Articles & Stories


1903 Nelson County Train Wreck
Claimed Lives Of Seven Railroad Men

Many Believe A Case Of Human Error Caused Tragic Incident

Editor's Note: Letitia A. Knoeller submits this manuscript and photos telling the story of a major train wreck in Nelson County, Kentucky, in November 1903. She is a retired public school teacher, with a longtime interest in trains and Kentucky history. Due to the length of the article and the excellent photos submitted, we have chosen to publish the story in two parts.

By Letitia A. (Tish) Knoeller - 2002

The early days of the 20th century produced a number of tragic railroad wrecks, which were im-
mortalized in songs. On April 30, 1900, Casey Jones, who spent his boyhood in Kentucky, was killed when he crashed his locomotive into a freight train in Mississippi. This was immortalized in a song, which has come to epitomize "the brave engineer." Three years later, on September 27, 1903, Steve Broady and several other employees were killed when their Southern Railway locomotive went over the side of a trestle near Danville, Virginia, inspiring the song The Wreck of the Old 97.
Only a relatively few people have ever heard of a song titled The Wreck Between New Hope and Gethsemane, which told of a terrible wreck on the L&N Railroad
This somewhat obscure song was written and copyrighted in 1936. It was written by Karl (Davis) and Harty (Taylor) and Doc Hopkins. Lyrics and music are published in Scalded to Death by the Steam by Katie Letcher Lyle. This book contains an interesting collection of train wreck stories and songs related to them.
Less than two months after the wreck of the Old 97, seven railroad men lost their lives in a head-on collision between two freight trains on the L&N's Lebanon Branch. Despite the song's title, the wreck actually occurred in Nelson County near the Marion County line south of the community of New Hope, which in turn is three miles south of Gethsemane. Contemporary newspaper articles pinpoint the location at Tilford's Switch, which is slightly more than 51 rail miles from Louisville and 20 miles beyond Lebanon Junction. The wreck location was also identified in other news accounts as Tallifaros, Willow Springs, and Coon Hollow.
Tragedies of this magnitude were all too common in earlier days. Railroading in the entire country at the turn of the 20th century was not nearly as safe as it would become in later years. Air brakes were in general use, but were not as efficient nor reliable as the braking systems on modern equipment.


This is the wreck scene of the head-on collision between two freight trains on the L&N's Lebanon Branch in November of 1903. Notice the wooden car (probably a gondola, possibly carrying coal), and how many of the spectators were dressed in the latest styles, especially the ladies in the lower right. It is possible that some had been passengers on train #26, which had arrived at the wreck scene within an hour. The shadows indicate the photo was taken early in the day. (Photo courtesy of the author.)



Dim, oil-burning headlights on locomotives limited the range of the engineer's vision at night. Kerosene lanterns and colored marker lights, which enabled railroaders to readily identify specific trains, were difficult to see beyond a short distance. Dense fog (which will appear later in our story) could render them practically useless. Semaphores, which were not used at the time on the Lebanon Branch, were not entirely reliable when used on the main line.
Railroad operating personnel, occasionally, contributed to the dangers. Substance abuse, usually alcohol, was all too common, even though it was forbidden by the railroad industry's "rule G." Fatalistic or scofflaw attitudes of many trainmen often led to flagrant disregard of operating rules. Long hours and inadequate rest were common and resulted in human error. Railroad management was known to push men and machines beyond safe limits. The unions helped somewhat, but initially lacked the power to demand the stringent work rules of later years.
Communications, which probably caused the New Hope wreck, were usually by telegraphed train orders which would modify or confirm what the crewmen had been told to do before leaving the terminal. They were sent by dispatchers to stations. The operator at the receiving station would decode the dots and dashes that came in over the wire into a written message to the train crew. Accuracy was determined by the skills of the sender and receiver. The receiving operator prepared two additional copies of the orders. He kept one set and gave one to the engine crew and one to the conductor of the train. This was accomplished by signalling the train to stop to get its orders, or by the somewhat hazardous practice of attaching the orders to a hoop and holding them near the moving train to be caught by a crewman as the locomotive and caboose each passed the operator.
Each scheduled train had an assigned number and according to each railroad's timetable was expected to be at a specific location at the scheduled time. When traffic, both passenger and freight, was heavy, necessitating additional cars, frequently they were divided into several separate trains, run closely together, and referred to as sections of the same train such as "3rd number 15." Non-scheduled trains were called "extras" and usually referred to by the locomotive number. These did not appear on the timetable, thus all personnel had to be alert when notified of these extras and when and where they were to be met. This information was also conveyed by telegraphed train orders.
The Lebanon Branch was opened in the summer of 1857, as far as Lebanon in Marion County and completed on to Knoxville some years after the Civil War. The railroad was known for numerous grades and serpentine curves winding around the hills of Central Kentucky. High earthen embankments kept the grades at a more reasonable level. Wrought iron bridges, wooden trestles, and stone culverts carried the rails over the numerous streams. The southeastern segment had several tunnels.
This was the most direct and rapid connection between Louisville and the Eastern Kentucky coal fields. It also provided efficient freight and passenger service to much of Central and Eastern Kentucky and connected with other railroads into the southeastern United States.
There were numerous sidings (parallel tracks that permitted trains to pass one another) along the Lebanon Branch. Most of these were located near the small town stations along the railroad and were known by the name of the closest station. As mentioned earlier, where and when this passing was to occur was determined by a printed timetable and the dispatcher. Additional instructions were communicated by telegraphed train orders. No doubt thousands of such meetings safely occurred without incident during the 130-year-history of the line.
Late in the evening of November 11, 1903, train #34 steamed north out of Jellico, Tennessee, bound for Louisville, which was slightly over 200 miles away. It was considered a "fast freight," which at the time indicated an average speed of 30 m.p.h. Its bill of lading consisted of mixed freight, including a carload of shoes.
W. O. Chambers was the conductor and in charge of the train. Assisting him were Clarence Riley, flagman; Tom Edmonds, middle brakeman; and Joseph A. Winkler, head brakeman. Power for train #34 was provided by steam locomotive #739, a large 2-8-0 or "consolidation." Built in 1890 and weighing 138,200 pounds, the big engine was classified as H-6 by the L&N mechanical forces. Although small when compared to later steam power, at the time, it was one of the largest locomotives in use in the South. Two large air reservoirs (for air brakes) mounted above the boiler gave it a top heavy appearance. The only attempts at decoration were the brass number plate on the front of the smokebox and a jaunty-fluted rim on top of the stack.
A wooden cab housed the engine crew. A common practice at the time, especially on these larger engines, was to place the engineer's seat between the side of the firebox and the inside wall of the cab. He had to climb over the seat to get into it. This made a quick exit in case of danger extremely difficult.
At the throttle of 739 was engineer Edward Sturgis of Lebanon Junction, Kentucky. Originally hired as a fireman, he had been promoted to engineer six years earlier. John Reynolds, of London, Kentucky, was the fireman. His primary job was to shovel many tons of coal into the firebox during the trip and maintain the fire in order to keep up steam pressure. When not doing this work, he was expected to watch the left side of the track, as the long locomotive boiler often impaired the engineer's vision on this side.
Number 34 proceeded north, stopping at Livingston for orders which stated:
"To C. (conductor) and E. (engineer) Nos. 31, 34, and 3rd No. 52: No. thirty-one (31) will meet No. thirty-four (34) and third section No. 52 at Gethsemane."
Rules required that the orders were to be read by all crew members. No specific time was given for the meet, as these were scheduled trains and the timetables, which each conductor and engineer had, listed this information. Operating rules also stated that a train waited until the other train arrived, regardless of time.
After receiving the orders, the train continued on to Sinks, where it switched onto the Lebanon branch toward its destination. A dense fog had covered the area, but this was part of the hazardous job of railroading.
Meanwhile, early in the morning of November 12, 1903, train #31 prepared to leave Lebanon Junction, Kentucky. Number 31 was also a fast freight, but had many additional cars for the trip south. Included in the mixed freight were three carloads of dynamite for the coal mining industry. The extra weight of the longer train would require a "double header" of two of the giant consolidations. Engines 746 and 755, which were essentially identical to the 739, were assigned to the run. Both were classified as H-7 and weighed 145,000 pounds, when they were built in 1890.
It is not known which was the lead engine, but it was handled by Engineer Moorman Graves of Lebanon Junction. Engineer Martin Cannon handled the second engine. Firemen were H. H. Leach, address unknown; and William Lyden, a native of Ireland, who had been residing in Louisville. Each of these young men had been firing for about three years. As was common at the time, brakeman Reed Hume of Lebanon Junction was riding one of the engines. His services would be required to "line the switch" to permit the train to enter a siding to permit another train to safely pass. Since the southbound trains, which had "odd" numbers, were classified as "inferior," they would take the sidings to permit the "superior" northbound train, which had "even" numbers, to pass without stopping.
Conductor Bob Chappell was in charge of the train. The identity of other crew members, with the exception of the brakeman riding the engine, is not known at this time. The heavy train departed Lebanon Junction early that morning in a dense fog, which arose from the nearby Rolling Fork River. It continued south to New Haven where it stopped to receive orders which should have been identical to those received by the northbound train at Livingston. It is also likely that both tenders were filled with water from the high wooden tank near the station.
Number 31 steamed south to Gethsemane, where it entered the siding to await the northbound trains as supposedly stated in the orders.
Finally, a northbound train approached and passed the #31 which was waiting in the fog shrouded siding. Apparently this was the "3rd No. 52" mentioned in the orders. (Railroad operating rules stated that if there was a second section of that particular train running behind, the first locomotive was to carry classification lights of a designated color, usually green, on the front of the boiler at night to advise other crews that there was another section following. However, the last section did not have to carry any classification lights. After the train passed, the two large locomotives clanked out on to the main track and continued south, apparently thinking that the train that had passed them was 34, and that it was safe to proceed south.
Since that segment of track was relatively level and straight, the southbound train was running an estimated 30 miles per hour when it rumbled through New Hope at about 3:47 a.m.
At the same time, #34 was steaming north through the incredibly dense fog. It passed the closed and dark Dant's Station, crossed the line between Marion and Nelson counties, and into a curved stretch of track, which even under ideal daytime conditions, limited the engine crew's vision.
The exhaust blasts of steam locomotives pulling heavy trains in hilly terrain make an incredible amount of noise. Although this was audible for several miles in humid weather, neither engine crew could hear the other train over the sound of its own. Trainmen called this "killing the noise" of other nearby trains.
Suddenly, according to witnesses, whistle screams pierced the damp night air. This was followed immediately by a thunderous crash and loud rumbling sounds of railroad cars rolling down a steep embankment and piling up in a mangled heap. Then there was silence broken only by the hiss of escaping steam.

This article will be continued in the December/January issue of The Kentucky Explorer.

Author's note: I am a 28-year member of the Kentucky Railway Museum in New Haven, where I work as a volunteer. I serve as curator of artifacts and have also realized an impossible (for the times) girlhood dream of becoming a locomotive engineer on passenger trains. I especially enjoy operating and even firing the museum's 1905 steam locomotive-ex L&N R. R. #152. Even the hot, greasy, maintenance work is fun!
The Lebanon Branch, where the Museum is now operating, is endowed with history, and I would like to research and write more about the railroad and its impact on the area and state.
For this reason, I am interested in receiving any photos (including photo copies) of depots, water tanks, section houses, trains, industries served by the railroad, or any scenes on the Lebanon Branch. These will be placed in the Railway Museum's archives.
Tish Knoeller, P.O. Box 43004, Middletown, KY 40253, shares this story and photos.


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