A DIFFICULT BEGINNING
Agnes Call and George Washington Congleton had been married just three years when on December 4, 1881 their third child, A. Claude Congleton, was born. He would join older siblings two-and-a-half-year-old Lulu Mae and 18-month-old John Esley to complete the burgeoning family. The young couple had been living with George’s twice widowed mother, Almira Almy Congleton Burgess, in her home on Sherman Street in Healdsburg, California. But that household also included George’s nephew Harry Brown as well as his spinster aunt Cynthia Almy, and the house was getting awfully crowded.
George and Agnes soon moved the family into a small place on Piper Street between Johnson and West (now Healdsburg Avenue) Streets. The house was located just one short block away from the local saloon and bordello, which proved to be very convenient for George. Apparently, his job as a carriage painter afforded him ample leisure time and he spent much of it drinking and carousing. It would not be too long before he chose to leave his wife and three young children for a more adventurous life in Lake County with a female companion.
With no other source of income, Agnes worked as a seamstress to support the family and tried to provide as normal a life for her children as possible. In 1887, when Claude was just 6 years old, she managed to file for a divorce from her absent husband. Sadly, just a month before that divorce became final in September, Claude’s older brother, John Esley would die at the tender age of seven.
It wasn’t until the next fall, in 1888, that six-year-old Claude would begin his education at the Healdsburg Grammar School.
THINGS START TO LOOK UP
Two years later, on October 26, 1890, just weeks before Claude’s ninth birthday, his mother married Albert Wilson. It would not be long before the family situation was greatly improved. By this time, Claude’s grandfather, John Call, had become quite feeble and his grandmother, Mary Call needed help maintaining their small farm on Bailhache Avenue. So, newlyweds Agnes and Albert Wilson packed up children Lulu Mae and Claude and relocated to the country.
Now that the family’s reputation had been restored by Agnes’ marriage to respectable Al Wilson, attention soon turned to developing the children’s spiritual lives.
In January 1893, the fancy new Christian Church on the corner of East and Powell (now Plaza) Streets was dedicated with great fanfare. The crowd that attended the ceremony overflowed the building’s 300-seat capacity. In addition to several large stained-glass windows, the church featured modern amenities including theater style seats installed on an incline so that all were afforded a clear view of the altar and steam radiators to keep the temperature even and comfortable. The following month the Union Temperance Meeting was held in the new church building. Dissertations presented included “Can Prohibition be Enforced?” and “If Yes, Would It Interfere with Personal Rights?” Considering the grief that her husband’s drinking had brought to Agnes’ life, it is logical that she would be drawn to the Temperance cause. That summer 12-year-old Claude and his older sister Mae, participated in a Children’s Day program of readings, recitations, and singing held at the elaborate Christian church.
The family’s loyalty to the Christian Church did not last, however. In 1845 the Methodist Church, torn over the question of slavery, had split into The Methodist Episcopal Church, South and the Methodist Church, North. In the 1890s Healdsburg boasted churches representing both of these denominations. The Congleton family would join the North Methodist Church that was located on Hayden Street at Fitch which was led by Rev. George M. Meese. In May of 1897 Rev. Meese administered baptismal rites to 15-year-old Claude by means of a good dunking in Dry Creek.
But Claude’s social life was not limited to religious activities. The month following his baptism, Claude attended a large carnival held in Lakeport. Around 120 people from Healdsburg, Alexander Valley, Geyserville, and Cloverdale traveled north to participate in the bicycle races, swimming, and boating, as well as to enjoy the grand street parade and fireworks. One of the sponsors of the event, Mr. Norman Smith, formerly of Healdsburg, provided a large lot in town where Sonoma County visitors were allowed to camp.
Another frequent leisure activity for Claude was spending time at the coast with his parents Agnes and Al Wilson, his grandmother Mary Call, and his sister Mae. As time went on, participants in the excursions would also include John Taeuffer, soon to become Claude’s brother-in-law, and his cousin Harry Brown with whom he had shared a home as an infant. Claude and Mae also enjoyed attending the frequent birthday parties and other festive soirees held on Bailhache avenue.
TAKING ON ADULT RESPONSIBILITIES
Before long, Claude set out on his own, moving into a boarding house on Mission Street in San Francisco. In 1900 he was living there and working as a laborer for the Mineral Springs. But he continued to maintain close ties to his friends and family in Healdsburg. Over the next few years, he would return regularly for visits lasting days or even several weeks.
In early 1901, another modern new church was erected in Healdsburg, this time by the local Presbyterian congregation. The new facility was lit entirely with electric lights and the school room, auditorium, ladies’ parlors, and audience room were all fitted with partitions so that they could be combined into one large room as needs dictated. Claude’s family in Healdsburg, perhaps drawn once again to a fancy new church building, began attending services at the First Presbyterian. In 1902 Claude’s sister, Mae was married to John Taeuffer by Rev. J.C. Burgess of the First Presbyterian and the newlyweds moved onto the Magnolia Drive ranch.
Apparently, life in the big city did not suit Claude as well as he had hoped, and it was not long before he was back living in Healdsburg. On October 17, 1902 not two months before his 22nd birthday A. Claude Congleton was married to 21-year-old Eugenia (Jennie) Selestine Hoar, known to her close friends as Birdie, by J.C. Burgess of the Presbyterian Church. Witnesses to the marriage were Claude’s sister Mae Congleton Taeuffer and her brother-in-law, George Taeuffer.
The young couple set up housekeeping in Healdsburg and two years later, on February 13, 1905, their son Claude Franklin Congleton arrived. [Read about his life here.] The responsibilities of supporting a family must have put pressure on Claude to find more lucrative work. His aunt Jennie Congleton Cook’s husband, William W. Cook, was a long-time employee of the railroad and may have influenced him to consider a career in that field.
THE EUREKA & OREGON RAILROAD
In the late 1890s the Vance Lumber Company had built a large sawmill in Samoa, Humboldt County, California and had expanded their railroad to connect with the paddle-wheel steamboats carrying lumber out of Eureka. They also created a “company town” including a large cook house where as many as 500 employees at a time would enjoy communal meals.
In 1900, Montana entrepreneur Andrew B. Hammond, who had recently completed the rail line connecting Helena and Spokane, purchased the Vance sawmill and railroad. His 1903 agreement with the Southern Pacific Railroad enabled him to make a major expansion of the operation between 1905 and 1906. It was during this expansion that Claude took a job working for the Hammond-owned Eureka & Oregon Railroad.
Once Claude began his new job, he moved up to the company town of Samoa, California with the intention of establishing a home for himself and his little family. In 1906 at age 24 he registered to vote in Humboldt County, listing his occupation as laborer. His wife Birdie was busy making plans for herself and baby Claude to join him in time for the family to celebrate Christmas together. Unfortunately, things did not work out as planned.
THE TRAGIC ENDING
On the night of December 3, 1906, one day before Claude Congleton’s 25th birthday, a telegram was received by his wife in Healdsburg. It delivered the horrible news that her husband had died that morning. The following day, the gruesome details of what had happened began to unfold in the newspapers, not only in Healdsburg, Santa Rosa, and Petaluma, but also in papers in Humboldt County, San Francisco, and Sacramento. It was even reported in the newspapers as far south as Santa Barbara and Los Angeles.
On Sunday, December 2, just north of Essex, California, Eureka & Oregon Locomotive No. 9 was returning with a load of fresh timber. Brakeman Claude Congleton was at the rear of the train jumping from car to car headed towards the engine. Suddenly he dropped between two of the cars and was run over by the train. His left leg was severed at the hip and his right leg just below the knee. He managed to crawl a short distance from the tracks and to bind his wounds with a handkerchief. Two men happened upon the scene and were able to sound the alarm. Doctors were summoned from nearby Arcata and they did what little they could. Claude was placed on a passenger train that was passing by and he arrived at Sequoia Hospital in Eureka around 9 pm where both his legs were amputated. He managed to ask that his wife be told “not to take action against the railroad” because the accident had been his fault. He was able to cling to life until 5 am the next morning when he succumbed, on Monday, December 3.
A Coroner’s Jury of eight men was hastily assembled and 18 witnesses were called to testify. Claude’s boss Superintendent Peed stated that he had been one of the most promising young men in his employ. Several of those that had worked with him indicated that he had a bright, happy smile and a joyful word for everyone and that he had been a favorite among his fellow workers. But no one seemed to be able to explain how he might have come to fall between the cars. That same day, the jury reached the verdict that Claude had died due to surgical shock following injuries received from falling from a car on train No. 9 on Sunday night. That evening, they sent the telegram to inform Claude’s family in Healdsburg.
On Tuesday, Claude’s mother, Agnes Wilson and his sister, Mae Taeuffer, accompanied his widow, Birdie Congleton to collect his remains. The body was shipped to Healdsburg aboard the steamer Corona on Wednesday and the funeral was held at his mother’s home on Bailhache Avenue on Thursday. He was then interred at Oak Mound Cemetery in what would become the family plot.
Claude’s widow, Birdie, remained in Healdsburg to raise little Claude, who soon was given the nickname of Buster Brown. In 1909, three years after her husband’s death, she married George Taeuffer, her sister-in-law’s brother-in-law who had been one of the witnesses at Birdie’s first marriage. Healdsburg was a very small town.
Many decades later, in the late 1970s, Maria Buchignani Taeuffer would interview Claude’s much younger half-sister, Helen Wilson Peterson, who related the story as her mother, Agnes Call Congleton Wilson had told it to her. Of course, some of the details had become a little muddled over the years.
In the 1990’s Jean Taeuffer interviewed Claude’s first-cousin twice removed Lorraine Kimes Owen. She revealed in a very matter-of-fact way that her family had always assumed that the accident had been a suicide but did not provide specific information to support that theory. Perhaps the reports that Claude had repeatedly insisted that he was responsible for the accident contributed to this version of the story. Some mysteries will never be solved.
Sonoma County Tribune; 11 June 1891
Healdsburg Tribune, Enterprise and Scimitar; 12 January 1893,16 February 1893,1 April 1897, 25 August 1898, 29 June 1899, 8 March 1900, 2 August 1900, 24 January 1901, 11 April 1901, 9 May 1901, 13 March 1902, 6 December 1906, 23 November 1936
Healdsburg Enterprise; 8 December 1906, 15 December 1906
Sacramento Union; 4 December 1906
San Francisco Call; 4 December 1906
Los Angeles Times; 4 December 1906
Morning Press (Santa Barbara); 4 December 1906
Humboldt Times; 4 December 1906, 5 December 1906
Petaluma Daily Morning Courier; 6 December 1906
Santa Rosa Republican; 6 December 1906
Blue Lake Advocate (Humboldt County); 8 December 1906
Sonoma County Library Digital Collection
California, US, Voter Registrations, 1900-1968
FamilySearch.org: California, County Marriages, 1850-1952
Family Search.org: California Deaths and Burials, 1776 – 2000
Maria Buchignani Taeuffer interview with Helen Wilson Peterson circa 1978
Jean Taeuffer interview with Lorraine Kimes Owen circa 1995