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Death on a stormy summer night

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Lost at Thaxton looks at historic train accident

By John Barnhart

One of the worst train wrecks in Virginia history occurred in the wee hours of the morning of July 2, 1889, when a passenger train traveling eastward from Roanoke didn’t quite make it to Thaxton. Now “Lost at Thaxton,” the result of 18 months of research by Michael Jones brings that tragic night to life for readers.

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    Jones, an information technology specialist who lives in Columbia, S.C., has Bedford County roots. His father grew up in Thaxton and his mother grew up in Montvale. A job took his parents to Charleston, S.C., where Michael was born.
    Along with Bedford County roots, Jones has a direct connection to the train wreck. His great-great-grandfather, Tandy Jones, was the Norfolk & Western section master for that stretch of railroad track. That meant that he was responsible for condition  of  that  part  of the track. That and a long-time interest in history led Jones to embark on the book project.
    Jones said that he initially knew little about the wreck beyond hearing that Tandy Jones was alerted and went to the site to help.
    “From what I could tell [from his research] he was really good at taking care of that section,” Jones said.
    Jones was objective. He said his father joked with him that, if he found that his ancestor had not done his job well, Jones would have included a “Tandy did it” chapter.
    However, his research indicated that a Bedford County grand jury absolved the railroad of any responsibility in the wreck. The late spring and early summer of 1889 was an unusually wet period with frequent torrential downpours over much of the country. Shortly before the train met its doom, severe downpours in more than one place in the ridges above Thaxton turned Wolf Creek into a raging torrent. Jones said local people at the time spoke of boulders being moved by the water’s force.
    “I had never run across the ‘cloudburst’  term before,” Jones said, referring to the term used in the 19th century documents he read.
    One of the challenges of his research was his desire to portray as living people both the survivors and those who died that night just a little west of Thaxton. His goal was to take his readers on the train ride when, a few minutes before midnight, the engineer “put his hand to the throttle, and N&W passenger train Number Two set out on its journey toward Thaxton in the darkness of a cloudy 19th century night.”
    His research was aided by reports by two Norfolk & Western senior officials, who were on the train, reports from the investigation and testimony from lawsuits that followed the wreck. This enabled him to give details of who was doing what as well as quotes.
    The research was made difficult by the fact that he was looking into something that happened more than 120 years ago. The last survivor of the wreck died 45 years ago and the closest Jones was able to come was the granddaughter of one survivor. This lady, in her 80s, recalled talking to her grandmother about it.
    One source of information were the news papers in passengers’ hometowns. Jones was successful in tracking down many of the passengers, finding bits and pieces about them. He also found conflicting accounts of the wreck in newspaper stories with “the number killed all over the map.” Jones attributes that to the desire to sell newspapers leading to accounts being embellished.
    “The higher the number [of dead] the more likely somebody is going to pick up the paper and read it,” he said.
    He also noted that some papers were claiming N&W negligence within a week of the wreck.
    “If you have a villain, it makes it more interesting,” he said.
    In his book, Jones noted that N&W went into immediate damage control mode and barred reporters from the site within hours of the wreck.
    Jones also looked for references about the wreck in gazettes published monthly by insurance companies.
    “I read several of their newsletters from back in those days,” he said.
    One, published by Travelers, had a description of the wreck by one of its agents who came to the site and described what he saw. Some of the people killed in the wreck had policies with Travelers and one of them had just renewed his policy shortly before.
    “My objective was to make it like you were riding on the train,” Jones said, describing his purpose.
    Jones also read engineering journals to understand technical details. He said he learned the size of culverts was based on estimates of the maximum flood level of the streams that went through them. He said the flood that happened on that July night was bigger than anyone had seen before on Wolf Creek.
    In the course of his research, he found a number of interesting facts. One was that Norfolk & Western got sued frequently. People would sue because sparks from a train set their barn on fire; they sued when their livestock got on the track and got hit by a train. There was one lawsuit in which a train backed over a buggy and dragged it some distance, with a little girl in it “who was quite distraught.”
    As he did his newspaper research, he would also read unrelated articles on various issues in these old papers.
    “There hasn’t been a whole lot of change, He said. “Things really operate the same.”
    Jones wanted to make it possible to meet each person who was on that train.
    “My hope was to find out who each person was, where they were from, where they were going and what happened afterward,” Jones said.
    Doing this was difficult because he couldn’t always be positive that his efforts had led him to the right person. He often saw married women listed only by their husbands’ names in reports, such as “Mrs. Charles Peyton.”
    “That one I was able to track down through a marriage certificate in West Virginia,” Jones said.
    He also found that names were misspelled in some cases, which added to the challenge.
    The result of Jones’s work is a highly readable book that’s hard to put down. It also contains a surprise about what Norfolk & Western did with the locomotive afterwards.
    "Lost at Thaxton" is available trough a website, www.lostatthaxton.com, where the book can be purchased. It’s also available via Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble’s website, as well as on the Norfolk and Western Historical Society website.
    Locally, it can be purchased at the Bedford Museum.