Saturday, August 15, 2020

The Great Elsmere Bulldozer Rampage

North Dupont Road is generally a quiet place.

The small town of Elsmere does not make the national news often, but it did in 1961. Former Elsmere resident, J.C.’s account of the day:

A Normal Day

Thanksgiving Day 1961 started out for Mom & Dad just like any other in the past, but was destined to become an epic day for the family because of me, my brother Bill and another set of brothers. Dinner wouldn’t be ready for a while, so Bill and I went outside to play. We got up with our friends, two brothers who lived down the street, and went in search of something to do.That something was using pieces of cardboard to slide down the dirt hill at a construction company’s equipment storage site. There happened to be a bulldozer sitting at the site across from the dirt hill, so while some of us were sliding, others went to investigate the bulldozer. I was on the other side of the hill when all of the sudden I heard the sound of a machine starting up. Looking over, I saw a plume of smoke coming out of the bulldozer’s stack. Bill was the last one off as it started to move backwards… Needless to say, we all ran the other way as fast as we could.The last I saw, the bulldozer was nearing a large boulder. I felt the boulder would stop the machine, and it would sit there and run till it ran out of gas. Boy was I ever so wrong.

We ran through an open field by the railroad tracks and looped around to the upper end of the neighborhood. That way we would be coming home from a different direction than the running bulldozer and could claim that we had nothing to do with it.

The rock did not stop the bulldozer, all it did was give a slight alteration to its course.  After glancing off the bolder, it backed through the equipment yard fence, through the construction company’s office, demolishing it, then down a row of supports for a pole barn that was being built to store the construction company’s equipment.   

The 20-ton bulldozer was parked on the property of masonry contractor Charles Cocciolone, where the boys were playing. The machine was owned by John Julian Construction Company, who was doing some work for Cocciolone at the time. The first bit of damage described by J.C. was at the site of the Rushton Tree Service, whose office was obliterated.

Preparing for Thanksgiving Dinner.

After exiting the Rushton property, the bulldozer slowly continued along toward the rear of the home of John Goheen at 108 N. Dupont Road. Goheen had just left home to go to the store, but his daughter Thelma, and housekeeper Dolly Pierce were in the kitchen, located in the rear of the home, preparing for Thanksgiving Dinner. They heard a rumbling noise as the huge machine entered the property, first flattening a fence, then toppling a tree. Pierce looked out the kitchen window and saw the rampaging dozer about to crash through the kitchen wall. Frantically, she grabbed Thelma, who was blind, and the two made it into the dining room just as the dozer tore into the kitchen, ripping down two walls, leaving only the range undamaged. 

This Philadelphia Bulletin photo shows the extent of the damage 
to the Goheen's kitchen at 108 N. Dupont Road

The unmanned dozer then entered the property of J. Rodman Steele, Sr. at 112 N. Dupont Road. Steele’s son, Rodman Steele, Jr,  a junior at the University of Delaware,, was home for the holiday and upstairs in his room when he heard the sound of the bulldozer crashing through the Goheen house next door. Steele recalls looking out his window and seeing it coming through Goheen's kitchen. He started yelling to his parents, ran down the stairs, burst out the front door and saw Thelma Goheen and Dolly Pierce come out of their front door at the same moment.

The 20-ton bulldozer changed its trajectory slightly when it crossed over a small embankment between the properties. It missed the Steele home, but it flattened shrubbery, knocked over a pair of gate posts, and struck Steele's car.

The dozer then made its way to 116 N. Dupont Road, where it rammed a car owned by Miss. Lois Dougherty, crushing it, shoving it along for 20 feet, and then carried its trunk another 33 feet. Striking Dougherty's car caused the dozer to slightly pivot again and cross Dupont Road where it then struck a 1959 Rambler owned by Charles Boyer of 119 N. Dupont Road. Boyer's car was dragged along under the blade of the dozer as it continued backwards another 28 feet before the runaway dozer plowed under a 4-foot-square stone driveway pillar. 

This Morning News photo shows the wreckage of Charles Boyer's 1959
Rambler after being run over and dragged behind the bulldozer.

J. Rodman Steele, Jr. decided he was going to try to shut off the runaway dozer. Climbing onto the machine over the moving treads was a very dangerous prospect. Instead, he ran up behind the slow-moving bulldozer, climbed onto and over the blade as it was running in reverse, and then into the driver’s seat. Once in the driver’s seat, Steele attempted to stop the dozer. He was joined by Charles Boyer who climbed on as the bulldozer was passing the home of Charles R. Beattie, Sr. at 121 N. Dupont Road.

Newspaper stories credit Steele with turning off the runaway dozer, and saving the day. However, he recalled that in spite of trying all of the various levers and buttons, he wasn't having any luck. Fortunately, it ran into a tree that was just too stout for it to push over. The bulldozer’s treads were unable to dig in, and just pushed the dirt away from under it. As it was bogged down on the tree, Steele finally managed to turn off the engine, bringing the runaway bulldozer’s rampage to an end just 20 feet before making a direct strike on the home of Charles L. Brown at 125 N. Dupont Road. 

This Evening Journal photo shows where the runaway 
bulldozer came to rest. The home of Charles L. Brown at
125 N. Dupont Road is directly in its path.

Mom Fainted

J.C. and Bill’s father was coming home from Choir practice when he came across the aftermath of the bulldozer’s wrath. He hurried home to get the family so they could see the wreckage, However, J.C. and Bill were not at home at the time so he just brought their mother and sister. Shortly thereafter J.C. and Bill made it home, J.C. explains, “when we got home, no one was there so Bill and I went into the living room and turned on the TV. We had not been watching too long when everyone came home. My sister Elaine, came running into the living room and demanded to know why we started the bulldozer. She had no idea we were involved, and was just kidding us. Bill and I both broke out in tears and cried, “We didn’t mean to!” Mom fainted on the spot! Luckily, Dad was able to catch her as she fell.”

Once Mom came to, and we got things sorted out, Dad took Bill and I down the street to let the police know who was responsible. It was then that my brother and I saw what really happened while we were running away.

We were amazed at the damage we caused. I’m sure Dad was at a loss for words as he tried to explain to the police officer what we had told him about our part in the afternoon’s events.  Bill told us that as they pulled the various levers, he was saying, Eni, meini, minie, mo, push this button and away we go. And it went!”

The four boys were taken by the police to the home of Magistrate Dolores Hamilton of Cooper Farms, and were charged with malicious mischief. (In those days, magistrates worked from their homes.) They were released into the custody of their parents pending an appearance in Family Court.

The following day the John Julian Construction Company’s insurance adjustor surveyed the path of destruction. The damage to the Goheen’s house was listed at $4,000, Steele's car $100, Dougherty's car $700, Boyer's 1959 Rambler was totaled at $1,350. Those items along with the other buildings, trees, shrubbery, fences and even some Christmas presents that were hidden in the trunk of one of the cars brought the grand total of estimated damages to $10,000, the equivalent of about $86,000 in 2020. As it turned out, Goheen had just signed a contract to have his kitchen remodeled. The contractor was supposed to start work on it the Monday after Thanksgiving. So everything worked out well for him. He got his new kitchen, but didn't have to pay for it. 

 The investigators met with the 4 boys' parents as part of the process to determine who was financially responsible for the destruction. While James Julian had enough insurance to pay for the damages, he wasn’t sure whether he was responsible or not. “A representative of my insurance company is coming from Philadelphia today to discuss the whole thing with the boys’ parents.” said Julian. 

Patrolman Noland said there were no keys on the bulldozer and the only way to lock it is to remove plugs or disconnect wires. Local residents said that other boys had actually managed to start the bulldozer two weeks before, but they did not set it into motion.

A Day in Court

When the boys finally went to Family Court the judge was not happy with the fact that they had been charged and brought into court in the first place, due to all the boys being between the ages of 8 and 10. The judge then ruled that the dozer should not have been left unsecured and declared the bulldozer was an “attractive nuisance.” Because of this, the boys were all found to be not guilty, and Julian's insurance eventually covered the cost of the rampage. 

When J.C. turned 16 he started working at the Rockford Esso, soon to be Exxon, station over by the Augustine bridge in Wilmington. He recalls a young guy came in one day for an oil change and while he was doing it they started talking. In the course of the conversation J.C. found out that the guy was John Julian's son. He told J.C. that his father was not a happy camper with the ruling, but the son felt that the judge was right. J.C. points out, “the son was a regular at the service station and I ended up doing a lot of work on his car. Small world.”

The story was picked up by the wire services and was printed in hundreds of newspapers across the country. J.C.’s Aunt in Iowa read about it in their local paper. It has largely been forgotten until now. 

Special thanks to J. Rodman Steele, Jr. and J.C. for sharing their stories. The last names of J.C, and Bill have been withheld. The names of the other brothers have been completely removed. As they were minors at the time and since Delaware is Delaware, someone may know their identity, please don’t post their full names in the comments.


  1. This sounds like it was the bridge construction, over the tracks, on DuPont Rd.

  2. This sounds like it was the bridge construction, over the tracks, on DuPont Rd.

  3. I remember this although quite young at the time. We lived just up the street on S. Cleveland Ave!

  4. Before my time, but I lived close to Elsmere in Willow Run moost of my life! :=8)


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