Saturday, June 04, 2005

A story-telling tombstone: McKinnis

The McKinnis family stone at Mount Zion is stepped to represent the ages of the four family members who died on 1 April 1893 --- Billie Ted, age 10; Henry, 12; John, 19; and their father, Henry, 51.

One mark of a great tombstone is that it tells a story. The McKinnis family stone in Liberty Township's Mount Zion Cemetery does that in many ways, moving it near the top of the list of Lucas County's best.

The tragedy that led to its creation occurred on 1 April 1893 while four members of the McKinnis family were operating a sawmill in the timber along White Breast Creek that flows just south of the cemetery, located north of Oakley. The four were Henry McKinnis, age 51, and three of his sons, John, 19; Henry, 12; and Billie Ted, 10.

Sawmill blades of that era were were turned by steam-powered engines, machines that required careful monitoring to ensure that water levels in the boilers and steam pressures remained at safe levels.

On that day, water level in the boiler dropped and Henry McKinnis Sr. told 12-year-old Henry Jr. to climb up with a bucket of water and fill it. The resulting explosion triggered by the cold water reportedly was heard for miles. Three died instantly --- Henry Sr., Henry Jr., whose body was blown tree-top high, and little Billie Ted. John, 19, was still alive and conscious, laying on the creek bank, when his mother, Elizabeth, arrived on the scene.

The four were buried together at Mount Zion, youngest to oldest, north to south, and this remarkable tombstone erected to tell their stories. It consists of four stair-stepped panels (reflecting the respective ages of those whose graves it marks), each with a curved top, carved from a single slab of white marble. Henry McKinnis Sr.'s mother, Margaret (Times) McKinnis, had been buried on his lot during 1886.

The years have eroded the marble, so the inscriptions are difficult to read now. They are, from north to south, as follows:

Born in Marion Co., Iowa
Oct. 6, 1882
Died April 1, 1893
Aged 10 yrs. 5 mos. & 24 ds.

Jolly, laughing little Teddy's (illegible).
He was an angel on earth, but now
he is an angel in Heaven.

Born in Marion Co., Iowa
Sept. 10, 1880
Died Apr. 1, 1893
Aged 12 yrs. 6 mos. & 20 ds.

This boy went to the boiler's top,
Obeying his Father's command.
When he poured his bucket of cold water in,
The flues did all expand.

Born in Marion Co. Iowa
Dec. 28, 1873
Died Apr. 1, 1893
Aged 19 yrs. 3 mos. & 3 ds.

His parting words I shall never forget.
Said he, Ma your time to die will come.
It matters not whom we leave here yet,
Soon we will all be gathered home.

Born in Putnam Co. Ohio
Nov. 2, 1841
Died April 1, 1893
Aged 51 yrs. & 5 mos.

Four loving ones from us have gone.
Four voices we loved are stilled.
A place is vacant in our home.
That never can be filled.

Co. B, 3 Iowa Inf. Vol.
Soldier rest

Husband and Sons of Elizabeth E. McKinnis
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning for in an hour when ye knoweth not, the Son of Man cometh.

Looking northeast down the Whitebreast Creek valley from Mount Zion Cemetery's hilltop. Whitebreast Creek flows along the cemetery's south border.

To reach Mount Zion from Chariton, drive two miles west on U.S. 34, then turn right (north) on paved county road S23. Drive about seven and a half miles north, past Oakley, then turn left (west) on a gravel lane just north of the White Breast Creek bridge.

A marker and flagpole indicate where Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church once was located. The building was torn down in 1979.

Once atop the cemetery hill, the turn-around circles the site of Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church marked by a small memorial and a flag pole. The sweeping view to the east is down the White Breast Creek valley. The McKinnis stones are located next to the woods that border the cemetery on the south about half way from west to east in the original cemetery.


The April 1, 1893, tragedy in Liberty Township that claimed the lives of Henry McKinnis and three of his sons was reported in surviving issues of both The Chariton Patriot (5 April 1893) and The Chariton Herald (6 April 1893) with a few obvious errors, especially regarding the names and ages of the victims. The scene of the accident, after all, was some distance from Chariton and it wasn't possible to jump in the car and chase ambulances and fire trucks in those days. So reports of this sort usually were second-hand, based upon conversations with witnesses and what others had heard. Nor were there official reports to rely upon.

The Herald report, published under the headline "Terrible Explosion," was the more complete of the two:

"On last Saturday afternoon about 2 o’clock the boiler of Henry McKinnis’ sawmill, situated about two miles southwest of Newbern, in Liberty Tp. this county, exploded with terrific force, killing the proprietor and three sons, who were working with him at the mill, aged respectively 52, 19, 12 and 10 years.

"Mrs. McKinnis and four small children, who are left in comparatively destitute circumstances by his terrible dispensation, were at the dwelling near by at the time of the occurrence. She hastened to the mill where a heart-rending scene presented itself that was enough to appall the stoutest-hearted of the human race.

"The husband and father was found 75 yards from the mill gasping in the last throes of death, and wholly unconscious of her presence he uttered one solitary groan and life became extinct. The eldest son, John, was found some 10 yards farther away, conscious, but in a dying condition. He enquired of his mother what had happened and where he was. The distracted mother hurriedly explained to him the sad catastrophe and sought to relieve his sufferings, with the aid of neighbors, who, alarmed by the explosion had quickly gathered upon the ground, but their efforts were of no avail, and death claimed his victim in less that one short hour. The 10 year old boy, Fred (Ted), was found dead near by a pile of lumber in the yard, against which he had been thrown head foremost, with his skull mashedin. The body of Henry, Jr., the 12 year old son, who was acting as engineer and fireman, was literally blown to atoms, pieces of which were gathered up at a distance of 300 yards, one arm not being found till Sunday morning, and some portions of his body could not be found.

"The remains of the unfortunate victims were gathered up and prepared for burial as best it could be done by the kindly hands of sympathizing neighbors and were interred in one grave at the Baptist cemetery near Oakley on Sunday afternoon. The grief stricken have the sympathy of all human hearts who have learned of their sad bereavement.

"The particulars as to the cause of the accident is shrouded in mystery never to be revealed, as there was no one about the mill at the time save those whose lives were extinguished as by the besom of destruction. The boiler was an old one, out of repair and in a leaking condition. A short time before the explosion, a neighbor was at the mill and observed that the water was low in the boiler, that the pump was not throwing as it should and the engineer was working at it and trying to get water into the boiler. It is supposed that the water kept running down in the boiler until it became dry and hot, and when the stream of cold water was finally started the inevitable explosion took place. This is about the only plausible theory, and under such circumstances no other result could reasonably have been expected. How any rational man could have been so reckless or thoughtless is one of the human mysteries that are almost daily brought to public attention."

The Patriot of 5 April 1893 reported on the McKinnis tragedy in an article headlined "A Terrible Accident at Lacona" and datelined “Lacona, April 1.” That report stated that the accident occurred at 3:30 p.m. and reported, “McKinnis lived at Lacona with his wife and family. He was a well known character and has for years been engaged in operating a portable saw mill in various parts of Warren county and several days ago he moved his plant to the woods three and one-half miles south of Lacona and near Oakley and began work for the farmers in the victinity.”

The Patriot also reported that “The noise of the explosion was heard for several miles and the excited farmers who at once rushed to the scene found nothing but the dead and mangled bodies of the father and of the two other boys, who died soon afterward. For some time no trace could be found of Henry, the 15-year-old son, and there were hopes that he had escaped, but after further search one foot and part of his skull were picked up 300 yards from the scene of the explosion.”


Henry McKinnis, a native of Ohio, had arrived in Marion County, Iowa, with his parents, James and Margaret McKinnis, prior to 1858 when James McKinnis died on 8 September and was buried in Compentine Cemetery.

Henry married Eleanor Elizabeth Gilchrist on  30 January 1873 in Marion County, where they still lived in 1880. They reportedly moved the area of Oakley, Lucas County, soon thereafter.

Margaret McKinns, Henry's mother, moved to Lucas County with the family and died there on April 4, 1886, aged "about" 75 years. Her grave was the first on the McKinnis lot at Mount Zion.

Following the death of Henry and the couple's three oldest children, Elizabeth and the remaining younger children --- Nancy, Charles, Nelson and Jennie (only a year old when her father and brothers were killed) seem to have moved around quite a bit, no doubt struggling to make a living.

Elizabeth, Charles, Nelson and Jennie were farming in Lick Creek Township, Van Buren County, Iowa, when the 1900 federal census was taken.

At some point after that, the family moved west. Charles reportedly went to work in the mines near Roundup in Musselshell County, Montana, due north of Billings, in 1909. By 1914, the remainder of the family was living there as well.

The tombstone of Elizabeth, Nelson and Ruth McKinnis in Roundup, Montana.

Elizabeth died at Roundup on 29 December 1920 and shares a tombstone in the Roundup cemetery with her son and daughter-in-law, Nelson and Ruth McKinnis. Nancy, whose married name was Morse, died March 7, 1965, in Spokane, Wash., and is buried in Greenwood Memorial Terrace cemetery there. Charles died March 29, 1969, at Roundup and is buried in Custer National Cemetery, Crow Agency, Big Horn County, Montana. Nelson died Sept. 24, 1926, at Roundup. Jennie McKinnis (Miller) died May 23, 1975, in Billings and is buried at Wolf Point Cemetery, Roosevelt County, Montana.

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