Last week in Thaxton, cattleman Jesse Jones took me in a bumpy van to the southwest end of his property. We rode beside a towering railroad embankment, and Jones waved right through his fence toward a long ravine overgrown with weeds and trees.
“That’s it,” he said. We were 22 miles east of Roanoke. It was mostly quiet. About the only noise was a distant rumble of occasional cars from US 460 across the train tracks.
You would never guess, but Jones was pointing to the largely forgotten location of one of the worst train wrecks in Virginia history. It caused 18 deaths, dozens of injuries and two books have been written about it. It’s still a big deal in Cleveland, Tennessee, where July 2, 1889 is known as “the day Cleveland cried.”
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Finally, 125 years after the events, Thaxton will get a historical marker commemorating the horrific sinking. In September, the Virginia Board of Historic Resources approved placement of a freeway marker near the scene. This will happen early next year.
For that, we can thank the owner of a Tennessee-based payday loan company, a few amateur historian-authors, and an unfortunate car accident earlier this year in Cleveland, about 25 miles northeast of Chattanooga.
Admittedly, it is a strange confluence of people and events. But hey, that’s history.
The train crash happened around 1:30 a.m. on a day of thunderous summer showers that had soaked and softened the ground. The rain turned a small spit known as Wolf Creek, which under normal circumstances almost anyone could easily jump off, into a wide, roaring river. It took Newman’s Fill, where the Norfolk and Western Railway embankment crossed the normally placid creek, a long stone’s throw from where US 460 now stands.
Passenger train No. 2 departed from New Orleans and had left Roanoke about 90 minutes earlier, on July 1 a few minutes before midnight, Michael Jones said. He’s an amateur historian from South Carolina with deep family roots in Thaxton (but he has no connection to Jesse Jones). He published a book about the wreck, “Lost at Thaxton: The Dramatic True Story of Virginia’s Forgotten Train Wreck”, in 2013, after two years of research.
The train carried 56 passengers and a crew of 18. Due to weather and track conditions, travel that night was unusually slow. It took almost an hour and a half for the No. 2 train to get from Roanoke to Thaxton because “there were several instances where there was water on the tracks or debris, and they had to stopping to clean that up,” Michael Jones told me. .
The engineer on the eastbound train had no idea that the normally flowing Wolf Creek was a roaring river, or that he had turned a small culvert where the tracks crossed it into a gaping chasm. The steam engine and its seven cars – five passengers carried – plunged from the sodden embankment into the pitch-black ravine. The engine exploded.
Some of the deceased drowned. Others burned to death. Rescuers took hours just to get to the scene.
So how does Cleveland, Tennessee fit into this picture?
Among its passengers, the ill-fated train carried three young men from prominent Cleveland families. They were William Steed, 30, who owned a Cleveland pharmacy with his brother; William Marshall, 22, recorder from the city of Cleveland; and John Hardwick, 33, the son of CL Hardwick, a Cleveland industrialist whose woolen mill was later the largest in the world.
The trio were heading to New York, where they intended to board a passenger ship bound for Europe en route to Paris and the 1889 World’s Fair. This was the year France built the Eiffel Tower. And in Cleveland, there was great excitement that some locals were going there, Debbie Riggs said. She is a Cleveland resident who researched and published “The Day Cleveland Cried” in 1996.
Today, Cleveland is home to about 41,000 people, but “back then it was a small town,” Riggs told me. Hundreds of townspeople had seen Steed, Marshall, and Hardwick leave when they boarded the train there.
News of the crash that followed paralyzed the town, which was then preparing for July 4 festivities,” Riggs said. “From the reports I’ve read, the town was devastated,” she added.
Only Steed’s body was recovered and returned. All businesses in Cleveland have closed for the men’s memorial services. There was no Independence Day celebration that year.
According to Riggs, a number of those who died were Virginians. From Roanoke they included AM James, JW Lifsey and Nathan Cohen. Three were from Radford: Charles Peyton; his wife, Charlene; and their child Jessie. JJ Rose, the train’s mail clerk, was originally from Abingdon.
Jones’s book lists another of the deceased as a Lynchburg resident, Patrick Donovan, the train engineer. Among the survivors was railroad journalist WC Meyers, who suffered a gash to the head.
In 1890, Cleveland, still in mourning, erected a 15-foot-tall obelisk-style monument to the men at the northern edge of the downtown district. Known since as ‘The Boys Monument’, it was toppled and shattered into pieces when a car crashed into it on April 25. The monument was repaired and rededicated on July 2.
It was big news in Cleveland, and it caught the attention of Allan Jones, who has no connection to Jesse Jones the farmer or Michael Jones the author.
Allan Jones is a history buff and philanthropist who owns Check into Cash, a payday loan company launched in 1993. Today, it has more than 1,000 stores in 30 states, including 44 in Virginia, Toby Pendergrass said. , spokesperson for Allan Jones.
Jones paid for Riggs’ book to be republished, and in the process he also discovered Michael Jones’ most recent book. From this, Allan Jones learned that no Virginia historical marker existed.
“The lack of a marker is one of the reasons some have called the Thaxton tragedy ‘the forgotten wreck of Virginia,'” the businessman said.
So Jones called the Richmond lobbyists who represent his payday loan company. Together with author Michael Jones, they persuaded the Board of Historic Resources to approve the road marker. The specific site will be chosen by the Virginia Department of Transportation.
The Jones Foundation will cover the cost of casting the marker. Pendergrass said the foundation plans to spend about $1,500 on it.
It seems fairly inexpensive, given the rich history of the incident.