A Forstrom Family Tragedy

Arvid Forstrom Dies in Train Accident

by Joelle Steele

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When I was about 12 years old, I asked my mother why my half-cousins were called half-cousins. She told me that before my grandmother, Helny Maria Andersdotter Furu (07/04/1885-04/18/1968), married my grandfather, she was married to another man, Matts Arvid Mattsson Forstrom [Forsbacka] (11/06/1878-08/13/1917), who was killed in a train accident in which his son, Ted, was injured. Arvid's descendants were, therefore, my half-cousins, although none of us think of each other as anything other than plain old cousins. Anyway, from that point on, I always assumed that Arvid and Ted were traveling somewhere on a train when it crashed. End of story.

Well, not exactly. Fast forward about 35 years to when I’m knee-deep in researching the history of my half-cousins’ ancestors. I began asking questions about the family, and several people told me the same story of what really happened to Arvid and his son. That led me to researching further to get to the truth, and here's what I discovered.

On Monday morning, August 13, 1917, Arvid left Rochester, Washington in his milk truck, carrying with him his father, Matt, and Arvid’s nine year-old son, Ted. Arvid dropped off his father somewhere in Centralia and went to unload his milk at the creamery with Ted. He returned to Centralia, had just bought gas, and was going to pick up his father. As Arvid crossed at the Summa Street railroad crossing in Centralia, he was hit by the northbound train. He was killed instantly, “every bone in his body was broken,” and his skull was crushed.

When Arvid’s father was found and told of the accident, he asked, “What about the boy?” It wasn’t until then that rescuers looked for Ted in the wreckage. He had been thrown from the truck and was unconscious with a broken ankle and leg, and assorted other injuries.

So now I knew what had happened, and for further details I got copies of the two articles that appeared in the Centralia Daily Chronicle, the first one being the lead story on the front page. The rest of the story came to light following a title search of various“Forstrom Hill” properties in Rochester, in which numerous court documents were obtained.

An inquest was held the day following the accident, but the coroner’s jury was unable to determine who was to blame for Arvid’s death. Passengers on the train said that the engineer blew his whistle at the crossing and then blew it again when he saw Arvid’s truck. The engineer immediately applied the brake, but too late. When Ted was conscious, he testified in the hospital by deposition, stating that he did not hear the train whistle.

Arvid was only 38 and had died intestate (without a will). His aunt Johanna Alina’s husband, Carl Brandt, was appointed administrator of his estate. On December 28, 1920, three years after his death, Arvid’s estate was finally settled and distributed. Brandt had settled all the estate debts, and the estate now consisted of the farmhouse and about 30 or so acres, four head of cattle, two dozen chickens, a wagon, household furnishings, farm tools and equipment, and an Oakland automobile. Brandt had also hired attorneys to sue the Northern Pacific Railway Company on my grandmother’s behalf. The lawsuit was successful, and the court awarded my grandmother the sum of $2,000 for the loss of her son Ted’s services while he was injured, and $12,314 for the injury and death of Arvid. Arvid’s estate was then divided, with one-half going to my grandmother, who was still living on the farm but was now married to my grandfather, Joel Steele, and one-half divided into thirds went to Arvid’s three minor children.

It all started with a simple explanation to a teenager about why half-cousins were called half-cousins. All the complexities of that relationship were unfolded many years later. And there was a sad but great story behind it all. A story well worth waiting to hear.

This article last updated: 06/10/2008.