Tragedy and A Snow Train Come To Hillsborough

By Tim Finn

Submitted – September 2021

Tragedy and A Snow Train Come to Hillsborough

The last week of February 1932 brought tragedy and a snow train to Hillsborough-area residents.

On Wednesday, February 24, 12-year-old Hendrick Jordan and 11-year-old Antres Onnela drowned in the Contoocook River upstream from“  Bridge Street while skating on the recently frozen river.“  It was school vacation week and the boys had headed off to go skating around 9:30 a.m.“  Antres’ father, who had warned them against skating on the river, went to look for the boys when they failed to return to the Onnela family home near Grimes Hill.“  He found their shoes on the river bank, skate marks on the ice, and a hole in the ice where the boys had fallen in.“  An intense multi-day search followed led by Police Chief Frank Paige and involved frantic family members, Hillsborough residents (including all three selectmen), and eventually, a professional diver from Somerville, Massachusetts.“  The boys’ fathers and volunteers searched all night Wednesday and into Thursday when temperatures approached 0 degrees Fahrenheit.“  The diver, Fred Wallace, located Hendrick’s body around midday on Friday, February 26, near where the boys had fallen in.“  The search for Antres continued Friday afternoon and into Saturday.“  His body was recovered late in the day on Saturday, about 200 feet downriver.“ “ 

While this tragedy was unfolding, the grief-stricken town prepared for the arrival of a “snow train” carrying 1,200 “winter sports enthusiasts” for a snow carnival to be held on Sunday, February 28.“  The Boston and Maine Railroad had recently been marketing Sunday snow train excursions to various locations in New Hampshire, including Crawford and Pinkham Notches, Warner and Jaffrey.“  After consulting “reports furnished by expert observers” associated with the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Ski Committee, the company would announce the snow train’s destination on Boston radio stations (WEEI) and in Boston newspapers on Fridays and Saturdays. “  Snow trains would leave Boston and Worcester early Sunday morning bound for New Hampshire, described as the “Switzerland of New England.”“  In addition to passenger cars, the trains included supply cars stocked with equipment for purchase or rent and dining cars. Round trip tickets cost $1.75 to $2.75, depending upon the destination.“  Lunch could be had for .65 cents and dinner for .90 cents.“  William Niedner, Philip Woodbury, and other members of the Hillsborough Business Association had been working since early January to arrange a snow train to Hillsborough.“  A meeting had been held to gauge local support for hosting a snow train. “  Niedner (who owned Rosewald Farm) had even traveled to B & M offices in Boston to advocate for Hillsborough.“  Committees had been meeting to address transportation, hospitality, and publicity needs. It appears that word reached Hillsborough sometime on Friday that the town was the destination for a snow train on Sunday, February 28.“  At that point, the search for the boys was ongoing and there apparently wasn’t time to alter Sunday’s plans.“  The snow train arrived Sunday morning at Hillsborough Depot greeted by the Hillsborough Band playing “Hail, Hail the Gang’s All Here.” “  Local residents were on hand in cars and trucks to transport guests to various winter sporting sites around town.“  Visitors from near and far arrived to participate in skiing, skating, snowshoeing, tobogganing, and dog sledding.“  The Jackman Reservoir (Pierce Lake) below Gibson Mountain was an especially active site where, in addition to skating, skiing, and dog sledding, folks could get a ride in Stewart Astles’ airplane.“  The Rosewald Farm and Parker Hill were also busy venues as was a site in Deering.“  Dining services were available at the Hillsborough Community Hall and on B & M RR dining cars. Local boys helped guide guests to and around the sites.“ 

Summer scene of Hillsboro Depot
Hillsborough Depot (summer scene) where the band and residents greeted the snow train.

The snow train departed Hillsborough on its return trip late in the day on Sunday.“  Funerals for the two boys were held the next day from their homes. The service for Antres Onnela started at 1 pm and was led by Rev. Frank Coad of Smith Memorial Church.“  Classmates who served as his funeral bearers were Norman Coad, James Stafford, Harold Travers, Earl Boutelle, Leo Laflamme, and Frank Camara. “  One hour later, Rev. H.H. Crawford of the Deering Community Church led the service for Hendrick. “  George Colby, Donald Mellen, Albert Mosley, George Barrett, Norman Crooker, and Harold Travers served as bearers for Hendrick.“ “ 

Hendrick Jordan’s family had recently relocated to Hillsborough Bridge from Deering. “  Perhaps Hendrick’s family moved to Hillsborough for opportunities not then available in Deering.“  Hillsborough’s business community, in addition to bringing the snow train to town, had recently reopened the closed woolen mill under the auspices of the Hillsborough Hosiery Company.“  Hillsborough also had a new high school.“  In fact, the boys’ high school basketball team traveled to Durham the weekend after the funerals to take part in the state basketball tournament.“ “ 

Antres Onnela, through his mother Caroline C. Bixby, was a direct descendant of Joseph Bixby who immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony around 1638.“  Joseph Bixby settled in Rowley. Massachusetts (now Boxford, Massachusetts) in 1660 and served in the Rowley militia company during King Philip’s War in 1675-76.“  Antres was also a direct descendant of Thomas Bixby of Francestown, New Hampshire, who fought at Bunker Hill in 1775 with Colonel Prescott’s Regiment.“  Antres’s father, as well as both of Hendrick’s parents, were more recent immigrants to the area. “  Wilhart Onnela had immigrated from Finland.“  Hendrick’s father, Philip, was born in Russia while his mother, Tatania Lopata, was from Poland.“ “ 

Hendrick and Antres are buried not far from each other in Deering’s Butler Cemetery, just up the hill from the bridge over the Contoocook River.“ 

A number of historic themes are at play in this tragic story from Hillsborough’s past.“  Joseph Bixby arrived in New England as part of the Puritan migration of the 1630s which established Boston and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.“  Later that century, the indigenous peoples, including the Wampanoags and Nipmucks fought a bloody war with these settlers to defend their land and way of life.“  Later still, descendants of these settlers, including Thomas Bixby, fought a successful war of independence against Great Britain.“  By that time settlers had moved into the river valleys and hill country of New Hampshire and established farms and towns clustered around meeting houses.“  Even later, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, large numbers of immigrants, many from Eastern Europe, arrived in New Hampshire to work in the mills that had developed along the rivers tumbling out of the hills.“  By the 1930s, however, these mills were suffering and closing during the Great Depression.“  The snow trains of the early 1930s pointed at New Hampshire’s future as a destination for outdoor enthusiasts eager for a break from the hustle and bustle of the city.“ “ “ 

Sources: “ 

Annual Report of the Town of Hillsborough, NH For the Year Ending January 31, 1933.

Browne, George Waldo“  The History of Hillsborough N.N. 1735-1921, Volume II

Biography & Genealogy“  Published by the town, c. 1922“  pp. 69-70

The Concord Daily Monitor “  2/25/ 1932 p. 1, & 2/26/1932 p.1, & 2/29/ 1932 p.5.

The Hillsborough Messenger “  12/31/1931 to 3/17/1932“ 

(Key articles are from 2/25/1932 p.1 & 3/3/1932 p.1).

“  “  History of Francestown, NH by Cochrane & Wood, c 1895 (p. 517 & p. 521).

The Manchester Union Leader “  2/25/1932 p. 1, 2/26/1932 pp. 1 & 3, 2/29/32 p. 1 & 3.

“ “ “ “ “ “ “ “ “ “ “ “ “ “ “ “ “ “  The Snow Train, Boston and Maine Railroad publication, 1934.



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