Monday, August 5, 2013

Dr. McIver and the “first class [train] wreck”

Dr. Charles Duncan McIver, the founder and first president of the State Normal and Industrial School (now The University of North Carolina at Greensboro) had always wanted to see a “first class [train] wreck.” He got his wish on the night of August 25, 1902, when Southern Railway’s fast mail train No. 35 ran off the rails between Westminster, South Carolina and Toccoa, Georgia. Dr. McIver was on the train traveling to Atlanta, Georgia to speak at the Teachers’ Institute. The train, which carried the mail from New York to Atlanta, was running at the rapid speed of sixty miles per hour when it hit a sabotaged section of the track. The engine, mail car, baggage car, and coaches went careening off the rails and landed on their sides. Miraculously, there were no deaths and few injuries.

Wreck of Southern Railway's No. 35 Mail Train

Night trains were considered convenient, but somewhat perilous as they traveled at high speeds, with only a few stops. Mrs. McIver had been worried about this type of travel, as a letter that she wrote to her husband only a few weeks before the wreck attests. There had been a recent train wreck that occurred at night and she wrote that she preferred him to travel by day – even if it delayed his homecoming several hours. He noted her concern, but tried to ease her anxiety with this anecdote told by Mark Twain: An insurance man tried to sell Twain a policy as he was boarding a train. Twain told him, “No, I don’t want it. More people die in beds than on trains.” Mrs. McIver's fears were realized when her husband’s train went off the rails that August night. Luckily, he was able to wire his wife immediately, informing her of his safety.

Debris from the Wreckage

Dr. McIver made it to Atlanta and regaled her of his adventure in a letter that he wrote that evening from the “delightful room on the fifth floor” of his hotel. He described the general pandemonium after the wreck, especially the cries of “murder” from an older passenger. He wrote of the engine that “lay flat on the side and whistled mournfully for 20 minutes” and the wood which was strewn everywhere and eventually used for a bonfire. He even enclosed a piece of the wood in his letter as a “souvenir of the wreck.” His general tone was surprisingly cheerful and he closed with “No news – Love to you all.” Ironically, Mark Twain’s story would not hold true for Dr. McIver. He died  on September 17, 1906, after suffering a stroke while returning from Raleigh - by train.

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