Excursion Train Drops into Western Branch

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In 1928 Newman I. White, in "American Negro Folk-Songs," published a four-verse fragment of a ballad, "Engineer Rigg," with the following note:

"This old song was made up directly after the Negro excursion completely packed with Negroes from Greenville, N.C., and bound for Norfolk, Va., happened with the misfortune as to run into the Western Branch on account of the bridge keeper did not know of the excursion's schedule."

Informative lines of the song read,

"The drawbridge was open when they rounded the bend"

"Till all but two cars went down in the stream"

"They pulled [bodies] out of there for six long days"

I've found out that "Western Branch" probably refers to a branch of the Elizabeth River near Norfolk, possibly at Portsmouth or another nearby community.

I've also found that there was an excursion train wreck of some sort, involving people from Greenville, on August 17, 1905. However, it seems that at least some of the people on this train were white. I wonder, though, if at that time leasing might have been by the car, segregated, so that some cars might have been filled with blacks and some with whites.

I've been told that NS did not cross the Western Branch and that this wreck was therefore probably on the ACL, the only other RR with a run between Greenville and Norfolk. Can someone identify the wreck in question?


-- John Garst (garst@chem.uga.edu), November 02, 2004


In addition to Mr. Savchak's response, excerpts from THE RAILROAD GAZETTE indicate that the train was carrying 169 passengers, "it appears that there is no derailing switch at the draw and that, according to rule, the train should have come to a full stop before crossing. . . . .It is said that at Bruce's station, a mile west of the drawbridge, he (Engr Reigs)had received an all-clear block signal for the block section in which the drawbridge is situated. An officer of the road is reported as saying that this block signal had nothing to do with the drawbridge; in other words, that while it gives the right to the road throughout the block section, this right is subject to the liability of being stopped at the draw by a signal from the draw tender."

-- Harry Bundy (Y6B@aol.com), November 04, 2004.

Indeed there was an accident on the Atlantic Coast Line on August 17, 1905 at a drawbridge over the western branch of the Elizabeth River. A six car train carrying an excursion party of Blacks from Greenville NC was approaching an open drawbridge. It was broad daylight and the line was tangent track. There were two fixed signals-one a warning signal half a mile from the drawbridge and a stop signal 300 feet from the drawbridge. The operating rules required all trains to stop at the drawbridge before proceeding across. In addition, the bridge tender placed a red flag in the middle of the track and the drawbridge was crosswise to the track. The train, however, proceeded at full speed until some 500 feet from the drawbridge, when a porter on the train operated an emergency brake valve.

The train went into emergency, but the momentum was too great and the engine and the first two cars went into the river. The river was 25 feet deep at the bridge and the fireman and 14 passengers were drowned.

The engineer of the train, a certain D.L.Reig, had never traveled over this line before, but he could not give an explanation as to why he ignored the signals and other visual clues as to the status of the drawbridge.

All references to this wreck note that the train was a special excursion for Blacks. Since the fireman was the only crew member killed, it is possible that he was White, however, at that time, many firemen on the ACL were Black.

Perhaps a search of the local newspapers in Norfolk for that time may provide more details. This wreck occurred five years before the ICC started to investigate railroad accidents, so further details are not available from ICC records.

Of course, nowadays, engineers must be fully familiar with the territories over which they operate and must regularly pass exams on their knowledge of the territory. But, trains still go through open drawbridges, with horrible results. Two recent accidents that come to mind were the September 15, 1958 wreck on the Jersey Cenral at the Newark Bay drawbridge where a commuter train plunged into the bay, killing 48 passengers and a May 8, 1974 wreck in Cleveland on the Penn Central where a freight train hit a lift bridge counterweight at a speed in excess of 30 miles per hour, shearing the superstructure of two locomotives. One locomotive frame fell into the river, barely missing the boat, while the other hung over the opening. The superstructures of both locomotives were compressed into a mass 12 feet long! Both crewmembers died. The 1993 AMTRAK disaster at Big Bayou Canot outside of Mobile AL happened at a drawbridge, but the cause was due to a tugboat striking the bridge and dislodging it. Another recent AMTRAK derailment at the PORTAL drawbridge over the Hackensack River was due to poor maintenance practices.

Please let me know if I can be of more assistance.

-- Michael W. Savchak (Savchak@mnr.org), November 02, 2004.


I have some information on that wreck at home. Let me dig it up tonight and I will get back to you.

-- Michael W. Savchak (Savchak@mnr.org), November 02, 2004.

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