Saturday, November 12, 2016

Whiz-Bang #7: Napoleon Blanton, First Auto-Fatality In Wichita

Back in April of 1913, when Capt. Napoleon B. Blanton became the first motor vehicle fatality in Wichita, little did the populace realize the ultimate annual toll. Last year 13 persons lost their lives within the city limits of Wichita as the result of motor car travel, but so far this year there has been only one death.

Fatality figures for other recent years were: 1957–18; 1956–17; 1955–13; 1954–13; 1953–19; 1952–8; 1951–19, and 1950–6. Even so, through these years Wichita often rated the lowest in the nation in traffic deaths for cities of its size.

Looking over records at the accident prevention bureau in the traffic division of the city Police Department, an observer can see several patters. These, according to Sgt. Jim Foster and Officer R. L. Murrow, investigator, show the dangerous spots, the reasons for danger and the most perilous hours. Officers study these patterns made by the 10,000 accidents annually in the county and work all the time to promote a program of education of the traveling masses as well as strict enforcement of traffic regulations.

In the accident prevention bureau the men are convinced that strict enforcement of regulations cuts down mishaps. “We were short men until the department employed women to check meters and minor violations in the downtown district,” Foster pointed out. This released 10 men for car and motorcycle duty.

Worse Outside City
All accidents are checked by the prevention bureau and reports made. Records over the years show that about one-third of the fatalities of Sedgwick County occur outside the city of Wichita. “Areas beyond the limits do not have nearly a third of the accidents but what they have usually are bad ones,” Foster explained. That’s a result of higher speed, according to the men who investigate.

The accident peak occurs between 3 and 7 p.m. Mishaps during those hours, however, usually are not the bad ones. They mostly mean fenders bent and bumpers torn off. Most of them are the result of fatigue from the day’s work and hurry to get somewhere, the probers said. And there are more collisions on the fringes of the city than downtown.

Less accidents happen during the night hours, records show, but over the years the crash deaths have come most often during the night.

The accident prevention bureau’s records also reveal the reasons for these accidents–fatal, or injury, or only vehicle damage. The entries go: “ran stop sign,” “excessive speed,” “failure to yield right-of-way,” “drunk driving,” “pedestrian crossing street diagonally.”

As in the case of Captain Blanton, often it is the aged person or the toddler–least able to get out of the way of a speeder–who is the victim.

Here 110 Years Ago
Captain Blanton was one of Kansas’ earliest residents. He came to the state as a settler in 1854, but prior to that time–in 1848–he had charge of a government train of wagons on the old Santa Fe Trail. During those years he had many Indian encounters. He had passed through the country where Wichita is situated when it was only Indian hunting grounds. His interesting repertory of stories contained one about camping on the future site of the city in 1849.

But in 1854 Blanton, who had been born in Polk Count[y], Mo. in 1829, settled down at Lawrence, Kan. where he built a toll bridge across the Wakarusa River, four miles south of town.

That was the year of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and a history-making time in the state. The personal story of the man who became Wichita’s first motor vehicle fatality was wrapped up in the history of Kansas.

During the border wars, he served under Capt. John Brown in a number of famous territorial battles. He fought with Captain Walker during border troubles and with Col. James Lane at Titus’ place near Lecompton, Kan. It is easy to conclude that the young bridge-building engineer was for abolition of slavery.
The toll bridge often netted $40 a day, which was an enviable income in the middle 1850s, and the Blantons 
built the first two-story log house in Lawrence.

Missed Chance for Fame
Blanton and his family moved south. The railroad tracks were crossing into southeastern Kansas. He was a surveyor. When a town was to be named a coin was tossed to see which name of the railroad builders would appear on the new depot and the maps. The coin decided it was to be Coffeyville, not Blantonville. Again, when a town was started farther to the northeast, his keen perception dictated use of the name of a leader of a nearby community in order to sway sentiment and trade toward Humboldt. In 1955, Mrs. Lester A. Heckard of Hillcrest Apartments was a guest of honor at the 100th anniversary of Humboldt, the town her father had been instrumental in starting.

Mrs. Heckard was the youngest of 11 children and her memories are vivid about the years when Captain Blanton was helping to develop south-central Kansas. But in the meantime the family lived in an 11-room home at Coffeyville and the father went to the Territorial Legislature from Allen County.

In Civil War
In 1862 he raised a command for the Union Army which became known as the Fourth Kansas Infantry. His regiment made a gallant record during the war. He was on duty at Washington, D.C. and at Georgetown for a time and under General Sheridan at New Orleans. Mrs. Blanton made her home in Washington during the war years and was in Ford’s Theater the night Abraham Lincoln was shot.

After the war he represented his district again in the legislature, always on the Republican ticket.

From Allen County the Blantons went to Abbyville, Kan. where he was president of a land company that was developing that city. In 1878 he moved to Barber County.

There it was that Mrs. Heckard recalls the family home, so fine in those days, built of frame when most houses were soddies. A tornado had taken the roof off the Blanton soddie. Her father had hauled lumber 90 miles from Wichita to the farm near Hazelton.

She recalls her father as being a man who accomplished big things. They had a 40-acre orchard and a steel windmill supplying water to the back porch. That was a modern home, indeed. The house had eight rooms, was two stories high and cost $2,000.

There the Blantons lived the excitement of pioneer days with proverbial hospitality and the graciousness typical of a good provider.

After Mr. and Mrs. Heckard moved to Wichita in 1903 and following Mrs. Blanton’s death, Captain Blanton came to reside with his daughter here. His love for growing plants continued to the end of his life and played a part in the accident which caused his death.

Struck by Auto
On that April 29, 1913, when Wichitans were shocked by the first motor vehicle death, Captain Blanton, past 83 years of age, had gone to the vacant lot a few blocks north of the downtown area where he liked to have a garden. On the way home he stopped at Dunn’s grocery. Mrs. Heckard related, to buy some of the fresh vegetables he enjoyed raising later in the season. These he was bringing home to her. He stepped onto the street and was hit by a vehicle which was said to be on the wrong side. He never regained consciousness.

Mrs. Heckard, although bitter about the incident, has continued to drive her automobile through the years. A few months ago, when she had a broken bone in her left leg, she got tired of depending upon someone else, and again operated her car with perfect ease and no mishaps by using two hands, a right foot and her usual cool head.

-The Wichita Eagle, February 1959
This article originally appeared at The Point of Beginning.

Napoleon Bonaparte. Image from Find A Grave.
The ruins of the Blanton house south of Lawrence, burned during the Lawrence Massacre.