Disaster on the rails: “That journey I shall never forget”

Mormon Emigrants & the Lynchburg, Virginia Railroad Accident of 1889

This article previously appeared in Pioneer Magazine, 2010 Vol.57 No.2


The tide of Mormon European immigration to America began in 1840 with the departure of forty-one Mormon proselytes from the docks of Liverpool aboard the Britannia.1 The stream of immigrants did not begin to subside until the end of the nineteenth century. “Nearly 90,000 Latter-day Saint immigrants crossed the oceans to gather to America between 1840–1890. They had a most unusual success rate of almost 550 voyages, losing no vessels crossing the Atlantic and only one vessel crossing the Pacific.”2 These Mormon converts and the missionaries who beckoned them were responding to a call to gather with the righteous in Zion.

The Atlantic voyage was followed in most instances by travel in the late nineteenth century. Railroad accounts of Latter-day Saint emigrants provide evidence of a railway safety record comparable to the one they had on the Atlantic. Commencing with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, most Mormon emigrants took this main national artery connecting the east coast with the west and traveled safely into the Salt Lake Valley.

However, during the years 1887–1890, the route to Salt Lake City was temporarily altered due to excessive rail costs on the east coast. Therefore, over forty Mormon companies, comprising more than five thousand Mormon immigrants were re-routed by Mormon agent James H. Hart. After disembarking at New York, the Latter-day Saint travelers voyaged down on the and then boarded cars at Norfolk, Virginia on the Norfolk and Western Railroad before heading west towards Utah.3 One rail journey that was an exception to the safety record and quite memorable was reported by one of Norfolk’s local newspapers.

The Public Ledger carried the following article on September 16, 1889, under the title “IMMIGRANTS IN A RAILWAY DISASTER”:

“Saturday, [September 15], afternoon the Old Dominion steamship Roanoke landed at this port one hundred and forty odd migrants, Mormon, all of them, in charge of four elders, and bound for the promised land—Utah. They were all English, most of them from Yorkshire, and were generally of a better class than the average run of incomers. They left the city on a special immigrant train at 4 o’clock P.M., and during the night ran into a “washout” a short distance this side of Lynchburg. The engine and baggage car, it is said, passed safely over the undermined rails, but the next car, filled principally with women and children, went down, dragging back the baggage car and engine. The scene in the darkness is said to have been a terrible one, but almost miraculously, there was no loss of life and the casualties were confined to two women among the passengers having their collar-bones broken and an arm each fractured, while the fireman was severely scalded. All the rest were gotten out safely, and the sufferers were taken to Lynchburg for treatment.”4

Latter-day Saint immigrant Daniel Kent Greene, an eyewitness of the accident, gave the following account:

“Before we left Norfolk it set in raining. As night came on the storm increased. At eleven o’clock the rain was coming down in torrents and the wind fairly howled. Precisely at 11:35 pm as we were crossing a small stream called Stony Creek near the James River in old Virginia, the bridge gave way and caused one of the most wonderful and miraculous wrecks that was ever known. The engine, tender and baggage car with first coach got over the bridge but were thrown from the track off the elevated grade. The tender and baggage car and baggage were a complete wreck, boxes and trunks being broken to pieces and the goods were scattered far and near. The baggage master was badly bruised about the back and hips. The engineer was slightly scalded, but not a life was lost.”5

The Deseret Weekly News published a private dispatch from company leader and carried an Associated Press article which reported the following :

“A Mormon emigrant train on the was wrecked early this morning about four miles from the city. The wreck was caused by a small bridge giving way after the engine and baggage car had passed over it. The water in the creek was very high, occasioned by one of the heaviest rain storms ever known in this location. The emigrants numbered one hundred and sixty. Two of the cars plunged into the creek, but strange to say no one was killed and only fifteen or twenty hurt—none of them seriously.”

Elder Payne also provided a detailed account of the accident and the later tedious rail ride to Salt Lake City:

“It was raining heavily when we started from Norfolk, and so continued during the remainder of the day. The streams of water began to increase rapidly in volume until midnight, when we reached the stone bridge at which the unfortunate accident occurred, four miles east of Lynchburg, Virginia.”

Questioned as to this catastrophe, Elder Payne proceeded to say:

“The engine and tender, after passing over the bridge, were thrown from the track on to their sides, and completely wrecked. The engine lay about sixty feet from the track, the tender about thirty feet, and the baggage car forty. The last named was wholly demolished, while the baggage was literally crushed to pieces. The first coach struck the opposite abutment of the bridge, the coach wheeling around and dropping upon its side on the bed of the creek, some thirty feet below. Three of its four sides were mashed up, and the passengers within were violently thrown upon each other in a huddled mass, the seats, racks, luggage, broken glass, etc., being piled upon them. One of the sisters, , aged 32, had her shoulder blade broken; , her daughter, aged 11, had her leg badly bruised; , 22, sustained a similar injury, as did also Sarah Hills, 36, whose foot was likewise hurt; and , 59, received an injury to the back.

“The next car came in contact with the upper portion of the abutment of the stone bridge, jerking the inmates into the fore end of the car, which had dropped to an angle of some 60 degrees. Adeline Allen, 24, had her left arm broken near the shoulder; Elder L. H. Durant [Durrant] met with a severe bruise on the left leg; some few others escaped with slight abrasions. The third coach remained on the rails.

“The conductor of the train, who was very much excited, shouted to the occupants of the third car to get out as quick as possible, stating that all the people in the first coach had been killed. This announcement, for a few moments, created a great sensation, men, women, and children—most of them but partially dressed—hastily quitting the car. The rain was now pouring down heavily, and some of the unfortunate passengers were up to their waist in water.

“Among the first to alight from the third car was Elder Payne, who, in company with Elder [W. C.] Farnsworth, made immediately for the first car. Not hearing a sound within, Elder Payne picked up a piece of timber which was lying on the ground and broke in one of the windows. Thinking in the darkness—for it was midnight—that another catastrophe had befallen them, the affrighted ones shrieked out, but were soon reassured.

“Elder Davies [Thomas B. Davis], who had charge of the third coach, lost no time after this in obtaining a light, and to the anxious inquiry of Elder Payne as to whether anyone was killed came a welcome answer in the negative. The door of the car was broken down and the prisoners were released from their trying position. The glad intelligence that no lives had been lost soon ran around, and greatly comforted the whole number of the Saints.

“It was at first feared that the baggage master, brakesmen, and fireman had perished in the wreck, but happily all anxiety on this score was soon set at rest. The conductor, directly [after] the accident happened, ran and turned the signals against an approaching train.

“The whole of the passengers having alighted, they were obliged to remain out for upwards of two hours, exposed to the elements, many of the women and children being without even shoes and stockings. These, together with wraps and other articles of clothing, had been left in the wrecked cars. Strange to say, however, not one of the company caught the slightest cold.

“The injured were taken every possible care of until their removal elsewhere could be arranged for. Shelter was provided for them at three or four houses adjacent to the scene of the accident, the occupants of the premises giving them every assistance within their power, and preparing food for those in need.

“Meanwhile a special train had been telegraphed for to convey the immigrants westward. Upon its arrival the baggage, or what remained of it, was transferred from the wrecked cars, a hundred or more Negroes and others aiding in the work. Up to this time the baggage, in consequence of its damaged condition, had been under the charge of two men especially deputed to watch over it. The necessary arrangements completed the train started upon its journey. Elder Durant [ L. H. Durrant] and Adeline Allen, two of the injured, having been seen by a medical man, were left behind at one of the dwellings before referred to, under the watchful care of Elder John Shelton and Patience Bennett.

“But yet another trouble was in store for the unfortunate immigrants. Just before they arrived at Memphis, Tennessee, they were run into by another train, which had the effect of throwing the end car off the track. Though it was very full of passengers, yet strange to say not one of them was injured. Mrs. Wheeler, an elderly lady, was jerked from her seat, but in no way hurt. This caused a further delay of quite three hours; but, after all, the detention proved fortunate as it afterwards transpired that shortly before a washout had occurred in several places ahead, and had the train proceeded uninterruptedly on its way serious consequences might have ensued. When the collision happened the immigrant train was going very slowly, but the other one was moving along at a good rate. The occupants of the damaged car were transferred to another which had been brought up from Memphis, upon reaching the place the entire company changed cars and transference of baggage was again made and the remainder of the journey proved uneventful, the company landing safely and well, though tried and weary, in Salt Lake City. The entire trip from Liverpool occupied twenty one days, and the experiences of that journey I shall never forget.”7

Surely the emigrating Saints and those who witnessed the accident looked upon this event as one of divine intervention. Perhaps there is another hidden aspect to the story which involves the work of Mormon emigration agents and which seems to have influenced rail safety of Latter-day Saint emigrants throughout the late nineteenth century. This is evidenced from a priesthood blessing given to William C. Staines by Elder Wilford Woodruff shortly before Staines went east to fulfill his assignment as a Mormon emigration agent in New York. Among other things, Elder Woodruff stated the following:

“You shall be filled with understanding and nothing shall come in your way, but success shall attend you and you shall be greatly blessed in the emigration in laboring for the benefit of your brothers and sisters. The angels will be round about you; you shall be preserved while attending to this mission and the Lord will open your way in many respects. Whenever you come to a position where all may seem dark, you shall see the way open upon before you. Whenever danger shall lie in your path, whether upon railroads or elsewhere, the Spirit of God shall reveal unto you that danger and you shall escape the same. Whenever it shall be right to make contracts for emigration it shall be clearly made known to your mind. Your labors will be accepted of the Lord God of Jacob, and you shall be preserved by His powers …we say unto you; go forth trusting in the living God; call upon His name; let your prayers ascend to the Lord on behalf of His work, and for the work of Emigration, and the Lord will open your way.”8

The way was indeed opened again and again as Latter-day Saints emigrants sailed and railed their way into Utah in the late nineteenth century.9

  1. Conway B. Sonne, Ships, Saints and Mariners: A Maritime Encyclopedia of Mormon Migration 1830–1890 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987), 30–31.
  2. Fred E. Woods, “On board the `International,’ All joyful and lighthearted,” The Log of Mystic Seaport, 51 (Summer 1999):23. This safety record is quite remarkable as evidenced by the fact that between the years 1847 and 1853 alone, there were at least 59 immigrant vessels which sunk crossing the Atlantic (Conway B. Sonne, Saints on the Seas).
  3. See Fred E. Woods, “Norfolk & Mormon Folk: Latter-day Saint Immigration Through Old Dominion (1887–1890),” Mormon Historical Studies 1, no. 1, (Spring 2000): 73–91.
  4. The Public Ledger vol.27, no.38 (September 16, 1889), 1. A local Lynchburg newspaper reported the following day that four railroad employees were injured and eight passengers from a group of 165 Mormon immigrants. A veteran employee for the Norfolk & Western Railroad, awed by the fact that there was no loss of life in this accident, reported, “ it was the most remarkable accident in this respect in his experience” The Daily Virginia (September 17, 1889, 1.
  5. [Diary of Daniel Kent Greene] in Kay Gordon, Daniel Kent Greene: His Life and Times, 1858–1921 (privately printed, 1960), 61.
  6. “Accident to an Immigrant Train,” Deseret Weekly News 39, no. 13 (September 21, 1889), 3.
  7. William P. Payne, “From England to Utah,” The Latter-day Saints Millennial Star 51 (October 14, 1889):644-646. The article further noted, “a letter from Lynchburg has been received by Elder Payne, since his arrival here, stating that Elder Durant [L. H. Durrant] and Sister [Adeline] Allen are progressing satisfactorily.”
  8. Blessing by Elder Wilford Woodruff to William C. Staines, April 10, 1871, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City (MS 7071, item 1).
  9. The Mormon emigrants began to use steam vessels as early as 1867. Therefore, the term sailed is used only in a figurative way.

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