Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Ghosts, Wreckers, and Rotten Ties: The 1891 Train Wreck at Bostian's Bridge

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Ghosts, Wreckers, and Rotten Ties: The 1891 Train Wreck at Bostian's Bridge

Article excerpt

Norfolk Southern locomotives still rumble periodically over Bostian's Bridge trestle, a 300-foot long stone bridge that rises 30 feet off the ground near Statesville, North Carolina. But supposedly, those aren't the only trains on the track. As I legend goes, on the anniversary of a wreck that occurred at the site on August 27, 1891, a ghost train hurtles off the bridge and crashes to the ground below. Visitors have claimed to see a uniformed man with a gold watch, or to hear the screams of doomed passengers and the clang of crashing metal. Statesville has thus played host to hordes of ghost hunters and paranormal researchers, who converge on the site every August 27 hoping to catch a glimpse of the haunted train. In 2010, tragedy struck the annual gathering when a party of ghost hunters encountered an actual freightliner barreling down the track. The group fled, but one man was struck and killed. (1)

The accident garnered national attention, but was hardly the first event to put Bostian's Bridge in the news. When train number nine on the Western North Carolina Railroad tumbled off Bostian's Bridge in 1891, it ignited a media frenzy, as well as a firestorm of outrage, a detailed investigation, a compelling mystery, and a series of unanswered questions. Just what had caused the train to derail and who was ultimately responsible for the twenty-two deaths that occurred? Was it the railroad's fault for poor maintenance of the bridge, or had a gang of robbers removed a rail to deliberately wreck the train and rob the passengers? Regardless of the source, southerners were haunted by the wreck at Bostian's Bridge and the idea of train wreckers--gangs or individuals who intentionally derailed trains and threatened the region's railroads in the 1890s.

The basic facts of the disaster were clear enough. In the middle of a hot August night in 1891, train number nine, heading west toward the mountains on the Western North Carolina Railroad, pulled into Statesville an hour later than scheduled. Ten new passengers boarded the train. Then five minutes after it left the station, riders experienced a jolt and falling sensation as the freight tumbled off Bostian's Bridge and dropped 60 feet into the creek below. Statesville citizens rushed to the disaster where morning's light revealed a ghastly scene. As the Statesville Landmark later described, it was "a charnal-house in Third creek on its banks." Early responders encountered "a harrowing spectacle and harrowing sounds" near the engine, which was turned on its side just to the west of the stream. In the water, the first-class car was piled on top of the combination second-class and baggage car. Killing twenty-two, it was the deadliest train wreck to date in North Carolina. (2)

THE MOST COMMANDING THEATRE OF CAPITAL

The wreck at Bostian's Bridge occurred at a critical moment in the history of capitalism in the South. The gospel of the New South, which promoted industrial development, aggressively sought infusions of northern capital, and advocated a break with the patterns of the antebellum agricultural economy, was sweeping the region. And for New South boosters, the expansion of the regions railroad network provided the most tangible example of southern progress. Between 1880 and 1890, the South's railroad mileage almost doubled. In North Carolina alone, it expanded from 1,486 to 3,128 miles, providing countless communities a connection to the national rail network. M. B. Hillyard, writing in a special 1887 edition of the influential booster publication Manufacturer's Record, called southern railroad development "the most commanding theatre of capital" which "strikes the eye of the world not only for its colossal combinations of money, but the prestige of its participants." According to Hillyard, the South's rapid rate of railroad construction was "proof of development and of the confidence of the capitalists of the civilized world." (3)

The New South boosters fused economic growth with a powerful cultural narrative of regional redemption, but, by 1891, not all were in agreement about the implications of this economic transformation. …

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