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Holden of 258 Walnut St. Doris and Jerry’s brother Lawrence decided to ditch the party for a car ride along with Albert Schroeder, 20, and Marian Bonekamp, 18.
Schroeder was driving. He told police he did not see the freight train approach, nor did he see watchman Frank Purdue waving two red lanterns. His car was side-swiped by the slow-moving train and thrown 20 feet.
Marian Bonekamp suffered facial injuries that scarred her for life. Schroeder and Doris Kappelhoff both suffered broken legs, but the repercussions for Ms. Kappelhoff were profound. She had to cancel her move to Hollywood and the fourteen months of recovery left her unable to dance again professionally.
Fortunately, she had more talents than dancing. She dropped out of school because she “couldn’t take the pity in the eyes of her classmates.”
Mostly, she would later say, simply to have something to do, Doris began taking voice lessons from talent agent Grace Raine. Turns out, Doris was as good a singer as she was a dancer. She joined a local jazz band and made her vocal debut at Charlie Yee’s Shanghai Inn. She was a hit, and a year later auditioned for Barney Rapp, owner of the Sign of the Drum night club. He hired her, and because she was still only 17, her mother accompanied her every night.
The story goes that Rapp took her outside one day and pointed to the marquee outside the club, and said that he wanted to feature her on it, but “Doris von Kappelhoff” was too long to fit. He suggested “Doris Day” because her most popular number at the club was “Day After Day.” She didn’t like it much, said it sounded “too burlesque,” but she stuck with it, and the rest, they say, is history–history guided by Hamilton, Ohio and its lousy railroad crossings.