Tragedy at Paisano Pass
Sanderson loses a good citizen
After the initial account on the previous page was published to this site, the author happened to meet the late Mrs. Margaret Farley, an important and influential citizen of Sanderson and a walking history book about all things Terrell County.  In telling her about the just-published page about the Bohlmans, she closed the conversation by cupping her hand to her mouth and uttering in a stage  whisper, "They say he was murdered!"  The author realized that as so many things with Sanderson and Terrell history, there was more to the story.
 
Deciding to see what early-day newspapers had to say about the tragedy at Paisano Pass, the author went to an internet archive of state and national newspapers and the first headline that came up was, "Engineer Murdered in His Cab, Runaway Locomotive Blows Up." (New York Tribune, July 9, 1921)  Thus began an eye-opening journey of shocking revelations and unbelievable twists in the seemingly straightforward story of Engineer William Bohlman and his untimely demise.
It seems that when investigators recovered Bohlman's body there was what appeared to be a bullet hole in the head.  That, coupled with the fact that the fireman Charles Robinson was apparently clubbed in the head and shoved out of the locomotive cab some four miles before the engine finally exploded, led authorities to believe that foul play was afoot.  Robinson had suffered a severe concussion from the blow and was wandering in a state of confusion when found.
 
Then, when head brakeman Earl Stirman, another Sanderson native and respected businessman was questioned, he told a strange tale.  Riding in the caboose that day, he noticed that as the train neared Paisano Pass it began to go slower and slower, much more than normal.  He began to move forward to see what the problem was, and as he neared the cab, he saw a man dressed in black jump from the engine and run away.  In the next moment the engine exploded and he was unable to come to Bohlman's aid.
To add to the confusion, authorities had trouble determining whether the incident took place in Brewster County or Presidio County, since it occurred exactly on the county line.  Neither county's authorities could take jurisdiction over the matter until that was settled.  Hearings actually took place in both counties.  Finally, Presidio County took the lead and Charles Robinson, the fireman, was arrested on suspicion of murder, he being the last person to see Bohlman alive.  But, the facts simply did not support the case against Robinson.  He was severely assaulted, and in fact, had sustained a huge contusion to his brain.  In the ensuing days his behavior became erratic and about ten days after the incident he commited suicide with his pistol.  But autopsy revealed the contusion and it was theorized that the pressure had driven him insane.  Wild tales arose in Sanderson that Bohlman was having an affair with Robinson's wife, but people who knew them intimately rejected the gossip.
 
Next, the authorities went after Earl Stirman.  After an exhaustive search by lawmen and area ranchers, no trace of the "man in black" could be found, which made Stirman's story suspicious.  But again, Stirman was a civic leader, as was Bohlman, and it was not in his character to commit so heinous a deed.  He operated a dairy in Sanderson and was the undertaker at that time, as well as working on the railroad.  Besides, there was no motive for either Robinson or Stirman to commit the murder, and indeed, they were both close friends of the Bohlmans.  Mrs. Bohlman stood behind the men and urged the authorities to look elsewhere.
After another hearing Stirman was released from jail for lack of evidence or motive.  Then, to further cloud the story, the undertaker who prepared Bohlman's body told a reporter that the wound to his head did not look like a bullet hole, but more likely a shrapnel wound from the explosion.  The backhead of a steam locomotive is laced with bolts and such a powerful explosion could have sent a bolt into Bohlman's skull, producing a bullet-like wound.
 
Fully-restored former GH&SA #745 making a run in Louisiana, its present home.  The 745 is owned and operated by the Louisiana Steam Train Association in Metairie, LA.
Photo courtesy of the Louisiana Steam Train Association, Metairie, LA.
At this point, the story, which had made headlines across the country in large papers and small, died away.  About two years later a series of news items in the Sanderson Times related that Mrs. Bohlman had sued the GH&SA Railway Company for $50,000 for the death of her husband.  The first trial resulted in a mistrial  and the second, about six months later, resulted in a hung jury, "favoring the plaintiff," whatever that means.  There ends the story, as related in the newspapers of the day.
 
Was William Bohlman murdered in his locomotive?  Was Charles Robinson assaulted with a heavy object and thrown to the trackside?  Did Earl Stirman actually see a mysterious man in black, leaping from the engine and running away?  We will probably never know the truth.  But as with many other stories from Terrell County's history, thorough detective work often turns up a sinister scenario to simple events. 
 
Railroading was and is a dangerous profession, and the history of Sanderson is washed in the blood of good and bad alike.  William Bohlman's death was a tragic loss to his family and to the citizens of Terrell County and Sanderson.  With the Bohlmans' entrepreneurial spirit they might have accomplished much more, to the benefit of the community.  But it was not to be.  It is to Mrs. Bohlman's credit, however, that she chose to stay and raise her children here, in the face of a terrible, life-changing tragedy.
Photo courtesy of the Louisiana Steam Train Association, Metairie, LA.
Photo courtesy of the Louisiana Steam Train Association, Metairie, LA.