Attractive Statesville

Local History Notes

Notes about the history of Iredell County by Joel Reese, Local History Librarian.

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Dec 30

Railroad Accidents in North Carolina

Posted on December 30, 2019 at 3:55 PM by Jenny Levins

One of the best history books we used in school when I was growing up contained a small section on each page giving interesting anecdotes and showing illustrations. One in particular told about the dangers involved in early train travel and had a drawing showing the early wooden ties coming up through the floor of a passenger car and impaling the men and women sitting there. I remember thinking, “Boy, I bet that was rough.”

Yesterday marked the 116th anniversary of the Bostian Train Wreck. The wreck occurred on August 27, 1891 at early on a Thursday morning around 2:30 am. The accident happened about a mile and a half from Statesville and took the lives of 22 people injuring 30 more. It was the worst disaster to hit Statesville since a fire destroyed half the town in 1854. The worst disaster to hit Iredell County was probably the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 and 1919. No lives were lost in the fire of 1854.

1891 was up to that time the worst year in the history of railroading in the United States.  In the first eleven months of 1891 there 160 passengers killed and 488 employees killed. The death totals for passengers, employees, and for others on the whole were 705.  The year previously in 1890 during that same period there were 1,939 accidents. For the previous nine years from 1882 to 1889 the average had been 1,452 accidents per year from January through November. From January through November in 1891 there were 2,215 train accidents. 

Earlier in the year of 1891 five people were killed in a train derailment at Newton in February when a trestle collapsed dropping the train thirty feet.   During the month of August alone there were 42 passengers killed along with 36 employees in the United States in railroad accidents. There were also 186 injured.  The number of passenger trains involved in accidents was close to 900.  (Are you still planning on going to Tweetise this summer?)

The worst train wreck in North Carolina’s history occurred on Dec. 16, 1943 between Buie and Rennert near Lumberton. There were 72 people killed in that accident including 47 soldiers when a collision and derailment took place between two Atlantic Coast Line trains. The greatest loss of life in United States railroad history took place on July 9, 1918 near Nashville, TN when 101 people were killed in a two-car collision.

Several books have been written giving details of the Bostian Bridge train wreck. Author Scotti Cohn recently released “Disasters and Heroic Rescues: True Stories of Tragedy and Survival of North Carolina” in which a chapter is dedicated to the accident.  Vol. I of the “Heritage of Iredell County” and Homer Keever’s “Iredell: Piedmont County” both contain sections on the wreck. Local Historians Mac Lackey and Bill Moose have written newspaper articles detailing the history of the accident.

There is a legend that someone saw a ghostly train go off the bridge fifty years after the wreck occurred. This story is told in other recent books such as “This Haunted Southland where Ghosts Still Roam” by Nancy Roberts and “Weird Carolinas: Your travel guide to the Carolinas’ local legends and best kept secrets” by Roger Manley. Just within the past few weeks paranormal researchers were here in the library looking for information on the wreck.

The Bostian Bridge itself is still there and visitors often go to look at it. I personally think there should be an historical marker at the site.  The bridge was originally built in 1857 and is a brick and granite 260-foot structure with five arches. It passes over Third Creek. The creek itself is normally not very large, but heavy rains left it swollen before the night of the accident and the box cars dammed up the creek causing at least one victim to die of drowning.

The cause of the wreck is still a mystery and that lends to the continued interest in the story. An inquiry after the wreck found the wreck had occurred because a rail had come loose after the bolts and spikes had been removed by someone with tools taken from an open shed owned by the railroad company nearby. It also found that several of the cross-ties at and near the break were unsound and that the superstructure on the bridge was in part defective and unsafe. The high rate of speed with which the trains traveled over the bridge was also noted.  The debate still goes no though most historians believe it was an act of sabotage.

The only four photos in existence of the wreck were taken by Statesville photographer William Jasper Stimson.  The library now has four enlarged copies of these photos hanging in the Local History Department.  The enlarged black and white photos show more details and one kept help but wonder looking at the splintered wooden cars how anyone could have survived the fall from such a height.

Joel Reese, Local History Librarian

Iredell County Public Library

This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “1891 was a rough year for trains, even in Statesville” on Aug. 29, 2007