Jerry Summers: Hamilton County's Deadliest Train Wreck

Friday, February 14, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

The family of W.J. Woodward lived in the rural area of Jersey about 10 miles northeast of Chattanooga in February, 1897 (Jersey Pike area).  It was a large family with several children that worked in the cornfields and frequently traveled to Chattanooga to shop for basic goods.

 One of the girls, Lizzie, had recently married Ira Montgomery and they were planning to move from Jersey to Florence, Alabama.  Ira had secured a position on the government dredge boat at Florence and he had left to take up employment.  The departure of Lizzie would cause a break in the family and it was decided that the entire group would go to Chattanooga to have a photograph taken to preserve the image of the clan for posterity.

As it was prior to the age of the automobile, the family double wagon with its team of fine horses was the mode of transportation.  On Wednesday, the departure date, the wagon was filled with chairs in order to make the trip more comfortable.  In the wagon was W.J. Woodward, father; Laura Woodward, mother, age 44; daughter, Lizzie Woodward, age 29 and her son, Roy, 2 months old; Albert Woodward, the oldest son at 26; George Woodward, son, age 24; Delia Woodward, age 17; Daisy Woodward, age 10; Mary Woodward, age 13; Veggie Woodward, age 3; and Ada Woodward, age 8, for a total of 11 passengers.

Another daughter, Josie L. Woodward, was working at the residence of the W.W. Silver family, on the Harrison Pike and she would be picked up on the route to Chattanooga.  Albert, who lived with his wife and son at a separate residence, attempted to meet the group on Thursday but had been turned back by high water on the raging Tennessee River.  The next day he set out to participate in the family photo.

After the large entourage reached the Silver home the father, W.J., and Albert, the oldest son, got off the wagon which was entrusted to George to drive and indicated that they would start walking to town and the wagon group would later join them.  Subsequent to a hearty meal at the Silver home the group headed towards Chattanooga. 

As the family approached the Harrison crossing of the Southern Railway System it was 12:40 p.m. and passenger train number 7 was on time to be in Chattanooga at 1:00 p.m.  The Harrison crossing is situated on a heavy grade coming from the Missionary Ridge tunnel on a cut which is also a curve, adjacent to a clump of heavy trees which obscured the train engineer's view and he could only see ahead a few hundred feet.  Another critical factor was that a pedestrian or vehicle could not see the train until it passed through the cut.

George, the wagon driver, evidently did not see the approaching train and started across the crossing.  Although the engineer saw the wagon after coming out of the cut and blew his danger whistle, it was reported that he had previously blown the whistle for the road and the bell of the locomotive was also ringing.

From eye-witness accounts both then and later repeated to the surviving descendants it appeared that George Woodward, as driver of the wagon, paid little attention to the warning of the locomotive whistle until it was too late and then looked up and saw the train bearing down on the loaded wagon and made an unsuccessful attempt to check his team.  When this failed, he struck the horses with his whip in a futile failed effort to get across the tracks but the wagon was struck in the dead center with disastrous results, which ultimately totaled nine fatalities.  Only Ada, Delia and Veggie survived the crash but the first two girls would expire at the St. Vincent Infirmary leaving Veggie as the only one of the 10 occupants of the wagon to survive.

How the terrible accident occurred was confirmed by five people who witnessed the tragic event in which they described bodies flying through the air after the impact.  W.T. Rogers of Avondale was standing in the road about 300 yards from the scene of the catastrophe.  Ninety-three-year-old Garnett Walker of north Hamilton County is the great-grandson of Laura Woodward.  Because his grandmother was pregnant with his mother, she did not accompany the group.  He vividly recalls his mother's account of the accident although he was not born until 1926.

The family is buried in the Kings Point Cemetery which lies on a hill above Amnicola Highway across from the entrance to the TVA Power Unit. It is also accessible from Forest Road/Cedar Street. The graveyard has been in bad shape for a number of years, but the graves are still fairly well marked. 

The gruesome deaths and investigation of the crash, and interview of witnesses and family are contained in the Chattanooga Daily Times in the Thursday, February 25, 1897 edition and also described in the Hamilton County Genealogy Society in a lengthy article by Dennis C. Wilson.


Jerry Summers

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