Articles & Stories

Many Wounded, Two Killed In
Accident On The L&N Railroad

The Cannon Ball In Route To Louisville Smashes Through
Mail Train On Christmas Eve 1888 At Bardstown

The Courier Journal - December 25, 1888

Splinters and scrap iron remain of what yesterday morning were two completely equipped passenger coaches on the Knoxville branch of the Louisville and Nashville Railway. Two corpses and an indefinite number of injured persons left from the crowd of holiday travelers on the train are the results of a horrible smash-up that occurred on December 24, 1888, at Bardstown Junction, Bullitt County, Kentucky.
The accident occurred about 9:00 a.m. while the morning mail train was standing at the junction, delayed by an unusually heavy express business, and while people from the neighborhood and others traveling thronged the station platform.
There was not the slightest indication of danger. The train hands were busily engaged at their customary duties. Passengers walked beside the train, stretching and resting their cramped and tired limbs, and the usual crowd of loungers gazed idly on, making the scene an exact duplicate of what it is every day of the year, except for its increased liveliness due to the season.
Suddenly there appeared from behind the curve, on the Louisville side of the station, another train moving at frightful speed straight down on the motionless mail train. Those who witnessed the catastrophe had not even time to reckon the full meaning of the situation or to think of what was to come. The oncoming engine, too close to be stopped or slowed down, backed by a heavy train of cars, crashed full speed into the mail train which was puffing and blowing, ready in the next few seconds to crowd on steam and be off and out of the way.
An instant later the destructive work was done. The moving engine, going at the extreme limit of its speed, had struck with irresistible force against the last car of the motionless train. It had plowed its way through solid wood and iron the complete length of the last coach and halfway through the next. Completely wrecking them, it jammed the forward cars together in telescopic fashion, while the mass of machinery, which gave force to the blow, was buried beneath the fragments it made of the two coaches. The whole scene was obscured by a pall of dust and steam and smoke.
The crash was deafening to those close by, and the shrieking and sobbing of the steam and the cracking of timbers which followed added to the horror of the calamity. The victims, fortunately, were fewer in numbers than even the most hopeful could have expected.
Of the coaches of the obstructing train, two were completely demolished and one other was so badly smashed that it can be of no further service, while the engine which did the damage was almost hopelessly wrecked. The debris covered the track and junction platform and temporarily blocked the way of further travel. The rails were concealed beneath a chaotic mass of broken and twisted iron and steel and shattered woodwork. The road was cleared, however, in a few hours, and the regular trains were delayed but a very short time.
The L&N officials are now engaged in an investigation as to the exact cause of the horrible affair and in endeavors to fasten the responsibility upon the employee who was at fault. The facts of the catastrophe are simply that the morning mail train of the Knoxville branch of the L&N remained at Bardstown Junction much longer than it should have, and that the train following it found the first obstructing the single track too late to prevent the collision.
The first train which is known as the No. 23, bound for Knoxville, left Louisville at 7:45 a.m. December 24th, carrying the mail and an unusually large number of passengers. It consisted of the engine, baggage express cars, smoker, and two first-class coaches. The conductor on the fatal trip was O. S. Ray of Louisville. It made all the usual local stops between Louisville and Bardstown Junction, though not in the fast time customary, this being prevented by an excessively heavy express business. The delay was caused by the difficulty the express messengers experienced in handling the packages. The schedule time for No. 23's arrival at Bardstown Junction was 8:52 a.m., but it was considerably later.
Following the mail train and leaving Louisville 20 minutes later was the fast through passenger train for Nashville. On the time card as No. 5 it is more commonly known as The Cannon Ball. It makes but few stops carrying through passengers, and it went out with Conductor M. C. Haight, Engineer Milton L. McFerran, and Fireman Charles King. The train consisted of an engine, baggage car, and four coaches. It made no stops between Louisville and Bardstown Junction and having a clear track and running at an average rate of about 35 miles an hour, it gained seven minutes on the mail train in the 20 miles between Louisville and the Bardstown Junction.
From the statements made by both the engineer and firemen of the through train, the run to Bardstown Junction was made in the usual time and without accident. To a point less than 100 yards from the station, at the junction, the track is comparatively straight, giving a good lookout ahead. There, a sharp curve begins, partially hiding the buildings of the station, and the buildings completely hide anything that might be on the side farthest from Louisville.
The road schedule gave The Cannon Ball a clear track, and the train was headed in the direction of the Bardstown Junction at almost full speed. Engineer McFerran expected to make his usual rush past the station. The men in the cab chatted cheerfully and kept the lookout but without thought of any such danger as was in store for them.
On the station platform at the junction a considerable crowd of the country people of the vicinity had gathered. The baggage master and the express messengers were still struggling with the numerous packages which caused their train to be late, but not one of all these heard a sound to indicate the coming of The Cannon Ball. The first intimation of the approaching calamity was when the through train thundered around the curve and began the race to death over the few yards of track which separated it from the mail train pulled up at the station directly in front. There was no time to warn the passengers who had remained in the coaches of the delayed train. Wild shouts were directed at them by the more fortunate people on the platform, but the ill-starred occupants of the cars were only confused by the attempts to save them.
Only the engineer and fireman of the approaching train were visible. They showed by their actions that they were fully aware of their situation. They were too near the obstructing coaches to hope to stop their own train, for it required the briefest possible space of time for the crash to come, and it was with a feeling of relief that the horror-stricken bystanders saw Fireman King rise and prepare to jump from the cab window of the swiftly approaching train. He at least might be saved was the thought of those who were capable of thinking at that terrible moment.
The leap was made with the determination of a man who realized completely the terrible chances he was taking, and a second later the fireman struck the roadside and began rolling down the incline of the embankment. He seemed to be safe and so was lost sight of instantly, the attention of all being concentrated on Engineer McFerran now on the engine. He had immediately, after sighting the mail train which blocked his way, put on the air brake and reversed the engine. The speed of No. 5 when she first showed around the curve was not less than 35 miles an hour, and it was probably the same when she struck the rear coach of No. 23. The distance to be covered after the brake was put on was too short for any perceptible effect to have been made on the immense weight of the oncoming train.
The engineer was still seated and looking fixedly ahead when the crash of the mighty blow sounded on the ears of all within a mile of the spot.
The Cannon Ball's cow-catcher first lifted the rear platform of the last coach. The engine plowed and butted through wood and metal alike as if it were only paper. The coach was split from end to end, the fragments falling on either side. The resistance offered by the one coach had no apparent effect on the impetus of The Cannon Ball, and the locomotive split and tore its way to the middle of the second coach before its progress was stopped. The forward coaches were thrown one against the other, with force enough to completely smash away the platforms at the end of each, stoving in the woodwork at the rear of the smoker. All the glass was broken, and the seats were piled in heaps on the floor.
The grinding and cracking of the solid material ceased as the momentum of the No. 5 engine was lost. The infernal shrieking of escaping steam, the dense volumes of vapor, combined with the dust and smoke from the locomotives, threw a leaden funeral pall over all.
The first shock of horror experienced by the witnesses to the terrible affair ended when a call for volunteers to assist in rescuing the victims from the wreck was raised, and then the humane work of saving life was begun.
By a miraculous chance the coaches attached to the Cannon Ball were but slightly damaged, none even leaving the track, and the passengers escaped without injury beyond a few bruises and a general shaking up.
The rescuing party gave attention first to the coach which had been in the rear of the mail train, but the discovery was made that the coach contained not a single person at the time of the collision. Had anyone been in it his or her death would have been certain, as the car was torn into pieces and scattered on both sides of the track.
In the middle of the second coach the locomotive of No. 5 was imbedded, the machine being tightly wedged between the fragments of the car, which was split in half. The boiler had been burst and twisted out of shape by the force of the blows received. From rents in the boiler the scalding steam escaped and filled the interior of the coach and made approach impossible until the intensely hot vapor had partially cooled.
From the south end of the fatal coach, which was almost jammed right against the baggage car, people were seen to squeeze themselves to an escape. Interest was centered at once on the giant engine and the pile of ruins around it. A window glass was broken with a crash and a man's head appeared. He was rescued, but he was scalded. He was a Miller. A man was pried out from the timbers of the engine cab. It was no easy matter to extricate him, for the hot steam was denser there than elsewhere. It was Engineer McFerran, more dead than alive. A woman, whose life had been instantly crushed out, was dragged from under a pile of debris. A boy who was mangled beyond recognition was fished out from under broken seats and shattered timbers near the woman. They were afterward identified as Mrs. Mary Perkins and Willie Houston, both of Hodgenville.
As the steam gradually lost its deadly heat and those who had been but slightly injured or were unhurt got away from the trap of death, an entrance was made to the coach and the scalded and maimed people were brought forth. Miss Mary Kinnaird of Louisville and Johnny Mount of La Grange were the worst injured; while Mrs. J. R. Mount of La Grange, Mr. Phil. B. Thompson of Shepherdsville, and Miss Bertha Robner of East Bernstadt were found to be seriously hurt. Others were released only bruised and stupefied. Among them were: J. P. Heckelman, S. K. Adams, Ella Adams, and Mrs. T. J. Jennings all of Louisville; and E. R. Dickerson and Miss Bertha Flownbacker of Bardstown. A large force of willing workers soon turned over the debris thoroughly and satisfied themselves that no one else was left beneath.
The dead and wounded were carried to houses nearby, and the local physicians gave them attention at once. Before long a telegram from Louisville announced that a special train with surgeons was on the way.
In the meantime, King, who had jumped from the engine, had been found and carried to a house. He was unconscious and apparently very badly hurt. Nothing much was done after the injured had been relieved as much as possible. The wrecking crew and the surgeons from Louisville arrived with General Manager Harahan about 10:00 a.m. The wreckers went actively to work to clear the track, and the surgeons attended the wounded.
Engines and cars were sent out from Louisville in the greatest hurry to replace those disabled, and the two trains that had been wrecked proceeded on their ways, No. 23 down the Knoxville Branch and No. 5 on to Nashville. In the afternoon arrangements were made to bring those of the injured to town who wished to go, and shortly after 3:00 p.m. a number of the victims and the two dead bodies were started toward Louisville. Mr. Heckelman and Mr. Adams and Miss Adams had come on the noon train.
Those who remained and who were cared for at Bardstown Junction until they could proceed homeward were Mrs. Mount and her three children, Mr. Johnson, and Miss Bertha Robner. The others all left southward.
Johnny Mount was very seriously injured internally and may die. He is about ten years of age. When he became conscious after the accident he at once asked for his dog, a very diminutive animal to which he was much attached. The youngster had left his mother who was seated in the center of the coach and was standing close to Mr. Miller when the crash came. Mrs. Mount received several bruises but her two other children were uninjured.
Mrs. Dr. T. F. Jennings of 909 East Jefferson Street, Louisville was only slightly bruised and her baby was not even scratched.
Miss Robner was a member of the Swiss Colony at East Bernstadt and had been with the family of Mr. J. G. Metcalf for some time. She was on her way home to spend Christmas with her parents. Her injuries are very severe and one leg broken, in addition to bruises on her body.
J. P. Heckelman, who lives at 26th and Dumiesnil streets, was badly bruised about the back and head. Miss Ella Adams of 410 20th Street, Louisville, had her arm crushed and received severe injuries about the head and face. Her brother, S. K. Adams, was only slightly hurt.
The announcement that a special train bearing the dead and hurt would arrive at the Tenth Street station at 5:00 p.m. in the afternoon caused the depot platform to assume an unusually animated appearance for an hour before that time. There were 200 or more people about, some ordinarily curious, others morbidly so, while a few were relatives and friends of the victims of the catastrophe. Under instructions from the railroad company, an undertaker's wagon, containing coffins; and four carriages stood waiting for the expected train. It came in promptly, and there was much running about and crowding to get a peep into the coaches. There were two of them and a baggage car, the engine pulling the train in reverse; the two coaches first and the baggage car in the rear.
A reporter who boarded the train on the edge of the town found that there were but the two dead and four of the injured on board. In the first coach was Milton McFerran, the luckless engineer of the Cannon Ball train and Clinton S. Miller recently of Lebanon, who was being brought to his home. Both of the poor fellows were frightfully injured and so bandaged in lint and cotton as to hide their features completely. Several persons bent over McFerran, who lay upon two cushions, doing all they could to comply with the inarticulate demands that came from a crevice in the mass of cotton and oiled silk about the sufferer's head. They gently held him so that the painful effect of the train's movement might be mitigated. He had borne the long and agonizing ordeal with heroic fortitude.
Mr. Miller sat upright, resting his legs on the opposite seat where a friend kept watch. He made a strange picture as he sat there disguised in a profusion of bandages and cotton, and an occasional deep sigh was all that evidenced the great suffering he was undergoing. All his front teeth were gone, his head, face, and hands were badly scalded, and his left arm was broken. As an illustration of his coolness and fortitude, Dr. Satterwhite, who kept a close watch upon both the men, related that when he came across Miller, at the house to which he had been removed near the scene of the accident, he found him smoking a cigar. To see a man in such a condition finding consolation in a cigar gave the physician a sensation.
McFerran was scalded on the head, face, and hands, had inhaled the steam, and was bruised and mangled from the frightful plunge in which he had clung to his engine with the fearlessness of a martyr. He is desperately hurt and, while he may recover, it would seem that the chances are against him.
The second coach on the train was that in which the passengers who were injured sat when the collision occurred. Both ends were demolished, and it was carried along by chains. There was no one in it, and it was filled with debris of the car that was smashed to smithereens. When the door was opened, a dead body covered with coarse clothes was lying on the floor. A solitary train employee guarded the remains, which were those of Mrs. Mary Perkins and the lad Willie Houston.
Passing on into the rear compartment of the baggage car, a sad spectacle was presented. Drs. George and Will Griffith stood about the cots. A single lantern's light showed that on one cot lay a female, but this was made known by her garb alone. Like the unfortunates in the first coach, her head, face, and arms were swathed in lint, cotton, and silk unbroken save that she might breathe. A peculiar rattling sound came from the throat as the poor girl breathed, and it was evident that hers was a critical case. She was Miss Mary Kinnaird, daughter of Mr. John Kinnaird of the Ninth Street Tobacco Warehouse was 18 years of age, and before the terrible accident was a very pretty girl. She was not only scalded on the face, arms, head, and hands, but she had breathed the hot steam and her throat and lungs were blistered so that it was agony to breathe.
The surgeon's needle had probed the gatherings in her throat allowing her to live, but she was a pitiable sufferer. She lay almost still and bore the awful pain like a brave soldier. She may recover, but her comeliness of face is gone forever. "She was on her way to Danville to spend the holidays," said Mr. George Strother, her brother-in-law, "and I told her goodbye at the breakfast table. Two hours later we learned the terrible news."
Just opposite Miss Kinnard was the other cot upon which Charles King, the fireman of The Cannon Ball train, who jumped just before the crash, tossed feverishly. The upper part of his face and his head alone were bandaged. His injuries differed in character from the others. His skull was fractured from striking a telegraph pole as he plunged through the air, and he was severely bruised. He was just in the flush of strong manhood, but he made a pitiful sight when he moved his brawny arms through the air in helpless agony. Dr. Satterwhite says there is no depression of the brain and that there are chances for King's recovery.
Engineer McFerran was taken to his home on Kentucky Street between 12th and 13th. Mr. Miller reached the house to which he but lately removed on the southeast corner of 26th and Bank streets, no worse for the long ride. King was driven to his home at 1228 Eighth Street, and Miss Kinnaird, attended by a lady and a gentleman who were in waiting, was tenderly moved to Mrs. T. W. Mitchell's on the southwest corner of Seventh and Chestnut streets where her parents have apartments. The bodies of Mrs. Perkins and Willie Houston were placed in coffins and removed to Wyatt and Crailies Undertaking Establishment where they were prepared for burial last night and from whence they will be shipped to Hodgenville this morning.
General Manager Harahan returned to Louisville last night. "When I arrived on the scene with the relief train," he said, "I found everything confusion and everybody was doing all he could to care for the dead and dying. Had there been a regular coach attached to train 23 instead of the extra coach, which luckily was being taken to train 24 to accommodate the very heavy Christmas travel, the loss of life would have been terrible and probably no one in it would have escaped alive. As it was, it was first reported that one-half dozen people had been killed, and the report was for a time believed that several bodies were still in the wrecked car, crushed too death, or being burned. Everybody at the wreck worked nobly, and the train men and citizens did all in their power to help the surgeons alleviate the pain of the suffering and properly attend to the already dead. I did not interfere with their labors to make any investigation of the accident and none will be made until Engineer McFerran has sufficiently recovered to tell his side of the story. He is one of the chief men, and nothing will be done until he can be heard.
"I can venture no opinion whatever as to who was to blame in the unfortunate accident, for no man should be done an injustice, and no man should be condemned until the true state of the case is known. The rules governing the running of trains are very clear, and as yet it is not known who violated them. The rules say that in approaching a junction point, Bardstown Junction being named as one of them, all trains must be under control and for all that is now known train No. 5 was under control. Trains have been running under these rules for years and no accident of the kind ever occurred before. One occurring now at such a point as Bardstown Junction is more of a surprise to me than if it had happened at almost any other point on the line. The grade, the country, and all the circumstances are against its occurrence and nothing but a careful official investigation will bring out the true causes of the lamentable casualty."
The conductors of both trains have been summoned to report to the L&N officers of Louisville and will return when they have made their statements concerning the cause of the accident and the exact manner in which it came about.
Opinion among railroad men is divided as to who is responsible for the terrible occurrence, and this will remain unsettled until an official investigation has been held. The engineer and fireman of The Cannon Ball claim that they saw nothing of a flagman who should have been sent back to warn about a train already being at the depot. It is charged that Engineer McFerran and Fireman King violated one of the most stringent rules of the L&N in running at the speed they did, when near Bardstown Junction, as the orders are for all engineers to have their engines under complete control when making such turns and when within one-half mile of certain points among which is Bardstown Junction.