The Carolina Special left Chattanooga destined for Salisbury, North Carolina, on September 24, 1904, comprised of four coaches, a combination baggage-mail car and three Pullman cars loaded with 210 passengers. The journey for many of them began in Missouri where they attended the St. Louis World’s Fair.
Engineer G.M. Dick Parrott and conductor Tom Murphy received their orders at the Strawberry Plains station instructing them to continue on the main track.
Meanwhile Southern Railway Train # 15 was leaving Bristol for Knoxville, Tennessee with three scheduled stops, ultimately picking up 140 passengers along the way.
It was a beautiful day and everyone was excited with the travel to their destinations but they would become part of one of the worst railway disasters in our nation’s history.
Both trains were scheduled to take the same track while traversing eastern Tennessee. As was often the case, one of the trains, Train #15 in this instance, was supposed to stop on a side track at Hodge’s Switch to allow the larger Carolina Special to safely pass. Then each train would continue on toward their respective destination.
During a routine stop at Morristown, Tennessee, Train #15 received and signed off on orders to take the New Market side track instead of Hodge’s Switch. After stopping at New Market the train should have stopped after just a few hundred yards more onto the side track to allow the Carolina Special to pass before resuming to their Knoxville destination.
A theory in news accounts of the day was that, since they were running a few minutes late, Train 15 engineer Bill Kane and conductor Caldwell decided to make up some lost time by going “full throttle” racing to the next sidetrack six miles away before meeting the Carolina Special. His train had only light coaches and a baggage car which allowed for faster speed. It became known later that the engineer was anxious to see his harness horse race later that day in Knoxville and that may have played a part in his rash decision. In any event Train #15 didn’t stop and the trains were now on a collision course. It was an accident waiting to happen!
“Urgent! Number 15 has run the switch and is on the main line,” a telegraph operator from the New Market station warned in a message to the Strawberry Plains station.
They wanted to tell the engineer of the Carolina Special that they were on a collision course. The Special was just departing the station and railroad officials ran outside and began waving and even throwed rocks at the train to get their attention in order to stop the train. It was no use. Their efforts to stop the train were unnoticed.
Soon the two trains sped toward each other down the main line of the Southern Railway track between 60 and 70 miles per hour. Time was running out. The communications options that are in use today weren’t available in that era. There was one last chance to warn the trains; a telegram was sent to Hodges’ Switch, the normal passing place but no one was on duty and the message was never received. Since they were speeding toward each other at a combined speed of well over 100 miles per hour a calamity awaited them just ahead.
Train #15 “was barreling down the steep grades” to what was known in railroad parlance as a “dip.” A blind curve lay just ahead, making matters even worse.
Both train engineers caught sight of the other train at Whitaker’s Farm and the emergency brakes were immediately applied. It was too late. Both were traveling at far too great a speed to stop or to slow down but very little. They slammed together head-on, on New Market Hill, at 10:18 a.m.
The locomotive and coal-tender of Train #15 was thrust into the air by the collision, turned upside down as catapulted over the engine, tender and baggage cars of the Carolina Special. Train #15 landed atop the wooden passenger cars resulting in them being reduced into massive piles of splinters under the crushing weight. Death came quickly to many of the victims, decapitated or horribly mangled, with screaming continuing from the injured surviving passengers even after the smoke, steam, dirt and grime had settled. Those aboard the lighter #15 Train were more fortunate as it landed on its side and began sliding for a considerable distance.
Both G.M. “Dick” Parrott and William Kane, engineers of the two trains, were laid side by side on the ground, not far from the point of collision. They had been found beneath a mass of iron, steel and wood mixed with human bodies.
“When I heard the rumble of the two trains coming I looked up and was able to see the terrible happening,” Joseph J. Whitaker, an eyewitness who was gathering corn with a mule team and wagon said. “I secured the team to the wagon because I knew the mules would be frantic over the noise of the crash.
“The trains were approaching each other at a fast speed. I knew they were on a single track. I saw black smoke belching from both engines as they came closer and closer. I knew they would crash and couldn’t take my eyes away.
“It was almost beyond description. The steam engines rolling at a frightful speed and ripped into each other, filling the air with splinters of wood and mangled metal. It actually caused the ground to tremble. The impact was so great the boilers of both engines exploded and reared high into the air. They fell back to earth in a grotesque heap near where I was working.”
It was reported that shortly after noon a hundred or more workmen were sorting through debris, removing bodies and caring for the injured. A rescue train left Chattanooga within an hour with a track rightofway above all others. A claims official from the Southern Railway Company arrived in mid-afternoon with $30,000 in cash and began settling claims on the spot.
A relief train from Knoxville also arrived bringing doctors and medical supplies to the crash scene as well as photographers and enterprising reporters who snuck aboard and then exited a little before the train arrived to keep from being detected.
The injured were taken to the Knoxville General Hospital. Many passengers had been impaled by timbers when the wooden railway cars were splintered. Others were decapitated. Thousands of Knoxville area residents arrived trying to find out about family members. Large numbers of curiosity seekers also arrived.
When the hospital overflowed others were taken to private homes. All doctors in the area, approximately 40, were called into service. There were near riots when bodies began arriving and they were randomly divided between only two funeral homes. City police guarded the entrances and allowed only small numbers in at a time.
So it was in the era of the train catastrophe near New Market, Tennessee. The railroad system was still in its infancy and our ancestors loved the trains and were fascinated as it brought them much closer to the outside world. Oh there were ghastly accidents like the one reported herein but we continued using the Iron Horse. It brought services and growth to America. copyright 2019 Jadon Gibson
Editor’s note: Jadon Gibson is a freelance writer from Harrogate, TN. His stories are both historical and nostalgic in nature and can be read each week at bereaonline.com. Don’t miss a single posting!
A Voice for God – A Voice for Good
My good Lord in Heaven has been so good to me. I was fortunate to meet and have some dealings with Preacher W. B. Bingham, II, prior to his death at age 82 in a car accident involving a drunk driver near Binghamtown Baptist Church on Sunday, February 1, 2004.
Preacher Bingham conducted over 5,000 funerals and over 500 revivals during his service to God. The Lord’s words through him resulted in many giving their lives to Jesus as Jesus did for us. Preacher Bingham was born and reared in Dewitt, Kentucky, in Knox County.
His father was working at building a road in the Dewitt area when young Bingham accompanied him when he went to vote on election day, November 4, 1930.
“Dad had a disagreement with a man over the election” he said during a television interview in 2003. “Dad told the other man ‘Let’s have peace.’ They weren’t that peaceful. Just a few minutes later both lay dead. I saw my Dad shot and killed in front of me when I was eight years old. It was all over the election.
“Even though I saw him kill my Dad I couldn’t tell anyone. I didn’t know why for several years but there was a church built within a stone’s throw of where my Dad was killed and I became the preacher of that church. Three hundred or more were saved. Even the oldest son of the man that killed my Dad was saved and his daughter too. If I had told about the killing all of that may not have happened. I wouldn’t have had the influence that I had… also it is likely there would have been more killing.”
We’ll recount what Rev. Bingham had to say about his ministry in Pineville and ultimately in Middlesboro in an upcoming segment.
Dr. W.B. (Preacher) Bingham II was pastor of Binghamtown Baptist Church for 54 years. His beloved wife of 62 years, Mae Bowling Bingham was his helpmate, co-worker, chauffeur, and fellow laborer in the ministry.
He preached from Alaska to Israel during his 60 years in the ministry and was the founder and senior administrator of Gateway Christian School. He also led Binghamtown Baptist Church in the ministry of media outreach through W.M.I.K. Christian Radio, and a regional television ministry covering eight states.
Preacher Bingham was known for his loving, humble, and giving spirit. The influence of the example and labor of Preacher Bingham is still evident in Binghamtown Baptist Church where his son W. B. (Preacher) Bingham, III, carries the mantle and doing it well like his father.
As the senior preacher, the late Preacher W.B. Bingham, II, would say, “To God be the Glory. Great things he has done.”