The Staunton train wreck of 1890
“The engineer knew he was going to crash at the station.”
STAUNTON, Va. (WHSV) - On the night of April 26, 1890, people gathered on the platform at the Staunton Train Depot. They were waiting for people to arrive, and to board the train themselves for work, to see family, or get out of town. The train would be late, and people started getting worried.
Finally the train came, an hour late, but something was horribly wrong.
THE RAILROAD BRINGS PEOPLE, GROWTH TO STAUNTON
The railroad was vital to the growth Staunton experienced before, during, and after the American Civil War. Local shops thrived off the business the railroad brought in, and manufacturers were seeing great success exporting and importing goods from freight trains.
By 1890, Staunton was on its second train depot. The first one had been destroyed when Staunton was occupied by the Union Army in 1864, but the town quickly rebuilt it and welcomed new railroad lines into the growing city.
While Staunton made a name for itself as a main train stop, an 18 year-old girl from Missouri was trying to make a name for herself in show business.
“Myrtle Knox was an 18 year old young woman from Jackson County, Missouri. She had decided she wanted to be in show business, but her parents disagreed.” Donna Huffer, Archivist at the Augusta County Historical Society explained. “She left home and her parents tried to talk her out of it, but she refused.” According to people of the time, she had a beautiful voice, and she had dreams of being famous, and traveling all over the country.
She joined the Pearl of Pekin Company, and was assigned to the chorus section because she was said to have had a beautiful voice. She was working her way up to becoming an actress and singer, and was the youngest member of the company, according to Huffer. The group was on tour, and they were traveling from Cincinnati to Baltimore, and one of the stops on their train ride was at the Staunton Depot.
With every place they stopped, Myrtle’s dad was one step behind, trying to convince his daughter to come home. Little did he know, he would catch up to her when it was too late. As he raced towards Staunton, the Pearl of Pekin Company, with Myrtle, were near Staunton when tragedy struck.
The train, loaded with people and baggage, was running late but was not far from Staunton as it began to climb up a hill. The route was reportedly notorious for the downgrade that trains would have to go down before taking a sharp curve into Staunton. Engineers on these trains relied on their brakes to be able to keep the train at a safe speed, but on this particular night the brakes would fail.
“At the top of the hill, the brake rod fell out of the train.” Huffer explained. “The train lost its air brakes, and the engineer knew he was going to crash at the station.” There were people on the platform and in the building who were waiting to take the train to Baltimore. Huffer says the engineer sounded the alarm, and had crew members run through the train warning people of the impending crash.
“The train went on, and they say it reached the speed of 70 mph as it came into Staunton.” Huffer said.
As it came down the hill and hit the curve, some of the cars came off the track and leaned towards the station, but somehow stayed on the tracks. Out of all the cars, only the sleeper car derailed, but it was devastating. 12 members of the Pearl of Pekin Company were inside the sleeper car, and as the car derailed it took out one of the baggage sheds, which was connected to the depot. The East building was caught on the smoker car and exploded almost instantly. As wood flew up, the sleeper car was crushed.
Early in the morning, the alarm was sounded and people began rushing to the station to look for victims. Eventually they began pulling people out, but no one had suffered any major injuries. 11 people were pulled out of the sleeper car with various injuries, but one person was still missing, Myrtle Knox.
Myrtle Knox had been sleeping on the top bunk when the derailment happened, and her injuries were much worse than everyone else’s.
“She had been impaled by some wood splinters from the baggage shed, and she had a broken arm, and her leg was tore off.” Huffer explained. Another splinter had severed an artery in her upper thigh, and Myrtle Knox bled to death on the platform of the Staunton Train Depot. Some reports say she was already dead by the time they found her.
The nightmare was over.
After everyone was accounted for, a replacement train was called in to take the passengers waiting to Baltimore. Railroad investigators were called in from Richmond, and they were followed by lawyers, and doctors to interview and care for the victims. The investigators helped clean up the wreckage, and the railroad company paid for almost all medical and construction expenses, Huffer explained.
When the engineer was interviewed, the investigators were impressed that he was able to stop the train a little up the hill near Western State Hospital. Since there were many eyewitnesses, the investigation was over pretty quickly. The broken brake rod was found, and work began on making the tracks going down the hill safer for trains coming into Staunton.
Hundreds of people reportedly visited the funeral home to pay their respects to Myrtle Knox, as her body awaited transportation back to Kansas City. As people continued the cleanup and recovery, many people living in Staunton began a different discussion.
“The people talked about how sad it was that they didn’t have a hospital where they could take people that came into town.” Huffer said. The King’s Daughter’s Organization had a presence in Staunton, and they decided to build the hospital themselves.
“These women raised all kinds of money through subscriptions, which was another word for pledges.” Huffer said. “They had raffles, they did bake sales, all the stuff churches still do today to raise money.”
Supplies were donated from everywhere, but they didn’t raise enough money to build their own hospital. Eventually they bought a house that sits on the site of modern day Mary Baldwin University. They eventually bought a house and opened a new hospital in 1896, and the facility is still open to this day.
With the depot rebuilt, Staunton continued to grow, and the railroad still plays an important role in the city to this day. Myrtle Knox’s father eventually recovered her body and she was buried in Blue Springs, Missouri.
The Pearl of Pekin Company continued their tour, but they were reportedly devastated over losing the youngest member of their troupe, Myrtle Knox.
This was just one of many derailments and crashes that plagued the region from the 1870′s through early 1900′s. Some of these incidents were deadlier, and, in the case of a crash in Greenville, circus animals would get loose and roam the woods and farms around Greenville until they were rounded up.
Eventually the reported derailments stopped, and more stations came and went, but the Staunton Train Depot is still bringing people and business to the city.
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