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Mason City rail cop honored 125 years after unknown transient killed him

DES MOINES | A Mason City railroad cop was honored Friday at the Iowa Peace Officers Memorial Ceremony in Des Moines, almost 125 years after he was killed on the job.

Railroad Special Agent Timothy O’Brien was born in Ireland, served in the Civil War and was later employed by the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad. He died in 1893 at the age of 49.

O'Brien's honor in Friday's ceremony and addition to the Iowa Peace Officer Memorial Monument was the result of more than a decade of research by Mason City Police Sgt. Greg Scott.

“In January, we decided to get the ball rolling on this,” said Scott, who submitted O'Brien's nomination.

According to records, including newspaper articles from Mason City at the time, O'Brien was killed Oct. 2, 1893, with his own gun at the train depot.

The language used in the 19th century publications could be considered derogatory or incorrect today, but was commonly used at that time. For example, “tramp” as noted in the stories from 1893, would refer to a homeless person or transient individual.

The Cerro Gordo County Republican, one of the Globe Gazette's publishing ancestors, reported Oct. 5, 1893 that O’Brien had been going through the empty cars of a train that had pulled into the station about 4:20 a.m. “looking for tramps.”

“In one of them he found two men and ordered them to get out,” the article said. They were riding freight train No. 65 as it pulled into the Mason City rail yard.

One suspect fled, but O’Brien was able to bring the other to the freight office and began to search the man.

The suspect then fled outside, and O’Brien pursued him, drawing his his revolver. After a struggle, the man disarmed O’Brien and fired three shots.

An “eyewitness” at the coroner’s jury recounted the event in the article and said O’Brien lived another 20 to 25 minutes before he died.

“The escape of the villain was owing to the darkness and in the confusion which followed when it was learned that O’Brien was shot,” the article said.

Detectives arrived from Chicago to assist with the investigation.

The newspapers released a description of the man given by the train conductor who witnessed the crime: “The man was about 5 feet, 10 inches tall, slightly built, wore a dark coat and dark slouch hat. The coat had the appearance of a short overcoat of light weight. He had a dark mustache and short beard on his face and chin. The beard looked to be about two weeks’ growth.”

O’Brien had been a resident of Mason City for more than 20 years at the time of his death.

“He was a bluff, warmhearted Irishman, a hard worker and strictly honest in his dealings with all men,” the article said.

He left behind a wife and several children, the articles said.

O’Brien also served as a sergeant in the 27th Volunteer Iowa Infantry for the Union Army for three years during the Civil War and was wounded in Mississippi.

He was buried at Elmwood-Saint Joseph Cemetery in Mason City.

CHRIS ZOELLER, The Globe Gazette 

Railroad Special Agent Timothy O’Brien's tombstone at Elmwood-St. Joseph Cemetery in Mason City. O'Brien was honored at the Iowa Peace Officers Memorial ceremony in Des Moines on Friday, nearly 125 years after he was killed in the line of duty.

As far as police know, the case remains unsolved.

“I didn’t find anything saying he had been caught,” Scott said.

At least three descendants, all great-grandchildren, worked in law enforcement at agencies across the country. One, Shane O'Brien, is a retired officer from the Dubuque Police Department.

Timothy O'Brien was one of six officers added Friday to the Iowa Peace Officer Memorial Monument, which located next to the Oran Pape State Office Building on the State Capital Complex.

Nineteen people – including relatives, Scott, Mason City Police Chief Jeff Brinkley and Capt. Mike McKelvey – were scheduled to attend Friday's ceremony in O'Brien's honor.

“Let this somber day also be a day of inspiration,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said during the event. “We should all be inspired by these six peace officers because they set an example for us all. That there are honorable people working in our towns and cities who put community needs first and personal well-being second.”

Mason City Library archives

breaking topical featured
An afternoon of horror: Remembering humanity 50 years after F5 tornado decimated Charles City (with photos)

CHARLES CITY | Even 50 years after a tornado decimated Charles City, images of the storm are still reminders of the destructive power of Mother Nature.

Dozens of damaged cars in a field. Cranes picking up debris too heavy to move by hand. People who lost everything. Citizens sifting through debris containing their belongings, their neighbors' belongings.  A terrifying picture of the F5 tornado itself.

The Globe Gazette's headline on May 16, 1968, called it “an afternoon of horror.”

Two events Tuesday will mark the 50th anniversary of the carnage.

• At noon, a ceremony will be held by the flagpole in Central Park.

• From 4 to 8 p.m., the Floyd County Historical Museum will unveil an exhibit – "50th Anniversary of the May 15, 1968, F5 Tornado" – dedicated to the storm. It will include local history, weather prevention and rebuilding efforts.

Visual Journalist 

The tornado that touched down in Charles City on May 15, 1968, destroyed neighborhoods and portions of downtown. 

The tornado destroyed neighborhoods and portions of downtown, injuring 450 people and killing 13. The twister caused an estimated $30 million in damage, according to records.

Tornadoes ranked at F5 pack winds greater than 261 mph and can throw vehicles more than 110 yards, completely strip bark off trees and push houses off their foundations. 

According to a graphic published in the Globe Gazette the day after the storm, the tornado "entered the city from the south near the Floyd County Memorial Hospital and caused considerable damage in the residential and light industrial area nearby.”

Iowa Gov. Harold Hughes was photographed looking at the rubble while visiting Charles City.

The storm was well-documented. Many pictures and newspapers survived from the time, giving researchers a clear picture of the destruction and clean-up efforts. The days that followed highlighted the recovery and rebuilding efforts.

Visual Journalist 

An unidentified man speaks after the Charles City tornado May 15, 1968.

Globe Gazette, May 16, 1968: “Belmond sends help”

BELMOND - It didn't take this Wright County community long to react to that Charles City tornado Wednesday night.

The fellow North Iowa town survived its own destructive twister just two years prior. 

Within two hours after the first word of the disaster reached Belmond an emergency party of a dozen was on the way to Charles City to help.

These men know what they are doing. They’ve gone through this before. They were in Belmond when a tornado ripped through the town killing 6, injuring hundreds and causing millions of dollars in damage Oct. 14, 1966.

Visual Journalist 

Tornadoes ranked at F5, like the one that touched down in Charles City May 15, 1968, pack winds greater than 261 mph and can throw vehicles more than 110 yards, completely strip bark off trees and push houses off their foundations. 

The strong storm systems produced not one but two high intensity tornadoes in Iowa that day, the other in Fayette County.

Shortly before 5 p.m. on May 15, 1968, the deadly storm tore through Floyd County.

The Belmond relief party included Police Chief Faye Withers, Fire Chief Bug Packard, four electricians, about half of the town’s regular firemen and a surgeon, Dr. A. F. Benetti.

“They will stay as long as they’re needed,” Belmond Mayor Floyd Brosher. “As soon as things settle a little, we’ll be sending a lot of private volunteers.”

Though the pictures and stories detail destruction, they also detail the great efforts to help those in need. People from all over North Iowa rushed in to help.

Dozens brought donations to the Globe Gazette for the Charles City relief fund. Just days after the storm, the relief fund raised about $3,500 with people giving what they could afford.

Visual Journalist 

Clean-up after the tornado that hit Charles City May 15, 1968.

“The Charles City Relief Fund Saturday reached $3,449 as donations by mail began to pour into the Globe Gazette business office,” the article said. “Others brought their donations in, realizing that it is the early help which does double duty. It boosts morale as well as helping out with physical needs.”

Hundreds of Mason City residents also drove down to help after the storm. The National Guard reported to the area as well along with Junior Chamber of Commerce members, students from North Iowa Area Community College, Mason City firemen, Mason City police, Mason City arborists, Mason City Street Department and drivers from Mason City Municipal Airport.

Dr. Robert Misner, the veterinarian who was mayor of Belmond when the tornado hit there 19 months ago, said it is important for the people of the ravaged cities of Charles City and Oelwein “to keep faith."

“People will be vomiting and walking around with glassy eyes for two days,” Misner said. “Those two days are the toughest any town can have.”

“But no matter how hopeless it looks, no matter the human hurt, they can whip it. Right now, their first job is to keep faith with each other and in God; then start digging people out. Help’s on the way.”

Photos: Charles City tornado, May 15, 1968

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Investing in local: Iowa farmers pitch in towards $40M raised for Garner ammonia plant

GARNER | Linda Thrasher understands there's a great demand for anhydrous ammonia throughout North Iowa and the greater region.

It's why she's one of the co-founders of Greenfield Nitrogen, a project that hopes to install a $220 million plant to produce just that in Garner, with construction starting by the end of the year.

The plant, which would be located between Highway 18 and 240th Street in Garner, is meant to help bring more of anhydrous ammonia to the region, a valuable energy source for farmers to grow corn.

Much of the region's current supply comes from Trinidad and Tobago, according to Thrasher. And shipping it can be costly, she added.

"It’s a logistics game, it’s experiences to haul around whether it’s rail or road," Thrasher said. "It’s to build a regional hub in our backyard."

So far, the group has raised about $40 million, and hope to have $100 million gathered by the end of the year, she said. Construction would start later this year, and production would start sometime in 2020.

There has been some seed funding sources as well, totaling $7 million. Thrasher said those costs have been used for initial engineering, permitting and market analysis.

Greenfield Nitrogen already has an air quality permit and water use permit approved by the DNR, Thrasher said. Andy Buffington, Hancock County's zoning administrator, said the group will also probably need a conditional use permit in the near future.

"It really depends on the scope of the project what they’ll have to do," Buffington said. "It’ll probably be a conditional use permit, but it depends on what they want to do."

Thrasher said they are working on getting the permit finalized in the next couple of months.

Google Maps 

This satellite photo shows where Greenfield Nitrogen would build its $220 million plant in Garner. 

Farmers can invest into the project through two options, according to Thrasher. One is to give a minimum of $20,000 ($10,000 per unit), directed toward individuals. The other is a $250,000, meant for commercial fertilizer retailers.

"Instead of making profit or loss, you make full-price tons," Thrasher said. "You make a $10,000 per unit investment, a unit equates to about 10 tons of fertilizer … you receive full-price tons at production costs."

Glen Moeller, a recently retired farmer from Scott County, said the plant will be an essential piece to supplying an energy source to grow corn. He used to farm corn and soybeans.

He declined to say how much he invested, but said it was "quite a lot more" than $20,000.

"I saw it as a very lucrative investment," Moeller said. "I also have a strong feeling about how our inputs have been monopolized ... it gives me a feeling of putting a private enterprise together."

A local farmer who pitched in was Ben Johnson of Floyd. He also farms corn and soybeans, and is a local seed dealer.

"I think part of the reason is to be diversified," Johnson said about investing. "We’ve always had that mentality that being diversified is a good way to be."

He also declined to say how much he invested. Bringing the energy source closer to home, however, is why he decided to join the project.

Both he and Moeller said one of the most important aspects of Greenfield Nitrogen is beginning to build the plant.

"I guess I just have hopes they can be successful enough in raising capital and getting it started," Johnson said. "Another thing as a farmer is, I’m kind of glad I can invest in this instead of a foreign company coming in and building it."