BY ANDY TAYLOR
CANEY — Ralph Paris never got a chance to see the spectacle that caught the nation’s eye in 1906.
Paris, a young man from Winfield, Kan., described by a newspaper as being “well-behaved,” was one of about 10,000 visitors to Caney on March 11, 1906, to view a burning gas well that was the center of the nation’s attention for several weeks. That burning gas well fire — spewing from the largest gas well on record at that time — was a spectacle unlike any other. Illuminating the night skies from distances of 50 miles and audible from a distance of 20 miles, the burning well became an instant magnet for tourism.
So, people like Ralph Paris boarded excursion trains bound for Caney, hoping to set their eyes on an industrial wonder that became an industrial inferno.
Sadly, several things got in Ralph Paris’ way: short tempers, lots of alcohol, and an abundance of community arrogance.
For as the mobs of tourists gazed heavenward to see a burning flame in excess of 10 stories tall, they failed to look down to see how they were stepping on the life of Ralph Paris.
* * * *
March 11, 1906 proved to be among Caney’s biggest days of its young life.
Some four miles southeast of the community was a massive gas well that ruptured into flame after being struck by lightning in a freak early-spring storm in February.
The massive size and volume of the gas well — among the largest on record at that time — made it difficult for crews from the New York Oil and Gas Company to extinguish.
Thus began a month-long effort to corral the flame.
After repeated (and failed) attempts to place mega-ton, steel hoods over the fire to snuff out the oxygen, the burning well only grew louder, brighter and more dangerous.
Such a wonder was the gas well that railroad companies capitalized on the event with excursion trains to Caney. That’s what took place on March 12, 1906, when multiple excursion trains brought as many as 10,000 people to the community to view the gas well, even though passengers who disembarked at local depots had to make a long five-mile walk to the well site southeast of the community. Caney townspeople took advantage of the event, opening their houses for meals and lodging and procuring all wagons and hacks to shuttle tourists from local depots to the gas well site.
And, according to local news accounts from that time, the local drug stores, which were able to dispense alcohol for “medicinal purposes,” had a land-office business.
Pure merriment wasn’t the only reason for tourists to imbibe in legal booze. They also sought it to stay warm. After all, a late-winter storm on March 10 covered Caney in a sheet of snow, and frigid temperatures made it downright frigid for beast and fowl.
“The day was bitterly cold and disagreeable and it is said not more than half of the excursionists ventured out to the well,” reported the Bartlesville Weekly Examiner of March 17, 1906. “Caney made ample provisions, however, for the entertainment and comfort of her guests. The lodge rooms, the churches and even the calaboose were thrown open to the visitors, and it took a double shift of bartenders at every drug store in town to supply the demands of the thirsty pilgrims from Kansas City and Coffeyville. The Wichita crowd brought its supplies along. Great hilarity prevailed throughout the day, and the restaurant men and druggists reaped a harvest.”
So, with flasks of “medicine” in their pockets, and the promise of viewing the largest gas well fire on record, tourists naturally migrated toward the well site for the sake of amusement, wonderment . . . and warmth.
According to newspaper accounts, Ralph Paris was one of the out-of-town tourists who came to Caney aboard a Missouri Pacific excursion train that left Wichita and picked up passengers in Winfield, Cedar Vale and Sedan. Newspapers from that era claim the passenger excursion train was a royal mess — with drunken passengers breaking windows in the passenger car, getting into fights with fellow excursionists, and frightening women and children with their whiskey-tainted breaths.
When the beaten-up excursion train rolled into a cold Caney on March 11, tourists were ready for a change of scenery.
Details of what exactly transpired next are fuzzy, due to conflicting accounts from multiple newspaper stories . . . and the amount of alcohol consumed in prohibition Kansas.
However, what is known is that Paris was intoxicated, along with a gaggle of his friends from Winfield, upon arrival in Caney.
Somehow, railroad detectives caught wind of the liquored-up ruffians and confronted them with prospects of arrests. And, on that snow-covered railroad platform in Caney was where a series of confrontations took place between the cops and the drunks.
During the attempts to bring order amid chaos, railroad police officers manhandled several of the intoxicated visitors. Among them: Ralph Paris. Citing eyewitness accounts from other tourists, newspapers claim Paris was merely guilty by association, that the other young men from Winfield were creating problems for train passengers and causing grief to the railroad detectives.
Yet, young Paris, who had never been drunk prior to his intoxication in Caney, was enjoying his new “atmosphere.”
Suddenly, Paris was grabbed by a railroad detective. An altercation took place among the detective and some of Paris’ friends, who were trying to compel the detective that their young friend was not guilty of anything except having a good time.
Paris was thrown to the ground, striking his head on the wooden platform.
He didn’t move when his body impacted the frozen snow.
Heated words were exchanged between the Winfield visitors and the railroad police officers at the Missouri Pacific depot. Ralph Paris couldn’t speak, nor could he defend himself.
Meanwhile, thousands of other visitors looked past the unconscious young man with a swollen skull, and they turned a deaf ear to the cursing between railroad cops and young hot heads.
After all, there was a much bigger thing to see than a mere spat between badges and bullies.
* * * *
What happens next was not disputed. Ralph Harris joined seven other Winfield friends in an overnight stay in the Caney jail on charges of intoxication.
However, the conditions of the city jail were far from the pleasurable.
Bound by iron bars with no stove for heat, nor a blanket for comfort, the jail was nothing more than an open-air refrigerator for the eight arrested men from Cowley County.
When the men were brought to the justice of the peace the next morning to answer to their charges of public drunkenness, Paris could not speak, nor lend a defense.
In fact, it was within the court hearing that observers — and sobered-up Cowley County visitors — took notice of Paris’ condition.
Because Paris remained unconscious and sporting a heavy bruise on the back of his skull, the Winfield visitors took their friend to a local hotel. Paris, the visitors knew, was a member of the Ancient Order of United Workmen (AOUW), a fraternal organization. Word began to spread through the fraternal brotherhood in Caney that a fallen Workmen was in a local hotel, in dire need of food, warmth and actual medicine.
However, by the time local Workmen began to gather at the hotel to provide help to their fallen fraternal brother, Ralph Paris had died.
Thus began an investigation into Paris’ death — all while tourists clamored and crowded in Caney’s streets in a quest to view the burning gas well.
* * * *
Buried under the screaming headlines about the gas well and the attempts to quell it were small news accounts of Paris’ death.
A coroner’s inquest was summoned to determine Paris’ cause of the death. Said the Independence Daily Reporter of March 16, 1906, “ . . . death was caused by blows on the head, which injured the neck and spine. Bruises causing blood clots to collect were found in the eyes and at the base of the skull. The head was badly bruised.
“Witnesses . . . told of young Paris being pushed from the station platform and landing on his head after being arrested. They told of conditions at the Caney city jail, where they spent the night without supper, water or beds. Nothing was given to any of the eight prisoners. Paris was physically carried to the police court next day, then back to the jail, but had no medical attention until nearly noon. He was taken to a hotel by the Workmen and died a few hours later.”
The Reporter also said the “story is one that has caused a sensation.”
The Cherryvale Daily Republican of March 13, 1906, took note of the melee between drunken visitors and local cops.
“As the men were arrested, one started to run and the officers came very near shooting one or both of them,” reported the Republican. “The one who was drunk was left lying on the cold ground with the cold north wind blowing directly on his bare head. The writer saw him there for an hour at least and the officers made no effort to move the helpless man to shelter. The crowd who witnessed the affair freely commented on the almost inhuman conduct of the officers and predicted that the young man would likely be ill for a long time as a result of the exposure of the severe weather.”
Fingers started to point toward the railroad detectives, the local police, and any other person sporting a tin star.
However, wild accusations came and went. Some stories were spread that Paris fell on the railroad depot platform himself, a victim to his own drunken stupor.
Denials from law enforcement officers were issued. The Missouri Pacific Railroad remained mum. And, the family of Ralph Paris wanted justice to be served.
It would take many months to sort out the varied stories. It would not be until January 1907 that a settlement of sorts would be reached. The Missouri Pacific Railroad agreed to settle with the parents of Ralph Paris for $4,000 and all related court costs. The family initially asked for $10,000, which would be comparable to about $250,000 by 2017 standards. It was revealed that a Missouri Pacific railroad detective by the name of David Gorman was identified as the one who physically manhandled Paris and threw him to the platform.
“Young Paris was sitting quietly in his seat but was seized by Gorman, dragged from the car and thrown backward onto the platform with great violence,” reported the Topeka Daily Capital on Jan. 22, 1907. “He was then carried in a semi-conscious condition to the jail and left all night without attention, food or warmth; and was fined in police court the next day, Monday, though in a dying condition when taken before the judge. In less than an hour, he was dead, and would have died in the jail had not a fraternal order of which he was a member got him out and cared for him.”
However, the story about Ralph Paris’ death would be buried under the other stories about the gas well. That burning well would roar for another two weeks after Paris died in Caney, and more excursion trains would bring more tourists to Caney for a chance to see the massive fire.
Even when the fire was successfully capped in late March 1906 and the tourists went away, no newspaper stories about the fire’s demise — or the throngs of people that came to view it — mentioned anything about the death of Ralph Paris.
The end of Ralph Paris’ life — brought together by brutal force and a self-inflicted feat of indulgence — was drowned under the foot beats of his fellow man . . . hell-bound to be the first in line at Caney’s biggest tourist attraction.
Indeed, it was Caney’s darkest moment . . . in the shadow of the brightest light in the world.