Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Fearful Accident: The Wreck at Buckner's Trestle

On Friday, February 25, 1870, a terrible accident occurred near Oxford. A south-bound train, crossing a bridge on the Mississippi Central Railroad, jumped the track and plunged into a deep ravine. The train wreck, described by contemporary newspaper accounts as “the Mississippi horror,” resulted in the death of at least seventeen men, women and children and wounded many more. 

Buckner’s Trestle was located approximately two miles south of Oxford on the Mississippi Central. On the day of the accident, the ill-fated train was en route to New Orleans. Chartered in 1852, the Mississippi Central linked Canton, Mississippi, with Grand Junction, Tennessee. By 1860, the railroad was part of a continuous route from the Gulf of Mexico to the Ohio River. During the Civil War, the railroad served as the axis of advance during Grant’s 1862 campaign in north Mississippi and was the object of Union raids throughout the war. After the war, like most railroads in Mississippi, the Mississippi Central suffered due to scarce resources in the war-torn South. 

On the day of the accident, the train was running behind schedule and approached the bridge over Buckner’s Run at what was then considered a high rate of speed (between thirty and forty miles an hour). On board the train was the president of the Mississippi Central R.R., Colonel Sam Tate. During the Civil War, Tate was president of the Memphis & Charleston Railroad (a major east-west line which ran through Corinth) and was a respected railroad man and entrepreneur. Tate, whose home was then in Water Valley, was riding in the back of the train and apparently sent word to the engineer to slow down before taking the curve just north of Buckner’s Trestle. Whether his advice didn’t reach the locomotive in time or was ignored by the engineer, one or more cars jumped the track just as the train crossed the trestle. Although the locomotive made it safely across, the next two cars in line, one carrying mail and baggage and the other a passenger car, slammed into an embankment on the south side of the ravine with such force that “its framework was utterly shattered by the shock, so that the roof fell in upon the mangled passengers and debris,” throwing seats, seat backs, cushions, window blinds, paneling and sashes into a “confused medley” with the unfortunate passengers. For the next two cars, the devastation was even worse, as they both plummeted into the forty-foot ravine below. As the first passenger coach fell headlong into the chasm, the passengers were thrown to the rear and were in turn crushed by the next car, which fell on top of them. 

The scene was utter devastation. The dead included at least two infants and one young mother, whose husband, a recent immigrant, was “wild with grief at the loss of his wife, suddenly snatched from his side by death.” Also killed in the wreck was Capt. Alexander Speer, who commanded Co. A, 3rd Mississippi Cavalry (State Troops) during the Civil War. Speer, who lived in Brandon, was a railroad engineer (although he worked on the construction of the Southern Railroad of Mississippi, not the Mississippi Central). On the day of the accident, he was on his way back from Chicago, where he had gone to hire immigrant workers, many of whom were on the train with him. He is buried in the Brandon Cemetery, where an impressive memorial (right) notes the train wreck as the cause of death. *  Another victim was Andrew J. McConnico of Holly Springs, who was the corporate secretary for the Mississippi Central Railroad. McConnico’s home in Holly Springs was burned by Union troops in August 1864. Although he apparently did not serve in the Confederate army per se, he was nonetheless considered a “disloyal” person for his association with the railroad (the Mississippi Central was headquartered in Holly Springs). As such, he applied for and received a full pardon from President Andrew Johnson in 1865. In all, seventeen people, including two unidentified African American brakemen, were listed among the dead.

Sam Tate, while not killed in the wreck, was seriously injured after being “violently precipitated to the lower end of the coach, where he was nearly suffocated before the pile of wounded, confused and stunned passengers that were thrown upon him could be removed.” Other passengers injured included Capt. Abraham Schell of Louisville, Kentucky, who was commander of “Cheatham’s Sharpshooters” during the war. By no action on his part, Schell had achieved a bit of fame by sitting next to Sidney Jonas of Aberdeen, Mississippi, when, soon after the surrender of Lee’s army in Virginia, Jonas penned the celebrated poem called “Lines on the Back of a Confederate Note” at a Richmond hotel, two stanzas of which were later used in Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind. Apparently, there was some dispute concerning the author of the poem and in bolstering his claim, Jonas (left) frequently cited Capt. Schell as an eyewitness. Jonas went on the found the Aberdeen Examiner newspaper and edited it for fifty years. He died in 1915 and is buried in the Old Aberdeen Cemetery. Samuel J. P. McDowell was also injured in the wreck. McDowell was from Caldwell County, Texas. An acquaintance of Sam Houston, Caldwell served as a state senator from Texas but resigned from the legislature in 1862 and was elected captain of Co. K, 17th Texas Infantry. Wounded in that unit’s first real engagement at Milliken’s Bend, he returned to Texas and served for many years as a county clerk. He died in his nineties and supposedly continued to ride horses until his last days.

Running about two hours behind the wrecked train was a special excursion train. Warned ahead of time by an alert railroad agent (lest a second accident occur), the passengers of the excursion train arrived in time to help in the rescue operation. They were joined by local citizens from nearby Oxford, Taylor and Water Valley. On board this train were a number of important businessmen, railroad executives and their wives, including Anson Stager. Born in 1825, Stager was the co-founder of Western Union and the first president of Western Electric. During the Civil War, he had been in charge of the U.S. Military Telegraph Department and earned a brevet rank of brigadier general. He was joined on the trip by James William Simonton (right), General Agent of the New York Associated Press. It was Simonton who filed the reports which were subsequently picked up by newspapers nationwide, including the New York Times. His coverage of “the Mississippi horror” attracted a great deal of attention and he placed blame for the accident on those charged with upkeep of the railroad, specifically Colonel Tate. In an article published the next day, Simonton wrote: 

After stating that the people of the neighborhood were prompt in administering such aid as was in their power, there remains nothing to be remarked further, except that for this terrible railroad horror the managers of the Mississippi Railroad are clearly responsible. The immediate cause doubtless was a rotten tie just at the north end of the trestle, and there are many more of these rotten ties on the road. This was noticed by some of us, who walked over twenty miles of the track during our twenty hours of detention. The road is unfit for use. 

Simonton was no cub reporter. Born in 1823, he went to work at age twenty for the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer and soon thereafter began reporting on congressional politics. After a sojourn to California, he joined the staff of the New York Times in 1851 and went back to covering Congress. In 1857, he helped expose legislation which essentially gave large portions of public land in the Minnesota territory to the Pacific railroad. He was subpoenaed as a witness by Congress but refused to reveal his sources, citing the principle of journalistic confidentiality. While four members of the House of Representatives were subsequently expelled as a result of his expose’, he was thereafter barred from reporting from the House floor because he refused to testify. In 1858, Simonton was in Utah, where he was the only reporter covering the so-called Mormon War (a relatively bloodless campaign led by none other than future Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnston). The next year, he again moved to California and then back to New York in 1867 to work with the Associated Press. While he helped expose some of the corruption in the Grant administration, Simonton was himself accused of working as a paid lobbyist in cahoots with Western Union to create a telegraphic monopoly (i.e., the Associated Press would only use Western Union to transmit their news). In 1873, an anonymous, 47-page pamphlet appeared which cited all of Simonton’s corrupt practices, calling him a “small vicious tyrant.”

James W. Simonton’s reports concerning the tragedy at Buckner’s Trestle was certainly bad press for the Mississippi Central Railroad and Colonel Tate, but Tate’s fellow railroad men soon came to his defense. Writing in the Journal of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, Charles Wilson of Ohio, one of the organizers of the railroad union, charged Simonton and others with misrepresenting the facts “for the sake of venting a personal spite, or to build up a rival line.” While acknowledging that the accident was a serious one, Wilson wrote that similar accidents had occurred on many other lines. Further, if there were deficiencies with the Mississippi Central, he said that “no reasonable man should expect to see so complete and permanent a railroad in the South, where nearly all railroads were destroyed during the war,” unlike the northern railroads who had “reaped a rich harvest out of the necessities of the government.” 

Wilson (right) also countered Simonton’s claim that the cause of the accident was a rotten tie. “The accident at Buckner’s Trestle,” he wrote, “was in no way attributable to the condition of the road.” Instead, he stated that an investigation revealed that one of the car’s trucks broke just before reaching the bridge, which threw the car from a track, an issue, he said, which could occur “in a  thousand places” across the country. As for Colonel Tate, Wilson said that he “is a gentleman that understands practically every detail connected with building, or operating railroads” and that he had “a record that any man might well be proud of.” In closing, Wilson wrote the following:

It is an outrage to try and destroy the reputation that it has taken the best part of a lifetime to establish. All railroad men know that their capital is their reputation, and all should feel the importance of assisting one another so long as they can do so and act justly by all. Then do not let the foul calumny and slander of a rival, or personal enemy, ruin a railroad company or a friend, so long as you can keep truth and justice on your side, and defend them.

It is difficult from this distance of time to know what personal vendetta Simonton might have with Tate, but both were headstrong and successful men, so there’s always the possibility that their paths had crossed previously. It is more interesting to note, perhaps, that the special excursion train included a number of railroad executives from northern and western railroad lines, as well as the founder of the aforementioned Western Union. As railroads were valuable commodities regulated and controlled by government contracts, it’s possible that Simonton and Western Union had been working on a deal with other railroad companies to purchase the Mississippi Central. If so, his lurid press reports about the condition of the line and the mismanagement of the company would certainly make the sale price go down and those in high places look more favorably at other owners. It might also be that Simonton, as a New Yorker, objected to Tate’s association with the Confederacy. While all of this is speculation, the railroad line was sold within the next two years to the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. Tate went on to become one of the early steel barons in Birmingham and Simonton retired in 1881 to Napa Valley (he died the very next year). While both continued successfully in their careers, it’s safe to say that Colonel Tate did not send any Christmas greetings to J.W. Simonton.

The real tragedy, of course, was in the loss of life in the accident at Buckner’s Trestle. Today, the site of the wreck is part of the Thacker Mountain Rail Trail, a popular 2.8-mile path for hikers and bikers originating in Oxford. While there is a historical marker at the site of the accident, the marker mostly recounts the story of a second wreck which occurred at the site in 1928. In that accident, many of the passengers injured were students at the University of Mississippi. The railroad itself is gone and the trestle long since disappeared. Only the memory of those killed in “the Mississippi horror” remain.

* Speer is the Great Great Grandfather of Mississippi author and historian Jeff Giambrone. In another source Speer was identified as a planter. However, Mr. Giambrone provided information that Speer was in fact a railroad engineer. 

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) Map: http://www.csalliance.org
(2) Train wreck: http://www3.gendisasters.com
(3) Speer: http://civilwartalk.com (Photo by Jeff Giambrone)
(4) Jonas: From Confederate Veteran Magazine Vol. XXIV: https://archive.org
(5) Simonton: http://www.olivercowdery.com
(6) Article: http://query.nytimes.com
(7) From the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Monthly Journal, June 1870
(8) Historical Marker: http://news.olemiss.edu

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