A Terrible Day Near Whitaker’s Farm, Tennessee – Train Wrecks Part 2

The NTSB just got done with their update on the train derailment in the Bronx that happened over the weekend. The gist of it was that bad boy was apparently going 82mph into a 30mph curve!  The reporters seemed really interested in the setting of the brakes and the NTSB guy just couldn’t get it into their head that the settings meant the engineer was probably standing on the brakes, not that they weren’t working. Four people lost their lives and over 60 went to the hospital.

I wrote an article a few months ago on one of the deadliest train wrecks in history which happened right outside of Nashville in 1918. I remembered another wreck that I read about that had lots of pictures of it.  That’s unusual because that wreck (actually a collision of two trains) happened in 1904 when field photography was still in its infancy. The most interesting thing to me about this deadly wreck is that they never figured out the reason for it. Two trains just slammed into each other at high speed near Mr. Whitaker’s farm and killed 64 people. The report sets up the wreck like this:  The Carolina Special was a passenger train made up of wooden and steel cars which were full of passengers. It left Chattanooga heading towards Knoxville on September 24th.  About the same time, the local No. 15 left Bristol and headed for Knoxville and picked up passengers all along their route. Both these trains were on the same track heading directly towards one another.  The No. 15 was supposed to take the switch in Hodges to let the Carolina pass her. But someone, for some reason, supposedly told the train to take the New Market side track, so she did. This was a problem because the Carolina was on the New Market track.  The No. 15 stopped in New Market for passengers and then went on its way.  After it left, the New Market attendants realized the No. 15 should have been on the Hodges switch and saw that it was on a collision course with the Carolina. They wired the Strawberry Plains station by telegraph to alert the Carolina to take a switch and let the No. 15 by. But the Carolina had pulled out by the time the telegraph arrived so they were unable to warn her.

Let’s take a minute to appreciate our ability to communicate with each other in this day and age. We have radios and telephones as well as warning lights and sensors on the tracks. They had none of that back then. Everyone knew what was about to happen except for the Carolina Special and the No. 15 and their poor passengers and crew.

Both engines picked up heads of steam as they entered into the rural farmland, knowing they didn’t have to stop for awhile and could make up some time on these long stretches.  Investigators figure both were going about 60-70mph when they caught sight of each other at Whitaker’s Farm.  The engineers and brakemen of both trains tried desperately to stop, but it was too late. They collided head on. The No. 15 engine went airborne and landed on top of the Carolina’s passenger cars and both trains left the track.  64 people died in the wreck, most of them in the passenger cars of the Carolina crushed by the No. 15’s locomotive engine.  By some miracle, nobody onboard the No. 15 was killed except the engineer and the fireman.  They were in the engine that went airborne.  Even after the investigation, authorities were never able to satisfactorily pinpoint where the blame for the accident lay, except that it appeared the No. 15 wasn’t on the Hodges switch and they should have been. Thus, the 1904 Crash at Whitaker’s Farm was the second most deadly train accident in Tennessee’s history and a bit of a mystery.