Thursday, January 12, 2017

Don Snyder's Fall

Climbing My Family Tree: The Story of Don Snyder's Fall
The Story of Don Snyder's Fall
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I’ve written before about my Mom’s uncle Don (see 52 Ancestors: #7 Don B. Snyder), but when I wrote his profile I didn’t know this story; and when I learned of it, I knew I must share it!

I found out about the story of great-uncle Don's fall in the packet of family history information recently sent to me my mother’s cousin, RM. In an envelope within that folder I found a handwritten letter from Don to his sister Phyllis, written in 1995 and a typed letter from the Mayor of Arapahoe, NE, also from 1995, enclosing photocopies of two newspaper articles from the Arapahoe Public Mirror, one contemporaneous and one from June 18, 1936.

I had wanted to reprint both the stories, and the picture, from the newspaper along with the letters, to let you discover it as I had, and give you more of a personal flavor of great-uncle Don, but I’ve not gotten a reply to my request to the Arapahoe Public Mirror giving me permission to do so, so I’m just going to tell you the story instead.

June 1936 was in the middle of the Great Depression, and great uncle Don was 18 years old. By that time, he had begun making a bit of a name for himself while boxing as a featherweight in local and regional (paying) matches. In the sports page of the Findlay Republican Courier on February 4, 1935, the paper noted “…Don Snyder, another Findlay Boxer who scales around 120 pounds, is matched with the Hooded Phantom of Fostoria for three rounds….” But now I know why I didn’t find any articles about his boxing in 1936!

Now, let me digress for a moment to give a little historical background to provide some context for this story.

In the Great Depression, approximately 15 million men were unemployed, and many young people dropped out of school to help their parents earn money to support the family. Many people traveled across the country trying to find work as their farms were foreclosed upon and local businesses were closed, and their savings disappeared in the bank crash that caused the Depression, often hopping on freight trains or hitchhiking to the places they hoped to find work. By the 1930’s, riding the rails was an established practice, albeit very dangerous and illegal. Hitchhiking was legal and slightly safer, even if it was more uncertain as to whether a person could find a ride a ride to their destination, or find someone willing to risk picking them up at all.  One of the programs that Pres. Roosevelt instituted in order to break the economic paralysis of the depression was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). It was a public works relief program that operated from 1933 to 1942, for unemployed, unmarried men, 18 to 25, who were dependent welfare support. The CCC provided unskilled manual labor jobs related to the conservation and development of natural resources in rural lands owned by federal, state and local governments. The men were required to sign up for six-month terms (they could re-up, with a cap of 2 years) and were paid $1 a day, with $25 a month required to be sent home to support their families and $5 a month distributed to the men for incidentals. The CCC provided shelter, food, clothes, and medical care, as well as evening vocational and academic educational programs, during the term the men worked there. Pres. Roosevelt intended that when the economy bounced back, these young men would have both skilled labor experience, experience working with a team and basic education, and be easily able to find work at regular jobs. Local economies also benefitted from local CCC camps as they produced and sold food and other supplies to the camps, and the states received federal monies to administer the program. Over the course of the 9 years the program operated, the CCC men created much of the infrastructure of our country: they planted nearly 3 billion trees to help reforest America, built 46,854 bridges, 3116 fire lookouts, 318,076 erosion check and flood control dams, thousands of campgrounds,  and a network of service buildings and public roadways in remote areas. They also fought forest fires; and constructed trails, lodges and related facilities in more than over 800 parks nationwide and upgraded most state parks. A lot of their work is still in use today, 80 years later.

Climbing My Family Tree: Rudolph Wendelin CCC Art,
Rudolph Wendelin CCC Art,
Rudolph Wendelin Papers, Library and Archives, Forest History Society, Durham, NC, USA

On Thursday, April 9, 1936, Don Snyder, along with 40-some other young men from Hancock County, Ohio, applied to join the Civilian Conservation Corps. This likely meant that his father and he were unemployed. He was one of the 40 accepted. The first two months of an enlistee’s life was usually served at an Army base for initial training, conditioning, and discipline, and then they were sent to various projects throughout the country for a period ranging from a few months to the duration of their term. Occasionally, the CCC boys, as they were often called, were allowed to go home for a visit. Don was sent to work in a CCC camp in Nevada, and in June 1936, he and a buddy from the camp, Norman Cole, were riding a freight train on a return trip to Ohio. The freight car they were riding was a few cars behind the engine. He told the newspaper, in 1995, that since the slate from the steam engine was hitting them, Don had suggested that when the train next stopped, they go back a few cars to escape the slate (I can’t find anything that explains what that means – maybe it means the wheels of the engines were kicking up rocks that were hitting them?).

Shortly past midnight, on June 14, 1936, the train slowed as it pulled into Arapahoe, Nebraska. It was a very dark night, and Don was unable to see anything out the door of the freight car. While the front of the train was in Arapahoe, the freight car that Don and Norman were in had stopped on a railroad bridge over Muddy Creek, just west of town. Don didn’t know this and thought that they had stopped in a railroad stockyard, and started to climb out of the car, intending to move to another further back. But when he jumped out of the car, he fell approximately 30-40 feet to the bottom of the creek bed below, landing across a downed tree! His friend, Norman, discovering what happened, ran into town for help; he gratefully discovered people just leaving a dance that had ended around midnight, and recruited help to go back to the creek and help Don. The rescuers carried Don into town. He was cared for at Dr. J. P. Pattin’s office and then Don and Norman were taken to the Park Hotel. X-rays taken showed that Don had four broken ribs, a chipped pelvis, an injured kidney, and other internal injuries.

Climbing My Family Tree: Aerial View of Arapahoe, NE city line and Railroad Bridge
Aerial View of Arapahoe, NE city line and Railroad Bridge
All rights to Google Maps
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The town council, who Don referred to as the town fathers, visited him in his room at the Park Hotel, told him that he had fallen 40 feet, and that they would take care of things and that he did not have to worry. When Don wrote the mayor in 1995, he noted that those were very bad times in the country and that the kind, benevolent people told him not to worry because they would take care of everything, and they did! Don and Norman stayed at the hotel recuperating under the care of Dr. Pattin. On Thursday, June 18, 1936, he was declared to be recovering satisfactorily and was released from the hotel. Don and Norman left immediately, continuing their trip home to Findlay, this time hitchhiking.

The Arapahoe Public Mirror ran a story on Don’s fall on the day that he left town, June 18, 1936, titled “CCC Boy Injured in Fall from R. R. Bridge”. Below that story was a small entry, titled “Card of Thanks” which stated, “I wish to take this means to thank those who so kindly assisted me following the accident last Saturday evening near the Muddy Creek railroad bridge, especially Mrs. Gilbert, Leo Anderson, Joe Breinig and Dr. Pattin.” It was signed Don Snyder and Norman Cole.


I can’t imagine hitchhiking nearly 1000 miles back to Findlay Ohio with three cracked ribs, a chipped pelvis, and multiple internal injuries. He must’ve once been one tough guy, or, really wanted to be home.

Great-uncle Don long remembered that town which took care of him during those hard times. In the years after the Great Depression, Don rode through Arapahoe NE three more times on a passenger train, but always in the middle of the night. He never saw the bridge from which he fell, and always wondered about it. Fifty-nine years after his fall, he wrote the mayor of Arapahoe, asking for a picture of the bridge, and explained what had happened to him there.

This was the mayor’s response:
Climbing My Family Tree: Letter from Arapahoe NE mayor to Don Snyder, July 31, 1995
Letter from Arapahoe NE mayor to Don Snyder, July 31, 1995
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July 31, 1995
            Don B. Snyder
            3260 Schneider Rd. #119
            Toledo, OH 43614

Dear Mr. Snyder:
I was pleased to receive your letter of February 23, 1994 and May 26, 1995. It was certainly interesting, but must’ve been a hectic few seconds while you fell the 30 feet in addition to what you thought would be approximately 4 feet from the boxcar to the ground.

Upon receiving your letter, a friend and I went to the Muddy Creek railroad bridge and measured the distance from the top of the bridge to the edge of the stream. We found that distance to be 28 feet, although the depth at the bottom of the water may be 30 feet. The measurement was taken on the northwest side of the bridge. This bridge lies about 100 yards to the west of the corporate limits of the city of Arapahoe.

I also asked the editor of the Arapahoe Public Mirror if she would examine the issues of the Arapahoe Public Mirror from June 18, 1936 and see if an article had been printed. Shortly thereafter, she informed me that she in fact found the article printed on June 18, 1936 as you stated. I have enclosed a photocopy of that article as well as a copy of the recent article that was printed on June 15, 1995. The picture that accompanies this article was taken on the south side of the bridge as it was too muddy on the north side due to the recent rains. The color pictures that I am enclosing were taken with my camera, also from the south side of the bridge and one is from the Arapahoe city limits looking up the railroad tracks towards the Burlington Northern railroad bridge over Muddy Creek, previously referred to as the Muddy Creek Bridge.

I am pleased to provide this information to you and seek no remuneration.
Howard T Davis
City of Arapahoe
PO Box 57
Arapahoe, NE 68922

I didn’t receive the pictures the mayor took that he said were enclosed in his letter to Don, other than the one that was included in the newspaper article which I can’t print,  but here is a photo of what is probably the same street-level view from the city limit as the mayor referred to in his letter, taken by Google Maps. Other than this, it looks like most other railroad bridges over creeks that you may have seen. For mental comparison, remember that there are approximately 10 feet per story in a building, so the bridge was at least three stories above the creek bed (if I get belated permission to print the photo or the articles in my blog from the Arapahoe newspaper, I will edit this article to include it/them).

Climbing My Family Tree: View from Arapahoe NE city limits towards railroad bridge over Muddy Creek.
View from Arapahoe NE city limits towards railroad bridge over Muddy Creek.
All rights to Google Maps, Street View.
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Don was so excited and happy when he received the return letter from the mayor that he wrote his sister about it.

Climbing My Family Tree: Don Snyder's August 7, 1995 letter to his sister Phyllis (Snyder) Fry
Don Snyder's August 7, 1995 letter to his sister Phyllis (Snyder) Fry
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Aug. 7 ‘ 95
Toledo Ohio

Hi Sis:
Perhaps you remember the time I came back from Nevada (not Oregon) and fell from the train in Nebraska (southwest corner). Well, I wrote the mayor of Arapahoe not long ago trying to get a picture of the bridge. The “town fathers” (council) came in my hotel room telling me they would take care of things. Also that it was 40 feet down that I fell. Now I guess it’s more like 30 feet. But of course it could fill in a bit in 59 years.
Anyways some time went by (I’d offered $30 for some pictures) but I was disappointed as I hadn’t heard from them. And then the letter came Friday. A real nice letter from the mayor, pictures, and two clippings. I was so happy to hear from him I just had to have copies made. These are for you. Some people probably wonder why I care. Well, there I was lying injured in a creek bed in near total darkness. Well over 1000 miles from home thinking I was going to die before help arrived. You just don’t forget that too easy. The guy with me, Norman Cole died last December in Dayton Ohio. I’m going to send his widow a copy. I visited them twice.
Things are fine here. Florence bought a new Buick so I bought her car. It’s a Buick Regal ‘81. Two years older than my Chrysler. Mine has 147,000 miles on it. Hers 65,000 and it always sit in her garage. Now I’ve got to get rid of mine.
No trips planned. Like to get to Fla. in Oct. But just an idea. Maybe I’ll take a run up to see you and bring Florence. Take care & all that. Love youDon’t say that much to anyone but when I do I mean it.

________________________;;;;;; Contingent of CCC Monday” Findlay Morning Courier, 10 April 1936, p.20; “CCC Boy Injured in Fall from R. R. Bridge” Arapahoe Public Mirror, 18 June 1936, p. 1; “Long drop from freight car remembered” Arapahoe Public Mirror 1995 (June 15, 1995,); 31 July 1995 letter from Howard T Davis, mayor of Arapahoe, NE to Don Snyder (photocopy in my possession); 7 August 1995 letter from Don Snyder to Phyllis Snyder (original in my possession).


  1. An incredible story. How wonderful that you were able to piece it all together and share the actual letters and a few photos! This is a key part of your family's history and now you've fleshed it out for future generations to tell over and over. Congrats.

    1. Thanks, Marion. I shared the post on Facebook and was surprised the cousins who I thought knew Don best, didn't know the story. It feels good to share something more about him. He was a remarkable man. And it's calling up others memories of relatives who were in the CCC. This is the good part of sharing family history when it leads to more sharing. 😀

      Then I came over here to add one of my thoughts out of that discussion to the comments here (it was a part of how I felt writing it, so fits, but not really in the essay itself, so I thought I'd stick it in the comments). Then I saw your comment. Thank you. This is all starting today off with a smile.

  2. It becomes "an adventure " when it happens to someone else or when you look back on it from nearly 60 years! Otherwise, it's just scary and painful as hell. I keep thinking what it must've felt like, that fall, in the dark, the pain, and waiting by himself in the dark and his pain to see if his buddy would come back with help. Then it sounds like the town must've paid for the medical care, and the hotel, and fed them. He would have been so grateful. I kind of think that's why he would have left after five days. He would know that in that time (the Depression) it would be a real struggle for the town to afford to care for him and Norm. Per Wikipedia, it's not a huge town, and wasn't then either. Maybe he didn't want to be a drain on them any longer, maybe he just wanted to be home. Or, maybe, being a teenager, and having survived it, he thought he was invincible . Or, maybe, some of all three.

  3. Fascinating story, and well told, Jo. He was a lucky man to survive that fall. I can't imagine how he must have felt, injured and waiting alone in the dark, so far from home. What a relief he must have felt when his friend returned with help. No wonder he never quite got over it.

    1. Thank you, Dara! He was really lucky. And the people of that town were really good people. If it were me, I'd've been feeling pretty terrified and awfully alone. He must've been so grateful when help showed up. I know he was, actually, since he still was 59 years later -- that is very clear in the news article from 1995.

  4. Great story---what an experience! Was he at all disabled from his injuries? Is that why he stopped boxing?

    1. Hi Amy, Thanks for stopping by! He never seemed to be disabled by his fall. He was a very active guy. I wrote a more complete post o him a few years ago and linked to it in the first sentence of this one (the reference to 52 Ancestors: #7 Don B Snyder in light grey letters). He only stopped boxing for 1936 -- he probably needed recovery time. He was boxing again in 1937 and 1938 on the Golden Gloves circuit (& winning); he also boxed for the army after he joined and before going to officer's school. He was part of the unit that liberated Bataan (the survivors of the Bataan Death March). He came home and helped unionize Cooper Tire and Rubber, was the union's first President at the Findlay Ohio plant. He later left that and became a barber - which sounds far more calm, but his hobby was spelunking --- crawling around in caves. So I think the doctor in Arapahoe must have been excellent, and Don was really, really lucky!


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