Birmingham, AL Cahaba River Bridge Train Wreck, Dec 1896 - Into the Cahaba


Terrible Accident on the Louisville and Nashville.




The Wreck Was the Work of Human Fiends-Charred Corpses Packed in Between the Seats.

Memphis, Tenn., Dec. 27.-A special to the Commercial Appeal from Birmingham, Ala., says: Fiends in human form wrecked the Birmingham Mineral branch passenger train No. 40 at Cahaba river bridge twenty-seven miles from here, at 7:50 this morning and twenty lives were lost. That number of bodies have been recovered from the wreck and further search may swell the list of the dead. The wreck, it is regarded as almost certain, was accomplished by the removal of a rail in the middle span of the trestle. This derailed the train, which caused it to fall down the two spans and precipitated it into the river 110 feet below.

The wreck was the worst that has ever occurred in the state and the survivors are so few and so badyl [sic] hurt that they are unable to give any detailed description of how it all happened. It is not known and may never be ascertained just how many passengers were on the train. Most of them were miners and residents of mining towns in this district who had round-trip holiday tickets and were returning to their homes along the line of the Birmingham Mineral railroad.

Conductor A.P. CONNELL, who probably knew better than anybody else as to how many passengers were aboard, is dead. It is thought, however, that there were not exceeding twenty-five or thirty. But one passenger purchased a ticket at Birmingham. The ill-fated train was a local passenger which left here at 6.30 a. m. and was scheduled to make a circuit on the Birmingham Mineral branch, which is a branch line of the Louisville and Nashville, reaching all the important mining towns in the district. The train, consisting of an engine, a baggage car and two coaches, left here at 6.30 a. m. and went to Taccoa, on the main line of the Louisville and Nashville. There it switched off to the Birmingham Mineral track and went to Gurnee, from Gurnee to Blocton. The Mineral trains operate over the Southern railway's Blarfield, Blacton and Birmingham branch under a contract agreement. Six miles south of Gurnee is the Cahaba river, a shallow mountain stream, which has a depth at this time of only about three or four feet. This river is spanned by an iron bridge with wooden trestles on each side. Its entire length is 800 feet and the length of the main span, where the wreck occurred is 110 feet. The bridge was built only four years ago and was regarded as a very strong structure. The main span and the span just beyond, both made of iron, gave way and precipitated the entire train into the river. The engine landed on its side almost at right angles with the track. The cars piled up on each other through the main span. The entire wreck took fire soon afterwards and was rapidly burned to the water's edge. Nine persons alone escaped alive, all of whom went down and several of them will probably die.

The first news of the wreck was brought to Hargrove, a telegraph station four miles from the Cahaba river, by a farmer, who said that, while passing near the place he heard a crash. Going nearer he saw the two spans of the bridge broken out. He then discovered the burning wreckage in the shallow water below. He could hear groans of the wounded and dying, but without waiting to see further he rode his horse rapidly to Hargrove, where the operator telegraphed to Birmingham and Blocton for relief. Meanwhile a few country people gathered at the scene to render what aid they could, but it was too late to do much. Nine persons had got out and the others had been burned up in the wreckage. When the relief train from Birmingham arrived there was little need for the physicians that had gone along. The wounded were quickly attended to and then sent to Blocton for further attention. The work of getting out the dead was entered upon. Nothing was left of the wreckage but the smoldering remains which had burned to the water's edge. Charred corpses were packed in between the iron frame work where the seats had been. Most of the bodies had been burned beyond recognition. Some had their heads burned off and others nothing was left but the mere skeleton. As rapidly as possible the remains were taken out and laid away in a row on the river bank.

At 4 o'clock twenty bodies had been found and no more were in sight. It is possible, however, that there are still others under the wreckage and also that some may be hidden by the water. Of the survivors SAM SPENCER was the only one of the train crew that escaped alive. He was the colored fireman. He jumped from the engine while it was in mid air and landed in the water some distance from where the engine fell. His only injury was a broken arm. He left the scene for Blocton on foot almost immediately after the wreck, apparently crazed with fright.

The railroad officials have not yet been able to see him and get a statement. Of the eight other survivors three were children, all of which had their feet burned and mashed and a lady who had both feet crushed. The names have not yet been learned. The other three were HENRY HANDBURRRY, a conductor from Birmingham, who was taking his wife and his two children out for a ride around the circuit, and WILL GARDNER and ANDREW BRYSON, miners from Blocton. HANDBURRY was in the same seat with his wife and children when the crash came. The latter three were killed and he was pinned down and would have been burned alive had he not been rescued by BRYSON and GARDNER. Those two men also saved the unknown woman and three children who were likewise pinned down and appealing piteously for help, but by the time they had rescued those five persons the flames had became so intense that they were compelled to desist in their work of rescue. It is thought that fully three-fourths of the dead were killed outright in the crash, while the other five were pinioned down and cremated. GARDNER and BRYSON were both badly hurt, while HANDBURRY will probably die. The flames had completed the work of destruction before any help arrived. The country around the scene of the accident is sparsely settled and the few farmers who heard of the wreck and went to the scene arrived too late to be of any assistance except to the survivors.

DR. RAY, a Blocton, physician who attended GARDNER, one of the injured survivors, telegraphed to-night the statement made by GARDNER as to the cause of the wreck. GARDNER says when he felt the cars leave the track, he looked out and saw three savage-looking men rushing from a hiding place down toward the water's edge and that after the wreck they went through the wreckage robbing the dead and wounded and then fled to the woods. They did their work quickly, and offered no assistance whatever in the way of rescuing the imprisoned and injured passengers. This story, however, has not yet been corroborated, but other facts tend to show that it was the work of train wreckers. An examination of the engine shows that ENGINEER WHITE had shut off the steam and reversed before it went down, indicating he saw danger ahead as he approached the bridge and tried to stop his train. His charred body was found with his hand on the throttle. The survivors all agree that the train left the track and jumped along the ties and then with a crash plunged through the bridge. Expert engineers say that there is every indication that a rail was removed which derailed the train and caused it to pull down the bridge. The cross ties show marks of wheels. To add to this is the fact that three men tried to wreck a Southern railway train near Henry-Ellen, fifteen miles east of here, five days ago by removing a rail on a trestle ninety feet high. The fast express left the track but the engineer managed by superhuman effort to stop it before it tore down the trestle. This was regarded as a most remarkable escape. In this case three men were seen running from the place and a crowbar with which the spikes had been drawn were found. The scene of both accidents are in a wild mountainous country.

A relief train with Superintendent FRASER of the Southern railway and eight trained physicians, nurses and supplies, left here at 10 o'clock this morning for the scene of the wreck. This returned at 9 o'clock to-night with twenty-seven bodies. These corpses are now in the several undertaking establishments in this city awaiting identification. All the bodies however, are charred beyond recognition.

The relief train from the scene of the wreck returned at 9 o'clock to-night and brought in ten bodies. Ten other corpses were left at Blocton and another at Brookwood, where the deceased resided. Nearly all of the bodies were horribly burned. They were, in fact, in many cases, charred beyond recognition and were identified by means of particles of clothing still clinging to them or by jewelry. One man, R. WEBB, was identified by his watch. Express Messenger BOLLING's charred corpse was identified by fragments of overalls which still clung to his legs. The conductor and flagman were identified by their caps.

A serious wreck occurred near Cahaba river bridge at 1 o'clock this afternoon. A wrecking train which had gone to the relief of the ill-fated passenger train was standing on the line when it was run into by a construction train from Birmingham which was on its way with men and timbers to rebuild the destroyed Cahaba river bridge. JIM ESTIMES of Boyles was fatally crushed and several workmen more or less hurt.

Dallas Morning News, Dallas, TX 28 Dec 1896