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History of the New Market Train Wreck

Saturday, September 24, 1904 was a terrible day in the history of one east Tennessee community.  On this day two trains collided, head on, near the town of New Market.  At the time, it was the worst wreck of its kind to ever occur in North America.  It is believed that up to 113 people lost their lives in this tragedy.

The wreck involved train Number 15, a local train, out of Bristol and train Number 12, the Carolina Special, out of Chattanooga.

Train Number 15 left Bristol that Saturday morning headed for Knoxville.  It made stops to pick up passengers in Morristown and New Market.  Number 15’s three cars were filled with 140 passengers headed to Knoxville for a day of shopping or to attend a fair that was going on in the city.  It was common to travel by train in those days because roads were bad and automobiles were scarce and not dependable.

The Carolina Special left Chattanooga that same morning intending to make a loop through Knoxville and then to continue through Morristown and eventually on to Asheville, North Carolina.  At its stop in Knoxville, more cars were added to the Carolina Special.  When it left Knoxville the Carolina Special had nine cars behind its locomotive.  Two were mail cars, three were wooden passenger coaches, and the last four were steel Pullman passenger cars.  Many passengers in these new steel Pullman cars were headed home from the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, where they had tasted something new and wonderful… the ice cream cone!    210 people were riding on the train. 

The track the two trains were traveling on was a single track, so the usual procedure was for the local train (Number15) to pull off on a side track at a place called Hodges Switch, located between New Market and Strawberry Plains, in order for the larger train to pass.  But when Number 15 pulled into Morristown that day, they received orders to do something different.  They were told to stop at a side track in New Market instead of Hodges Switch until the Carolina Special had passed.  Both the conductor and the engineer signed they had read the new orders.  Number 15 proceeded on and stopped in New Market to pick up more passengers.  The train should have then traveled only a few hundred feet to the side track and then pulled off.  It didn’t.  People working at the depot in New Market, who knew of the change of plans, were horrified when Number 15 traveled on past the side track.  A telegraph was quickly sent to warn the Carolina Special.  The Carolina Special was just pulling out of the station in Strawberry Plains when the telegraph arrived.  “Number 15 has run the switch and is on the main line!”, it read.  People in the depot ran out to shout and wave their arms at the departing train.  Some even threw rocks at the train to try and get someone’s attention, but no one on the Carolina Special noticed and the train traveled on. 

Those who witnessed the error knew there was one more chance to warn the trains.  A telegraph was sent to Hodges Switch, the normal side track, where someone should have been on duty.  For some unknown reason though, no one was there and the message was never received.  The two trains roared on towards each other, unaware! 

As the Carolina Special’s engineer approached New Market Hill, a slight upgrade just east of Strawberry Plains, he began to build speed.  He soon had the train up to about 60 miles per hour.  That same grade was downhill for Number 15.  Number 15 was running behind schedule, so the engineer decided to make up time on the downward slope and had the train up to 70 miles per hour.  The trains met at a place in the tracks that ran through Joseph Whitaker’s farm near Lost Creek.  Upon seeing the other train, each engineer applied his brakes, but the Carolina Special had just rounded a curve when the trains met.  By the time the crews spotted each other it was too late.  The trains were slowed slightly before impact, but it is estimated that they had a combined speed of up to 110 miles per hour when they hit head-on.  The impact was so strong it knocked the steam boilers off both trains, but the worst was yet to come.  The locomotive and the coal tender of Number 15 broke loose from the cars behind it, went air-borne and turned upside down in mid-air.  Number 15’s massive locomotive sailed over the locomotive of the Carolina Special, the tender car, and then the postal and express cars.  It landed squarely on top of the Carolina Special’s three wooden passenger coaches.  At the same time, the four steel Pullman cars at the end of the Carolina Express kept moving forward, smashing those same three coaches between them and the other two cars. 

It was all over in about seven seconds.  Amazingly no passengers were killed on Number 15.  The engineer and fireman were killed, however, and many passengers were injured.  It was far different on the coaches of the Carolina Special.  The wooden cars, carrying most of the passengers, were damaged beyond hope and many lives were lost. 

People living up to 15 miles away heard the crash, and soon help arrived from all directions.  Jessica Whitaker, the sister of Joseph Whitaker, on whose farm the wreck happened, is said to have torn up all the fine fabrics from her hope chest to use as bandages.  The injured were rushed to General Hospital in Knoxville.  Then, everyone began the huge task of clearing the tracks. 

Many people have tried to figure out how this terrible accident could have happened.  Two questions will never be answered: Why didn’t Number 15 stop on the side track at New Market as it had been instructed on that day?  The engineer and fireman on Number 15 were both killed in the wreck, so no one will ever know what they were thinking.  And, where was the person on duty at Hodges Switch?  If someone had been there to receive the warning message, the accident could have been prevented.  Everyone who learns of this terrible wreck wonders about these two questions, even today, over 100 years after the wreck occurred.