The 1917 Seco, Kentucky Train Wreck
by: Ben Luntz
Copyright: January 2007
Some years ago the Appalachian Quarterly published an article on the 1917 Seco, Kentucky train wreck. An abbreviated and modified version of this article is given below.
For most of the day there was nothing to distinguish September 20th, 1917 from any other Thursday. Miners came and went to work, people came and shopped at the commissary and went about their business pretty much the same as they did any other week day. Dr. Pigman and Dr. Wright, along with their nurses and their staff, were busy at their usual activities, dealing with patients and taking care of the many other aspects of running a small hospital. Just about 4 P.M. the L. & N. passenger train Number 1 from Lexington, Kentucky was making its daily run and entered Seco at its far end on its way to Neon. Within a few moments there was an enormous explosion followed by a thunderous rumble that shook and rattled every house and structure in Seco. It sounded as if the earth had come to an end and that end times had arrived. The unexpectedness of this sudden catastrophe upon the unsuspecting population of Seco brought with it a momentary fear and horror. For some the thought of end times came to mind and trembling, they prepared to face the ultimate judgment. For others, there was a deep-seated fear that life was coming to an end and for a short time this overwhelming shock paralyzed them, making them unable to react or deal with the situation. After the initial shock, the people at the hospital did pull themselves together, and even though their little hospital and its staff would soon be overwhelmed, they would rise to the occasion, heroically and unselfishly administering aid and comfort to all those who were injured. By the time the last injured passengers were taken on to the Fleming Hospital, Dr. Pigman, Dr. Wright, their nurses, their staff and many other people from Seco, Millstone, Neon, Jenkins and other surrounding coal camps and communities had done all in their power to help all those who had been injured in this horrible train crash.
This tragic accident deeply affected all who had experienced it. This was especially true for the doctors and nurses in Seco. Dr B. F. Wright realized that he did not, at the time the accident, have sufficient surgical training to deal with many of the resulting injuries. Because of this he would later re-enter medical school and would become a first-rate surgeon. He always felt that if he had had surgical training before the accident he could have saved some of the accident victims.
This awful train crash was caused when a coal train in Neon somehow started out on its own in the direction of Whitesburg. This train and its coal car were moving in reverse. Some of the L. & N. employees, on seeing this train moving past them, quickly started up another train in an effort to overtake and stop it. As this unmanned coal train rushed along toward Whitesburg, the Louisville and Nashville passenger train Number 1, which had originated in Lexington, Kentucky, was speeding toward Neon at 45 miles per hour. The two trains collided close to the Southeast Coal Company Hospital. (This was on the rail line that passed near the old Seco grade school. The location of the train crash was just past the grade school and on the railroad track just out from the end of the bridge that still crosses over Boone Creek into Seco.) As the two trains approached each other the engineer on the passenger train held back on the throttle as long as he could, jumping from the train just before the collision. Some of the passengers, on seeing the coming train, began to jump from the passenger train as well. The collision between the steam engine of the passenger train and the coal car of the coal train produced a thunderous sound and the baggage car of the passenger train telescoped back into the first passenger car which was reserved for the African-American passengers. (These cars usually got the brunt of the soot and smoke that came from the steam engine.) It was reported that three people were killed instantly: the fireman and two of the African-American passengers. Twenty-five other people were injured, but not fatally. Most of the people injured were African-American. The approaching rescue train’s crew, having failed to halt the errant train, became a rescue crew the minute they pulled up to the crash site. Under the directions of Dr. Pigman and Dr. Wright, who both had, by now, reached the crash site, the rescuers, with the help of others, began removing the accident victims from under the wreck’s debris. By the time a rescue train containing doctors and surgeons from Hazard and Lexington arrived that evening, there was little left for them to do since Dr. Pigman, Dr. Wright, their nurses and staff had already completed most of the task, and had sent most of the injured on to the Fleming Hospital. Among the victims of the train wreck was Dr. Wright’s oldest brother, Tilden Wright, who sustained a broken leg and some internal injuries.
There was some anger and resentment from some people toward Dr. Pigman, Dr. Wright, their nurses and staff for having treated the injured Blacks. Most people, though, thought it was the right thing to do as was shown by the fact that so many from so many places had done all they could to help all of the crash victims.
For some reason the various newspaper articles relating the events of this terrible train crash had never been reprinted together until the 2007 Appalachian Quarterly article. Over the years the date of this train crash had been forgotten by most people, probably due to the fact that the Mountain Eagle newspapers from that series of years no longer exist. Because of this only a few people knew the exact date of this train crash. Some of the newspaper articles about the Seco train crash are reprinted below.
Reprint of an article in the September 21, 1917 Louisville, Kentucky Courier Journal.
THREE KILLED IN COLLISION.
Twenty Others Hurt When Wild Engine Hits Train.
Neon, Ky., Sept. 20.–John Allphin, fireman, of Ravenna, and two Negro passengers were killed and about twenty Negro passengers injured early to-night when a freight locomotive, running wild, crushed into a Louisville and Nashville passenger train about one mile west of here.
The locomotive is thought to have been set in motion by a Negro who at the time the engine was first seen to be in motion was observed running away from the point at which it had been standing on a siding in the railroad yards here.
Efforts to catch the Negro failed, but a widespread search of the surrounding country is being made in hope that he yet may be appreciated.
The baggage car of the passenger train telescoped the car immediately behind, which was reserved for Negro passengers. The only passengers killed or injured were in this car.
End of article.
Reprint of an article from the September 21, 1917 Lexington, Kentucky Lexington Herald.
3 KILLED, 25 HURT AS WILD ENGINE SPLINTERS TRAIN.
Runaway Car and L. & N. Passenger Meet in Head-on Collision Near Whitesburg.
NEGRO TURNED ENGINE LOOSE.
Lexington Man Among Injured–Fireman Killed Instantly.
Whitesburg, Ky., Sept. 20.–A runaway engine, set in motion, it is said by a Negro who made his escape, dashed from the tracks at Neon here tonight and crashed into Louisville & Nashville passenger train Number 1, which left from Lexington, before a rescue car, hurriedly assembled at Neon, could catch the speeding runaway.
John Alphin, fireman, was killed almost instantly.
Two Negro passengers, whose names were not learned, were dashed to death.
Twenty-five other passengers, mainly Negroes, were injured, some seriously. All were taken to a hospital here where immediate surgical and medical aid was given.
The engineer, “Dad” Gilson, saw the oncoming engine, but could not check the speed of the train, which sped down the rails 45 miles an hour. He held to the throttle until he knew it was too late to save the occupants of the train, then hurled himself from the engine, just before the fatal crash.
The passenger train collided with the engine in a thunderous report. The baggage car was telescoped against the next car, reserved for Negro passengers.
Just before the collision, a Negro man had seen the oncoming engine, and shouted a warning to the Negroes. A rush was made for the door and numbers jumped madly from the speeding train.
Lexington Man Hurt
S. T. Walker, of Lexington, railway mail clerk, sustained serious injuries about the head and neck. He was brought to the hospital here.
R. C. Kennedy, L. & N. Lineman, thrown headlong to the ground, neck wrenched, injuries serious.Tilden Wright, Crampsville, (Tilden Wright, Craftsville) thrown from coach. Broken leg sustained and internal injuries feared.
Nearly all the occupants of the car were caught beneath the wreckage of steaming steel. From the engine, splintered by the smash, flying sparks and hot splinters shattered from the boiler, fell upon those buried under the coach and some were badly burned.
The yard engine, fired, and ready to start, was set in motion by an unidentified man who was seen prowling in the yards. It is thought that he was a Negro. Going at a rapid speed, the engine, utterly uncontrolled, sped from the yards and toward the main track.
The engine crew in the yards, seeing with alarm the dashing car, assembled quickly a rescue engine. The passenger train from Lexington was due to pass.
The pursuing engine with the crew of rescuers aboard, hoping to catch up with the madly going switch engine before the Lexington train arrived. The pursuing party was rapidly nearing the runaway when the fatal crash of steel thundered its deadly message. They immediately began work rescuing those pinned beneath the demolished car and clearing away the destruction. Aid was summoned from here immediately.
No announcement was made here last night from the hospital from which the names of the people brought in from the wreck or their condition could be learned. Several sustained injuries, which it is feared, will prove fatal.
End of article.
Reprint of an article from the September 22, 1917 Lexington, Kentucky Lexington Leader.
FIREMAN, WRECK VICTIM, WILL BE BURIED TODAY
No More Fatalities Among Injured Are Expected, Is Advice From Whitesburg.
Funeral services of John Allphin, victim of the wreck Thursday night between a Louisville and Nashville passenger train and a runaway switch engine, near Neon, will be held this afternoon at the residence, 138 East Third street. Mr. Allphin was killed instantly in the collision.
Mr., Allphin’s body was brought to Lexington yesterday afternoon at 2:15 o’clock over the I. & E. and taken to the Milward undertaking establishment. Funeral services will be held at 3 o’clock this afternoon. The Rev. Mark Collis will officiate. Pallbearers will be Carl Ages, S. H. Starns, John Daley, G. H. Delgman, S. C. Prows and G. W. Jones.
Mr. Allphin was fireman on the passenger train which was telescoped by the runaway locomotive. He has been an employee of the railroad for six years. He was a former student of the University of Kentucky. His wife, formerly Miss Jennie Doyle, of Lexington, and one son, Doyle, 9 years old, survive him. Two sisters, Mrs., Carrie Piner, of Covington, and Mrs. Lucretia McCoy, of Jonesville, and two brothers, Dr. W. S. Allphin of Georgetown and the Rev. A. S. Allphin, of Pannee Rock, Kans. Also survive him.
S. P. Walker, railway mail clerk, also of Lexington, who was slightly injured in the train crash was able to go back to work again yesterday. Two Negro passengers were killed in the wreck.
News from Whitesburg, where the injured passengers were taken to a hospital, was received last night, that the other victims of the wreck were resting well and that it was believed that no more fatalities would result.
End of article.
Reprint of an article from the September 27, 1917 Hazard, Kentucky Hazard Herald.
THREE KILLED, SCORE HURT WHEN WILD ENGINE HITS PASSENGER.
The people of this city were shocked and horrified last Thursday afternoon when the news was flashed over the wires that the up passenger train No. 1 had collided with an engine near Neon, above Whitesburg, and that ten people were killed and fifty injured. A call was made on Hazard for all the doctors and nurses that could respond to go to the scene of the disaster and render aid to the injured.
According to information obtainable the disaster was caused either by the ignorance or by the willingness of a Negro, said to be a hostler, in the Neon yards. It is reported that the Negro got onto an engine, which was under steam, opened the throttle and, after the engine had gained headway, jumped off, leaving it running wild. The engine, gaining speed with every revolution of its drivers, dashed from the yards onto the main track and sped down the rails towards Whitesburg at a terrific speed.
A yard crew, seeing the fleeing engine and knowing that No. 1, loaded with men, women and children, was due and doomed to destruction, took a yard engine and set out in pursuit of the speeding engine, hoping and praying that they might overtake it before it met the oncoming passenger train. But their efforts were in vain. A few more seconds and they would have overtaken the runaway and the awful catastrophe would have been averted.
The passenger train, with “Dad” Gilson at the throttle, running at the rate of 45 miles an hour, crashed into the wild engine on a curve about two miles this side of Neon. There was a terrible crash, both engines were demolished, the baggage and mail car and the forward coach telescoped, passengers were in a panic of fear and confusion settled on the scene. The pursuing yard crew were on the spot a few minutes after the collision and assisted in relief work.
As quickly as the injured passengers and train crew could recover from the confusion of the shock, first aid was rendered to the injured. Investigation disclosed the fact that three men were killed outright and about twenty-five more or less seriously injured. Among the killed was the fireman on the passenger train, John Alphin, the others being Negro passengers. As quickly as possible the injured were taken to the Fleming hospital and given attention. (It is rumored around Hazard that the death list was a great deal larger than that given out by the railroad company, but these rumors could not be verified and it is not likely that the railroad company would withhold information of this nature from the public.)
The engineer of the passenger train, “Dad” Gilson, saw the coming engine, but could check the speed of the train but very little. He yelled a warning to the fireman and jumped from the engine a moment preceding the crash. He escaped with only slight injuries. The fireman did not see the engine and probably did not realize the import of the engineer’s warning cry, his horrible scalded and mutilated body was found in the wreckage.
A moment before the collision occurred a Negro passenger seen the wild engine and called a warning to the others in the colored coach. A wild scramble as made for the doors and windows and many jumped from the swiftly moving train, many of whom were seriously injured.
Mail Clerk, S. T. Walker sustained serious injuries about the head and neck. He was taken to a hospital in Lexington.
R. C. Kennedy, L. & N. Lineman, thrown to the ground, neck wrenched, injuries serious.
Wilden Wright, Crampsville, (This was a misprint and should have been written, Tilden Wright, Craftsville) thrown from coach, broken leg and internal injuries.
Nearly all the occupants of the colored coach, through which the baggage car was telescoped, were caught beneath the wreckage. Flying sparks and hot splinters from the wrecked engines fell upon those buried under the wreckage and some were badly burned.
This is the worst wreck that has ever occurred on this branch of the Louisville and Nashville. The railroad company is blameless, the accident being caused solely by the insane act of the Negro hostler, who disappeared immediately after abandoning the engine. A diligent search is being made for him in the surrounding mining camps, and the authorities throughout this section, Virginia and Tennessee notified and a description of the Negro furnished. If caught he will be severely dealt with.
For a number of hours after news of the wreck became known here numbers of our people were under a severe strain as many had relatives and friends on the wrecked train. Uncle Ira Combs, of Jeff, was a passenger, en-route to Pike County, and his numerous friends throughout this section were apprehensive for his safety but were later relieved to learn that he escaped with only slight injuries. Other were equally fortunate. As is inevitable in a head-on collision the Negro coach received the brunt of the crash, and most of the dead and injured were colored people.
When the call was made on the local physicians and nurses for assistance the following responded: Drs. M. E. Combs, Hurst, Botkin, Summer, Steele, Moore, Wheeler, Cook, Holloway, Mitchell and C. B. Combs, colored.
The following men volunteered their assistance to the doctors and nurses: Estill Combs, Jas. Hampton, Mr. Hayslett, Dewey Daniel, C. E. Montgomery, C. E. Petrey, W. E. Faulkner, James Holliday, J. H. Fletcher, Ira Cummins, W. C. Trosper, Ed Robinson, Ed Williams, Floyd Baker, Odin Turner, Dave Pritchard.
The special, which consisted of an engine and caboose, left here about five-forty and arrived at Whitesburg an hour and a half later. Here word was received from officials of the company that the injured had all been taken to the hospital at Fleming. The thanks and appreciation of the company was conveyed to the party through Dr. M. E. Combs, with an invitation for all to go to the Whitesburg Hotel and have supper at the expense of the L. & N. The invitation was heartily accepted, as all had left Hazard just at the supper hour, and were tired and hungry.
The special train left Whitesburg about ten o’clock and arrived at Hazard at midnight. On the return trip the time was passed by those on board singing patriotic and sacred hymns.
End of article.
A couple of claims in this article deserve some attention. The first of interest is the following statement,
“It is rumored around Hazard that the death list was a great deal larger than that given out by the railroad company, but these rumors could not be verified and it is not likely that the railroad company would withhold information of this nature from the public.”
While it is true that there were not a large number of deaths due to the accident, it is also true that the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company was probably not truthful about the total number of deaths, and that at least two deaths from the train accident were not reported. For some reason the names of the African-American passengers who were killed were never made public, and the name of a white brakeman killed was also withheld. It is likely this was because these victims died a few days after the accident. The appearance of this article in the Appalachian Quarterly was the first time the names of all the known victims were listed. These names are listed below. It is possible that there were a few other deaths, but no evidence for more victims has been found at this time.
List of known victims of the September 20, 1917 Seco, Kentucky train wreck.
1. John Allphin, The train’s locomotive fireman. White. Married. Age: 45 years. He was killed instantly.
Parents names and addresses not given.
2. James Hays, Miner. Black. Marital status unknown. Age: 19.
He died the next day from injuries received during the train accident.
Father: Mose Hays. Birthplace: Alabama.
Mother: Nancy Davis. Birthplace: Alabama.
3. J. A. Pearson, Profession unknown. Black. Single. Age: unknown.
His death certificate has two conflicting statements.
One is that he died instantly, and the other is that he died of a fractured skull and pneumonia on September 22, 1917.
Parents names and addresses unknown.
4. Frank Williams, Miner. Black. Married. Age: 26.
He was killed instantly.
Father: H. W. Williams. Birthplace: West Virginia.
Mother: Louisa Brown. Birthplace: West Virginia.
5. Norris Williams, Railroad brakeman. White. Married. Age: 31.
The date given for his death is September 24, 1917, but cause of death statement implies he died instantly.
Father: Powell Williams. Birthplace: Kentucky.
Mother: Mollie Rule. Birthplace: Kentucky.
The following statement is also of interest.
“According to information obtainable the disaster was caused either by the ignorance or by the willingness of a Negro, said to be a hostler, in the Neon yards. It is reported that the Negro got onto an engine, which was under steam, opened the throttle and, after the engine had gained headway, jumped off, leaving it running wild. The engine, gaining speed with every revolution of its drivers, dashed from the yards onto the main track and sped down the rails towards Whitesburg at a terrific speed.”
No one can ever really know what actually happened in the rail yard at Neon when that switch train headed off on its own, but one thing that many people never believed was that some mysterious “Negro” was involved in that incident. There was another rumor at the time as well and it mentioned nothing about any “Negro.” Since the mysterious “Negro” rumor was the one printed in the newspapers and accepted by L. & N., it was the one that has been remembered. L. & N. accepted and embraced this ridiculous story because it shielded them from liability. If there had actually been a railroad hostler working in the rail yard several people would have known who he was and his name, along with a real and accurate description of him, and these would have been published both locally and statewide. No name was ever given in any of the newspaper articles because there was probably no such man in the first place.
Tilden Wright, who was severely injured in the Seco train crash, attempted to sue the Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company for damages. Because of the wealth and influence of L. & N. his lawsuit was unsuccessful. Below we see the position L. & N. took in regard to the train crash at Seco. Just after this Tilden Wright’s reply is given.
L. & N.’s version of events:
...there was a collision between its passenger train going south on its main line near Seco, in Letcher County, Kentucky, with an engine and coal car running North on its main line at said point; but it says that there was no person in charge of or on or controlling the engine and coal gon that was going North on the said track and collided with its passenger train; that a short distance south of Seco it has yards wherein it stores coal taken from various mines in the vicinity of its yards, And which yards are located at a place called Neon, and that it keeps in aid yards engines and cars, both loaded and empty, and that the engine which collided with the defendant’s (L. & N.) passenger train near Seco was standing in the yards at Neon and on a side-track and, as it is informed and believes, on a side track that is called and known and designated as track No. 4, and which engine was in a perfectly safe condition and would not start and could not be started without the lever, (the lever) was moved from the center point and the throttle opened in order to let the steam onto the engine, and that as it is informed, believes and charges a Negro man climbed into said engine and for some purpose unknown to this defendant, opened the throttle and moved the lever from the center point and thereby started the said engine and jumped from it and let it go, and which engine ran out onto the main line and upon the main line and North thereon until it collided with the Defendant’s passenger train,....
End of excerpt from L. & N.’s statement.
Tilden Wright’s reply to L. & N.’s version of events:
Now comes the plaintiff (Tilden Wright) and by way of reply to the answer of the defendant, states as follows to-wit:
That he has no information to form a belief, and does not know and he therefore denies that the engine and car which collided with the train upon which was this plaintiff was, was standing in the yards at Neon or on the side track which is called or known or designated as track no. 4, that the engine was in a perfectly safe condition, or that a Negro man climbed into said engine or for some purpose unknown to the defendant opened the throttle or moved the lever from the center point or thereby started the engine or jumped from it or let it go, ........
End of the excerpt from Tilden Wright’s statement.
The pictures shown in the above article are all of the 1917 Seco train wreck. Two of these were taken from the Seco Grade School grounds. One of these is a view towards the Seco company store, which can be seen in the distance, and another one is a direct view of the side of the train as seen from the school grounds. The third picture is taken from the bridge at the bottom of the hill that crosses Boone Creek into Seco. This picture is of the other side of the train wreck. The numbers on both trains can be seen from both sides. Many thanks to Nancy Clark Hayes for the picture containing the Seco company store.
The material on this webpage holds a copyright © 2007 by Benjamin Luntz
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