Goodwater, AL Hatcher's Creek Train Wreck, Oct 1891




The most disastrous wreck ever known on the Columbus and Western railroad, between this city and Birmingham, occurred at 6:20 o'clock yesterday morning, at Hatcher's creek, ninety miles from Columbus and seventy miles from Birmingham.

Those burned alive were:



THOMAS McCAFFREY, a tramp printer.

Those wounded were:

ENGINEER JOHN D. HENDRICKS, right arm broken, hole in back and bruises about the body.

ELI WILSON, colored, brakeman, right shoulder knocked out of joint, right ankle wrenched, head cut and bruises about the body.

The only persons on the train that escaped uninjured were:

Fireman J. W. Bishop.

C. J. Wilson, a printer.

John Heard, a colored brakeman.


The news reached Columbus at 9 o'clock by a meagre message from Birmingham, headquarters for the Georgia Pacific division of the Central.

Never was there such a gloom over the railroaders about the Union depot and in the yards. They stood about in groups, speaking of the awful affair, and were greatly depressed.

The members of the order of Railway Conductors and members of the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen at once went to work to lend all possible assistance. They made up delegations to go to the scene as fast as possible, and at 11:45 o'clock, by the regular Birmingham train, a delegation of three from each order left the city. They were:

Messrs. B. F. Ketchum, T. M. Deignan and M. S. Howard, of the O. of R. C.

Messrs. W. N. Foster, J. H. Flaherty and C. A. Peabody, of the B. of R. T.

This party was accompanied by an ENQUIRER-SUN reporter.

The trip to Opelika was uneventful, the party sitting in the smoker solemnly discussing the sad fate of their brothers.

At every station there were gathered groups of people talking of the wreck, and persons entered the train to gain further particulars.

Opelika was reached at 1:20 o'clock, and here it was learned that Engineer Hendricks and Fireman Bishop had just arrived from the scene on their engine, No. 511, one of the largest Baldwin hogs on the road, en route to Columbus.


They were [were] quickly seen by the ENQUIRER-SUN's special reporter and told for the first time the story of the great casualty.

Engineer Hendricks said:

"We left Birmingham last night at 10:27, seven hours and twenty-seven minutes late, pulling the through freight, No. 46. We were coming down an immense grade, or rather a mountain. At the bottom of this grade was Hatchet creek. On approaching the trestle from the west side, it is impossible to see it until within about 100 feet of the creek, on account of the cut through which we pass. When my engine came out of this grade I saw the trestle was on fire. My fireman, Joe Bishop, prepare to jump. I told him not to jump, but to stick to the engine and we would go across it or down with it. I gave the signal and as the engine, No. 511, consolidated, touched the trestle I gave her sand and pulled the throttle open to the last notch. She gave one fearful plunge and the trestle gave way beneath her, but the momentum was so great that she jumped the rails and reached the other side in safety pulling two cars with her. I jumped from the engine and at once went back to the wreck where I attempted to climb down a post to assist the others. This is why I am hurt. The debris on the track fell, knocking me to the bottom, about thirty-five feet, and I was unable to extricate myself for several minutes. I then went to the caboose, and heard the most frightful cries from the conductor, W. R. Rice, who was imprisoned in the burning wreck. I took a rock and burst open the door. I saw his feet and made an effort to enter, but the flames rushed out, burning my face and hands so that I could not enter. I shall never forget Willey's pitiful moans for help as long as I live. Finding I could do nothing to assist them, I got on my engine and run into Goodwater, a distance of three miles, and got men and buckets to assist in extinguishing the flames. We did all we could, but it was impossible to stay the flames, the cars being loaded with coal, which caught fire. We searched through the debris of the burned caboose, but could find nothing of the remains of the two unfortunate men, the conductor and his flagman, Leon Crawford, not even a bone. It is the first accident I have ever had in my life."


At Opelika Engineer Jesse Miller turned his engine around so as to back out to the wreck, and at 1:40 o'clock the party left for the scene, arriving at Goodwater at 5:30 o'clock. Here there was much excitement and large crowds gathered. The engine was here to put at the rear, and the train was backed three miles to the bridge. When within two miles of the creek clouds of smoke could be seen rising through the mountains from the burning bridge and coal.


Owing to the two coal cars that came safely over being left above the bridge, the passengers were compelled to walk about a quarter of a mile.


came to view----a valley sixty feet deep filled with burning bridge, twelve cars and 660 tons of coal and several human bodies.

Hatcher's is a fair-sized creek, winding about between three tall ridges, and the Columbus and Western bridge, from one mountain to another, spanning the creek is 400 feet long, wood all of the way except a 100-foot span immediately over the creek.

The bridge took fire at the west end, and burned five 20-foot spans, and into this gap the train fell.

Yesterday afternoon the fire was still burning fifty feet high, from the huge pile of coal, although one hundred man had been at work all day, trying to extinguish the flames. The trees for one hundred feet around were badly schorched[sic], and he woods for miles were burning.

The freight cars and caboose had burned completely up, and all that could be seen was a huge pile of trash, iron rods, track, etc., many of which had melted, and some of which were badly bent and twisted.


As soon as the news reached Birmingham, Superintendent of Ways J. A. Davenport, Trainmaster Ross and Assistant Trainmaster J. T. Johnson left for the wreck with their wrecker and a large force of hands. They reached Hatcher's at 10 o'clock and immediately went to work. Men rolled away the hot irons where the victims were last seen and searched for hours for their bodies in the beds of coals.


The result of this searching was the finding of one shattered skull attached to shoulder, and backbones, a few pieces of charred bones, one bunch of keys, partly melted, one piece of a knife, and one cap of a torpedo. These were piled upon a piece of bent iron car top, up on the side of the mountain, and carefully guarded.


Tears were in the eyes of the members who went from here when they were carried up to the little pile of remains of two of their dearest friends. Trainmaster Ross told them that those were all that could be found.

Examinations were made, and at first it was decided that the skull could not be identified. Mr. Foster, who was best acquainted with both parties, at last examined the teeth and found that they were natural. It was then known that the skull was that of Crawford, as Capt. Rice had a full set of false teeth.

Trainmaster Ross said the skull and jaw bones would never have been recovered had they not been beneath an iron truck. The skull was cracked in several places.

The pile of fire was examined, and it was decided that nothing could be done by remaining to look for any other bones, so the delegation secured a rubber coat and placed what had been found in it and carried the bundle very carefully to the train and put it oboard[sic] in the baggage car.


Fireman Bishop said: "I felt the engine going down and started to jump. Mr. Hendricks told me to stick to my engine. I did so, and we went over safely, and I saw the eleven cars and caboose run in behind us."

Brakeman Eli Wilson said: "I was braking on the first car in front of the caboose. I saw the fire and rushed back to the cab and told Captain Rice the bridge was burning. Mr. Crawford was up in the cupalo looking out. He ran down the ladder and started for the door. Captain Rice was sitting at his desk making out his report and jumped up. I turned to jump and just then the cars fell into the fire, one of them falling on me. I lay there almost unconscious for twenty minutes, nearly burning to death. The timbers had me fast. I heard Captain Rice crying. Never heard Mr. Crawford speak. As the fire neared me the car on me began giving way. It fell, and I was free. I crawled away and fell, and I was free. I crawled away and was soon unconscious, and was picked up by John Heard."

Brakeman John Heard said: "I was on the second car from the engine. Saw the fire, and saw Mr. Hendricks pull the engine wide open. We went over, and the car just back of me broke loose. I went with Mr. Hendricks to try and get the caboose crew out. We could see Captain Rice but couldn't get to him. He said, 'My God, have mercy on me,' and he never spoke again.

C. E. Wilson, a tramp printer fifty years of age, who had been working hard on the ruins all day, was sitting down listening at Superintendent Davenport give orders. He said:

"McCaffray and myself got aboard the trucks of the train Friday night bound for Columbus. When we saw the fire I jumped and never saw any more of my partner, McCaffray. We are both from San Francisco and belong to the Typographical Union."

Wilson was somewhat bruised, and came as far a Opelika on the train last night, saying he would go to Atlanta.


Train Master Ross said to an ENQUIRER-SUN man that it would be at least two days before the fire would die down sufficiently to let the work of repairing the burned bridge proceed. In the meantime the contract was given for timber yesterday, and in less than one week the officials say the bridge will be in position. Until this time passengers, mail and baggage will be transferred.

A path was dug out yesterday down the mountain on either side, and a crossing arranged at the creek.


At Goodwater a stop of five minutes was made to let the conductors and trainmen get a box, in which the remains were placed. Leaving there at 5:55 o'clock the run to Columbus was made in the remarkably quick time of two hours and forty-nine minutes, a distance of eighty-seven miles.

Undertaker C. L. Torbett was telegraphed to from Goodwater and he met the train, the little box was transferred to his wagon and carried to his Broad street establishment, where they were neatly fixed away and placed in a beautiful casket and were guarded there during the night by a party of friends of the deceased.


Mr. R. W. Rice was born in Gordon county, Ga., and was the son of a prominent minister of that county. He married Miss Alma Reynolds of Dalton, Ga., and leaves two children, Rawena and Leone. His wife is of the most prominent people of that section, her father having held various positions with the Western and Atlantic railroad for over forty-two years, without ever having his name stricken from the pay roll. He moved to Columbus two years ago from Selma, where he was formerly connected with the East Tennessee, between that place and Rome. He at once took the place of a conductor on the Columbus and Western and joined the Order of Railway Conductors here. He took a very prominent part in the order and one of the members said last night: "No man ever came among us that made more friends than he. He was all the time doing favors and making friends. We all loved him like a brother, and have lost one of the best men in our order.

He lived with his family at No. 1308 Fifth avenue, and with them lived Trainmen Leon Crawford, J. F. Foster and Mr. E. C. Bayne, who is now in Birmingham and Mr. F. T. Reynolds, brother of Mrs. Rice, is now visiting here. Mrs. Rice left Friday morning at 6 o'clock for a visit to her sister in Dalton, Ga., and is there now stricken with grief.

Mr. Leon Crawford was a native of Calhoun, Ga., having been reared two miles from that town in Gordon county and was a cousin to Capt. Rice, and leaves an aged mother, whom he supported and cared for, to mourn his sad fate. He was twenty-one years of age, and came to Columbus a year ago from Atlanta, where he was at different times in the employ of John Ryan and John Keely. He joined the B. of R. T. here, and was one of its most active members. He was universally liked, and was a young man of many admirable traits of character.

To Mr. Foster, his best friend and room mate, he said the morning he went out on his last and fatal run: "This is my last run on the railroad. After this trip I expect to resign and go back to Atlanta and go into other business." And it was his last.


At 6 o'clock this morning Messrs. J. H. Flaherty and W. N. Foster will leave with the remains, via the Georgia Midland and Gulf and Western and Atlantic railroads, for Calhoun, where all that was found will be interred at the mother's home.


Mrs. Rice telegraphed yesterday that she would come at once, but as the remains could not be found she was wired not to do so.

It was just two years ago to a day, yesterday, since the awful wreck of 1889 at Hatcher's creek, when a coal car went down. The bridge had been built anew since then.

Capt. Tom Gordy carried the train out and Captain Musgrove brought it back.

The hog engines, the railroaders say cause all of the trouble. They believe the trestle caught from fire dropped by one of these engines. Others say that the trestle was set on fire, as it was burning next to the mountain and no where else.

Dr. C. M. Pope, the Georgia Pacific physician, at Goodwater, gave strict attension[sic] to the wounded, and made them as easy as possible.

A $10 gold piece was found in the ashes. The engine that passed over weighed 100,000 pounds, and the rails must have been red hot, for when the drivers struck them first there is a curve bent in both rails about two feet deep.

A big crowd from Birmingham, among it several newspaper correspondents, were on the west side.

The caboose burned was a Savannah and Western caboose, No. 1014.

All of the cabooses were heavily draped in mourning yesterday afternoon by conductors and their families, and tender hands who were friends of the unfortunates, and not a one of them will leave the yards without being draped.

Superintendent Ryder, of the Georgia Pacific division, gave the men all assistance he could in transportation, etc.

Columbus Enquirer, Columbus GA 25 Oct 1891