Downtown Train Wreck

The railroad tracks that run through the center of Norcross, and the ease of transportation that they provide, are the reason for our existence – our town founder, John Thrasher, came to this patch of southwest Gwinnett, then farmland and woods, in 1870 to establish a “resort” town on a new railroad, the Piedmont Air-line, then being built to connect Atlanta with Charlotte NC and points beyond.

But while the railroad has provided great economic benefit to our town over the years, it has brought some challenges as well, one of those being the railroad-related accidents that have occurred in our midst, dating back as far as 1873. In this article we will revisit one of the more spectacular wrecks that occurred in Norcross, when, in the spring of 1942, a passenger train struck a truck on one of the crossings in downtown Norcross, overturning two locomotives and derailing several of the cars. (Luckily there were no serious injuries.)

The date was Saturday April 25, 1942. Southern Railway’s passenger train No. 30, known as the “Atlanta Special”, left Terminal Station in downtown Atlanta at 6:30 PM, headed north towards Gainesville GA, Greenville SC, Charlotte NC and a final destination of Washington DC. The Atlanta Terminal Station, which opened in 1905 and was demolished in the 1970s, is shown in the photo below.

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The train had two huge Pacific class coal-fired steam locomotives in front, pulling a dining car, a mail car, a combo passenger / baggage car, four day coaches and four sleeper or “Pullman” cars. (The “Pacific” description for the locomotive refers to the wheel configuration used on these large locomotives, which were first developed to generate the power needed to enable trains to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California.)

The passengers onboard that night were a mixture of civilians and military personnel, and included soldiers stationed at the Fort Benning training base near Columbus GA who were on leave and were headed north to visit family and friends. (In 1942 railroads such as the Southern Railway were the major providers of long-distance passenger transportation in the USA.)

The train did not plan to stop in Norcross that night, but Ervin Thomas Bailey and his Chevrolet truck intervened. Tom Bailey operated a hauling business and lived in Norcross. He and his passenger Eugene “Butch” Green were on their way to a home on the east side of the tracks to borrow a bed, according to newspaper reports. (Tom Bailey is shown in the photo below.)

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They had approached the railroad from the west at what was called in newspaper accounts the “Nesbit crossing” (prominent Norcross businessman Frank Nesbit and his family lived at that crossing, and today the street is called Autry Street). It appears that the crossing did not have any safety mechanisms like the bars and lights se in place today to warn vehicles of approaching trains. Bailey was quoted in the Atlanta Constitution as saying that his truck stalled as he was crossing the tracks:

My truck was a one-and-a-half-ton Chevrolet. I saw the truck was going to stall and I jumped to second gear. But I must have put her in high. Anyway, the truck stalled.

[After seeing the train] I saw there was nothing else to do but jump. So we jumped. There’s a curve at that point, and I didn’t hear any whistle or get any warning of the oncoming train.

The lead locomotive, known as #1401, struck the truck, crumpling it on its cowcatcher into what a witness described as “a ball of mangled steel”. The crew of the first locomotive, engineer W A “Bill” Latimer and fireman Robert Dorsett, jumped out of their cabin to the ground when they saw that they were about to derail, and the locomotive fell on its side about 100 feet past the “Park Crossing” (which would be Jones Street today). The photo below, courtesy of the Georgia State University library, shows #1401 on its side with the remains of the truck nearby. (Note that the photo shows the two tracks in place through Norcross at the time – there is only one set through town today.)

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The second locomotive also derailed and fell on its side, near the Park Crossing. Engineer “Peggy” Woodall was injured when he jumped from the cabin, while fireman M. J. Hudgins, who also jumped, escaped unscathed.

Several cars immediately behind the locomotives also derailed, including a mail car, a passenger and baggage coach and a day coach. Luckily these cars did not overturn. Twelve or thirteen of the passengers and crew were injured (there are conflicting accounts in the press as to the exact number). The injured included several crew members in the dining car who were serving dinner at the time. Luckily the injuries were not severe.

The crash was heard all over town. Longtime Norcross resident Reuben “Junior” Gant, whose home in those days was on South Peachtree just yards from the crossing blocked by the stalled truck, recalled that his family was just sitting down for dinner that night when they heard the tremendous noise caused by the collision. Others in town recalled that it sounded like a tornado approaching.

The crash occurred between 8:00 and 8:15 PM Norcross time. (Why was there such a difference in time when the Atlanta Special had departed from Atlanta, only 20 miles away, at 6:30? The reason is that in those days Atlanta was on Central time, while Norcross was on Eastern time.)

The Norcross Home Guard, under the command of Lieutenant Ed Copeland, immediately responded to cordon off the affected area in the center of Norcross and ensure that the injured were identified and initially treated. (The Home Guard had been created by Governor Eugene Talmadge in December 1941 to be available to respond to emergencies in the absence of the National Guard, which at that point had been called up to service in the US Army.)

Note: Local Guard commander Copeland, who had been a star pitcher for the Oglethorpe University Petrels baseball team during the 1930s, later served in the US Navy during World War II, and afterwards was a longtime Southeastern Conference football official.

The Norcross depot, located adjacent to the tracks, evidently barely escaped destruction. According to an article about the wreck in the Buford Advertiser

Spectators said the first locomotive would have crushed the station if it had overturned sooner and that the second locomotive would have crushed the station if it had fallen to the right instead of the left.

The Norcross railroad depot agent, M. C. Rhodes, rushed to assist the crew. (Rhodes is shown on the left in the photo below, which was taken in 1924 in his office in the depot.)

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Norcross physician W W Puett provided initial treatment for the injured at his office on South Peachtree, and alerts were sent to Atlanta and Gainesville, where ambulances were dispatched to the crash site. (The sound of sirens blaring from ambulances speeding from Atlanta out the Buford Highway that night reportedly caused great alarm among citizens of the north side of town.) Several of the injured passengers were transported to Emory Hospital for additional treatment.

Observations reported in the Atlanta Constitution from passengers who were interviewed included:

Private Joseph J. Oshman, of Shenandoah, PA, a passenger, who was in one of the derailed cars, said “I was eating a big sandwich when the wreck happened. It knocked the sandwich right out of my mouth. It was tough to lose that sandwich.”

Another passenger, J. A. Reynolds of Dayton, Ohio, related: “I came to Atlanta by plane on business. That was my first plane flight and I was a little scared. So I took the train. Can you beat that?”

In those days the Norcross telephone exchange, with its manual switchboard, was located on the first floor of the Twitty home on Wingo Street, a few doors down from the street’s intersection with Jones Street. The exchange was also the location of the Western Union office in town, and as a result it became very crowded that April night with folks who wanted to send  telegrams to loved ones. Jean Robertson Beall recalls being on duty as a telephone operator that night, and remembers that several extra operators had to be called in to handle the rush of business. (In addition to their telegram and regular switchboard activities, the operators also had to calculate and verify payment of fares for long distance calls made from local pay phones.)

Beall recalls one passenger in particular who came to the telephone office seeking to send a telegram to New York City. Her message to the folks on the other end was simply

Had train wreck. Will be there when I get there. Meet me.

Both the northbound and southbound tracks were blocked due to the derailed locomotives and cars, and since that stretch of the Southern Railway was a major route for both passenger and freight traffic in the southeastern United States, the railroad moved quickly to dispatch repair crews to the site. A temporary track, extending the existing side track at the Norcross depot to connect to the main line north of the accident site, was laid to enable trains to get around the affected area. Some traffic was able to move again by several hours after the collision. By the next day heavy equipment was on site to set the overturned locomotives upright (see the photo below), and normal operations were able to resume. The locomotives and derailed cars were put back into service following any required repairs.

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This crash occurred towards the end of the years in which coal-fired locomotives were used on the line through Norcross - Southern Railway switched to diesel locomotives after World War II ended in 1945, and all of Southern’s coal-fired Pacific class locomotives like the ones that overturned in Norcross that night were scrapped.

Well, all except for one - #1401, the lead locomotive in our downtown wreck. The Southern Railway refurbished that engine and donated it to the Smithsonian Museum, and as a result it can now be seen on the ground floor of the Museum of American History, on the Mall in our nation’s capital. To quote Wikipedia:

Southern Railway 1401 is a steam locomotive that is the sole survivor of Southern Railway's Ps-4 class. Today it is on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. It has a Pacific-type or 4-6-2 (Whyte notation) wheel arrangement and was built in 1926 by the American Locomotive Company (ALCO) at their Richmond works.

Locomotive 1401 is shown below on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington DC.

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Several area residents shared their recollections and photographs of the events of 1942, including Richard Garner, Carl Garner Jr., Jean Robertson Beall, Diane Mortenson, Bud Norman and Junior Gant. I appreciate their help. Photos also came from the Georgia State University Library and the flickr and railga websites. Newspaper accounts were found in archives maintained by the Gwinnett Historical Society and the Gwinnett Public Library.