1958: A Brattleboro Family Devastated and a Bridge Built

The Wong family plot is easy to find in Brattleboro’s Locust Ridge Cemetery on Black Mountain Road next to I-91. It’s the only gravestone facing south, consistent with Feng Shui. Lily, Stephen, and Emerson died 60 years ago on July 19, 1958, ages 29, 5, and 2. Two members of the family survived the terrible collision near the dangerous old Route 1 bridge in Belfast, Maine. Their spots are reserved and their birth dates already engraved. Arthur had just finished first grade at the Green Street School and was still in a coma when the stone was erected. The father, P. Lawrence Wong (also known as Paul or Laurence), was likely the only family member at the burial.

There were no seatbelts then. The scene of the head-on collision with a truck was universally called “grim.” There had been a plan for a new, safer bridge, but it had lots of vocal opposition. The crash “ended the partisan rhetoric that doomed the earlier bridge proposal,” according to the History of Belfast in the 20th Century.

The Wong family was warmly welcomed by Brattleboro in 1955. The Brattleboro Reformer had a front page article with a photo when the family was still at sea on a 28-day crossing from Hong Kong to San Francisco. (Lily Wong was six months pregnant during that long ocean voyage.)

In a sense, the voyage started in 1943, when Paul Wong was a 19-year-old interpreter for the U.S. Army in Kunming, at the Chinese end of the Burma Road. The United States was there in western China to support Great Britain in the China-Burma-India Theater. Lieutenant F. Elliot Barber, Jr. was a 30-year-old attorney from Brattleboro, Vermont who would later rise to Captain in the Army and Vermont’s Attorney General back home. Paul Wong was Elliott Barber’s interpreter for seven months.

In the following ten years, Wong would move to Beijing to study law, marry Lily, and move to British-controlled Hong Kong for asylum from the advancing Communist Revolution. The Refugee Relief Act of 1953 prompted Wong to contact Barber to ask for “sponsorship” and guaranteed housing as required by the act. Barber was now a prominent Brattleboro citizen, having served at Town Meeting Moderator and in both the Vermont Senate and House. In 1955, the strict requirements for Wong’s immigration under the McCarran-Walters Immigration Act had been fulfilled. His long-held dream of coming to America came true.

Things went well for the young family, as reported by the Brattleboro Reformer. Emerson was born in December and the family even won a trip to the brand new Disneyland in California in 1956. In 1957, Lily was “Cook of the Week” in the Reformer. In 1958, when Lily was again expecting, the family was driven to Bar Harbor, Maine by a friend, John Liu, for a vacation. It was on the way home in Belfast, Maine that a poultry truck hit head on where Route 1 turned left onto Bridge Street at the west end of the bridge.

The truck driver was determined to be solely at fault and fined $300 in lieu of a 6-month sentence. A bond referendum was passed the next year. The new bridge and bypass were opened in 1960.

On what would have been Emerson’s third birthday, Paul gave $340 for scholarships to the Thompson School for Practical Nursing and the Brattleboro Nursery School because “my wife and children loved Brattleboro, are buried here in a beautiful little plot off the Black Mountain Road, and because Arthur and I want to do good in a community which has been good to us.”

That scholarship gift came before the civil suit against the Penobscot Poultry Company was settled. With the help of the law firm of Barber and Barber, the settlement was the largest civil settlement ever in Maine at $155,500.

Arthur had spent months in a coma at the hospital in Bangor, Maine. He was later transferred to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital where spent more months. At some point after he was discharged, father and son moved to California. Paul remarried in 1970. He died in 2005 and is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. There is still a headstone for him at the family plot in Brattleboro.

Perhaps someone in Brattleboro is still in contact with the 67-year-old Arthur. Or, perhaps Arthur has left this painful part of his life behind. Perhaps the permanent injuries shortened his life. The name “Arthur Wong” in California is too common to easily find him. If he reads this story, I hope he understands that he would again receive a warm welcome in Brattleboro. He could visit the family gravesite, his childhood home, and his first grade classroom.
* * *

I collected this information mostly from the Brattleboro Reformer on microfilm using the finding aids at Brooks Memorial Library and also “The History of Belfast Maine in the 20th Century.” This version of story should be treated as a first draft with some likely errors. I intend to flesh it out and clean it up at some point. Today, July 19, 2018 is the 60th anniversary of this nearly-forgotten, very memorable story, so it seems appropriate to share a first draft.

Dan Axtell
Westminster, Vermont

Comments | 2

  • What a story

    Great job. I know the fun and frustration of finding all the historical details of something that is curious. You’ve pieced a lot together.

    It’s a pretty sad story. The thrill of making it to Brattleboro, in America, is a dream come true, but the loss of wife and children is a nightmare.

    Since this is a draft, a couple of clarifying questions:
    – when was Arthur born?
    – where was Emerson born?

    I’m happy to know the reason why the gravestone faces south. : )

    Some 1956 Disneyland details for ya: the Skyway opens, fireworks debut, D ticket introduced, Tom Sawyer Island, AstroJets, Storybook Lan boats, Fantasyland train station, and Autopia open.

    Also, as for tracking down an Arthur Wong somewhere in California – are there any leads in Glendale? Was there an obituary mentioning “survived by” or any other clues to possible leads?

Leave a Reply