Attractive Statesville

Local History Notes

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

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Dec 30

Bostian Bridge train wreck and W.J. Stimson

Posted on December 30, 2019 at 8:42 AM by Jenny Levins

The town was asleep on August 27, 1891, when passenger train No. 9 of the Western North Carolina Railroad pulled into Statesville.  It was 2:26 a.m. when it stopped for a minute to let passengers get off and on at the depot. The train was due at 1:52 am but was running 34 minutes behind schedule. No. 9 left town heading west toward its next stops in Newton and Asheville.


The train had traveled less than 2 miles when it approached Bostian Bridge over Third Creek. By the time the train reached the bridge it was traveling between 25 and 35 miles an hour. The engine had almost reached the other side of the bridge when passengers reported feeling an ominous jerking and bumping of the train. The back cars of the train had derailed. Passengers claimed they felt the awful sensation of falling downwards as the train was pulled off the 60 high foot bridge and down into the dark creek below.


The wreck claimed the lives of 22 passengers and left 30 more injured. It was the worst disaster in Iredell County’s history up to that time and is still second with only the Influenza epidemic of 1918 taking more lives.  Those who were less injured made their way back to the depot to warn other trains that the track was out and to seek help. Statesville had no hospital, rescue squad, ambulance, or morgue. The more seriously injured were taken to houses near the wreck where Iredell families took them in. The less injured were brought by buggy and wagon to town and put up in hotels. By morning the dead had been removed from the wreckage and brought into town to be laid out in the Tobacco Warehouse.


Joseph P. Caldwell was the owner and editor of the Landmark newspaper in 1891. Caldwell went by buggy to the accident in the morning and by that afternoon the Landmark hit the stands with a full account of “A Frightful Accident.” Caldwell continued to follow the story with special editions as more news became available. Editors from around the state issued statements praising Caldwell’s first-hand reporting. Iredell County local historian Homer Keever later referred to Caldwell’s account of the accident as a “classic.” J.P Caldwell left the Landmark in less than a year and purchased the Charlotte Chronicle, later renamed the Charlotte Observer, and achieved even greater fame as its editor.


Also traveling to the accident by horse and wagon on Aug. 27, 1891, was one William Jasper Stimson, a photographer in Statesville. The Oct. 2, 1890 issue of the Landmark had announced that W.J. Stimson of Lenoir and rented the photography gallery over the store of W.E. Anderson, on Broad St. A photography studio had been established in the same rooms by R.L. Steele in January 1881. The Sept. 3, 1891 issue of the Landmark reported that, “Mr. W. J. Stimson took a view of the wreck Thursday afternoon.” Stimson took the only known photographs of the Bostian Bridge train wreck. At that time the Landmark did not print photographs so none of Stimson’s photos were published with Caldwell’s stories.


There is some confusion to this day as to how many photographs of the accident Stimson took. The August 22, 1988 issue of the Record & Landmark reported that Elizabeth Stimson, wife of William Jasper’s son Ben, said her father-in-law took the pictures with an enormous black box camera on specially coated glass plates. Mr. Stimson made his own emulsions which were used to coat a glass plate. The plate was then inserted into the camera in a completely dark room. Stimson went to the wreck, made a photo, and then had to return to town to develop the image. Ben Stimson’s daughter Betty Boyd says that the family has always understood that there were only three photographs made. In fact, W.J.’s son Ben was quoted in the January 14, 1959 issue of the Statesville Record and Landmark telling the Statesville Rotary Club that his father took three pictures of the Bostian Bridge train wreck and that each time he took a picture he would have to drive his wagon back to Statesville to develop the film and reload the glass plate.


So here’s the problem. The Local History Room at the Iredell County Public Library has five different framed photographs of the Bostian Train wreck. Four of the images can be viewed at www.flickr.com/photos/icplphotos/collections. Open the Stimson Collection and scroll down and click on “Miscellaneous” and look for “Bostian.” I found the 5th photograph just a few months ago. While searching through old Landmark issues I came across the following in the Jan. 4, 1901 issue, “Munsey’s Magazine for January has an article on railroad wrecks and wrecking, by Mr. Geo. Hebard Paine, which is illustrated with two good pictures of the Bostian bridge wreck, which occurred August 27, 1891.”


I found a copy of the magazine online at http://www.unz.org/Pub/Munseys-1901jan-00473. One of the photographs matched what we already have but the other one to my surprise was a different photograph. Steven Case with the State Library of North Carolina made a scan of this new photo from a rare copy of the magazine and I now have a framed copy in the Local History Room. I believe the photographs in “Munsey’s” had not previously been connected to the Bostian Bridge accident because they are labeled as simply wreckage of a train in North Carolina with no mention of Bostian, Iredell, or Statesville. The newly discovered photograph is taken from the same angle as one of the other Stimson photographs and all five images are almost certainly the work of W.J. Stimson.


The Sept. 17, 1891 issue of the Landmark says, “Mr. W. J. Stimson, of this place, has sold and has orders for about 175 of the views he took.” A fire supposedly destroyed many of Stimson’s early works and it is possible that by the time Ben became an adult three photographs were all that was left. Another man recording images of the accident was William Van Ness of Charlotte who made drawings of the accident for “Frank Leslie’s Weeklytwo of which were published in 1891. One of the drawings is taken from the same angle as one of W.J. Stimson’s photographs showing a fairly accurate picture of the wreckage. The other photograph is purely imagination and depicts the train as it fell from the bridge with passengers falling through the air.


The Landmark in our files. No date on article.

“Among the recent publication in N.C. newspapers of a photograph of the Bostian Bridge wreck, wich its owner thought was the only existing picture of the wreck. Mr. Thomas Bunch, of Statesville, calls attention to two different photographs of the scene of the catastrophe of August 27, 1891, which are in his possession. These two pictures, both evidently made a few hours after the wreck, present angles and both are somewhat different from the picture owned by Harry M. West, of Asheville, which appeared in the newspapers recently.  Mr. Bunch thinks the pictures he owns were made by the late W.J. Stimson, Statesville photographer and it is probable also that the West picture was made by the same photographer.

Of the two pictures owned by Mr. Bunch, one is a picture of the scene that has been familiar to many residents of Statesville from babyhood, and it is believed that attics of Statesville homes will yield up many copies of this old photograph. It shows the overturned engine, as does the West picture., and in the foreground is a part of the side of one of the cars of the train, the window showing quite plainly. In the background are traces of a road being made down the bank at the side of the bridge, probably for removal of the engine. Distinguishing mark of this picture is the man in the foreground. He is wearing a hat and is seated with his back to the camera. It is said that this was the late Dick Woods, well known local colored man. The other photograph owned by Mr. Bunch shows a different view. Most prominent in this picture is one of the cars of the train that appears to be practically whole but has been turned completely over and is lying wheels upward.

The wreck, a major catastrophe in railroad annals in this state occurred on August 27, 1891 at Bostian’s Bridge a few miles west of Statesville. 


Nov. 24, 2014