My blog post on February 7, 2017 Two Lines I Like from a Margaret Maron Novel was about train whistles. I quoted a couple of lines from Long Upon the Land, by Margaret Maron and reminisced about train whistles in my hometown of Harrisburg, North Carolina. Today’s blog post is an edited version of a two-part article I wrote for my “Did You Know?” local history newspaper column in Harrisburg Horizons weekly newspaper on April 4 and April 13, 2007.
Did you know that the Sunday morning tranquility in Harrisburg was shattered on April 11, 1897, by the head-on collision of two steam trains?
North-bound Southern “fast mail” train No. 36 had orders to wait at Harrisburg until 11:15 for the south-bound local passenger train No. 11. The passenger train from the nearby town of Concord was running behind schedule. As No. 36 approached Harrisburg, engineer W.B. Tunstall of Danville, Virginia, expected to see No. 11 sitting in the siding.
Seeing no waiting train, Tunstall steamed ahead at 45 miles per hour. By the time the No. 11 came into view, there was nothing Tunstall could do but apply the brakes and jump out of the locomotive.
Newspaper accounts indicate that some Harrisburg residents saw what was going to happen but were helpless to do anything. The crash was heard for miles around and was likened to “a sharp crack of thunder.” The engine of No. 11 ran over the engine of No. 36. The boiler of No. 36 rested on the floor of No. 11’s postal car.
An express car of No. 36 derailed and landed 150 feet from the track. Another car, hauling strawberries and fresh vegetables, was torn to pieces. Produce was strewn over the area. Train parts were thrown as far as seventy-five yards away.
None of the 96 passengers on No. 36 were injured. They immediately exited the train to see what had happened and, subsequently, did what they could to help the injured train and postal employees.
Less than three minutes after the collision, with its headlight up in the telegraph wires, No. 11’s postal car burst into flames. If not for the quick action of one of the train’s postal clerks, John Hill Carter, both trains probably would have burned, but newspaper accounts do not tell how he extinguished the fire. Mr. Carter was praised for risking his life to put out the fire and save others.
The accounts of the agony suffered by the employees who were killed or injured in the wreck are given in great detail in the newspaper accounts of the day. Some were pinned under the wreckage, while others were badly burned by the steam from the boilers. Passengers formed a bucket brigade to throw cold water on one of the trapped men to help relieve his suffering from the steam.
Capt. Tunstall was found unconscious and badly scalded on an embankment. The conductor of No. 11, James Lovell of Richmond, Virginia, was cut on the face. Fitzhugh Lee, a porter on No. 11, was pinned in from the knees down. William Clemmens of East Durham, North Carolina, and R.E. Gallagher, an express messenger, were also injured.
The impact itself and the resulting release of steam caused four deaths and a number of serious injuries.
Those who were killed in the wreck or died immediately after were as follows: Postal clerk T. Clingman Benton of Monroe, NC and Charlotte; John or Titus Eudy of Forest Hills in Concord; No. 36 fireman Will Donaldson of Lynchburg, Virginia; and J.C. Kinney of Thomasville, NC. Capt. Kinney was badly scalded. It was thought that he also inhaled steam which caused internal misery.
First Responders and Thrill Seekers
News of the collision was immediately telegraphed to the train depot in Charlotte. In less than forty-five minutes, a rescue train was dispatched from that city. It transported a Dr. McCombs and Dr. E.M. Brevard. Cots were taken for transporting the wounded and dead to Charlotte. Mr. Eudy survived the crash but died en route to Charlotte.
The citizens of Harrisburg were praised in the newspaper accounts for helping to clear the wreckage. Engines pulled from both directions to clear the track. Debris removal continued through the night, while another work crew laid a temporary track around the wreck. That track was in place by that night when the No. 35 fast mail train gingerly made its way through Harrisburg.
On April 12, 1897, The Charlotte Observer reported that hundreds of thrill seekers “on wheels, horseback and in buggies were flying toward Harrisburg. At 2 o’clock a horse could not be had in any of the stables for love or money.” Many other people gathered at the train depot in Charlotte to await the arrival of the rescue train at 4 p.m.
That same newspaper account reported that one of the No. 36 passengers, Charles Bitterman of New Orleans, belonged to “The Riverside Wheelmen” cyclist club and was on his way to a bicycle race in New York. The article stated that Bitterman belonged “to National Circuit and will be here later with the professional men.” (Cycling clubs were all the rage in America and Europe in the 1890s.)
As I edit this article in 2017, the at-grade railroad crossings in Harrisburg have been closed and replaced by bridges in order to make way for the new high-speed rail. I have crossed that railroad thousands of times, and after learning about the 1897 train wreck in 2007 I was often reminded of the gory details of that fateful day when mangled and splintered train cars, bodies, and fresh produce were scattered in the nearby fields. It must have been an awful sight along with the screams of the injured who were in agony.
The train wreck of 1897 was, no doubt, long-remembered by Harrisburg and surrounding residents. When I interviewed Harrisburg resident and retired railway employee Harry R. Higgins on January 21, 2007, he remembered that Floyd Smith often came to the train depot in Concord when Mr. Higgins worked there. Mr. Higgins heard him tell about a block office employee who let a train into a block by mistake when another train was coming. The man realized his mistake and left in guilt because he knew what was about to happen. Mr. Higgins did not know if this was referring to the 1897 wreck in Harrisburg or not.
At the end of my article I asked for anyone who knew of a first-hand written account or oral history of the accident to please share that information with me, but no one offered additional details.
My Stint as a Newspaper Columnist
I am glad I had the opportunity to write a local history column in Harrisburg Horizons for six years. It gave me a reason to visit many of the older members of the community and take notes about their memories. Local newspapers preserved on microfilm sometimes provided a topic for me. I found it surprising that I had never heard about this horrific steam train head-on collision until I stumbled upon it in the microfilmed newspaper records. Mr. Harry R. Higgins has died since I asked him about the train wreck. He followed in his father’s footsteps as a railroad employee.
A Call to Action
If you have an interest in the local history where you live, I hope you talk to the older residents and record their memories. This is especially important if you live in a rural area or a small town that has never had a newspaper. That was the case here in Harrisburg. The town did not have a newspaper until 2006 and, unfortunately, it ceased publication in 2012.
Until my next blog post
Until my next blog post, I hope you have a good book to read. If you are a writer, I hope you have productive writing time. Please help me get the word out about my writing and my blog by clicking on the social media icons below or by the old-fashioned way – word of mouth. I appreciate it!