July, 1918, marked the 100 year memorial of the second worst train wreck in United States history, and John Whitfield and Pam Parton of Gallatin, MO, attended a get together for survivors of the victims. They were joined by John’s two nephews, John J. Whitfield and Judd Whitfield.
John’s grandfather, John Thomas Whitfield, was among the 101 passengers killed in the train wreck. Another 170 or more people were injured.
Growing up, John never heard anything about the horrific accident. His grandfather John Thomas Whitfield died long before John was born.
“My grandfather was killed in a train wreck. That was about all I ever knew,” John says. “My grandmother said not one word; she just never talked about it. I think she was so grief stricken she just couldn’t. And my dad was too little to remember much.”
Ida Mae Hawkins Whitfield was originally from the Gallatin-Pattonsburg area. After her husband died in the wreck, she came back to live. Ida Mae and John Thomas had three children at the time of the train wreck: Cloria, 10; Jeff Cleavlan, 8; and John C. Bill, 4. (Jeff Cleavlan Whitfield was John’s father)
Over the last few years, John and Pam have gotten more and more interested in genealogy. Their research is heavy on John’s side because Pam was adopted. They learned a lot about John’s family history just searching on the internet.
They traced John’s family name all the way back to an 1180 Northern England Whitfield Manor. The king apparently gave the Whitfield family 35,000 acres. Whitfield Hall and a town called Whitfield existed at some point. “Most of the names were John and Thomas; we thought that was really wild,” says John, the grandson of John Thomas.
While it has been fun and interesting doing the searches, it has not been without frustrations, especially when they began searching closer to home. They wanted to find out if John had any kin still living in Tennessee, and who might know more about the train wreck.
“We were extreme novices,” says John. “We can find dead people down there in Tennessee, but we can’t find anybody alive.”
It’s vexing that they can’t find his great-grandfather’s gravesite. His name was Andrew Willis McHenry Whitfield. He was born in Rutherford County, TN, and had three wives. They think the family is buried on a farm somewhere. “We had good luck with census information, but 1890 is missing,” John says. “There was a fire or something. We lose them after that.”
They have managed to find out quite a bit about his grandfather, John Thomas, the one killed in the wreck. John Thomas was born and raised in mid-eastern Tennessee. He was a blacksmith and followed the railroad through Tennessee, Kansas and Colorado
John Thomas met his wife, Ida Mae Hawkins, in La Junta, CO. He was blacksmith for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. Ida Mae was a waitress in town.
By 1910 John Thomas had moved to Wellington, KS, still working for the same railroad. By 1914, he wound up in Paducah, TN, working for Illinois Central Railroad. A DuPont plant had just opened in Hickory, TN, a neighborhood of metropolitan Nashville. It was a gunpowder plant and was doing big business while World War One raged overseas. John’s grandfather switched jobs.
The plant had built a village called Jacksonville to house its thousands of employees. John Thomas worked at the plant for about a week and then decided to go back to Paducah to get his family and move them to the ‘village’ where his new job was.
John Thomas got on the train at Union Station at Nashville at 7:20 on the morning of July 9, 1918. When John Thomas was on Train No. 4 it was leaving Nashville to go to Memphis. At about the same time, Train No. 1 was leaving Memphis to go to Nashville.
When John Thomas had worked in Tennessee many years before as a blacksmith just starting out on the railroad, he worked in “The Shops.” The Shops was a massive repair and refueling segment. The single track that ran through The Shops was about 10 miles long. You have to wonder if John Thomas was reminiscing about the work he’d done on this narrow stretch of track when the accident happened.
Both trains were late. After a series of missed signals, the two trains met on the single track at Dutchman’s curve near White Bridge Road. It is estimated that the westbound train was traveling at about 50 miles per hour while the Nashville-bound train was running at 60 mph. Many of the wooden cars were crushed or hurled sideways. The sound of the collision could be heard two miles away.
The life story of John Thomas came to an abrupt and tragic end.
It was the search for more information about family and the train wreck that led John and Pam to take a vacation to Tennessee last year. They didn’t know anybody in Tennessee and were mostly just exploring. They found John’s grandfather’s gravesite. They were walking to a memorial at the site of the train wreck when they had a stroke of luck.
“This lady happened on us and started visiting,” John says. “She turned out to be a wealth of information.”
The lady was Betsy Thorpe. She has written a book about the train wreck called “The Day the Whistles Cried: The Great Cornfield Meet at Dutchman’s Curve.”
It was through Betsy Thorpe that they found out about a get-together, the first one ever held, that was planned for the next year, 2018, on the 100th anniversary of the train wreck. All the relatives of the train wreck victims were invited.
So, this year the Whitfields took their second vacation to Tennessee to participate in the 100th year memorial celebration of the famous train wreck. It was a trip full of surprising and helpful coincidences.
On Friday, July 6, they met Bessie Thorpe. That evening they had dinner and watched a movie which interviewed Ms. Thorpe and other historians of the wreck. On Saturday, they followed a walkway made from an old railroad bed and met the rest of the survivors at the site of the wreck. That afternoon John and Pam went sightseeing. They took off down Whitfield Hollow Road, which was in Readyville, TN, southeast of Murfreesburough, and explored the beautiful country up in the mountains.
On Sunday, a funeral service was held for the engineer of Train No. 4, the one John’s grandfather had been a passenger on. The engineer was David Kennedy. “They blamed him for the wreck at the time and didn’t give him a proper Catholic burial,” says John. “They just put him in his grave with nobody there. So Sunday we had a proper burial for him.”
On Monday at 7:20 a.m., the time of the wreck 100 years before, a memorial service was held on the bridge over the site of the wreck. “The old White Bridge was still there and has been reconditioned,” John says.
The mayor of Nashville was in attendance at the memorial. John mentioned to him that he was on the board of aldermen at Gallatin, MO, and that there were four members on the board. Mayor David Briley laughed and told him to multiply that by about 10 for Nashville’s city council of 40 members.
On Monday at noon, Pam and John took a tour of the Nashville Union Station, which is now a luxury hotel. Channel 4, a television news show out of Nashville, was doing a spot about the train wreck and interviewed the great-grandson of the engineer, also called David Kennedy. John didn’t get interviewed, but he got caught on film, at least the top of his head.
Monday evening, they traveled around to do more family research and to look for a family history book in the libraries. A librarian in Carthage suggested they get hold of John Wagner, the county historian in charge of the county archives. They found out they were distant relatives of John Wagner’s through Henry Whitfield who married Era Lee Wilkerson. Era Lee was his third wife. John Wagner had Era Lee in his family tree.
“He helped us find relatives we would otherwise never have found,” says John. “Some of them were buried in cemeteries no bigger than a big desk.”
The next day, John Wagner took them to Granville and showed them where he thought the Whitfield old home place would be. It was back in the hills and woods. “We couldn’t get back there without chainsaws,” says John. “But we could see the tombstones from the road.”
In the Thyatira Cemetery they found the grave of Immaline Lyons Whitfield, John’s great-great-grandmother. “It was years since anybody had been to it,” John says. “We decorated it, probably for the first time in decades.”
They found Whitfield Hollow Road, where John’s family lived at one time. They found out John’s grandfather lived on Clay Street in Paducah. A remarkable coincidence, since John lives on Clay Street, too. His grandfather is buried across the street in Oak Grove Cemetery. He was a member of the Twelfth Street Baptist Church, which is still standing.
“We were down there for three days and back,” says John. “We had a great time. It was more and better than I ever expected it would be.”
NOTE: All train crashes are tragic, but the Malbone Street Wreck in New York is commonly considered the worst train crash in American history. It occurred just about four months after the Nashville train wreck. On Nov. 1, 1918, a packed Brighton Beach-bound train was speeding through a tunnel under Brooklyn’s Malbone Street. As the train approached a curve designed to be taken at 6 miles per hour, the motorman kept the train at roughly 35 miles per hour. The train derailed, killing 102 people and injuring many more.