With the rising popularity of New York’s P.T. Barnum and his unique theater of oddities, smaller versions known as dime museums began popping up in other cities - Boston being no exception.
For ten cents, paying customers could gaze upon museum favorites such as fire-eating albinos, two-headed dogs or bearded ladies reading Shakespeare. Eventually, these establishments leaned toward repetitiveness with their offerings, thus giving the phrase a dime a dozen new meaning and the very reason why 13-year-old Scott Garrett Lancer considered Maximillian’s Museum of the Curiously Odd and Unexplainable a cut above the rest. Yes, there behind the glass partition barked a two-headed dog aptly named Orthrus, while up on stage the bearded lady preferred lyrical ballads over Shakespeare.
All captivating indeed, but what really earned Scott’s high recommendation wasn’t the exhibits but the experience of exiting this certain dime museum.
Maximilian, being a shrewd and clever businessman, understood the value of using every nook and cranny of his real estate to offer his customers oddities as advertised. Unfortunately, the back room of the showman’s establishment didn’t lend itself well for any of his performers, thus making it a wasted space. However, one day, while standing in the middle of the room staring at its exit door, inspiration blessed the gentleman.
Boards and nails assisted the proprietor in giving the room a new perspective. First, a sloping platform was laid over the existing floor, creating a measured difference in height of 4 inches between the room’s two opposite walls. The new tilt would force patrons into an off-balanced gait as they walked across the room to leave the museum. Next, a rebuilt slanted ceiling with its hanging crystal chandelier added to the vertiginous sensation. Wooden legs were sawed to create lopsided furniture for an awry repose while patrons admired skewed paintings hung on the wall. The entire effect put customers in drunken stumbles before escaping to a more balanced life outside.
Until the proprietor kicked their behinds out the back door, Scott and his best friend, George McCallister, spent many a Saturday afternoon sitting in Maximillian’s room enjoying their own different perspective by laughing at Boston’s finest falling on their high-society asses for the mere price of one thin dime. Money well spent.
Distant screams opened Scott’s eyes as he laid on a Pullman Palace’s tilted floor. Hanging from the cockeyed gilded ceiling, one ornate lamp remained lit, its sway casting strange shadows across the jumble of fine upholstered chairs and carved wooden tables.
A voice filtered through Scott’s view of the impromptu world of a different perspective and reached his ears. “It’s George.”
“Hell, McCallister. Why are they screaming? Did Orthus jump the partition?”
“Sir, it’s George…your porter. Our train has derailed.”
Well young fella, they'll tell you it’s this weather of thawin’ and freezin’ and the ground heavin’. But the truth is these railroad companies were in too big of a damn hurry to lay those tracks.
Scott tried to make sense of his current situation, but his mind kept getting in the way by bringing back the past. “We’re in luck, George. Omaha’s Engine Company Number 2 is holding a real nice ball at Shoaf's Hall tonight. Newspaper says it’ll be comfortably heated.”
“This isn’t Omaha, sir. Fact is, we never made it out of the Sierras before old Jupiter left the rails. You best sit up slowly. Looks like you took a nasty blow to the head.”
Struggling to rise, Scott propped himself against one of the car’s toppled chairs. Blinking at the porter hunched down in front of him and seeing blood visible on the man’s white jacket, reality took hold with painful clarity. “My God. Kinsey.” An arm reached out for assistance. “Help me stand. The sleeping cars. Which way.”
“I’m going to tell you the same thing I told the other fella who didn’t listen but made me promise to stay and be certain you’re all right.”
The porter grunted as he pulled Scott to his feet. “You best not go there. Follow me instead while I round up the others who can walk.”
“Which way did he leave?”
George’s eyes shifted to the door at the far end of the car. “Sir, it’s bad.”
Sidestepping broken glass and overturned furniture, Scott stumbled down the slanted train car aisle, ignoring the porter's continued protests.
Once outside, the unforgettable acrid smell with a hint of earth and bubbling fat assaulted Scott’s senses with the abruptness of a sucker punch. Grabbing the car’s exterior step railing, he paused to look out on a darkened scene of twisted metal chaos dotted with small fires emitting a haunting fog of humanity. A battlefield had come to the Sierra Nevada.
Daybreak would provide better light for Scott in assessing the derailment, but there would be no disagreement the porter had called it accurately. It was bad. For now, the fires among the wreckage and a moon dimmed by thickening smoke were all that could show the way forward.
Even though the growing stanzas of moans and cries for help from the injured wrestled with Scott’s conscience, his little cousin had been sound asleep two cars up the line. Lancer takes care of its own. Swinging over the railing, he hit the ground on wobbly legs that regained strength with determination while maneuvering his way along the tracks.
The two sleepers had jackknifed with such force from the derailment, it broke their couplings. Momentum from the Pullman smoking car caused the first one Scott came upon to careen down a steep embankment, breaking apart and spilling out slumbering passengers in the process. Squinting down at the wreckage, he saw little movement. Chances were the casualties would be many.
The accident had an opposite effect on the second car. The violent halt shoved it up a hillside at an unmaintainable angle, causing it to roll back onto the tracks and come to a rest on its roof. People, desperate to escape the upside-down nightmare, were clamoring and clawing their way out through the one open door. Among the shocked and frightened faces pushing forward, a man stood out, pinned against the car’s platform railing as he tried to unsuccessfully negotiate his way against the flow. Seeing Seth making little progress, Scott veered right for a clearer path down the length of the Pullman.
Most of the car’s windows had shattered during its rolled return to the rails, creating gaping holes rimmed with razor-like shards of glass. A few bleeding passengers lying on the ground found out too late how treacherous this egress could be. Approximating where their compartments were located, Scott began yelling Kinsey’s name and praying for a response.
Wait. Yes, their berths had been on the right, but now the sleeper rested on its roof. Goddammit! I need to be on the other side of the car. Spying the fires ahead were spreading, Scott’s jog quickly morphed into a full-fledged run to locate his little cousin.
Once reaching the opposite side, it became apparent how close this car had come to meeting the same fate as the first. With it positioned precariously close to the edge of the embankment, Scott discovered traveling the length of the Pullman difficult as his feet lost solid ground more than once while he hoarsely shouted Kinsey’s name.
Not a female voice, but thank God, a familiar one. Peering into a darkened jagged portal, relief washed over Scott to see the undefined figure of Seth sitting on the compartment’s ceiling surrounded by tossed bedding, his arms encircling Kinsey. “She’s shaking like a leaf and I can’t get her out the way I got in.”
“Hold up. I’ll come to you.” Not wanting to make the same mistake as the other passengers, a retrieved rock from the railroad ballast sufficed as a hammer to clear the remaining broken glass from the window. Grabbing the frame for leverage, Scott boosted himself into the compartment. As he picked his way around skewed luggage, cushions and bedding, the distinct smell of lamp oil permeating the air confirmed they were sitting in a tinderbox. The need to get out before the whole damn car went up in flames became urgent.
Hunkering down, he reached out and grabbed his cousin’s hand. “Kinsey.” Her trembling traveled up Scott’s arm. “Kinsey?” His brow dipped at her silence while he leaned in and placed a palm against her cheek. Cold and clammy. Jesus, she’s in shock.
With its thunderous explosion, Jupiter’s boiler turned the Sierra Nevada’s battlefield into Hades.