Tragic 1907 Blast At Chattanooga Creek Bridge Helped Doom Stevenson Rail Line

Saturday, December 16, 2017 - by John Wilson

A tragic 1907 "premature" blast near the Lookout Mountain tunnel at Lookout Valley may have helped doom Southern Railway's planned new rail line to Stevenson, Ala.

Just a few months later, Southern stopped work on the line that was to have been an entirely new route to Stevenson going along today's Highway 41 by the Tennessee River, crossing the river not far from Haletown, then going by South Pittsburg and on to Stevenson.

Southern had spent almost $3 million on the line, including building a series of culverts that still stand today as ghostly disconnected reminders of a flurry of construction that began in 1905 up and down the route.

But at 3:40 p.m. on May 16, 1907, a newly hired employee of Yandell Brothers set off a "premature" charge that wreaked unimaginable havoc in all directions. William Ford was said to have been an experienced powder man, but everyone on the scene was left to wonder what had gone wrong. The charge was loaded and was expected to be set off around 6 p.m. when there was a lull in activity at the site. However, Ford was seen headed toward the powder hole at 3:40 p.m. carrying a battery used to ignite a charge. The load included what was considered an excessive amount - 75 barrels of powder. Just a short time later, all bedlam broke loose. 

The blast hurled huge boulders for long distances, killing three men instantly, seriously injuring two more, and badly hurting three others.  

The monstrous rocks also went flying into homes on the side of Lookout Mountain, including one that was 500 yards away.

A Southern freight train with an engine and 11 cars was just starting to cross the wooden trestle over Chattanooga Creek when the carnage took out a section of the bridge. Engineer Samuel H. McMahon, who was from Tuscumbia, Ala., was out on the running board beside the boiler of the engine. He was on the safer side of the blast and managed to jump off as sections of the bridge along with the train cars came crashing down. Still, he fractured several ribs and had bruises about his head.

Fireman Joe Fitzgerald was on the opposite side shoveling coal when the blast occurred. When he jumped into the creek, he was buried by the debris.

One of the boulders struck a pile driver of the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad. It had been driving piles for a new bridge across the creek several hundred yards away. A rock went into the pilot house, killing fireman William Hyder, who lived in the Mountain Junction section of St. Elmo. He left behind his wife and daughter, Inez Hyder, the well-known elocutionist. The funeral was held at the Hyder home just a few days later. Engineer Clint Shafer, who was from Dickson, Tn., also died instantly. He also left a wife and children. His body was taken by train for the sad homecoming. E. McSweeney, a foreman for the NC&StL on the pile driving crew, was also seriously hurt.

Four Greek laborers who were some distance away were also battered by the flying rocks. Chris George was the most seriously injured, while Chris Costa suffered a severe skull fracture. Peter and Styles John were also battered by the barrage of rocks, though they later were able to return to work. A relief train was sent by Frank Dowler, general agent for the NC&St.L in Chattanooga. George and Costa were loaded onto the train and taken eventually to Erlanger Hospital, where Dr. J.W. Johnson administered treatment.

The stones went as far as the Cravens Yard, where they struck and destroyed a number of cabin cars. Fortunately, no one was on the cars.

Frederick O. Loft, the day operator at the station at the west end of the bridge, was sitting at his table when the blast occurred. A rock crashed through the station, scattering glass all over the operator. Loft lived nearby at 412 Wauhatchie Pike.

Harry Griggs, engine dispatcher, was in a shanty near the bridge. The shanty was caved in by a large rock, and Griggs was knocked to the floor.

A cow belonging to C.C. Lee was within a hundred yards of the blast. The cow was covered with dirt, but otherwise unscathed.

Lee's house was among those on the mountainside that were smashed by the flying rocks. His home suffered the greatest damage as a large rock went through the roof and took out part of the kitchen stove. Mrs. Lee had been by the stove just a moment before, but had gone into another room. The wife's sister and a baby were in a swing just before the blast, but the family was warned by Starling Patterson that an explosion was imminent. A 500-pound rock landed atop the swing. Patterson was a laborer at the Herron Foundry and a St. Elmo resident.

T.J. Dillard's house was also struck with the side veranda and a section of the roof torn away. Dishes that had been in a pantry were demolished. Dillard also lived on Wauhatchie Pike. He and James M. Wheeler ran a saloon on Montgomery Avenue (Main Street). 

J.F. Summers and Sam Light also suffered damage at their mountainside homes. A rock went through the roof of the Summers home and damaged a bedroom at Sam Light's place, which was far from the blast site.

It was noted that the carnage could have been much worse had the approaching Nashville passenger train been on the Chattanooga Creek bridge when the blast occurred.

Word spread fast about the calamity and rumors exaggerated the tragedy to vast proportions. Thousands of people came from downtown and from St. Elmo to view the awful scene. Many had cameras with them and captured multiple images of the destroyed train cars mixed with the bales of cotton, corn and flour they were carrying. The engine managed barely to hang onto the shattered bridge, but it was mangled.

A repair crew that was dealing with a much-smaller wreck at Whiteside hurried to the site to begin the cleanup. For several days, passengers had to get out of the train at the site and walk across Chattanooga Creek via a foot bridge to get to a waiting train. 

On the same day as the devastation, there was already talk of suing those found to be responsible, including Southern Railway.

As for William Ford, he disappeared very soon after the blast. He was last seen headed for Wauhatchie Pike. Sheriff J.F. Shipp had every man on the force looking for him, but Ford was believed to be long gone and unavailable to give an explanation of just why he set off such a disaster.

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