By Janice Dunnahoo
Special to the Daily
There once was a little town in Eastern New Mexico by the name of Tolar. This little town — like any other community — had good times, bad times, births, marriages, deaths, a school, a cemetery, friends, families, a store, a railroad station, a post office, homes and gardens. But alas, this little town was not to be for very long, however, it has gone down in history with its own unique story to be told.
The first settler to this town applied for 160 acres under the Homestead Act in 1901. There he dug a well and a half dugout house. The town was platted in 1908 and by 1911, 600 people lived there.
In 1926, the school closed when it was consolidated with one in the neighboring town of Taiban. The railroad station closed in March of 1933.
By 1944, the population had drastically fallen and before the end of that year, the little town of Tolar became the only town in America to be destroyed because of World War II.
A train carrying 160 500-pound bombs — enough to fill four B29 bombers — caught fire and stopped at Tolar. The bombs exploded, killing one person and destroying almost every building in the town. Windows shattered and roofs collapsed from the concussion of the bombs. The blast left a crater 22 feet deep and 66 feet across, and the town of Tolar would be no more.
The Clovis News Journal article, dated Dec. 1, 1944, covered the disaster with the front page reading, “One Death by Tolar Blast” and “War Brought Closer Home When Explosion Occurs”
Here is the article by Alabam Sumner:
“Indirectly bringing the war into our own front yards, so to speak, the catastrophic fire and subsequent explosions on the Santa Fe tracks at Tolar Thursday gave folks a small idea of what a majority of the world’s nations are now undergoing as an outcome of this, the Second World War.
“Bombs for the Pacific Theater of Operations — bombs that properly sent earthward to their targets would have wrought even more death and destruction than occurred at this small New Mexico town — these bombs virtually blasted Tolar off the map. Not a building in the small village was spared from some damage, not a person there not touched in some way.
“Tolar was not the target of some enemy bomber, but those who looked into buildings whose roofs were caved in; those who saw the extravagant and expensive waste of material goods in the two small stores, one which had its merchant’s wares spilling through a huge hole in the side where an axle had hurled through the building; those who saw the debris from the wreckage sent as far as a mile away from the scene; and those who heard the folks out there wonder what one ancient lady would do now that her home was virtually wrecked, those people possibly thought as did we, ‘So this is what war means. This is only a small portion of damage in the eyes of people who have undergone bombings for years.’
“The bombs that were meant for some strategic target, or for some Jap or Nazi ship prowling over the earth’s waters hunting our ships and men to destroy, instead did waste to one of our own communities. How ironic for we who thought ourselves safe and secure from this aspect of the war.”
The story goes on: “Scattered for a mile away were twisted, burnt pieces of machinery. Heavy iron and steel parts of the ill-fated train littered the ground in a wide radius, indiscriminately thrown among the bushels and bushels of peanuts, the hardwood, and bursted cans of corn beef Army rations. Prairie fires south of the tracks still smoldered and intermittently burst again into flames as workers patrolled the area attempting to keep them under control. Inscrutable and silent, workers had already begun their labor of clearing the tracks, which were twisted, bent, and torn from their moorings. An appalling quiet hung over the whole scene — a quiet broken only by the soft murmurs of spectators and the still bewildered people who were at the scene when it happened, as they answered the many questions put them. Again reminding one of the war, however, were the best P-40s from the Fort Sumner base, that swooped and dived over the area.
“Varying versions of what had happened entered the minds of those around the countryside following the explosion. One farmer, Jay F. Harris, living one-half mile from Tolar but who was north in his fields, at first he thought all four of his tires had blown out simultaneously — though it was a heck of a noise for just four little tires. Perhaps such a noise would be expected, if such a drastic measure had happened, according to Mr. Harris, but anyway, that was what he thought. His wife, in the barn at the time, thought with alarm of a gas explosion in her home, but finding her house still on its foundation, but with windows blown out and a huge heavy metal fragment in her front yard, Mrs. Harris was at a loss as to just what had happened.
“Earl Bruener, living two miles west and one south of Melrose, heard the explosion from his farm home but thought possibly it was a bomber explosion. He jumped in his car and after spotting the great columns of smoke, found his way to the wrecked community. Mrs. D. E. Warren of House, 10 miles from Tolar, entertained the same idea when her home was greatly shaken by the explosion which was felt in Clovis, 40 miles away.
“It will take many dollars and much time to build these families back their homes, but as the war already has done so much to pull people together in their common sorrow, again it is apparent by the genuine good neighborliness of those folks. Already farm homes surrounding have opened their doors to those who lost their homes. And so, Thursday, this vicinity felt also the destruction of property that accompanies war.”
Another article in the same newspaper stated the following:
“General Store Demolished
“The C. A. Watkins General Store was demolished and the post office and school badly damaged. The houses of the six families who live in Tolar were also badly damaged, some beyond repair. A journal went through the roof of the Watkins store and came out a wall. Fortunately, all the school-age children were attending school at Taiban, eight miles west of Tolar, and three women from Tolar had gone to Melrose, including Mrs. Brown, wife of the man who was killed.
“Two other men who were reported standing near the train when the bombs exploded were not injured. They were Albert Jones of Clovis and C.A. Watkins, who said he had seen the fire on the train and had gone to ask crewmen if any explosives were on board.
“Five automobiles were reported damaged.
“An officer reported finding an airplane engine, which was blown from the train, a mile away from the scene of the explosion.”
The only person killed was Tolar resident Jess Brown, who was struck in the head by a piece of metal and died while being transported to the hospital in Melrose. His widow, Pauline Brown, received a $17,500 settlement from the railroad for his death.
Such was the story of the little town in Eastern New Mexico by the name of Tolar, and the people who lived there. Today, there is only dust and tumbleweeds blowing through the old ghost town. Perhaps, if one listens carefully, they might hear the ring of the school bell, the whistle of the train, or the slamming of a screen door from the little ghost town of Tolar.
Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.