Tuesday, May 3, 2011



The picture above may be of Roll Humphrey Stevens. It is in the Stevens family album but does not have a name on it. A process of elimination, although very “iffy,” suggests it is he.

He was my grandma Jessie’s first cousin. Both were born in Sterling, Kansas, one in 1885 and the other in 1886. He died in 1903 while still a teenager, and I never heard any family stories about him. In fact, I didn’t even know he existed until 1984 when I received in the mail a copy of a short handwritten family history written by Frank Dana Stevens, forwarded to me from a very distant relative in Wichita. The first page said, “Roll Humphrey Stevens, born August 29, 1886, died October 29, 1903.” Nothing more was said. The fellow was only 17.

He was buried in Maple Hill cemetery in Wichita but without a tombstone. I knew that Humphrey was his mother’s maiden name, and that there was a family friend or relative also named Roll Humphrey, which I’m sure is where Frank Stevens got the name. And in a printed bio of father Frank in a Kansas book it noted that Roll was killed in a train accident. I also learned that his first name was Rolland.

A newspaper article about the train wreck excerpted from the October 31, 1903 issue of the Wichita Eagle says this:

“Roll Sevens was a young man well and favorably known in Wichita, and has always borne an excellent reputation. He was born in Sterling, Kansas, August 27, 1885 [sic]. His parents moved to Wichita a number of years ago and the young man has always lived with his parents until a few weeks ago, when he left for St. Louis to accept a position with a train news company. The boy had not been heard from since he left home, and consequently Mr. Stevens was horrified to learn of the sad accident. The boy attended the public schools of the city in his boyhood, was a student at the high school at Carbondale and graduated from the Wichita Business College.”
The newspaper article is very vague on the cause of the accident, calling it simply a “smash-up” and it isn’t clear about the injuries and deaths of passengers. It was probably too soon to have the details in print. What is left hanging is an understanding of the following paragraph: “The engineer and fireman jumped and saved themselves, but three tramps who were riding on the blind baggage got the full force of the collision. One man named Stevens, who lived at Wichita, was killed and another was seriously injured.”

Roll's father, a well-to-do man in Wichita business circles, didn’t know why his son would have been in that location. But he admitted he hadn't heard from his son since he graduated. And in fact, at first there was some question as to whether or not Roll was one of the three who died in that crash. Unfortunately, he was.

As for what a "train news company" was, a Wikipedia article on the Van Noy Railway News and Hotel Company noted that early passenger trains had neither dining nor lounge cars so they employed young men to walk through the cars selling newpapers, books, food, etc. They were referred to as “News Butches.” I am sure that is exactly what Roll was doing on that train. He was a bright young man with a future in business and was from a well-known family in Wichita. It was obvious that he was not a tramp hitching a ride on that train.

Roll Stevens had a short life. While I can't prove it, I'd like to think that it truly his life that is honored with the picture above.

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