Incident at Spring Gulch - Disability and the Railroad

Late on October the 15th, 1890, Eugene T. Kingsley was setting brakes while working on the flat cars of the North Pacific Railway Company's line near Missoula, Montana at a location known as Spring Gulch. A traincar defect, however, and the darkness of the night, resulted in his stepping through the gaps between the cars. Kingsley was in his mid-30s when the accident occurred. The result completely reoriented the course of his life.Northern_Pacific_Railroad_map_circa_1900

That evening in Spring Gulch the train ran over both of Eugene Kingsley's legs, crushing them from the knees down. They were later amputated at the Northern Pacific Railroad hospital in Missoula, Montana. This, in some ways, is the defining moment of Kingsley's life, as it set into motion the trajectory of his political activism, radicalism, and cross-border organization of the Socialist Left. At the same time, Kingsley's injury did not stop him - and by some accounts was unknown to many of those who met him first hand.

Little is known of Kingsley's early life. Born in the 1850s, Kingsley came from a modest, middling class background. He spent his early years moving with his family along the Midwest of the United States, from Chautauqua Country, New York, to Ohio, to Wisconsin, and finally to Minnesota, where he settled with his wife Almira Doan and began to start a family. Kingsley himself kept moving west, working the railroad, eventually ending up in Montana working for Northern Pacific.

Spring-Gulch-newspaper The accident set into motion a lawsuit against the Northern Pacific Railroad Company in September 1891, for what was then a large sum of $85,000. While recuperating in Hospital, Kingsley also first encountered the works of Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels. It cannot be said for certain which had the greater impact on Kingsley's life, but when Kinglsey emerged from the hospital - later to be borne on artificial limbs - he had been changed in more ways than one.

Kinglsey's injury did not inhibit him or his activities. Quite the opposite, it was the occasion of his injury that spurred him on to greater things, beyond being tied to the small towns of the western interior. But it was not the defining characteristic of his life, and was not the sole characteristic for which he was known. While occasionally mocked or derided on account of his injury, such as when Kingsley was referred to offhand by the British Colonist newspaper in 1903 as "the legless wonder of Social Economics," Kingsley's injury was never forefront to his identity as a socialist, or as a representative of the working man's interest.

For the remainder of his life Kingsley would be a disabled radical, that is for certain. But an obituary written for Eugene Kingsley on the occasion of his death in 1929 in the Labor Statesman newspaper summarizes his condition as a man whose injury did not imprison him:
"Few who saw him carefully thread his way, with the aid of a cane and a pair of artificial limbs, through Vancouver traffic, realized the extent of his physical disabilities. But his grim and resolute determination as a fighter in the class conflict did not fail him in bearing his infirmities without complaint. He would respectfully and sympathetically hear the woes of others, but never mentioned his own."

After the accident and recovering from his injury, Kingsley moved further west, leaving his family behind, and eventually ended up in San Francisco. The urban dispossessed of the city, made so famous by the stories of Jack London, who was a member of the same radical organization as Kingsley in San Francisco for a time in the 1890s, provided the audience for Kingsley's emergence into the world of social and economic activism.

Northern Pacific railroad hospital, Missoula, Montana
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