The following article by David Strange originally appeared in The Courier-Journal on 20 Dec 2011. It is archived here with additional information for your reading enjoyment.
I have written a few times in the past about the great train wreck of December 1917, the worst train wreck in L & N Railroad history that killed some 49 people right here in Shepherdsville. There is a display about that wreck and a great book by Charles Hartley for sale at the museum about that.
But there was another deadly train wreck in Bullitt County, this one right on Christmas Eve.
This 1888 wreck occurred at Bardstown Junction, a few miles south Shepherdsville. Bardstown Junction was a pretty busy community back then, with its own depot, a store, railroad work buildings, and I think even a small hotel.
A Courier Journal newspaper report of the time, gives much more detail than I can go into in this column, but I will do my best to give the main story here.
The accident occurred at 9:00 a.m. on Christmas Eve 1888. The morning mail and passenger train (Number 23, bound for Knoxville) was standing at the junction, "delayed by the unusually heavy holiday express business." Travelers leisurely stretched outside their two passenger cars and people from the neighborhood thronged the platform.
"Suddenly there appeared from behind the curve, on the Louisville side of the station, another train (The Cannon Ball, Number 5, heading for Nashville), moving at frightful speed straight down on the motionless train." Bystanders did not have time to even react before the oncoming train, "backed by a heavy train of cars, crashed full speed" into the mail/passenger train. In an instant, the moving train plowed right through the middle of the passenger cars, scattering wood and iron like toothpicks. What was left of the first cars was jammed into the rest like a telescope. dust, steam, and smoke covered all.
Conductor M.C. Haight, Engineer Milton L. McFerran, and Fireman Charles King ran the Cannon Ball, expecting a clear track ahead and planning to blow through Bardstown Junction without needing to slow down. The conductor of the mail train was O. S. Ray.
The speeding train was already only a few hundred feet from striking the mail train when a few shouts of horror went up. Fireman King, seeing what was about to happen, leapt from his engine, hoping to avoid death but knowing his slim chance of survival. Engineer McFerran hit the brakes and reversed engine but there was no time for it to take effect. The engineer could be seen in the cabin fixedly staring at his situation as the train rammed through.
The first of the two passenger cars was split in two "from end to end" and the second car nearly so. The forward cars were smashed together much as soda cans would be smashed today. Smoke, fire, and steam erupted from the locomotives. People that had been standing nearby dove in to rescue the injured. Miraculously, no one had been in the first car, thus many potential deaths were averted. The locomotive of the Cannon Ball was deeply imbedded into the second coach, with scalding steam erupting from the burst boiler. A man, named Miller, appeared in a broken window at the forward end of the car and he was rescued, though very badly scalded. Engineer McFerran was pried out from the engine cabin, "more dead than alive." A woman and a boy had died instantly in the rail car, "mangled beyond recognition." They were later identified as Mrs. Mary Perkins and Willie Houston, of Hodgenville.
Amazingly, they were the only deaths. Mary Kinnaird of Louisville, and Johnny Mount (ten years old, who might have later died as well) of LaGrange were pulled from the wreckage and were the worst injured. Mrs. J.R. Mount of LaGrange, Phil B. Thompson of Shepherdsville, and Bertha Robner of East Bernstadt were seriously injured and several others sustained minor injuries.
Fireman King, who had jumped from the Cannon Ball, was found unconscious and very badly hurt.
It was charged that Engineer McFerran and Fireman King violated one of the most stringent rules of the L & N in running fast through Bardstown Junction.
So much of this story is hauntingly similar to the much larger wreck to come in 1917, but with trains coming down the L & N tracks nearly every twenty minutes in those days, rail travel was much like expressway travel today. And I believe I read recently that some forty THOUSAND people die every year on U.S. roadways.
Still, the death of each one is dramatic and painful whether by train, plane, or car.
Death can come so quickly, tragedy so suddenly.
Let's enjoy one another this Christmas season, while we have one another to enjoy.
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Copyright 2011 by David Strange, Shepherdsville KY. All rights are reserved. No part of the content of this page may be included in any format in any place without the written permission of the copyright holder.