Railroad Horror! 1888 Train wreck kills John T. Ray and 30-odd others.

The 1888 train wreck of the Savannah, Florida and Western at Hurricane Trestle near Blackshear, GA  was one of the worst in Georgia history.  The SF&W route ran from Savannah through Valdosta to Bainbridge, with connections to all points. The victims included citizens of Valdosta, GA and John T. Ray, who grew up in Ray’s Mill (nka Ray City), GA.   John T. Ray (1845-1888)  was raised by his uncle Thomas M. Ray, who founded Ray’s Mill along with his father-in-law General Levi J. Knight.

The Railroad Disaster to the West India Mail Near Blackshear, Georgia, an engraving from a photograph published in Harper's Weekly, March 1888.

The Railroad Disaster to the West India Mail Near Blackshear, Georgia, an engraving from a photograph published in Harper’s Weekly, March 1888.

The Hurricane Trestle railroad disaster was widely reported, with accounts and follow-ups appearing in newspapers all over the country from New York to Minnesota.  Transcribed here is an account that appeared in the Valdosta Times, Valdosta, GA:

The Valdosta Times
Saturday, March 24, 1888

Railroad Horror! Frightful Disaster On The Savannah, Florida And Western Railroad Near Blackshear.  Thirty-Odd Passengers Killed! Among Whom Are Some Of Our Colored Citizens. A Broken Axle Causes The Train To Plunge Through Hurricane Trestle.  Full Details Of The Disaster.

We are indebted to visitors to the wreck and to the Jacksonville Times Union for much of the information contained in the following. It was almost impossible to get specials from the scene of the catastrophe owning to the press of railroad work on the wires.

Blackshear, Ga., March 17.  The first section of the fast mail train going west was derailed before reaching Alabaha, one mile from Blackshear.  Upon reaching the trestle the entire train of five cars crashed through.  Twenty persons were killed and as many wounded.  The coaches are a total wreck. The entire community went to the rescue, caring for the dead and wounded. Superintendent Fleming with a large force is now on the spot.

Waycross, Ga.,  March 17.  Train No. 27, the first section of the fast mail came thundering along down the S.F. & W. railroad this morning at the rate of forty miles an hour, when it struck the trestle crossing at Alabaha Creek.  This trestle is fifty feet high and one hundred feet wide.  Engineer Welsh was in charge of the engine and Conductor W.L. Griffin in charge of the train. The engine and tender had nearly reached land on the Jacksonville side of the creek when the front axle of the baggage car breaking, the car left the track followed by others of the train, consisting of the private car of President Wilbur, of the Lehigh Valley road, Pullman car, first and second class coaches, and a baggage and mail car. The coupling between the tender and the baggage car broke loose and the engine reached the other side safely.

In the creek all was chaos and confusion.  The cars were piled on the top of each other,  and the cries of the frightened injured passengers arose from a caldron of death.  Nineteen dead bodies were taken from the wreck as soon as help could be organized.  There may be others yet to be found.

As soon as practical medical aid from Savannah, Jacksonville and Waycross, was secured, and several wrecking trains  soon reached the scene. The passengers were taken out and as far as possible removed to hotels in Waycross.  Hospitals were made of the hotels here,  and the good ladies of the town turned out en masse to attend upon the wounded  and dying.  Six wounded have died since reaching Waycross and it is suspected that others will die to-night. The bodies of eight colored men unidentified are at the depot awaiting identification.  Numerous surgical operations were performed, and at a late hour the patients had all been attended to and wanted for nothing.

Drs. Henry Bacon, Neal Mitchell, John Domingo Fernandez, and Charles J. Kenworthy, all of Jacksonville, FL were the first doctors to arrive at the 1888 train wreck at Hurricane Trestle,near Blackshear, GA

Drs. Henry Bacon, Neal Mitchell, John Domingo Fernandez, and Charles J. Kenworthy, all of Jacksonville, FL were among the doctors to arrive at the 1888 train wreck at Hurricane Trestle,near Blackshear, GA

The physicians who came up from Jacksonville were Drs. Neal Mitchell, J. Kenworthy, J.D. Fernandez and Henry Bacon, and they have done noble work in saving life and aleveing suffering.  They were on the ground before any of the Savannah physicians and have worked like heroes.

Your representative arrived here at 7:15 PM on the Montgomery train, and found the little city wild with excitement. Visiting the “Old School House” first I found there one dead body, that of Mrs. W.A. Shaw of Jacksonville, and eleven wounded persons.  The Grand Central Hotel was next visited and there were found four badly wounded. At the Commercial House there were seven wounded and two dead.  At the depot lay the corpses of eight colored men. At houses scattered through the town are numbers of other wounded.

The number of dead aggregates twenty-seven, about equally divided to color.  Seven of these have died at Waycross this afternoon.  Nineteen persons were killed outright at the wreck, and thirty-five were wounded. The list of those killed outright cannot be verified at this time, on account of the confusion going on at Waycross, to which place the ladies have been brought.  From passengers on the ill-fated train a partial list is made up.

Killed.

Mrs. Marion G. Shaw, of Jacksonville, wife of Captain W.A. Shaw
Miss Mamie Shaw, of Jacksonville, young daughter of the preceding. These two were instantly killed in the wreck.
M.A. Wilbur of South Bethlehem, Pa., son of the President of Lehigh Valley Railroad, who was on the train with his private car.
W.G. Geiger, of Savannah, drummer for Ware Bros. Aged 35.
W. Martin, a tourist of Cleveland Ohio.
Major J. H. Pate, Hawkinsville, Georgia. Aged 60.
John T. Ray and Daughter, of Dale’s Mills, Ga.
P.C. Smith, conductor of the Pullman Car.
Charles Fulton, Master of Transportation of the Brunswick and Western Railway.
W. M. Martin, Union News Company’s agent on the train.
Fred Meynard, of New York.
E.P. Thompson, of North Carolina.
W.H. McGriff, of Savannah, Ga.
Mrs. Kelly, residence unknown.
Cuffie Williams and Charlie Cason, both colored, of Valdosta, Ga.
Caesar Foster and Moses Gale, both colored, of Waycross, Ga.
Charlie Pierce, colored train hand.
One unknown white man, dark hair and brown moustache, supposed to be a minister.
One unknown young lady, white, with plain gold ring, inside which is engraved “P. to K., 1883.”
Also, two unknown negro men and two unknown white men.

Another Account. A Correspondent At Blackshear Describes The Awful Scene.
Special to the Times-Union. Blackshear, March 27.  The first section of fast mail train No. 27, for Jacksonville, leaving Savannah at 7 this morning, fell through the Hurricane Trestle, about a mile and a half east of Blackshear, at 9:30 this morning.  The entire train, consisting of a baggage car, smoker coach, the Pullman car Saxon and the private car Minerva, of President E.P. Wilbur, of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, went down, and all except the last named were totally wrecked. The engine broke loose from its tender and escaped, but the tender went with the cars.  The engine came on to Blackshear and gave the alarm.  All the stores closed and everybody went to the wreck and to the wants of the wounded and dying.

The trestle is about 300 feet long, where the train fell is about 25 feet high. Two thirds of the trestle fell with the cars, and of that standing there is nothing but the columns and the stringers. The cross ties are cut into splinters.

The train caught fire from the stoves, but the heroic presence of mind of Engineer Welsh, who leaped from his engine and put out the fire, prevented an awful cremation.

The accident is supposed to have been caused by a defective truck under the baggage car, and the mark of machinery dragging along the ties extends for several hundred yards beyond the train.

Doctors Smith, Moore, Whatley and Fuller, of Blackshear, were on hand shortly after the accident. Drs. Redding and Walker, of Waycross; Drs. Drawdy and Little, of Jessup, and Dr. William Duncan, of Savannah, were there soon after, and as rapidly as the wounded could be moved they together with the dead, were carried to Waycross.

President Wilbur was fearfully cut in the head and otherwise injured. He never lost consciousness, however, and when the doctors got through sewing up his wounds he dictated a telegram about the accident. His son R.H. Wilbur is badly hurt.

Among those who escaped were Mr. and Mrs. George J. Gould, New York.  Mrs. Gould was bruised some, but not badly.  They are now at the Brown House, in Blackshear.  They were going to Fernandina to meet his father, who is expected there in his yacht.

Blackshear, March 17.  Superintendent Avelihe, Train Dispatcher  Davis and other officials, have a large force of hands at work, but it will be several days before trains can pass. Arrangements have been made for trains to come arround by Brunswick over the E.T.V. & G. and the B & W. roads.

It is a singular coincidence that one year ago the same car of President Wilbur with almost the same party, was derailed near Blackshear. It is also remarkable that during the long years the the Savannah, Florida and Western Railway has been in existence, it has never until to-day killed a passenger.

The ladies of Blackshear did noble service. They were everywhere and many a poor sufferer died easier for their gentle caresses. They never tired but stayed on the ground until the last sufferer was moved. Superintendent Flemming expressed himself as especially grateful to them for their assistance and devotion.

The officials of the railroad were tireless in their efforts to relieve suffering, and all day long, and not until the last wounded one was gone did they turn their attention to the wreck.

A commendable feature of the community was that no discrimination was shown between the races in the efforts to rescue each from the debris and alleviate their suffering, but as fast as found kind hands took care of them.

Many touching scenes were witnessed and many instances of devotion strong in death transpired, as where husband refused to leave wife and wife refused to leave husband.  Newsman Martin saw others were hurt worse than himself, an refused assistance, but in a few minutes he was dead.  Major Pate said he was not hurt and fell back dead.

Mr. Ray, who was killed, was a prominent citizen of Blackshear. He was general manager and part owner of the Dale Saw Mills, near Jesup.  Fears have been entertained for Editor Ellenwood, of the Journal, and Mr. W. J. Balentine, who were expected  home on the ill-fated train.  They have not been found, however, and although unheard from the uneasiness is abated.

In addition to Mr. and Mrs. George J. Gould, Mr. and Mrs. Herbert B. King and Miss Alice Simpson, of New York, are in Blackshear. Miss Simpson is seriously hurt. All the others are in Waycross.

Undertaker Dixon, of Savannah, with about thirty coffins, has arrived and gone on to Waycross. He will take charge of the embalming.

Jno. T. Ray. Mr. Jno. T. Ray, who was killed, was a cousin of Mr. T. M. Ray of Valdosta.  He was a Berrien County boy and raised by the late T.M. Ray, of Ray’s Mill.  Just after the war he married Miss Wilkins the daughter of the late Rev. J.J. Wilkins, of Naylor, in this county, and moved down the road and engaged in railroading. He rose rapidly and then engaged in the saw milling business with J.J. Dale. At the time of his death he was a partner with Dale, Dixon & Co.

His little daughter Mattie, 8 years old, is not dead as at first reported. She has a broken thigh  and other injuries and will likely die.

Mr. T. M. Ray of Valdosta went down to his burial at Blackshear yesterday.

Our Local Dead.

Cuffy Williams and Charles Cason were both colored citizens of Valdosta. Cuffy’s remains were brought up Sunday morning and were buried this afternoon. A large concourse of sorrowing friends and relatives followed his remains to the burying ground.

There was some trouble in Charles Cason, and his relatives did not learn of his death until last night. His remains will likely come up today.

Mr. Charles Fulton, who was killed in the wreck, was recently appointed master of Transportation of the B. & W. He was well known in Valdosta. His aged parents, Mr. and Mrs Silas Fulton, lived many years in Valdosta. He was a brother to Mrs. Patterson of Valdosta.

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Biographical Sketch of John T. Ray ~ Ray’s Mill Foundling

After being orphaned at age 6, John T. Ray (1845-1888)  was raised by his uncle Thomas M. Ray, first miller at Ray’s Mill (nka Ray City) in Berrien County, Georgia.  At 16,  he was a soldier in combat in the Civil War. At 25, he worked as an overseer for the railroad, and by age 33  he was a private contractor laying track.  A few years later he was a partner and general manager in the large sawmill concern Dale, Dixon & Co.

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John T. Ray married Sarah E. Wilkins, and by her had five children.  Sadly, their mother died at age 41.   John T. Ray remarried, but within two months was himself killed in a railroad disaster, leaving his orphaned children in the care of their new step-mother.

Grave marker of Sarah E. Wilkins and John T. Ray, Blackshear City Cemetery, Wayne County, GA

Grave marker of Sarah E. Wilkins and John T. Ray, Blackshear City Cemetery, Wayne County, GA

As the following biography portrays,  John T. Ray overcame adversity in his early life and went on to achieve success in business through hard work.  No doubt, he also benefitted from the social and political connections of his adopted family. His uncle was one of the prominent businessmen of Berrien County, and his adopted grandfather, General Levi J. Knight, was a renowned Indian fighter, military leader and state legislator.

Biographical Souvenir of the States of Georgia and Florida, Containing Biographical Sketches of the Representative Public, and many Early Settled Families in These States. F. A. Battey & Company, 1889]

John T. Ray (deceased) was born in Houston County, Ga, October 28, 1845.  His parents were James and Nancy (Lovett) Ray, both natives of Georgia. The father was a millwright and died in 1852, aged thirty-five years; the mother died in 1847, aged twenty-five.  These parents had two children — our subject and Fannie, now Mrs. Wesley Elmore, but whose first husband’s name was Leonard Dasher. This sketch was taken by the writer from the subject himself, at his home, Friday afternoon, February 24, 1888. It is, indeed, with sad heart and faltering hand that we to-day copy that sketch, and the sadness is greatly increased when we are compelled to record the death of one in the vigor of manhood, who had the surroundings of a pleasant, happy home, and the expectancy of a long and useful life. His death occurred Saturday, March 17, 1888, at the age of forty-two years, four months and nineteen days.  Mr. Ray was one of the victims in the accident on the S. F. & W. Railroad. The account as given by the Hawkinsville Dispatch is as follows: “The fast mail train No. 27, leaving Savannah at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning, went through the Hurricane trestle, one and one-half miles east of Blackshear, at half past nine o’clock that morning. The train, consisting of the baggage car and smoker, one coach, the Pullman sleeper, the private car of E. P. Wilbur, is a complete wreck. The accident was caused probably by a broken truck under the front end of the baggage car, causing the cars to leave the track and knock down the trestle. The only car not actually broken into splinters is that of Pres. Wilbur. As soon as the trestle began to go down, the engineer pulled open the throttle of his engine.  The coupling broke between the tender and the baggage car, and the engine bounded over safely, saving the lives of the engineer and his fireman. A gap three hundred feet long was torn out of the trestle, and the train fell about forty feet to the ground below.  Seventeen persons were killed in the crash, and over thirty others wounded, several of whom have died since from their injuries.  The citizens of Blackshear turned out en masse and rendered every assistance possible to the wounded.  Too much praise cannot be given them for their tireless work. The scenes at the wreck, with the groans of the dying and mangled and the silent bodies of the dead, is one never to be forgotten. From the best information we can gather Mr. Ray was instantly killed, but the particulars of his death we have not been able to gather any information.”

The following paragraph is contributed by a friend of the family:

“On the morning of the terrible Hurricane trestle disaster Mr. Ray left his happy wife and little ones to attend to some business in Blackshear, where he owned considerable property. As the writer of this stood in conversation with him but a short time before he boarded the ill-fated train, little did he dream that he was conversing with him for the last time in life. It was some four or five hours after the accident before the intelligence of his death reached us; it fell like a thunder-bolt in our midst. The grief of his heart-broken wife and little ones was heart-rendering indeed, and there was a settled gloom upon the entire community, for Mr. Ray was loved by all classes. Little groups of employees could be seen here and there earnestly discussing the news, many of them hoping, against hope, the intelligence was not true. But when, about dark, it was confirmed beyond a doubt, there was a general out-burst of grief. As many as could get there went to Blackshear the next day to attend his burial in the family burial ground in Blackshear. In his death the community in which he lived sustained a great loss. Honest and upright in all of his dealings, with his fellow-men, and a true friend; he carried with him to his last resting place the love and respect of all who knew him. At the time that the train went through the trestle, Mr. Ray was in the smoking car, having left his little daughter in another coach but a short time before, and was in conversation with the conductor of the train when the crash came. The conductor was not killed. Mr. Ray’s little daughter was seriously wounded and for some time her life was despaired of. She had her thigh broken, and, as it was badly set, it had to be re-broken after it had begun to knit, but she has almost entirely recovered from her injuries. His bereaved young wife has been true to her duties and untiring in her devotion to the little ones who were so unexpectedly left to her for counsel and guidance, and the sincere prayer of the writer of these lines is that God may bless her and help her in training them up aright.           A Friend.”

When a little over sixteen years of age, Mr. Ray enlisted (spring of 1862) in the Eighteenth Georgia battalion, and served until the close of the war. As a soldier, as well as a citizen, he had an enviable record. He never missed a roll-call except for three days, when he was indisposed from jaundice. He did not receive a wound in all that time. He took part in the siege of  Battery Wagner, on Morris Island, and his last battle was at Sailor’s Creek, but three days before the war closed (April 6, 1865); he was captured and carried to Point Lookout, where he remained three months as prisoner. He was released June 27, and arrived in Savannah July 5, 1865. His first business was shoveling on the railroad, which he continued three months, when he was promoted to second boss, which continued four years. The next three years he served as blacksmith and wheelwright; the next year he served as contractor for building a railroad for a saw-mill, then “woodsing” for a saw-mill. He then went into the saw-milling business with Capt. Grace, continued two years, and next located at Dale’s Mills and became a partner with “Dale, Dixon & Co.,” and was in that firm until death closed his labors. His life is an excellent illustration of what can be accomplished where there is will and determination. He began life without capital and with scarcely anything beyond an unlimited amount of energy and pluck, and from a poor boy he rose to an enviable position among the wealthy and respected of a large circle of acquaintances. His life is an epitome of what can be accomplished when honesty, industry and integrity are the principles that give direction.

John Ray was married first in 1866, to Miss Sarah E., daughter of John Wilkins, of Terrell County, Ga. Five children came to bless that union, viz: Charles M., Beula L., Joseph D., Mattie L. and Thomas D. Mrs. (Wilkins) Ray died in 1887, aged forty-one. Mr. Ray’s second marriage was to Miss Georgia I. Mingledorf, of Effingham County, Ga., January 15, 1888. Mr. Ray was a member in good standing of the Masonic order. Mrs. Ray is a member of the Methodist Church.