Bullitt County History

Shepherdsville Train Wreck - 1917
Supplement #3

The following is transcribed from Railway Age, Volume 64, No. 1, pages 88-89. While it repeats a great deal of what has already been said on other pages here, it is of sufficient value to include as well.


THE REAR collision of passenger trains on the Louisville & Nashville, December 20, killing 47 persons, was briefly reported in our last issue, page 1185. A full copy of the statement issued by the railroad company and published in the Louisville papers has since been received and from this are taken the following details which were brought out at Superintendent W. F. Sheridan's investigation. (The local train was No. 41, not No. 9, as given in our account.)

Train No. 41 left Louisville on time at 4:35 p.m. Train No. 7, the through passenger train for Nashville, due to leave at 3 p.m., did not depart from Louisville until 4:53 p.m. No. 41 made its usual local stops and arrived at Shepherdsville six minutes late. It consumed about two minutes in discharging its passengers. It then moved forward, that is, southward, until the rear coach was about 360 feet south of the station building. It here came to a stop for the purpose of backing in upon the siding to permit No. 7 to pass, and almost at that instant No. 7 swept by the station and into the rear of train No. 41. No. 7 plowed through the rear coach and half way through the second coach of No. 41 and shoved the wreckage forward a distance of about 800 feet. The flagman and conductor of No. 41 were in one of the coaches and both were killed. The engineer and fireman on No. 7 were unhurt.

When No. 41 arrived at Brooks, a station five miles north of Shepherdsville, the conductor received information from the despatcher that No. 7 had passed F. X tower at 5:08 p.m. and that if he could not get to Bardstown Junction on time he had better let No. 7 pass at Shepherdsville. As he was leaving Brooks, Conductor Campbell said to his train porter, Earnest Chase, "we are to let No. 7 by at Shepherdsville." At Gap in the Knob, a station between Brooks and Shepherdsville, the train porter asked Conductor Campbell if the engineer understood that he was to head in at Shepherdsville. At Shepherdsville Conductor Campbell went into the telegraph office and himself telephoned to the despatcher at Louisville and was informed that No. 7 was close and that he had better get into the siding. Campbell came out of the office and told the train porter to inform the engineer to back into the siding for No. 7.

The porter ran forward and delivered this message to the engineer while the train was slowly moving off, and jumping upon the engine he rode it until he reached the south switch, where he alighted. He threw the switch. The effect of this was to display an additional red light to the north as soon as the train had passed the switch. The rear of No. 41 was not protected in any way by its crew as required by the rules, in that no fusee was put out or torpedoes placed between Gap in the Knob and Shepherdsville, though the train was failing to maintain schedule time; and in that no flagman with a red lantern was sent back at Shepherdsville.

After leaving Louisville train No. 7 was stopped one minute at Oak street and one minute at the Southern railway crossing and after that proceeded without any further stops until the collision. The line from Louisville to a point beyond Shepherdsville is double tracked, and trains move under standard American Railway Association rules.

In approaching Shepherdsville the track is straight for a mile and a half, except for one slight curve about half a mile north of the station, which, however, does not affect the view of the signals at the station.

Under the rules, it was the duty of the engineer of train No. 7 to approach the station with his train under control and not to pass it unless he received a "proceed" signal. This signal in the night is the changing of a red light to a green, and the approaching engineer must stop unless he actually sees this movement; that is, the change from red to green.

Upon this occasion the engineer, Wolfenberger, states that he saw the green signal in its then position when he was about 2,200 feet from the station, and that when he was about 1,800 feet from the station he sounded four short blasts, which was a request to the operator to indicate whether he must stop or proceed. The engineer states that he saw no change in the signal and admits that he knew that, not being moved in his presence, it was his duty to stop; but he thought that the signal to proceed would be given later, so he went ahead without taking any steps toward slackening the speed of his train, except that he applied the air brakes lightly. When he was within about 400 yards of the station, still observing that the signal had not been changed, he called again by sounding the four short blasts.

He says that at that time he saw the signal drop to red, and that he then applied his emergency brakes and thought that he closed or almost closed the throttle.

Upon the arrival of No. 41 at Shepherdsville, Operator Jesse Weatherford, as is customary, assisted the agent in handling the baggage, mail and express. He was working at this at about a distance of fifty—five feet from his office, and upon completing it started to return to his office when he met Conductor Campbell coming from his office and was told by him of his conversation with the train despatcher, and informed him that he, Campbell, was going to move up and back in on the side track to let No. 7 pass. Then Weatherford proceeded to his office and when he had gotten within ten or twelve feet of it he heard the noise of No. 7 approaching, looked up and saw the train at a point about 800 feet north of the office. He at once rushed into'the office and turned the signal to red, grabbed his red lantern and ran out, but too late.

The superintendent's committee reports its conclusions: that Conductor Campbell and Flagman Greenwell disobeyed the flagging rule; that Wolfenberger violated the rules in not approaching Shepherdsville prepared to stop before passing the semaphore signal unless he got a signal to proceed. "In approaching a station it is the duty of an engineer to absolutely stop his train before reaching the semaphore unless he receives an affirmative and positive signal that he may proceed. This signal to proceed is made in only one way —-that is, there must be displayed a red light, which is changed into a green light, and this change must be made in view of the engineer. Upon this occasion the green light (which was the proper signal to be displayed in view of No. 41 standing at the station as it was) constituted a stop signal for Engineer Wolfenbcrger. Rule 221-F requires that a fixed train older signal must never be passed if kept stationary, regardless of its position or the color it displays, without the cause being first investigated." Rule 221-D says: "Conductors and enginemen, when approaching train-order offices, must have their trains under control and must not assume that the signal will be changed from 'stop' indication when within the distance prescribed, as, if any portion of a train runs beyond the signal before it is so changed, an infraction of these rules will have been committed."

There was ample time and space, according to Wolfenberger's own statement, for him to have stopped his train, not only from the time he first saw the signal, but also from the time when he called for a change and did not get it.

"There was no evidence of any violation of duty upon the part of Operator Weatherford. On the contrary he is to be commended for making every possible effort to avert the accident after he discovered that No. 7 was coming into the station at high speed."

"It was perfectly proper for him to assist with the baggage, mail, etc. Shepherdsville is an intermediate and relatively unimportant train order office, the orders taken by this operator averaging only about one a day. It was, therefore, unnecessary that he should remain at the instrument all of the time. When this train No. 41 came into Shepherdsville it was proper under the rules for the operator to place the signal at green, and it would have been equally improper for him to change that signal back to red until train N0. 41 had passed out from the station 200 ft. or more.

"Engineer Wolfenberger, Conductor Campbell and Flagman Greenwell were old men in the service and full experienced, and in 1914 passed satisfactory re-examinations on the operating rules. Mr. Wolfenberger has been an engineer for seventeen years and stood high in the estimation of the officers of the company."

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The Bullitt County History Museum, a service of the Bullitt County Genealogical Society, is located in the county courthouse at 300 South Buckman Street (Highway 61) in Shepherdsville, Kentucky. The museum, along with its research room, is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday. Admission is free. The museum, as part of the Bullitt County Genealogical Society, is a 501(c)3 tax exempt organization and is classified as a 509(a)2 public charity. Contributions and bequests are deductible under section 2055, 2106, or 2522 of the Internal Revenue Code. Page last modified: 12 Sep 2020 . Page URL: bullittcountyhistory.org/bchistory/trainwreck1917s3.html