Friday, May 31, 2013

The First Multiple Fatality Train Wreck...Right Here In The Old Dominion.

The First Multiple Fatality Head On Train Wreck
Another Dubious Distinction for The Old Dominion.

Virginia managed a pretty morbid hat trick during the 98 years between 1811 and 1909. During that century span of time The Commonwealth managed to play host to three...count 'em...three 'first of their kind' disasters.  The first one...The Richmond Theater Fire...answered the question 'What happens when a business puts profits above the safety of it's customers (And that question's still being answered today.) The second one answered the question 'What happens when New State Of The Art Technology outstrips contemporary society's ability to handle any problems that new technology might cause...Like , Oh, I dunno, a mass casualty incident caused by a train wreck. Those mass casualties caused by something that had never happened before...the combination  of a large number of people (Between 150 and 200) being on board a a vehicle capable of unheard of sustained speeds (About 20 MPH...flat out gettin' it back in 1837) when it crashed head on into another similar vehicle running at a similar speed. The results of a head on collision between vehicles of any kind are about the same now as they were 180 years ago, but the first one...between two trains each running about 12 MPH...happened right here in The Old Dominion, just outside of Suffolk. And it was caused by the exact same thing that usually causes head on collisions today. Those two evil siblings, Carelessness and Recklessness

Now the railroad didn't really become useful or dangerous until the steam locomotive was developed. Steam engines were actually invented in the 18th Century, but it was during the 19th Century that they evolved from slow, cumbersome low pressure engines best suited for pumping water to high pressure engines capable of moving heavy loads at decent speeds, leading to steam ships and the steam locomotive.

Once the steam locomotive was developed and put to use...and by the way, Europe beat us to the punch by about a decade on that one...railroads allowed freight to be moved from point A to point B faster and in larger volumes than ever before. By the late 1830s passenger trains could roll along at the breakneck speed of 25 or so miles per hour, allowing people to travel further in four or five hours than they could in an entire day on horse back or by stagecoach.

In 1836. the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad, considered by many rail historians to be the second major rail line in the U.S., was completed from Portsmouth VA to the fall line of The Roanoke River in Weldon, N.C, a distance of about 80 or so miles. The Portsmouth and Roanoke, BTW, was the first small piece of what would become the Seaboard Airline Railroad, later the Seaboard Coastline Railroad, and and now part of CSX. Most importantly for the purposes of this blog, it was also the line that that very first multi-fatality train collision occurred on.  While we're at it, did I mention that the wreck was also the indirect cause of a second fatal accident on the same day?

On the hot, humid morning of August 11th, 1837  somewhere between 150 and 200 passengers, among them three young ladies who were all daughters of the very prominent Ely family, boarded thirteen passenger cars that resembled elongated stage coaches at the railroad station in Portsmouth, Va. The Eli girls climbed aboard the second car, made their way to the front seat (Very possibly facing backwards, with their backs towards the front of the coach) and made themselves comfortable, gossiping and giggling as young girls in groups have done for centuries. They were heading home from a two day trip featuring two days of fun, sightseeing, and the ultimate in early 19th century high tech transportation. The group had traveled to Portsmouth by train early on the morning of the 10th at the breakneck speed of 15 miles per hour, making what had once been a 12 hour trip in four or five hours with stops. When they arrived in Portsmouth they boarded an excursion steamer for a cruise around Hampton Roads, visiting Fort Monroe and Norfolk. They stayed overnight at a hotel, and now, as they boarded the train for the trip home, they were probably discussing the amazing and unbelievable fact that they'd be home before fact not too long after lunch.

A restored locomotive from the same period, pulling a trio of reproduction coaches. While this isn't the exact type of locomotive that headed up our ill fated passenger has a bogie fore and aft of the single driving wheel on each side giving it six wheels rather than still gives you a pretty good idea of what a passenger train looked like back in 1837. This, BTW, is a reproduction of the first passenger train in Germany. The locomotive was built by Robert Stephenson and Co, in England, and the locomotives pulling both trains involved in the Suffolk collision followed a very similar design and layout.

They were likely fairly close to the water so a breeze coming off of Hampton Roads was probably pushing the wood smoke drifting from the smoke stack on the iron behemoth heading up the train away from them. No accurate picture of the exact engine that headed up the thirteen car train exists, but we still have a fairly good idea of what it probably looked like. It had the cylindrical, horizontal boiler that all of us picture when we think 'Steam Locomotive',and according to a book on the history of the Seaboard Airline Railroad, it had two wheels on each side, which could have been either had two driving wheels on each side, with no bogey trucks forward or aft of the two drivers or a single driver on each side with a single bogie truck forward, supporting the head end of the boiler. There was a tall, slender smoke stack at the front of the boiler, and no cab at the rear...the engineer and fireman rode an open platform at the rear of the locomotive. Compared to locomotives built even twenty years later it was a lightweight, weighing in at about five or so tons. If this beast was wound slam out, pumping a column of smoke into the air, it's exhaust chuffing and snorting with the deafening, rhythmic din that caused kids the world over to call them 'Choo-choos', it could pull the thirteen cars through the Virginia countryside at 20 MPH...but usually they tooled along at a more sedate 12-15 MPH.

The train pulled out sometime around 8:30 and the the passengers settled down for the ride, enjoying the view as the train accelerated to about 12 miles per hour, leaving the cityscape of Portsmouth behind and rolling through what was then rural Norfolk County. They crossed the line into Nansemond County and about an hour and a half after leaving Portsmouth they stopped in Suffolk. A few passengers may have disembarked, while some possibly heading for points west and south  took their places.

A drawing of another locomotive from the period with a layout that is closer to that of the engines pulling the two trains involved in the accident.

At some point that same morning, a freight train, pulling a string of flat cars loaded with lumber, pulled out heading North. If the train left from Franklin, it probably left at about the same time as our passenger train left Portsmouth, but my bet's it left from Weldon because the sawmill that would ultimately become the huge Union Camp complex in Franklin wasn't built until several years later. If the freight did originate in Weldon,  it couldn't have left that there long after sunrise. (Trains in that era seldom traveled at night...they had no headlights, and there was no artificial lighting of any kind along the rail line). It would have had about a five hour trip before reaching a siding in Suffolk, where it was supposed to wait for the westbound passenger train to pass before preceding to the docks at Portsmouth, where it's loads of lumber would be loaded aboard ships. But things weren't going to happen that way.

As passengers disembarked and boarded the westbound passenger train, the crew probably discussed the empty siding that should have had a lumber train sitting on it. Timetables were literally the bible of train movement during the early years of railroading, and following the timetable strictly was very literally the only way to avoid meeting another train head on on the single track main lines of the 1830s. The train's crew discussed the matter and decided that the crew of the lumber train was probably running behind.  There was a siding in Carrsville as well..., the lumber train's crew had decided to play it safe and hold at the siding in Carrsville.

After reaching this conclusion, the passenger train's conductor (Called the train captain in those days) likely gave the engine crew the highball signal and the train pulled out of Suffolk, en route to it's next stop, which was probably Carrsville, about 12 or so miles distant. The excursionists were all citizens of either Nansemond, Isle of Wight, or Southampton Counties, so the next stops after Carrsville would likely be Franklin, Boykins, and Branchville. Thing is, the train wouldn't make it to any of them. And the crew was about to learn the age-old lesson about what  'assuming' does to you and me the hard way.

The small community of Kilby's a bit over two miles west of the 1837 Suffolk city limits and ten or so miles east of Carrsville. Today the community's pretty well built up  and deep inside the City of Suffolk  as well as being cut into quarters by US Routes 13 and 58, which intersect just about smack dab in the middle of the village. But 180 years ago Kilby was very rural, with the road between Franklin and Suffolk and the single track rail line...which ran just about parallel to the road back then just as it does now...running through it. The rail line took a different route back then...likely pretty close to the present route, but not as straight, because somewhere just east of Kilby it rounded a sharp curve on a grade...upgrade heading west, down grade heading east, heading down to the lowest point on the line.

Another possible configuration of the locomotives involved in the collision, with a single driving wheel  and single bogey wheel forward of the driver on each side.

The freight train's crew hadn't held at the siding in Carrsville and they were pushing their train hard even as the passenger train pulled out of Suffolk. The freight's crew was trying desperately to make it to Suffolk so they wouldn't delay the regular passenger train, but it wasn't gonna happen. The freight rumbled through Kilby, it's engine huffing loudly as it dragged the heavy string of cars east. East of Kilby, the passenger engine's engineer shoved the throttle open a bit more to keep their speed up as the train started upgrade and into the curve. To their right was a grassy embankment with woods, fields, and a couple of farm houses to the left. The freight started down the same grade, picking up a little speed.

The crew didn't have much room to work on these early locomotives so the passenger train's fireman was probably balancing himself with one foot on the tender's platform and the other on the rear of the engine's open platform as he grabbed some more wood and heaved it into the firebox. They really needed to keep the fire roaring to could keep a good head of steam up as the train started up grade and into the curve. These early steam locomotives were tiny compared to later locomotives and the boilers were low enough that the engine crew, standing on the open rear platform, actually had pretty decent forward visibility.  Either of them could have been the first to spot the column of smoke, rising over the trees and bending west as it's source moved towards them at a rapid clip, and whoever did spot it first felt himself go absolutely cold despite Central Virginia's August heat. Both of them quickly came to the horrible realization that the lumber train hadn't taken the siding at Carrsville even as it suddenly rolled around the curve, about a hundred or so yards ahead of them.

Aboard the freight engine the crew either suddenly realized that they should have taken the siding in Carrsville, suddenly realized that they weren't going to beat the Passenger train to Suffolk or both. By the time this realization hit them, there was far too little time to do anything about it. Back then trains only had brakes on the engine and maybe the tender, and those brakes were simply more robust versions of the ones that had been used on wagons and carriages for centuries...a brake shoe forced against the outside rim of the wheel by a manual lever. Even back then a train probably weighed in at well in excess of fifty tons, the engine itself weighed around five tons all by itself, so forcing a leather padded iron brake shoe against the outside rims of the driving wheels by muscle-power alone provided little to no actual stopping power at all. It's a pretty good bet that both engineers ignored the brake handles, instead grabbing their engines' reversing levers and yanking them hard...the big driving wheels stopped for a second, then started spinning in reverse, adding a tortured metallic screeching to the engines' din as the engineers shoved the throttles wide open in a desperate but futile attempt stop their trains.

The engines slid along the rails, iron wheels singing a tortured song against the rails as they spun frantically in reverse while the brake-less freight cars and passenger coaches continued to roll, their combined hundred or so tons of momentum fighting against the engines and winning big.. The passengers on board the west bound train knew something was wrong the instant they were jerked in their seats as the engine reversed...they had no idea what the tortured metallic screaming they heard was, but they knew it couldn't be good. The Ely girls, who had seconds earlier been talking about teenage girl things, looked at each other with mouths open in shock. One of them probably exclaimed that age old teen-girl oath of sudden shock or fear...'Ohmagod!

Both trains may have slowed a couple of miles per hour...from 15 to 12 or so...before their engines slammed into each other. The crews recognized the sheer futility of staying with their sliding iron behemoths and dived over the railings at the edge of their platforms with seconds to spare, tucking and rolling as they hit the ground. Even as they rolled the now unmanned engines bucked and tried to mount each other as they slammed together head to head with a loud, thudding 'CRWHUNNK!!!!, The passenger coaches kept coming, primitive couplers on the first three coaches snapping and ripping from frames. The first three cars telescoped each car over riding and actually penetrating the other as the first car was brought up short by the engines tender, it's passengers tossed forward along with their seats. The same thing was happening in the second and third cars as the first three cars all but disintegrated with the crunching cracking of wood coming apart and screams of passengers tossed around like leaves in a wind storm. The Ely girls were probably thrown forward and into the forward wall of the second coach at the same instant it telescoped the first car. The second and third coaches kept coming, both cars smashing themselves into kindling as the other ten coaches built-up inertia and momentum shoved them forward, the third coach coming apart as it slammed into and overrode the wreckage of the first two. The girls were probably shoved backwards through the front wall of the second coach, wood, and metal frames and interior fittings all piling on top of them...they didn't have a chance, all three would die within minutes of the crash.

A contemporary engraving of the accident, showing the moment of impact, that was used to illustrate a period news paper article on the accident. While the depictions of the locomotives and cars aren't entirely accurate you can definitely get a good idea of the relative sizes and configurations of the cars.

At just twelve miles per hour, the train's momentum was expended fairly quickly. The other ten coaches suffered lesser damage, a couple of them probably came off of the track, but the passengers in the last couple of coaches likely felt only a sudden sharp jolt. Some were probably thrown from their seats to the floor. Passengers looked at each other with shocked ' The hell just happened?!?' expressions on their faces, some of them loudly asked just that. Those that could shoved the exit doors open and tumbled out into the hot, thick summer morning air, stumbling over ties and taking a quick inventory of their own injuries as they looked towards the front of the train to see billowing clouds of steam from the burst boilers,. Some of them had bumps and bruises and maybe the odd broken bone or two, But none of their injuries were anywhere near as serious as most of those in the first three coaches...the moaning, crying, and screaming from towards the front of the train made that more than clear.

The occupants of the nearby houses heard the loud 'CRWHUNNK!!' of the collision and probably ran towards the scene...they could hear the piteous moaning and crying, too, well before they got there. The impact probably tossed the engines off of the rails and they were lying like mortally wounded beasts, the front ends of the boilers stove inward and accordioned, the roaring of steam still hissing from popped seams petering out as as the pressure dumped.  The lumber cars were zig-zag derailed and lumber had spilled on both sides of the track, but the sight behind the passenger engine was the worse...the first three coaches had been reduced to a big pile of kindling and only the fact that the tender separated them from the engine's now-spilled firebox kept the whole thing from lighting off and becoming a funeral pyre.

People were milling around the wreckage, some in near shock, others digging through the shattered coaches, pulling sections of roof and side wall clear to reach those trapped in the wreckage. Some of the injured were sprawled on the embankment next to the curve, limbs twisted grotesquely and unnaturally. Moans, cries, and wails came from within the wreckage, and someone probably yelled something to the effect of 'We could really use a hand here!'..The menfolk among the arriving residents pitched in, dragging sections of broken coach away as one, to this day unknown and unnamed, said he was heading into Suffolk for help. He took off for home,...or if he arrived on a horse, took off up the road towards Suffolk, 2 1/2 miles...and about 10 minutes on a fast horse at full gallop...away.  Meanwhile, as the rapid clop-clop of hooves dopplered away in the distance, the rescuers reached the three Ely girls, buried deep beneath the wreckage of both the first and second coaches...they were very obviously beyond hope of any kind. Someone else found the tiny body of an infant. Two cultured and well dressed, the other, a young negro girl, dressed comfortably and likely the live-in servant or nanny for one of the traveling families...were pulled from the wreckage barely breathing with the tortured gasps of what were probably crushing chest injuries. Both would die before 3PM. Modern travel had taken six lives in one fell swoop.

In 1837, things couldn't move but so fast because the available technology plain long wouldn't let it. The accident happened somewhere between ten and ten thirty in the morning, and it was probably ten to fifteen minutes after the two engines slammed together with the shuddering 'CRUMP!!' that would come to signify vehicular disaster that our unknown horseman was heading for Suffolk at full gallop. A horse at full gallop can make 25-30 miles per hour, so our rider was probably reining his animal in at the Suffolk train station 10 or so minutes after he left the scene. The rider dismounted, ran into the station, and burst into the station master's office with the horrible news. The station master acted quickly and decisively...he sent a couple of people to round up Suffolk Drs Webb, Riddick and Cohooas, and by lucky happenstance they also ran across Smithfield's Dr Purdie (He had to have been in Suffolk, and not Smithfield...I'll get to why in Notes... ) and told them of the disaster. They got a wagon (Probably a freight wagon or express wagon owned by the railroad), loaded the supplies they figured they'd need, likely hitched a two horse team to it,  climbed aboard, and headed for the scene. It probably took close to an hour to get everything organized, so it was probably pushing noon by the time they got everything loaded, hitched up, and headed for Kilby. They could probably make, at the best, 10 MPH or so, and at ten miles per hour it would have been one hell of a ride...stage coaches only averaged about 6 MPH on roads that were not necessarily flat and smooth. It was a good fifteen to twenty minutes before the wagon reached the scene, probably arriving around two hours after the accident happened.

The second thing the station master did was dispatch a rider on another fast horse to the Railroad's headquarters in Portsmouth, about twenty miles away, to advise them of the accident and get more help on the way. Now remember horses are not machines. A well conditioned animal can gallop maybe 9-10 miles at a pop, averaging 20-30 miles per hour, then slow to a walk or even rest. I'm going to make a wild guess and say that the twenty mile trip rook maybe an hour and a half, making it 12:30PM by the time our second rider arrived at the headquarters of the P&R Railroad, bearing news that the directors of the company did not want to hear. So, while the four doctors who were already on scene started doing what little the technology of the time allowed, the railroad brass sent messengers to the hospital in Portsmouth, as well as the U.S.Navy Hospital to round up some more doctors. Then, preparations that would be standard for railroad disasters for the next century or so were set in motion. The rolling stock maintenance crew was put to work finding a locomotive, (The P&R only had four or five steam locomotives at the time...remember the whole rail line wasn't but about 80 miles long)  loading it's tender with water and wood, watering it's boiler, and lighting off the firebox. It'd be a good two the very least...before the engine was ready to move.
Meanwhile back in Kilby, the wagon that brought the doctors and supplies is being used to move the worse injured out of the heat of the day to the nearby home of a resident named Richard Goodwin, The residents of Suffolk have found out about the wreck, and dozens of them descended on the scene, most to help in any way that they could.

The preparations to move men and supplies from Portsmouth to Kilby was complicated, and it took a while to get everyone organized, to the rail station, and get a game plan formulated. An engine crew had to be found for the rescue train's locomotive, and a coach had to be obtained, the two coupled together, and then they had to get loaded and set out for Kilby. They would arrive around dark, so I'm assuming they arrived at the scene somewhere between 8PM and 9PM. I have a feeling that whatever locomotive they chose just may have set an unofficial land speed record en route, rumbling through the gathering darkness, the occupants of the coach leaning out of the windows of the coach and straining for the first sign of the accident...

As the rescue train neared the scene, the darkening skies were flickering blue-white as thunder mumbled discontent at them. They were about to get hit by an age-old, just about daily Eastern Virginia Summer phenomenon...the summer thunderstorm. The rescue train rolled to a stop near the rear of the wrecked passenger train. Most likely some of the local residents were waiting for the train's arrival, they told the arriving medical personnel and railroad brass where the passengers were and hands took to the task of unloading supplies as the trees started waving at them in hushed rustlings as the wind picked up. Anxious faces peered towards the gathering thunder-boomer, gauging just how long they had before they got wet.

Remember the second fatal accident?? Well it was set up by the first one because it involved the rescue train. I can just about bet that the decision was made early on to transport the worst injured  passengers to Portsmouth on the rescue train's passenger car, and one of the railroad brass made the sensible decision to send the rescue train back to Suffolk to top off both wood and water, then return to the scene. This would be a wild trip...trains just did not run at night in that era. There were no head lights on the locomotives and few lights along the track...What light there was came from homes near the tracks, and that light would have been feeble at best, therefore there was no way to see any obstructions along the tracks. Keep in mind here that the crew was pretty much blind at night if they were going forward. But they’d be backing to Suffolk, pushing the coach ahead of them, so the engine crew had absolutely no view ahead of them at all. They MAY have had someone riding the coach as a lookout...but he couldn't see in pitch black darkness any better than the engineer or fireman could.

And it gets worse...the storm was bearing down on them hard and the wind was probably really whipping about the time they left the scene for Suffolk.  The bottom fell out somewhere between Kilby and Suffolk. We don't know if the engine crew slowed because of the rain, or kept the throttle open wide, or something in between. What we do  know is that James Woodward and Richard Oliver, two citizens of Suffolk, were walking down the middle of the track, possibly even discussing the unprecedented train wreck in Kilby, on that stormy evening. They were also carrying umbrellas, and the rain pattering off of them coupled with the roar of a heavy rain would have masked any sound made by the train that was  coming up behind them. We also know that they were near the P&R's elevated water tank and wood shed when the train...probably slowing for the water tank...came up behind them. Now I can see why these guys considered walking along the tracks safe and convenient. The P&R's trains were originally horse-drawn, and there was a path between the rails for the horses. Also, again,  trains normally didn't run at night so they didn't expect one to be bearing down on them.

The train rolled down on them, slowing to take water, and the two likely didn't even hear it, much less see it...or if they did it was too late to do anything but yell. The engine crew didn't see or hear them, and likely didn't find them until they had stopped...Woodward died instantly, and Oliver hung on to life until the following Monday...of interest is the fact that the two were brought to the railroad offices (Probably hard by the water tank). The days accidents had caused possibly as many as eight fatalities....up to that time there likely hadn't many more rail fatalities than that in an entire year.

The worse injured passengers were probably ultimately transported to Portsmouth by the rescue train but as many as 140 people ended up staying at the Goodwin home for several days as the house was turned into an impromptu hospital/hotel as the lesser injured recovered and transportation home was arranged for those who weren't injured. The accident had probably torn the tracks up, so repairs had to be made before another train could pass, so the residents of Southampton and Isle of Wight who were stuck there might as well have been 1000 miles from home. Those who were uninjured probably decided that enjoying the hospitality of the Goodwins and the citizens of Suffolk until the tracks were repaired beat a dusty hours long stage coach ride hands down. (And it would have taken a lot of stagecoach trips to transport a hundred or more passengers).

An investigation was initiated immediately after the accident, and the crew of the freight was found to be entirely to blame...apparently they actually were supposed to take the siding in Carrsville and were trying to beat the passenger train to Suffolk (The reason they were trying to do so was never revealed and is now lost to history). The Train Captain, Gordius Ethridge and the engineer, a fellow by the name of Williams, were both found guilty of Gross Negligence and bound over for trial...both escaped custody and were last seen hightailing it into the woods of Nansemond County.

As for the second accident, both deaths were ruled to be caused by an unavoidable accident, and no blame was placed on the crew of the rescue train.

This accident would be a near anomaly during the decade and a half that followed. It would be sixteen years...1853...before another rail accident claimed more passengers. That year became known as 'The Year The Horrors Began'. But that's another story or a dozen or so.

***Notes, Links, And Stuff***

This accident happened 180 years ago, so needless to say I couldn't find but so much information on it..and on top of that some of the information I did  find was 180 degrees apart from other info that I'd found. For example, the second accident was mentioned in two sources. One reported it as I wrote it (With Woodward and Oliver struck by the train as it returned to Suffolk) while the second source reported that the rescue train struck them on the way to the first accident. The first version seemed to make more sense, so I went with that one. As would be the case with any more or less obscure incident (And even some well known incidents and events) from that far back in time, I had to do a bit of guessing to fill in some details. I hope what I came up with made sense, entertained you for a few minutes, and I hope you learned something in the process. Now...On to the notes...and links...and stuff!
Interesting little factoid before we get too deeply into the notes...many people consider the Portsmouth &Roanoke to be the second rail line to go in service in the U.S.
Ahhh...Smithfield's good Dr. Purdie. His reason for being in Suffolk on August 11th, 1837 has long been lost to history, but whatever the reason I have a feeling the day was a lot longer and way more eventful than he bargained for when he woke up, probably already in Suffolk. And he had to have been in Suffolk to have been notified and arrived at the same time as the other three doctors. Suffolk is a shade under 20 miles from Smithfield by road today...that's going straight up State Route 10, and the route in 1837 may have closely followed that of the modern Route 10...or it may have been more round-a-bout. For the sake of argument lets just say it was close to present Route 10's route. Twenty miles on horseback would have been at least a four hour trip at the normal canter of about 5 miles per hour. So if the accident happened at about 10:30 AM, and the first notification reached Suffolk right around 11AM, for Dr Purdie to have been notified at about the same time as the three doctors from Suffolk, he either left Smithfield at 7AM or even earlier or, most likely, he was already in Suffolk...probably arriving the afternoon or evening before, very likely to visit with or consult one of the other three physicians.
The passenger cars that were involved in the accident looked little like what we think of as passenger cars...they were basically big stage coaches, still four wheeled but large enough to accommodate about fifteen passengers each, with either three or possibly four full width bench seats per car. Each seat may have  had it's own entrance/exit door. The windows didn't have any glass in them, which caused it's own brand of excitement when (And yes, that's when not if) burning cinders from the engine's smoke stack entered the car and bounced among the passengers.The cars were were all wood with the exception of the running gear. If there were 150 passengers aboard the train's 13 cars, it would have averaged about 11 passengers per car. Weight wise they probably weighed in at a couple of tons each empty, about three tons or so with a full passenger load. At that weight, the entire 13 car train involved in the accident...including the engine and tender...weighed in at about 25 tons less than a single modern passenger coach.
The first trains on the Portsmouth and Roanoke were horse drawn, and the line...though planned to ultimately extend all of the way to Weldon, on the Roanoke River...only reached as far as Suffolk by 1834...the same year that the road purchased it's first steam locomotive. The line reached into North Carolina by mid 1835, Margaretville, N.C. by April 1836, and was finally completed to Weldon in June 1837. The final stop for our ill fated Passenger train was Boykins or possibly Branchville, about 3 miles further southwest. No one is absolutely sure where the lumber train originated from and I can't say for anything even close to certain that it originated in Weldon but we know it wasn't Franklin. Franklin was nothing more that a stop on the rail line at that time and was called a 'Swampy Wilderness' by one rail traveler in 1836.
The P&R bought their second steam engine in 1835, and ran two steam powered trains originating from each end of the line. By 1836 the P&R extended about 60 miles from Portsmouth with the trains leaving in the morning and arriving on the other end in the early afternoon. These trains were probably mixed consist trains, with both passenger and freight cars and a one way ticket would set you back 75 cents. Most importantly, with two trains each from each end of the line...the train crews were more than familiar with both the importance of strictly following time tables and the concept of holding on a siding for another train to pass. I have no idea which would have had the right of way, but one of them would have had to hold at a siding, very likely the one at Carrsville that our lumber train blew past without slacking up, to avoid...well to avoid exactly what ended up happening.
We don't know for sure how many steam engines the P&R owned in August 1837...but we do know they had at least three. Of course if three locomotives is all they had that day, this means that they managed to wreck two thirds of their motive power inventory, and have a hundred percent of it involved in an accident in less than twenty four hours.
The roadbed and track of that era proved to be fine for the original horse drawn rolling stock, but far too light weight for the new steam locomotives...the rails were 9” by 5” heart pine beams with 2” by 2” strap iron bars on top. The wooden beams were fitted into a notch in the cross ties, and secured in place with a wooden wedge The cross ties were also notched dead center to accommodate a path in the middle of the track for the horses. This type of track was fine for the comparatively light weight horse drawn passenger coaches and freight wagons, but far too light weight for the steam engines, which had a tendency to crush the wooden beams. The heavy steamers would also work the ends of the iron straps loose as they pounded across the joints, and ultimately one if the iron strap rails would bend upward and create havoc when and if it managed to get caught on the wheels of a locomotive or a'd either throw the car or engine off of the track or shoot upward and penetrate the lightweight wooden floor of the car.

A cross section of early railroad tracks using strap rail, also showing the wedge that kept the wooden beams in place.
The P&R experienced just such an accident...another fatality at that...four months after the accident in Suffolk. On December 10, 1837 a mixed train with three passenger cars followed by several freight cars, ran over one of these broken rail joints. The 'Snakehead', as the ends of the loosened rails were called, flipped one of the engines off of the track along with it's tender. The passenger cars slammed into the overturned tender and engine, stopping short, and were telescoped by the freight cars, killing two and injuring 17. 

Another sadly low quality cross section that includes an illustration of just how 'snakeheads' occur...note the way it catches the wheel and rises the rim...after doing this it would spring violently through the floor of the car. If you were sitting in the seat directly in the path of the up-springing snakehead, it could cause you to have a very bad day indeed!


I have a sneaking suspicion that the excursion that the passengers were returning from was an early package deal...something to the effect of 'Enjoy the benefits of today's most modern forms of transportation while spending a relaxing two days visiting Norfolk and Fortress Monroe'. The trip was probably sponsored by the P&R to increase interesting point about the trip was the fact that it occurred in the middle of the week...a Thursday and a Friday to be exact. Trips such as this were pretty much the domain of the privileged and wealthy back in the day and the average working man couldn't get the time off even if he could afford the trip. 


This day and time if a traveler was told 'One of the obligations of purchasing a train ticket is that of assisting the crew in getting the locomotive or coaches back on the track in the event of a minor derailment' said traveler's reply would very likely be colorful to say the least. Right before he told the railroad where they could put said ticket. In the very early days of railroading, though, this was exactly what passengers were told, and they accepted this obligation with no question or complaint. If a car jumped the track, the only way you had of getting to where you were going was to get the thing back on the track.


Not too many links to choose from on this one gang...but I found a few!

Text of a period news paper article about the wreck...this is the article that said that the collision actually caused 6 fatalities. The site itself is extremely interesting, containing info on literally tens of thousands of incidents of all kinds in all fifty states and Canada.

Google Books site about an excellent history of The Seaboard Airline Railroad, includding the Portsmouth and Roanoke RR. Click on the cover and it takes you to the pages themselves, go th page 5 for a fairly detailed account of the wreck. Suffolk Seaboard Station Railroad Museum, in Suffolk Va. An awesome repository of history of The Seaboard Airline Railway, Virginian Railway, the Norfolk and Western Railroad, and the Atlantic and Danville Railroad. The museum also features a large HO scale model railroad layout that depicts Suffolk as it appeared in 1907. A must visit if you're visiting the area, and a perfect day-trip if you live within a few hours driving time!

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