Narrow Passage railway disaster, March 6, 1876

Rockingham Register, Harrisonburg, Virginia, March 16, 1876. See also the account of the disaster from the Shenandoah Valley, March 10, 1876, as recounted by John Walter Wayland in “A History of Shenandoah County, Virginia.”

The Railroad Disaster

Further Particulars!

Shocking details.

The details of the fearful Railroad disaster at Narrow Passage, on the night of the 6th of March, do not mitigate the horrors of the accident. We follow up the account of last week, of the particulars, as far as they have reached us in an authenticated form.

The train was in charge of Conductor James Russell, Florence Dunnavan, Engineer; T. Cunning, fireman, and J. Chapman and T. Jefferson, Brakemen. There were eleven loaded cattle cars, five freight cars and one passenger coach.

The accident occurred about 12 o’clock at night. It is impossible to ascertain certainly the particulars of the breaking through of the train. From the information given by those who escaped as well as from the position of the engine in the creek, it is believed that the break first occurred under the two freight cars immediately behind the tender, and that in their descent they dragged down with them the engine and tender. The rear cars followed the others, one after another, down the terrible chasm, until the last one of the train was mingled in the horrible wreck of cars, bridge timbers, iron rods, flesh, blood, flour, cattle, sheep and hogs.

After leaving Edinburg the train proceeded on its way, and on approaching the bridge it slowed up to cross, the crossing being done at a pace hardly faster than a man can walk. The bridge keeper stood at his sentry box with a white light signaling all was right. The moon was shining as clear as day. The passengers in the car seen through the window were smoking and laughing and talking. Two of them were standing near the door to look at the stupendous bridge by moonlight. The engineer cheerily cried back “good bye” to the bridge keeper, who was putting up his lantern. The little creek sparkled along in its narrow thread at the bottom of the black gorge. The red light hanging like an ominous prophet at the back of the receding train, was the only thing that said “danger.” The cars reached the middle. All was still. Those standing on the bank saw the centre of the train bend down. The engine made a sudden struggling effort as the engineer opened his throttle to pull away. There was a sharp cracking, the engine was dragged back, and in a moment more its glaring head light was pointed up to the sky, and then shot down with the mass, turning a complete summersault and facing its light to the bank it had left. The red light too reared up a few feet as it turned the fatal edge and fell into the darkness. There was a sound as if of thunder and the earth trembled for miles around. The whole immense mass of cars, men, cattle, iron and flour lay quivering one hundred and fifteen feet below.

The engine was completely inverted, the front being headed West, and bottom upwards. As the train went down it swept, as with a beson of destruction, every piece of timber forming the bridge, from the ties on which the rails were laid to the very foundation. As before stated, the span of the bridge which broke down, is the centre one of the bridge, one hundred and fifty feet in length and one hundred and fifty feet high.

The trains have always been run slow across this bridge, and the speed of the train when the disaster occurred was not faster than usual.

The news of the disaster was quickly conveyed to Edinburg, two miles above and to Woodstock, two and a half miles below, by some of the hands who had been employed in rebuilding the bridge, and soon help came to the dying and wounded. Drs. D. W. Prescott and Bellew of Edinburg, and Drs. Campbell, Magruder and Carter of Woodstock arrived at the scene of the disaster about one o’clock, and at once rendered all the assistance medical skill could provide.

The bodies of those who were killed were sent to Winchester and placed in charge of an undertaker, who placed them in coffins to be sent to their friends. The wounded were made as comfortable as possible and sent to their homes. The conductor and fireman were taken by a special car to Sandy Hook, N. J., and Mr. Baker, the wounded Baltimorean, was brought to Baltimore in the same train.

The fatal bridge.

The bridge at which the accident occurred is midway between Woodstock and Edinburg, in Shenandoah county, Va. It is 115 feet high at the centre span and about 200 feet long, crossing a deep, narrow ravine formed by two steep precipices, at the bottom of which runs a small stream known as Narrow Passage creek. This portion of the Valley road ia a part of old Manassas Gap railroad.

The original bridge was burnt by Gen. Turner Ashby, in March, 1862, when Stonewall Jackson made his first retreat up the Valley from Winchester to Rude’s Hill, in front of Gen. Shields. It was rebuilt in 1863, at at the close of the war, by the Manassas Gap road, but not in a very substantial manner, of wooden tresalework. When the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company came in possession of the road, several years since, the bridge was greatly strengthened, and last summer the company built two heavy stone piers, with a view to erecting a new bridge with three spans, two of which had been put in place, and the
third, or middle span, over the deepest part of the ravine, was being constructed in the place of the old span at the time of the accident. In building the new bridge the old timbers wore taken down, so as not to stop travel. This was the portion of the bridge that gave way and caused the accident.

A noted locality.

The locality is noted and well remembered by travellers through the Shenandoah Valley for its wild scenery. A short distance below the bridge Narrow Passage Creek approaches the Shenandoah river, running parallel with it, at the foot of the precipice. On the other side of the ridge the river courses at the bottom of a corresponding precipice, leaving just room enough on the top of a high ridge between the two steams for the Valley turnpike road. The traveler in passing over the turnpike, finds himself between two precipices, with the river and the creek on either side far below, and to the westward, high above him, spanning the ravine, is the bridge through which the train plunged.

The locality takes its name from the narrow pass on which the turnpike is built. From the railroad bridge the scene is one of the finest in the lower valley. The narrow passage, the Shenandoah river, and only a mile to the east the Massanutten mountain, rising abruptly, affords a grand and picturesque view of the valley, river and mountain.

Mr. W. A. Wightman, one of the killed, was a resident of Edinburg, in Shenandoah county, Va. For a number of years be has been a justice of the peace, and was an active business man. He was a member of the Masonic fraternity and was buried by his lodge, assisted by other lodges of the valley. He was In Woodstock on Monday. When taken from the wreck he was conscious and spoke to Mr. Caruthers, who carried him out. He lived about ten minutas. Half an hour before the sad occurrence, Mr. Wightman bade adieu to bis wife and children, totally unconscious of the fact that in a brief half hour be would be brought back to them a mangled corpse.

Mr. Charles L. Noel, was an extensive cattle dealer, well known in this and adjoining counties. He was not married. He was very popular among his large number of acquaintances. He deserved a better fate.

Mr. Reuben E. Hamman, of the neighborhood of Mount Clifton, was a cattle dealer. He was very popular in the county, and was elected assessor of the third district last summer. He leaves a wife and several children.

R. L. Wood was for many years a merchant of Alexandria, and a member of Alexandria Washington Lodge of Masons, and of the Southern Methodist Church. His body and the effects found upon his person were taken in charge by the Masons of Edinburg. He wore the jewel of a Royal Arch Mason, leading to his identity. He has of late been in business in Washington, D. C., though still living in Alexandria.

The most fortunate was Mr. P. M. S. Bird, of Mt. Jackson, who was but slightly injured about the head. Be says he felt several jars as if the cars were running on the cross-ties, when suddenly he became conscious of the fact that the train was going down. In a few seconds there was a terrible crash of the falling timbers. He assisted some of the wounded in their efforts to extricate themselves from the wreck.

Dr. D. D. Carter, of Woodstock, Va., who with other surgeons was summoned to the scene of the disaster about one o’clock, says he found the most of the wounded in caboose cars on a side track near the wrecked bridge. The injuries as a general thing were very serious, requiring careful treatment, and the cries of some of the more seriously hurt when stirred was heart rending.

It appeared that a “camp” of cars had been stationed near by for several days to accommodate a large force of workmen who were at work on the centre span of the bridge. The workmen lived in the caboose cars, and on the evening of the accident had quit operations at six o’clock. Hence when the accident occurred assistance was near at hand, and before surgeons arrived much had been done to alleviate the suffering of the wounded.

Among the wounded in the cars was H. O. Baker, of Baltimore, who was conscious, but unable to speak. While Dr. Carter was attending to Mr. Baker, two men, one on the right and one on the left, died. One of those who died was J. D. Baldwin, also of Baltimore, and who managed with an effort to bid his friend good bye a few moments before he died. Three hours after the accident there were yet one-half of the passengers on the train remaining buried under the ruins. When Dr. Carter left the scene of the ruins, about seven o’clock last evening, the bodies of the engineer and brakeman had not yet been extricated from the wreck.

The scene, as described by Dr. Carter, was one of great disaster. The bridge, as has been stated, spans a small creek at an elevation of 114 feet, running from one steep precipice to another. In the center of the space, between the two precipices, but not reaching as high up as the bridge, was a wall of masonry not quite finished. The bridge, he says, gave way at about the center of the distance between the wall and one side of the precipice. At the bottom of the ravine, damming the creek, was the wreck, piled up against the wall some thirty feet wide.

The wreck presented the appearance of a horribly mixed mass of twisted iron work, shivered timbers, dismantled trucks, tops of cars, carcasses of bulls, sheep and swine, and various kinds of merchandise. It was a work of great difficulty to find and extricate the bodies of human beings from the wreck, owing to the heavy iron work wedged so closely in the wreck, and several persons found alive were in the ruins many hours before taken out. Some of the dead bodies taken out showed evidence of having been scalded terribly,, and some of the wounded persons received scalds.

Statements of passengers.

P. M. S. Bird, of Mount Jackson, Va., who was on the train and fortunately escaped with injuries that are not considered very serious, says that the passenger car was the last one in the train, and he with others were seated, a few awake, others dozing, but the greatest number asleep. He was near the rear end of the car, and at the moment of the accident heard the wheels of the car make a rough grating noise, as if running over the ties instead of rails, and the next moment was a crash and a terrible shock.

As soon as he could collect himself he looked around and found he was in an aperture about four feet square, seated on the floor along side the seat he had occupied. He was wedged in on all sides above and below, and there was no apparent way of getting out. He could hear subdued groans, but they came from parts of the wreck divided from him by masses of timber, iron, &c. He shouted, after probably an hour, which seemed like a century, he was extricated. The escape of Mr. Bird was almost miraculous.

Mr. Hughes, one of the passengers, states that when the car went over and left the track it seemed to burst open as it turned, the roof and sides flying apart. The conductor, Mr. Russel, Mr. Wightman and himself were standing at the front of the car talking, Mr. W. about to step out on the platform. There was nothing premonitory, and the car went down in the twinkle of an eye. Some of the passengers, including Mr. Bower, were asleep on their seats, and some were laughing at some humorous conversation of Mr. Quantz. In a second, and with no sound but a crash all went down in the ravine. Mr. Hughes found himself free of the wreck, lying on top of the pile. That was pretty much the experience of all the passengers who were awake, except the one who thought he heard a sound like the wheels running on the cross lines. There was little noise. The one hundred and twenty-five cattle, were every one instantly killed and the immense layers of flour mingled in the wreck would have prevented any breathing under it.

The scene.

The scene of the disaster was a remarkable one. Near centre of the bridge the span had fallen out as clean as if cut, except on the eastern side, where the struggle of the engine while being dragged backward by the descending cars, had displaced the cross-ties and rails. Down in the ravine was na immense white pile thirty feet high, from which protruded the whitened bodies of fat cattle, the tracks of cars, the flattened bodies of sheep and hogs, whitened car eats, cushions, driving wheels, bridge timbers, pieces of stone broken from the piers, and the immense engine propped against the pile with its wheels in the air. The mass, except for some bridge timbers and car wheels, was composed of splinters, most of them not thicker than a walking cane. In the pile were some one hundred workmen with a block and tackle dragging off the cattle. With nearly all the cattle their eyes were forced out of their heads, and their tongues, whitened with flour, protruded.


A jury of inquest and acting coroner, J. H. Grabill, of Woodstock, have been engaged in investigating the causes of the deaths of the victims of the Narrow Creek bridge disaster. A great deal of evidence has been taken, but it is impossible to determine certainly how the accident occurred. Some of the witnesses think it was occasioned by the breaking of an axle of one of the cars; others that the timbers of the bridge were so rotten that the weight of the train broke it down. A good deal of interest is felt in the action of the jury of inquest.