The Kentucky State Railroad Commission held an inquiry at Louisville into the L. & N. train wreck that occurred at Shepherdsville on 20 Dec 1917. The Louisville newspapers carried extensive coverage of the inquiry.
Below are transcriptions of the newspaper coverage of the inquiry provided by The Courier-Journal, The Louisville Times, and The Louisville Herald. in January 1918. Following that is a transcription of the report on the Commission's findings that was published in The Louisville Evening Post in February.
More information about the two booklets on the train wreck and its victims, published by the History Museum, is available on another page.
You may use these links to jump to each transcription, or scroll down the page at your leisure.
11 Jan 1918, page 16
Lack of Block System Shown
Rail Commission Making Exhaustive Probe of Wreck.
Looking for Flaws in Plan of Operating Trains.
Inquiry to End To-Day
To install the automatic "block" system between Louisville and Bowling Green it would have cost the L. & N. railroad approximately $320,000, it was testified by A. R. Fuqua, signal engineer of the company before the Kentucky State Railroad Commission at the Seelbach yesterday at the investigation of the Shepherdsville wreck, December 20, which resulted in the loss of forty-nine lives. Actual money damage to the company by such a wreck as that at Shepherdsville he estimated at about $500,000.
The automatic "block" system was given a great deal of attention by Laurence B. Finn, chairman of the commission in his questioning. Persistently he asked the railroad officials if the accident would not have been prevented if this system had been installed on this division of the road.
Mr. Fuqua told the commission that the "block" system had been established between Louisville and Cincinnati at a cost to the road of $187,765. In this regard, he said it was not alone the cost of the installation, but that the maintenance was expensive.
Earlier at the inquiry, general manager, B. M. Starks, was questioned by Mr. Finn in regard to the system. The witness said he was doubtful if even the "block" system would have prevented the accident. He cited several recent experiences where the system had failed because of a failure of man power, or of the engineer to obey the signals. Two years ago, Mr. Starks said, the road started to install it, but for more than a year had not progressed far, because of inability to get materials. He said few lines have made greater progress in installing the system than the L. & N.
In many respects the inquiry being conducted by the commission is different from any previous investigation of the disastrous wreck. The object, as indicated in a preliminary statement by Mr. Finn, is to discover whether there are any flaws in the method of operating trains which will require recommendations fro legislative enactment to protect the public. For that reason Mr. Finn directed the greater portion of his questioning towards the rules of the company and the responsibility of the higher officials for the wreck. Evidence given at previous ...[not readable]... not reviewed ...[not readable]... .
The hearing will be resumed at 9:30 o'clock this morning, with a number of witnesses to be heard, but it is thought probable it will end before noon to-day. No decision will be announced by the commission until it has taken transcripts of the evidence and gone over them carefully after leaving Louisville.
Witnesses heard yesterday, besides Mr. Starks and Mr. Fuqua, were Division Superintendent W. F. Sheridan, J. W. Sams, operator at Louisville; W. J. Harlow, superintendent of transportation; Engineer J. B. Keyer, of No. 41; Ernest Chase, negro porter on No. 41; W. E. Sanders, operator at Brooks, and Jesse Weatherford, operator at Shepherdsville.
Testimony of Chase, Weatherford and Sanders practically was the same as that at previous hearings and they were not kept long on the stand. Engineer Keyer, of the wrecked train, to Mr. Finn's questioning, said: "I don't believe the accident would have happened if we had received orders to "head in" at Shepherdsville. I never saw Conductor Campbell after we left Louisville and I know nothing about the information he received at Brooks."
This information referred to, according to the testimony, was in the form of a verbal order from Dispatcher Sams at Louisville to Operator Sanders at Brooks transmitted to the conductor, which was to the effect that the oncoming fast train, No. 7, was past the "F. X. tower," and if the conductor did not have time to make Bardstown Junction that it might be a good idea to take the siding at Shepherdsville.
Dispatcher Sams said that after the trains left Louisville he had nothing to do with their protection; that he relied upon the operators and train crews for this. Talking to Conductor Campbell had no reference to protection of the trains, he said, but this information was given to the conductor in order that the fast train might not be delayed. It was the duty of the operators, he said, to keep the trains ten minutes apart.
Operator Weatherford, according to Superintendent Sheridan, violated no rule of the company. General Manager Starks also stated that Weatherford could have done nothing to help either train. Weatherford was held partly responsible by the Coroner's jury which conducted an inquest here.
Mr. Starks was questioned closely by Mr. Finn in regard to the rules regarding when an operator at a station should be on duty in the office. He admitted that an operator should, according to the rules, assist in removing baggage when not busy at the telegraph or telephone in connection with messages for the train just arrived. The rules provide for protection of trains by the crews, even though an operator is not on duty, Mr. Starks said.
Mr. Finn asked Superintendent Sheridan what he thought of a rule that required a fast train to remain only ten minutes behind a slow accommodation train. He replied that he considered it safe and reasonable when all other rules were obeyed. Mr. Finn also asked the witness if any official tests were made to see if the rules were being obeyed, and the witness answered that "none were, except where the 'block' system is in effect."
The officials also declared that the rules which permitted an operator to leave his post and assist with the baggage were just and reasonable and that the rules in this respect did not conflict.
12 Jan 1918, page 12
Block Signals May Be Urged
Railroad Commission Ends Wreck Inquiry.
Engineer Wolfenberger Testifies At Hearing Aided by Minister
Chairman Laurence B. Finn, of the Kentucky State Railroad Commission, refused to comment upon what action would be taken as a result of the inquiry into the Shepherdsville wreck, which was completed here yesterday, but it is believed, from the direction in which Mr. Finn placed his questioning at the inquiry, that the commission will make some recommendation to the Legislature to enact laws requiring the road to install an automatic "block" signal system.
Several years ago the commission asked the Legislature to grant it power to compel the roads to install the "block" signal system, but thus far such authority has not been vested in it. It is probable that other safety measures will be proposed to the General Assembly.
Operator Jesse Weatherford, who was stationed at Shepherdsville when the wreck occurred, will be exonerated of all blame by the commission, it is believed, as the testimony at the inquiry tended to show that Weatherford's actions were well within the rules of the company. Weatherford was exonerated by the L. & N. inquiry board, but the Coroner's jury of Jefferson county held him guilty of contributory negligence.
The feature of the closing session of the hearing was the testimony of Engineer W. M. Wolfenberger, of No. 7, the train which struck the accommodation train, and the participation of the Rev. Dr. C. W. Welch, his life-long friend and pastor, who took part in the hearing by closely questioning Wolfenberger and other witnesses. The minister showed that he had expert knowledge of train systems, having been a railroad man at one time. Chairman Finn had announced at the outset that any interested parties could give assistance at the hearing if it was desired.
Engineer Wolfenberger, who is still employed by the company, although under suspension, made the following statement:
"Had No. 41 been given orders to "head in" at Shepherdsville, or had I been informed that I was to pass No. 41 at Shepherdsville, or had the dispatcher taken into consideration the fact that I was gaining on No. 41, the wreck would not have occurred."
In response to a question from Division Superintendent W. F. Sheridan as to why the rule had not been obeyed which requires that when there is any doubt about seeing signals the safe course should be pursued, Wolfenberger said:
"We often run by those signals. That station is unusual, and No. 7 does not stop there once in a hundred times. If it had been a usual stop I would have been prepared."
His exact meaning by this statement was not pressed from the witness by any further questioning by Mr. Sheridan. The witness did not state whether he meant that engineers kept on past the stations when they did not get "clear" boards, or whether he meant that they miss the "clear" signal when it is first flashed by the operator and "run by the signal" and then stop.
In substance, other testimony given by Wolfenberger was the same as introduced at the inquest here to the effect that engineers on fast trains had to maintain high speed when approaching stations in order to "make" time; that it was a common occurrence for operators to give "clear" signals before the engineers called for them, and that he had thought the "clear" signal had been given while a haze of smoke obscured his vision temporarily.
He asked that John Ford, an engineer who was "deadheading" on No. 41, and H. R. Johnson, an engineer who was at the depot when the wreck occurred, be called to the stand. These witnesses were used through questioning by Dr. Welch, in substantiating Wolfenberger's testimony in regard to common practices in operating trains for the L. & N.
Had No. 41 continued on toward Bardstown Junction instead of attempting to take the siding at Shepherdsville, it would not have been struck, was the statement made by Engineer Wolfenberger and corroborated by Engineer Johnson. Wolfenberger said he already had begun to stop his train at the Shepherdsville station before seeing No. 41 ahead.
A dangerous situation would have been created by No. 41 "heading in" instead of backing on to the siding at Shepherdsville, according to Sept. Sheridan. The passengers getting on and off No. 41 would have had to cross the main track, in front of the oncoming fast train, if No. 41 had "headed in," he said.
10 Jan 1918, page 1
WRECK COULD NOT HAVE BEEN STAYED BY BLOCK SYSTEM
General Manager Starks, of L. & N., Before State Railroad Commission
Operator Not to Blame
B. M. Starks, general manager of the L. & N. railroad, occupied the stand during the morning at the investigation which the Kentucky State Railroad Commission is conducting at The Seelbach into the wreck at Shelbyville [sic: Shepherdsville] December 20, which has cost forty-nine lives.
Much of Mr. Stark's testimony related to the rules governing the operator at Shepherdsville. He said that in his opinion that Jesse Weatherford, the operator, could have done nothing whatever to help either train. Weatherford previously had been exonerated by the railroad [unreadable word] but was held [unreadable several words] by the Coroner's jury of Jefferson county.
Chairman Finn also questioned Mr. Stark as to whether installation of the automatic block system would have prevented the wreck. The witness said in his opinion it would not have done so. Mr. Starks was submitted to grueling questioning by Chairman Finn and E. S. Jouett, the railroad counsel, for nearly two hours.
In a statement made by Laurence B. Finn of Franklin, chairman of the body, when it convened today, the principal object of the probe is given as a desire to recommend changes in the rules of the company, if the facts warrant, so that employes will not be required to do or perform conflicting duties; second to inspire employes to do their full duty under reasonable rules, and third, to propose legislative enactments that will prohibit the recurrence of such accidents.
No subpoenas were issued for witnesses, but an order was directed to General Manager B. M. Starks and President Milton H. Smith, of the railroad to have all those in charge of both train crews, together with the agent of the company at Shepherdsville, and also all other employes who either directly or indirectly were in charge of either of the trains, or any other person who might have information concerning the wreck. The witness examined was Mr. Starks.
Members of the [unreadable two words] Mr. Finn are H. Greene Garrett of Winchester, and Sid Donthitt of [unreadable two lines] the body.
Mr. Finn's statement follows:
In pursuance to the authority vested in the Railroad Commission, we have met for the purpose of investigating the cause of the accident which occurred on the Louisville & Nashville railroad at Shepherdsville, Ky., on December 20, 1917. The section of the Kentucky statutes under which this investigation is held is 777, which reads:
"Notice of every accident which may occur and be attended by loss of life shall be given within five days thereafter by the company operating the road on which the accident occurred to the Railroad Commission; and such company shall furnish the Commission all information requested of it concerning the cause of the accident."
The object of this meeting is to request the Louisville & Nashville Railroad Co. to give the Kentucky Railroad Commission the information necessary to ascertain the cause of this accident.
It is not a part of our official duty to indict or assist in the prosecution of acts of negligence committed by railroad employes; neither is it our purpose to add to the sorrow or discomfort of those whose negligent acts may have contributed to this horrible wreck; nor can we in any way hope to alleviate the anguish or sorrow of the friends and relatives of those who were the victims in this tragedy.
We merely hope by this investigation to ascertain the cause of the accident and, if the facts warrant, recommend: First - Changes in the rules of the company so that employes will not be required to do or perform conflicting duties. Second - To inspire employes to do their full duty under reasonable rules. Third - To propose legislative enactments that will prohibit the recurrence of such accidents.
Such a test certainly demands the serious consideration of common carriers, the Railroad Commission and the public.
Engineer Wolfenberger, after Commissioner Finn had stated any witnesses could be summoned by any interested parties, asked for Engineer Johnson, of No. 41, the train struck, and Engineer Ford, who was "deadheading" on the wrecked train. These two engineers already were in court.
The heading was delayed while General Manager, H. M. Starks, the first witness called, was sent for. A larger audience was present than at the inquest held here.
After forty minutes' delay, Mr. Starks took the stand. It was the first time Mr. Starks had testified at a public inquiry. E. S. Jouett [unreadable word] set for the railroad, stated that he wished to have the fullest possible hearing and therefore would welcome any outside testimony.
Explaining his duties as general supervisor of the operating and maintenance departments, he admitted that he assisted in making the watch for the operating department with the superintendent of transportation of the operating department, the chief engineer of the maintenance department and the superintendent of machinery of the mechanical department, to be approved by the fourth vice president.
In response to Chairman Finn's question, Mr. Starks read the rules which provided that the operator at a station should not leave his post at the telephone or telegraph [unreadable two words] other important business of the company. He admitted that the rules also provided that an operator could leave to assist in removing baggage if ordered to do so. Mr. Starks was very careful in his [unreadable word; perhaps "answers"].
He said the operator should put the semaphore at the "stop" position if the operator was on duty inside the station, when a train had proceeded 200 feet beyond the semaphore. The rules provide for protection of trains by the crews, even though no operator is on duty, Mr. Starks stated. The operating rules are not conflicting and are just and reasonable, the witness declared, and had required [unreadable two words] labor to draft. There were two [unreadable word] rules in effect at this point, he stated, although on other sections of the [unreadable word] this system is used.
Mr. Finn asked that the company secure the signal engineer to give the mileage and cost of of the "block" system on the road. Expressions of doubt were given by the witness as to whether the "block" system could have prevented the wreck. He [unreadable word; perhaps "gave"] several instances where the blocking rules had been overlooked during the past two weeks.
Two years ago the road started installing the system but has been delayed for the past year because of inability to get materials, Mr. Starks added. Few lines have made greater progress in this line than the L. & N., he declared.
Mr. Starks read a rule governing that unless the semaphore signal changed to "clear" in full view of the engineer, the train should be stopped. In his testimony before the Coroner's jury here, Engineer Wolfenberger admitted the signal did not change to clear. He said even though the block system is automatic, the engineer must obey the signals or the system would be ineffective.
It is necessary for an operator to be away from the office at times, he said, and his presence in the office is not absolutely necessary. This method is proper in his opinion, he said, but he did not know positively whether the method was used generally, although he had information that it was. In some places the operator is used as station agent, he said, and it is considered good railroad practice.
The Louisville Times
11 Jan 1918
MINISTER TAKES PART IN PROBING OF L. & N. WRECK
The Rev. C. W. Welch Interrogates Engineer Wolfenberger, of No. 7.
His Theory of Disaster.
The Rev. Dr. C. W. Welch, pastor of the fourth-avenue Presbyterian church, interposed himself into the hearing by the Kentucky State Railroad Commission into the Shepherdsville wreck, which ended at 12:30 o'clock at The Seelbach to-day, by questioning witnesses for nearly an hour. Dr. Welch, formerly a railroad man, said he took part in the hearing solely on the part of his life-long friend and parishioner, Engineer W. M. Wolfenberger, of train No. 7, the only living man blamed by the L. & N. inquiry board for the wreck. Dr. Welch said he had been holding daily conferences with the engineer since the wreck. Wolfenberger is employed by the railroad at present, but is under suspension.
During practically the entire hearing the minister had sat unobtrusively apart. He questioned witnesses closely about technical points in regard to the operation of trains, and his expert knowledge of train operation methods caused the railroad men to listen intently.
"Is it customary for one train to pass another of the same class without being told to do so by the dispatcher?" was one of the questions asked Engineer Wolfenberger by Dr. Welch.
"Sometimes it is done," the witness answered, " and it is within the rules, but we ought to have had some kind of an understanding about passing each other."
Engineer Wolfenberger said [unreadable line] miles an hour in some places in order to make the schedule. From Brooks to Shepherdsville it is five miles and they have six minutes to make the distance," he stated. The order he received at Louisville meant for him to "make" Bowling Green on schedule time.
"Had No. 41 been given orders to 'head in' at Shepherdsville, or had I been informed that I was to pass No. 41 at Shepherdsville, or had the dispatcher taken into consideration the fact that I was gaining on No. 41, the wreck would not have occurred," Wolfenberger declared.
"It is a common occurrence for the operators to give the clear signal before the engineer blows for it," he said, "and I thought possibly he already had given it."
Installation of the block system would have prevented the wreck, according to the belief of the witness.
Had No. 41 kept going toward Bardstown Junction instead of attempting to take the siding it would have been out of his way and the accident could not have happened, he stated. He began stopping his train, Wolfenberger continued, when he failed to get a "clear" signal after blowing the second time.
Mr. Sheridan read a rule to the effect that when there was any doubt about seeing signals that the safe course should be pursued, asking Wolfenberger why he did not obey this rule.
"We often run by those signals," the engineer said emphatically. "That station is unusual, and No. 7 doesn't stop there once in a hundred times. If it had been a usual stop I would have been prepared."
No explanation was made by the witness as to whether he meant that engineers kept on past the stations when they did not get "clear" boards, or whether he meant that they miss the "clear" signal when it is first flashed by the operator and "run by the signal" and then stop.
After the questioning of Mr. Wolfenberger closely had been completed, John Ford, an engineer, who was "deadheading" on No. 41, and H. R. Johnson, an engineer, who was at the station when the accident happened, were called at the request of Mr. Wolfenberger.
"What's the custom of engineers in regard to signals at such places as Shepherdsville?" Dr. Welch asked.
"Sometimes the signal is given by the operator before it is called for, and sometimes the engineer has to call for the signal twice," he answered.
Ford also testified that engineers on fast trains seldom come toward such stations under control. Johnson told Dr. Welch that, in his opinion, had No. 41 gone on to Bardstown Junction instead of attempting to take the siding at Shepherdsville, No. 41 would not have been struck. This statement corroborated one previously made by Wolfenberger. Other statements made by Engineer Wolfenberger were corroborated by Johnson and Ford.
Division Supt. W. F .Sheridan asked to be allowed to correct an impression that had been made by testimony developed earlier at the inquiry. A bulletin board order requiring that trains should not [go?] faster than forty-five miles an hour during bad weather, even if schedules were not maintained, was not issued December 15, as had been the impression given, but after the wreck which occurred December 20, he said.
The commission will not announce its verdict until after careful consideration of the evidence.
Had No. 41, the Bardstown accommodation, headed into the switch at Shepherdsville to let No. 7, the New Orleans flier, pass, instead of trying to back in, it would have created a dangerous situation because it would have forced passengers getting on and off to cross the main track in front of the on-coming fast train, was the testimony of Division Supt. W. F Sheridan.
Mr. Sheridan was recalled to the stand by Chairman Laurence Finn to be questioned more particularly about points in the operating rules. He was asked whether orders or lack of orders by the train dispatcher caused the collision.
Mr. Sheridan replied that had the dispatcher at Louisville issued an order for No. 7 to pass No. 41, it would have conflicted with Rule 85, which give trains of the same class the right to pass without specific orders. Such orders, he said, might tie up transportation unnecessarily and also would place an extra burden on the train dispatcher. A situation might occur also, he explained, where the train dispatcher could not get in touch with trains.
Chairman Finn questioned Mr. Sheridan closely about caution signals.
"Would it not have been in the interest of safety to provide another signal, one indicating caution, where there are only two-position signals?"
"At order stations," Mr. Sheridan explained, "only two positions are provided on signals - stop and go ahead. We deem only these necessary because we rely on the 'ten minute rule' regulating the distance apart that trains may operate, and the protection of the rear end of trains by the crews."
"It would be a very dangerous practice for the company to have officers and operators keep the conductors and engineers posted about trains on the same track, as it would cause the train crews to become lax in protecting the trains." Mr. Sheridan said. The train crews must always assume there are other trains on the track.
W. T. Carrier, agent at "F.X. Tower," said "an operator, although the rules require that trains must be kept at least ten minutes apart, has the right to hold an oncoming train when he believes there is danger ahead, even though the train is more than ten minutes behind the preceding train."
The Louisville Herald
11 Jan 1918, pages 1, 3
L. & N. Crash Was Avoidable
How the railroad disaster at Shepherdsville, Ky., December 20, might have been avoided had a special order been issued to the Bardstown Springfield accommodation to take the siding at Brooks, Ky., or by sending the accommodation into the Shepherdsville siding "head on" instead of backing in was described by witnesses testifying here yesterday at the wreck inquiry of the Kentucky Railroad Commission at the Seelbach.
J. R. Keyer, engineer in charge of L. & N. train No. 41, which was struck from the rear by Cincinnati-Nashville Express No. 7, and J. W. Sams, a dispatcher on duty in Louisville, were the witnesses who, in reply to questions by Chairman Laurence B. Finn, pointed out the procedure that would have saved the lives of forty-nine persons and scores of others from injury.
Engineer Keyer declared he received no information from any source relating to Train No. 7 being behind the accommodation from the time he left Louisville until he reached Shepherdsville at about 5:23 o'clock in the afternoon.
He said he knew the train had been late getting into Louisville from Cincinnati, but he did not know how close it was to the accommodation after it cleared the Louisville station.
At Shepherdsville, he said, the negro porter, Ernest Chase, told him to back into the siding.
"Don't you think, Mr. Keyer, that if you had 'headed in' on the siding you would have saved a minute or two and the wreck might have been avoided?"
"Yes, sir. I think the wreck might have been avoided if I had had orders to 'head in," but of course, I do not know this for certain."
Keyer further testified that Flagman Greenwell, on the accommodation, and Conductor Campbell neglected to protect the rear end of the accommodation with red lanterns and "fusees."
Dispatcher Sams stated that it is the duty of operators at all stations along the line to report the passing of trains, whether they are on time or not. When they are running late, the rule says, they must be reported "promptly" if any time is lost at that station.
"When the reports of the operators show trains are getting too close together, is it not the duty of the dispatcher to issue an order to the conductor and engineman?"
"Well, why did you not issue such an order in this case?"
"Because my reports showed that the trains were within ten minutes of each other all the time, and the rules say that this spacing is regular."
Dispatcher Sams said he talked with Conductor Campbell of No. 41 at Brooks and advised him to go to Bardstown Junction if he could make that point on time. If not he should take the siding at Shepherdsville.
While No. 41 was at Shepherdsville he talked with Campbell again, he said, over the telephone, and advised him to take the siding. After Campbell hung up the phone he received the report from Operator Sanders at Brooks that No. 7 had just roared past, and he again called Shepherdsville, but evidently there was no in the station and his call was not answered.
Dispatcher Sams said that at no time was he alarmed thru fear of a wreck while the two trains were running between Louisville and Shepherdsville. His information showed that they were ten minutes apart, and under the rules he was not required to take any action under those circumstances, he said. He was only concerned about the possibility of No. 7 being delayed by No. 41 running ahead, and his purpose in talking with Conductor Campbell was to avoid this, he said.
Engineer Keyer was questioned about the reliability of L. & N. station operators, and after saying, "So far as I know they are all right." he declared that in all his career he never knew an operator to give a signal to an approaching train by changing his board without the engineer first blowing his whistle.
Operator Jesse Weatherford, of Shepherdsville, was called to the stand. He described his movements just before the wreck occurred. Immediately after No. 41 arrived about 5:23 or 5:24 p.m., he said, he left his office to help with the baggage. Finishing this work in about two minutes, he said, he went back to his office and met Conductor Campbell coming out. Campbell told him that the train would go into the siding, he said. Then the train moved down the track while he was about ten feet from his office door. Hearing a noise in the distance, he looked up and say No. 7 coming at great speed. Rushing into his office, he dropped the red danger signal on the semaphore and, seizing his red lantern, ran out on the platform just as the express sped by.
"What did you do then?" he was asked.
"I just stood there," he replied, "and looked at the rear end of No. 41."
"Was No. 41 protected by signals from the rear?"
"The only signal I saw at the rear of the train was the usual red light."
Under examination by L. & N. attorneys, Weatherford said the stationary green signal was the best danger signal he could display for the protection of the Bardstown train. Engineers are accustomed to running up close on red signals and blow whistles for a "track clear" signal, he said, but they are always more careful when green lights and boards are shown.
Ernest Chase, negro porter, told how Conductor Campbell on the Bardstown train talked to him after leaving Brooks and told him of the order to proceed to Bardstown or to take the siding at Shepherdsville. As they passed Gap-in-the-Knobs, he said he asked Campbell if the information had been given to the engineer, whereupon Campbell replied that he would tell the engineer when they reached Shepherdsville.
A. R. Fugina, signal engineer for the L. & N., estimated it would cost the Louisville and Nashville road $187,765 to equip the line with the electric block signal system from Cincinnati to Louisville and $320,000 from Louisville to Bowling Green. In the latter case, the cost would be greater on account of double tracks.
"How much money do you think the L. & N. will pay out in damages on account of this one wreck?" he was asked by Mr. Finn.
"Would $750,000 be a fair estimate?"
"I think so. Something like half a million or more might cover the damages."
"In other words, what the company will lose in this one accident would more than purchase a block signal system from Cincinnati to Louisville and Louisville to Bardstown?"
B. M. Starks, general manager of the L. & N., was the chief witness in the morning. He was questioned closely about the reasonableness of the operating rules of the L. & N. He declared that, in his judgment, the rules were all right, as they had been compared to the rules of other roads and the L. & N. system had been operating under them for many years.
"If the operator at Shepherdsville had been at his telephone to take any messages the dispatcher wanted to send to train No. 41, instead of handling baggage on the platform, do you think this accident could have been avoided?" he was asked.
"I don't see how it could." he replied.
After stating that it is the duty of a station operator to let a train pass ten minutes behind another train, Mr. Starks said he could not say whether an electric block signal system between Louisville and Shepherdsville would have averted the disaster. He cited a number of wrecks on roads on which block signal systems are in use.
He added that the stationary green signal given Engineer Wolfenberger by Weatherford was the best stop signal he knew of.
W. F. Sheridan, superintendent of transportation covered about the same ground as Mr. Starks, endorsing the operating rules and declaring that the signal displayed by Weatherford at Shepherdsville was a proper one.
Chairman Finn announced at the opening of the inquiry that it was not for the purpose of criminally prosecuting anyone so much as it was intended to ascertain who and what was at fault and to secure legislation correcting any defects that are found in operating practices.
The inquiry adjourned at 5 o'clock yesterday afternoon to be resumed at 9:30 o'clock this morning.
The Louisville Herald
12 Jan 1918, pages 1, 3
Wrong Sign Shown, Says L. & N. Cabman
How Train Dispatcher J. W. Sams, at Louisville, and Operator Jesse Weatherford at Shepherdsville station could have averted the Louisville and Nashville wreck at Shepherdsville, December 20, was related in testimony given before the Kentucky Railroad Commission here yesterday by Engineer W. M. Wolfenberger, who was at the throttle of the Cincinnati-Nashville express No. 7 when it crashed into the rear end of Bardstown accommodation #41 and killed forty-nine persons.
Wolfenberger said Dispatcher Sams, knowing that No. 7 was fast running down No. 41, should have telegraphed an order to the conductor and engineer of No. 7 at Brooks station warning them of the danger, while Weatherford, knowing that No. 7 was fast approaching Shepherdsville and was due to arrive in ten minutes, should have changed his signal from green to red while the accommodation was moving onto the siding.
Wolfenberger asserted he had no idea he was gaining on No. 41 as he had "clear" green boards all along the line after leaving Louisville. The dispatcher, however, knew the accommodation was losing time and the express fighting hard to maintain his schedule.
"It was the duty of the dispatcher to send me an order at Brooks warning me of the danger." said Wolfenberger. "If I had received such an order or simply a message that No. 41 was to head in at Shepherdsville, I would have been prepared.
The green signal at Shepherdsville, Engineer Wolfenberger declared was misleading. Engineers often run by stationary green signals, he said, but if the board had shown a stationary red signal he would have lowered speed.
After all witnesses were heard by the commission, the case was taken under advisement and Chairman Laurence Finn announced the findings will be handed down within ten days.
Another important statement made by Engineer Wolfenberger was to the effect that if the Bardstown accommodation had proceeded to Bardstown Junction according to schedule instead of delaying at Shepherdsville to take the siding the wreck would never have happened.
Had the accommodation started from Shepherdsville to Bardstown Junction, Wolfenberger said, No. 7 undoubtedly would have run past the station, but the Bardstown train would have been under way and No. 7, seeing the red signal dropped by Weatherford, would have come to a stop before the crash, he believed. In the opinion of Wolfenberger, much valuable time must have been lost by the Bardstown accommodation at the Shepherdsville station.
The only order he received on leaving Louisville, he testified further, was to run one hour and thirty minutes late. In maintaining this schedule, it was necessary for No. 7 to make sixty miles an hour as often as possible.
As he ran toward Shepherdsville, Wolfenberger said he watched for a signal, but smoke and steam around the station obscured his view and he thought the signal changed to green and that the track was clear.
"I went straight ahead because we often run by green signals and also because I thought the operator had given me the board before I called for it. Operators often do this, and on account of this habit of operators, we are accustomed to run by stationary green boards. I did not see the red lights on the rear of No. 41 until I was under the semaphore."
"If you observed the rule to stop at each green signal without seeing an actual change from red to green, could you have maintained the schedule required of you?" he was asked by Chairman Finn.
"We could never have kept up with the time card if we slowed up each time we saw a green signal."
As a rule, Wolfenberger said, there is a thorough understanding between members of train crews when and where one train is supposed to pass another, but he never received any information concerning a point for his train to pass No. 41.
Supt. Sheridan here asked Mr. Wolfenberger if the rules did not require engineers to assume no risks when in doubt about signals. The witness verified this and it was at this point that Mr. Finn questioned him about his ability to keep up with the time card and simultaneously slow down for green signals.
Train No. 7 was not accustomed to stop at Shepherdsville except on orders from the dispatcher was the assertion of Wolfenberger. Not once in 100 times, he said, did the Cincinnati-Nashville express slow down at this station.
Attorney E. S. Joinett, representing the L. & N., questioned Wolfenberger closely about his failure to bring his train under control on seeing an imperfect green signal and the propriety of displaying a green signal while No. 41 was standing at the station. Wolfenberger insisted Operator Weatherford, in possession of information which he himself did not have, should have shown the red signal as long as No. 41 held the right of way.
The Rev. C. W. Welsh, pastor of the Fourth Avenue Presbyterian Church, appeared at the hearing yesterday in behalf of Wolfenberger who is a member of his congregation. He asked the engineer many questions and brought out the fact that members of train crews make concessions to each other in observance of operating rules. The real rules, he said, are those of custom in running. Sometimes these customs violate provisions of the operating manual, but they are necessary in many instances for the maintenance of schedules.
The fact also was established by the minister that, under atmospheric conditions existing the day of the wreck, Engineer Wolfenberger would not have known whether No. 41 was on the main track or on the siding even if he had seen the red lights on the rear end in time to bring his train to a stop.
Dr. Welsh declared the engineer has been to see him every day since the wreck.
W. T. Carter, agent at FX Tower, next was called. He said the two trains passed his station seventeen minutes apart.
Supt. Sheridan recalled to the stand after testifying the previous day, declared it a dangerous practice to keep train crews posted on the proximity of other trains. Application of such a policy, he said, would mean that crews would fall into the habit of depending entirely on dispatchers, and that they would neglect to take the precautions laid down in the manual. The flagman, he insisted, must always assume that his train is in danger of being overtaken and he must protect it with signals and "fusees" from the rear.
John Ford, a passenger on No. 41 at the time of the wreck, was on the stand for a few minutes and said he overheard a conversation between Campbell, the dead conductor, and Chase, the negro porter, soon after the accommodation left Brooks station.
"Did you tell him." the conductor was quoted by Ford as having asked the porter.
"No sir, I didn't get over there." was the reply.
"Well, then," the conductor is reported to have said, "we'll back in when we get there."
H. R. Johnson, an L. & N. freight engineer, who was at the Shepherdsville station when the wreck occurred, said the afternoon was dark, hazy, and smoky and that it was difficult to see signals and make them out under these conditions. In his opinion, the wreck would [not] have happened if No. 41 had proceeded on to Bardstown Junction.
The Louisville Evening Post
4 Feb 1918
DIVIDES BLAME FOR THE WRECK AT SHEPHERDSVILLE
State Railroad Commission Issues its Report on Disaster
Rules of Company are Too Vague and a Number of Causes Contributed to Crash
FRANKFORT, Ky., Feb. 4. - In its report on the L. & N. wreck at Shepherdsville December 20, in which over two score lives were lost, the Kentucky Railroad Commission, after going into an exhaustive review of the evidence in connection with the disaster, summarizes its findings as follows:
"That train dispatcher at Louisville did not perform his full duty; and that he did not specifically order trains No. 41 and No. 7 to pass each other upon the evening of December 20 at Shepherdsville.
"That the operator at the F.X. Tower did his duty in that he promptly reported the passing of trains No. 41 and No. 7.
"That the operator at Strawberry failed in his duty in that he did not promptly report the passing of trains No. 41 and No. 7 to the train dispatcher.
"We find that the operator at Brooks failed in his duty; in that he did not promptly report the passing of trains No. 41 and No. 7 by the station at Brooks.
"We find that Weatherford was confused, no doubt, by the complicated rules relating to his duty as operator; rule 20 providing:
"The proper place for an operator, when trains are due or standing at his station, is in the office, and at such times he must not leave his office (unless the company's business actually requires his presence elsewhere)."
"Operators are required to devote themselves exclusively to the company's business while in duty. (Those having other duties to perform must not allow them to interfere with their telegraph and telephone duties). (The telegraph and telephone service must always be regarded as first in importance)."
and that being confused he exercised woefully bad judgment in looking after the baggage instead of staying in his office "when trains are due and standing at the station." But we find that the rules were calculated to mislead him. Also his conduct seems to have the approval of the officials of the company, notwithstanding the fact the rules provide that "the telephone and telegraph service must always be regarded as first in importance."
We find also that the strong presumption is that at the time No. 7 sounded the station whistle he should have been in his office and that the signal green should have been changed to red.
We find that the conductor and flagman of train crew 41 failed in their duty; in not placing fusees on the track or torpedoes on the track, or protecting the rear of train 41, when 41 was running late under such circumstances that it might be overtaken by No. 7.
We find that Wolfenberger failed in his duty; in that he did not bring his train under control at Shepherdsville, when he was "in doubt" as to whether or not the signal had been changed from "red to green" in his sight; but we find that his failure to do so was under such circumstances as were calculated to mislead any engineer of extraordinary prudence and skill; and that it would have required more than human intelligence for him to have anticipated that the green signal thus displayed at Shepherdsville indicated a danger signal which should require him to stop.
We find that the rules of the company in many instances are too vague and indefinite and that employees on some occasions are permitted such latitude in their discretion that it is not compatible with safety and that under the rules of the company the same acts may either be commended or condemned.
We find that the management of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company has not adequately equipped its system with the necessary safety devices.
The report concludes with a number of recommendations, including a revision of the operating rules of the company; the making of official test by the management in the establishment of a manual block for trains going south from Louisville to Bardstown Junction, similar to that now maintained between Bardstown Junction and Louisville for trains going north, and the passage of a number of measures by the Legislature to ensure the safety of the public.
This is a work in progress. It is copyright 2008 by Charles Hartley, 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.
If you, the reader, have an interest in any particular part of our county history, and wish to contribute to this effort, use the form on our Contact Us page to send us your comments about this, or any Bullitt County History page. We welcome your comments and suggestions. If you feel that we have misspoken at any point, please feel free to point this out to us.