Book Excerpt: ‘Lost at Thaxton’

Posted by | August 27, 2014

Michael JonesPlease welcome guest author Michael Jones. Jones was planted in West Virginia and cultivated in South Carolina, with roots extended deep into Virginia soil. He is a graduate of Clemson University, author, entrepreneur, technology consultant, and history lover. His book, Lost at Thaxton, recounts the terrifying 1889 train wreck in Thaxton, VA that took place on the section of track managed by his great-great grandfather, Tandy Jones.


The handsome old fellow you see below right is my great-great grandfather, Tandy Jones. This particular photo hung in an old, oval frame on the wall of my grandmother’s home in Thaxton, VA. As a young boy, I always felt those eyes were following me no matter where I went in the room. You might chalk that up to the active imagination of a child, but I will bet that if you take just a moment to stare into those eyes, you just might feel the same. If you were like me, you would at least pause before getting into any mischief while you were in the vicinity of that watchful gaze.

Tandy Jones

I did not know much about Tandy. In fact, I really knew only one piece of information my grandmother had told me. He was a railroad section master for Norfolk & Western in Thaxton, whatever that meant. Little did I know that Tandy’s chosen occupation would lead me to spend the better part of two years researching and writing Lost at Thaxton.

It started one summer evening in 2011 while on a beach trip with family. The discussion turned to history, as it often does when I get a chance to steer it that way, and at some point someone mentioned a terrible train wreck at Thaxton. Tandy was in charge of the section of rail where the accident took place, but I had never heard any mention of the wreck in my lifetime. I wanted to know more about the story.

As I began to dig into the history of the wreck, I was surprised to find that there was significant loss of life, and the details of the accident were unbelievably terrifying and heartbreaking. Yet there seemed to be no particular memorializing of the wreck or of those who lost their lives that night in 1889. The wreck of passenger train Number Two at Thaxton seemed to slip away completely from the pages of history.

Historical markers in Virginia are located at the sites of the “Wreck of the Old 97″ in Danville and the “Wreck at the Fat Nancy” in Orange. The markers describe those wrecks as two of the worst in Virginia history, although both paled in comparison to the number of lives lost at Thaxton. The events that transpired after the wreck that night raised the horror of this deadly accident to unimaginable heights.

Lost at Thaxton was written to give a fitting memorial not only to those lives that were lost, but also to those who lived on and carried the scars of this tragedy with them in one way or another. It is common for us to focus on the details of the wreck and the train itself, but often we lose sight of the actual people who were part of it. I reviewed over four hundred individual sources of information to compose their story. Those sources included historical newspapers, books, court documents, personal letters, state and federal records, and personal interviews with descendants of passengers and Thaxton area families. I researched each of the seventy-four known passengers and crew on the train that night individually in order to provide the most accurate telling possible of a story long forgotten.

"The wreck at Thaxton, viewed from the northern side of the washout." Photograph courtesy of Norfolk and Western Historical Photograph Collection, Norfolk Southern Archives, Norfolk, Virginia. Digital image courtesy of Special Collections, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia.

“The wreck at Thaxton, viewed from the northern side of the washout.” Photograph courtesy of Norfolk and Western Historical Photograph Collection, Norfolk Southern Archives, Norfolk, Virginia. Digital image courtesy of Special Collections, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia.


Excerpt from Lost at Thaxton, Chapter 4, “Forewarning”:

When the train stopped at Blue Ridge, Baggage Master William Ford was still at work sorting the passengers’ luggage. He could hear rain pelting the tin roof of the baggage car, and he peered through the door to get a look at the weather. Water was covering the tracks, and Conductor Johnson was nearby, standing in the rain with an umbrella. It sounded like Johnson was speaking with the Blue Ridge telegraph operator.

“What is the matter?” Johnson cried out to the operator.

“The track is flooded to Liberty, run with great care, there is great danger!” came the reply. The telegraph operator was reading a telegram sent from Thaxton. It was the message sent less than an hour earlier that night by Conductor Butler, after his freight train had run into a fallen telegraph pole just beyond the Thaxton station.

Inside the mail car, Postal Clerk Lewis Summers overheard the somewhat distressing conversation between Johnson and the Blue Ridge telegraph operator. He surveyed the condition of the track from the door of his mail car. Water flowed over the rails, and he could barely make out the track as the water rippled over it. Several men scurried about with lanterns to inspect the condition of the road.

As Summers returned to his work, he mentioned what he had overheard to his assistant, James Rose. Summers was not overly concerned about the situation, but Rose looked a bit nervous. Rose decided he would stay extra alert as they pushed forward. If the train did run into trouble, it was not uncommon for those who had enough warning to jump from the train at the last moment. A desperation jump in the midst of a wreck could mean going home with just a broken leg instead of inside a wooden box. Rose was taking no chances.

Lost at Thaxton cover

Conductor Johnson stepped out of the rain and onto the second-class coach, where he met with Superintendent Cassell. The telegram reported flooding east of Thaxton, and communication was down at least from Thaxton east to the town of Liberty.

Liberty was about five miles from Thaxton, and that stretch of rail had no communication at the moment. Cassell gave instructions to Johnson to stop the train at the next depot, which was Buford. Once he arrived there, he hoped to determine the location of any trains that were east of Thaxton and make sure they managed the situation properly to avoid collisions.

With this plan in mind, they pressed on for Buford, about five miles east of Blue Ridge. Cassell headed back to the first-class coach to discuss the situation with DuBarry while the engine struggled to get going. The steep incline through the mountains was a challenge, especially when the train started from a complete stop. It was the first battle that engine Number 30 waged against the elements that night. In this case, man-made horsepower was up to the task and conquered the challenge presented by the mountain. They were further behind schedule, however, because the train pulled away six minutes late from the Blue Ridge station.

They had not gone far before Mother Nature once again taunted the train. About halfway between Blue Ridge and Buford, a watchman stood alongside the tracks and signaled with his red lantern for the train to stop. They were near a small community known as Ironville, and once again there was water running over the track. It was half past midnight, and it was becoming clear that the weather was determined to torment train Number Two for a while longer. Cassell got off the train to inspect the latest issue.

He noticed that the water was up over the wooden railroad ties but not over the track itself. Since the area was part of his division, Cassell was familiar with it, and he had seen the water higher at Ironville on several occasions. He decided that it was safe for the train to proceed cautiously through the high water. They crept along as if they were working through an invisible traffic jam until the entire train had cleared the flooded area.

"Interior photo representing First-class coach Number 63. This was the coach where most of the passengers were killed." Courtesy of Delaware Public Archives

“Interior photo representing First-class coach Number 63. This was the coach where most of the passengers were killed.” Courtesy of Delaware Public Archives

Unfortunately, they were still not ready for “full steam ahead” to Buford. Cassell knew that there was a road crossing just ahead where the section crew frequently battled with dirt and rocks washing down across the tracks. The crossing had been a nuisance recently thanks to all of the rains during the spring and summer. He asked Conductor Roland Johnson to step off and walk in front of the train with a lantern to examine the crossing just to be on the safe side. Roland tried his hand as a track inspector and found no issues. They quickly resumed the trip toward Buford.

After eavesdropping on the telegram conversation at Blue Ridge, Postal Clerk Lewis Summers had decided to sit by the door to his car until they cleared the heavy incline. Once he was comfortable that the train had made it through the trouble spots, he made one final check to ensure no letters were left to handle. His work for the night was done.

He put away his supplies and tied up the remaining sacks. Summers wanted there to be no delay when the time came to board his return train home at Lynchburg later that night. Once he had everything in order, it was time for a quick nap. It was a little known fact, but sacks of United States mail made a mighty fine mattress when stacked just right on a table. Summers had already learned this trick, and blissful sleep quickly arrived for him near the back of the postal car on his own handmade bed stuffed with fluffy correspondence.

He was already fast asleep when the train pulled into Buford about twenty-seven minutes behind schedule. Any passengers still awake were likely frustrated by the slow pace and frequent stops. It had taken nearly twenty minutes just to cover the five miles from Blue Ridge to Buford. One of those restless passengers was Frank Tanner, and he was ready for a smoke.

He nudged his friend John Kirkpatrick and asked if he would like to accompany him to the second-class car to relieve some stress through the time-honored tradition of burning tobacco rolled in paper. Kirkpatrick was mentally and physically tired from his long day of wrestling with the bad check issue in Roanoke, and he just wanted to go back to sleep. He handed Tanner a cigarette, and unknowingly the two friends spoke to one another for the last time.

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