Blog post by Randi Richardson
Johanna Bourke heard it without really listening. The whistle of a train on the Monon tracks near her home in Benton Township. Her husband, Mathias, worked on the railroad and frequently traveled on that particular train. Each time she heard the whistle it was a comfort to her as though Mathias was waving “hello.”
Seconds later Johanna heard a second whistle. Instantly she stopped what she was doing. Her face filled with dread. Two whistles mean that two trains were coming from different directions on a single track. Unless they could be stopped, they would collide head-on within minutes.
Johanna looked around her. Although she was tiny, barely five feet tall, she was strong in both mind and body. Quickly she took a log from the fireplace. One end was on fire, a thick plume of smoke rising from the embers. With no thought to her own safety, she lifted the log to her shoulder and ran with it to the tracks where she placed it between the rails.
Just in time, alert engineers noticed the smoke and brought their trains to a halt. In this way Johanna saved the life of her husband, countless others and valuable Monon equipment . For her effort, she was rewarded by the Monon with a black silk dress.
Mathias and Johanna, natives of Ireland, left their home in New York and arrived by train in Bedford sometime between 1850 and 1853 when their son, Michael, was born. They walked the 20 miles north to Bloomington where they met Mathias’ brother, Bill, who worked for the Monon. Bill helped Mathias find work on the Monon.
Mathias and Johanna were so satisfied with their new home near Old Unionville that they lived out their lives in Monroe County. Johanna died on February 25, 1893, and Mathias on May 23, 1904. Both are buried in Rose Hill Cemetery.
Interesting stories about Mathias, Johanna and other Bourke family members, ancestors of Adolphus Americus “A. A. “ Bourke, were shared by A. A. with his descendant, Blanche Olevia (Bourke) Parker Cascadden over a two-year period ending with A. A’s death in 1970. In 2005 Cascadden transcribed the stories and compiled them into a book that was privately published in 2007 and titled A. A. Bourke: A Collection of Memories from the 19th Century and 20th Century. A copy of that family history is available in the research library at the Monroe County History Center.
Several descendants of the Bourke family still reside in Monroe County today. Thanks to Marilyn Bourke of Bloomington for sharing the story of her great grandparents, Mathias and Johanna Bourke, with me.