Friends of the Bullitt County History Museum
December 13, 2005
The Train Wreck of December 20, 1917
The Christmas season was proceeding much as it is with us right now. Friends and family were rushing to get their last-minute shopping done before the holiday arrived. Children (and some adults) were busy fantasizing about what "Santa" might bring.
Things were a bit more worrisome than usual because World War One was raging in Europe, but Christmastime was Christmastime. Most everyone tried to be a little more "merry and bright" than usual.
But just a couple of hundred feet East of the courthouse building where our museum is now housed, a terrible and sudden tragedy was about to change the futures of over a hundred people and their loved ones.
Families from Bardstown and from Shepherdsville had taken the little Number 41 train into the big city of Louisville to do their traditional Christmas shopping. The crowded train of people... mothers and children... fathers and friends... had just arrived back at Shepherdsville, everyone joking, discussing the day's events, and loaded down with newly-wrapped presents. The two passenger cars were a bit rickety and small, being some of the last wooden passenger cars still being used. But no one seemed to mind, as some of the passengers began to disembark and others waited for the train to start up again and head on to Bardstown.
Just then the conductor looked up the track and was horrified to see a train coming full speed directly at them. At the same time, the engineer of Number 7, a fast new "flyer" all-metal train that was racing south on what he had thought was a clear track, realized that Number 41 was just 400 feet ahead of him. Desperately, the engineer of Number 7 slammed on his breaks. The conductor of Number 41 managed a quick scream of warning to the unsuspecting passengers.
But it was too late.
The modern steel train slammed full-speed into the old passenger cars, leaving not much more than splinters.
The carnage was awful. Presents, babies, and body parts were strewn onto both sides of the tracks. Some mothers and daughters died in an instant. Other passengers suffered gruesome injuries, some dieing days later, or crippled for life. Survivors and local folks quickly turned nearby houses into emergency hospitals and morgues.
Fifty-one people died in what I am told is, to this day, the most deadly train wreck ever on the L&N railroad.
I do not have a full accounting of all that died that day, but here are most of them, as taken from a newspaper of the time:
Miss Josie Bridges, age 20, and her brother Hollis Bridges, 18; Mahlon H. Cambell, conductor on Number 41; Father E.A. Bertello, priest; Raymond Thomas Cravens, age 2; George Duke; Virginia Duke, 12; Redford Cherry, Jr., 38; his wife, also 38; and their son Redford, Jr., 16; Lawrence Grenwell, flagman on Number 41; Mrs. Mattie Harman; Kate Ice; W.O. Johnson; Mrs. Joseph Hurst, 20; and her 7 month old son, Joseph Raoul Losson Hurst; Mrs. H.H. Mashburn, 40, wife of a Baptist minister; Elizabeth McElroy, 16; Mr. & Mrs. Mack Miller, both 33; Mrs. R.L. Miller, 38, wife of a Bardstown doctor; Mrs. Thomas Miller, 30; Lucas Moore, 60; Mrs. Tom Moore, Sr., wife of a Bardstown distiller; James Morrison, 12; Mat Muir, 65, a Bardstown Banker; his wife, age 50; and their son, George, 16; Frank Nunn, ticket agent; Mrs. Stella Nutt; Forrest Overall, 19; Maggie Overall; David Phillips, 27; John Phillips, Bardstown Chief of Police; and his wife, 55; Mrs. Arch Pulliam, 35; Emory Samuels; Thomas Shafer; Althea Sims, 18; Mrs. Carrie May Simmons; Thomas Spalding, 22; Ben Talbot, 60; James Thompson, 50; N.H. Thompson; J.W.Stansberry.
That moment on that day drastically, instantly, and irreversibly changed families and communities forever.
May this Christmas season, nearly ninety years later, be a happier and safer season for us all than that tragic wreck of 1917.
Be careful out there. And love your family and friends while you have them.
You never know what the next instant may bring.
Bless you all, and, as always, thank you for being a Friend of the Bullitt County History Museum.
As always, thank you all for being a Friend of Bullitt County History!
Bullitt County History Museum
Museum Phone: 502-921-0161
E-Mail address: David.Strange@BullittCountyHistory.org