Tragedy struck teenagers on the tracks
Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society
Madera’s New Southern Hotel stood on North B Street. It was the home of the Hambletons who operated the place. Young Burt Hambleton’s funeral was conducted in this building after the lad was shot in August 1902.
It was the middle of August, and in a few days school would begin again for Burt Hambleton and Jimmie Thurman. The summer of 1902 had been pure elixir for the pair of Madera teenagers. They had done their share of swimming and fishing, and now they were going to try their luck at hunting before returning to the confines of a classroom again.
Both boys awoke early that Saturday morning and made ready for their safari, which would take them hunting for doves along the Fresno River. It had all been arranged the day before; Jimmie would walk from his home on North C Street over to the Southern Hotel on B Street where Burt lived. His father, J.M. Hambleton was the proprietor of the new lodging house.
When Jimmie reached the hotel, Burt was waiting on the porch with his 12 gauge, double-barreled shotgun ready to go.
The two young hunters headed north for the riverbed and then followed it west in search of their quarry. They hunted all morning and well into the afternoon before retracing their steps to the Fresno River railroad bridge, which was known to be a place where birds came for water. That is where they were when tragedy struck.
Jimmie and Burt climbed up on the tracks, and leaned their guns against the railing. The Hambleton lad had no more released his hold on his gun then it fell against a crosspiece of the bridge railing and discharged. The shot from the right barrel struck Burt in the left side above the hip and proceeded upward, some of it lodging on top of his shoulder just beneath the skin. The boy was only able to utter a quick, “Oh,” and he fell dead.
Jimmie Thurman, stunned and shaken, called over to a man on the ground for help, but his yell was apparently not heard. Then he jumped off the bridge and ran to a nearby Chinese laundry for help, but couldn’t find assistance there either. Finally, the hysterical teenager ran to his own house and told his mother what had happened. She notified a physician and sent word to the Hambletons at the Southern Hotel.
Upon hearing the news, Burt’s father hopped on his bicycle and peddled to the railroad bridge. He climbed up to the tracks and there spread out before him was the lifeless body of his 14 year-old son.
Hambleton cradled the boy for a moment and then carried him to a nearby carriage. He went immediately to Jay Chapel where the body was prepared for burial and then taken to the hotel to await the funeral.
Practically the entire town turned out to comfort the grieving parents. The news accounts read that Mrs. Hambleton sat dazed with the suddenness of the tragedy and that a “scene of indescribable sadness ensued.”
The Madera Mercury reporter wrote, “Burt was a favorite child, and the blow coming as unexpectedly as it did, threw the family into the deepest grief. The boy was such a sweet-dispositioned child that all who knew him loved him. The sad accident has cast a gloom over the entire community, and the sympathy of the whole people is with the grief stricken parents.”
News of the accident spread quickly throughout Madera County, and within hours reached J.M. Hambleton’s three brothers who lived in Eastern Madera County.
Clyde Hambleton, who worked at Sugar Pine, got the word first by telephone. He left immediately for Fresno Flats to get his brother Roy, and they in turn drove to Coarsegold where their brother Ernest lived. A few miles out of Coarsegold, however, they had a runaway, and the buggy turned over, forcing the three brothers to walk all night to get to Madera.
Burt Hambleton’s funeral took place in the lobby of the New Southern Hotel, and then he was carried to Arbor Vitae in Jay’s horse-drawn hearse. In addition to the heart broken parents, and his uncles, Burt left two younger sisters and a half brother to mourn his passing.
Thus it was that in its infancy, Madera was a veritable playground for its youngsters. No one had to think up things for kids to do; recreation was there for the taking, but in leaving them to find their own fun, there were certain risks. The tragic death of young Burt Hambleton bears a stark witness to this fact.