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Hemphill Train Wreck


McDowell Recorder
September 30, 1936

Spikes Placed On Rail May Have Caused Wreck

Wreckage Here Is Being Cleaned Up

Norfolk & Western Traffic Tied Up Saturday Night and Most of Sunday

Traffic on the Norfolk & Western Railway, from Bluefield to Iaeger, was tied up Saturday night and most of Sunday following one of the worst wrecks to occur on the Pocahontas Division in years.

A locomotive and 14 loaded coal cars wrecked in Welch, at Hemphill, completely blocking the east and westbound tracks. The wreck occurred early Saturday night and west bound local train No. 1 Sunday afternoon was the first to pass over the tracks since the wreck. It will require a day or more of work to completely clear up the wreckage.

Make Investigation

Special agents of the Norfolk & Western were investigating the wreck on suspicion that someone deliberately wrecked the westbound freight train by placing railroad spikes on the rails. Loose spikes were reported found along the track.

Eastbound passenger train No. 16 was delayed at the same place for about an hour Saturday night when the pony trucks on the engine left the rails. This occurred a short time before the freight train came along and was thrown from the track.

A.R. Pittman, of Bluefield, special agent and other members of the railroad police were on the scene of the wreck endeavoring to pick up some clue that might lead to the identity of the train wrecker, it is was caused by placing spikes on the rails.

No One Injured

Although the large freight locomotive turned over on its side and loaded coal cars were piled up for a great distance along the right-of-way, no one was badly injured.

The engineer, J. B. Steele, of Williamson, was not hurt. The fireman, J. W. Willis, was hurt slightly when he jumped from the cab before the engine overturned.

About 700 tons of coal was scattered along the right-of-way. This caused great delay in repairing the track and moving the wreckage so that normal traffic could be resumed.

Three wreck cars were on the scene. All night was required to place the overturned locomotive back on the track.

Scene of the wreck was one of great activity throughout Saturday night and Sunday. Derrick cars (or wreckers) and several locomotives puffed and sounded signal blasts throughout the long period of cleaning up the wreckage.

Many Norfolk & Western officials were at the scene. Among these were R. H. Smith, of Bluefield, general superintendent of the western division, and W. O. Tracy, of Bluefield, superintendent of the Pocahontas division.

Several thousand persons visited the wreck during the night and Sunday and watched the slow but steady progress.

The locomotive was badly damaged and the loaded coal cars were twisted into masses of steel. Great holes were torn in many of them.

Through passenger trains were routed from Bluefield to Iaeger via the Clinch Valley division to Cedar Bluff and down Dry Fork.

Train No. 9 Sunday morning brought passengers from Bluefield to Welch and returned in the morning as No. 2. Passengers on the regular No. 2 were transferred west of the wreck to trains running from here east.


McDowell Recorder
October 7, 1936

Boy Admits Costly “Thrill” Wrecking Of N. & W. Freight

A 14-year-old junior high school student confessed to a $100,000 thrill Thursday when he admitted placing spikes on the railroad tracks at Hemphill that caused the wrecking of a passenger train Saturday night.

The youth, Harold Smith, a student in the Welch junior high school, told Prosecuting Attorney Wilson Anderson he placed the spikes on the track for the “thrill” of seeing the train wreck.

“I wanted to see just what it would look like,” he told officers.

Officers Traces Lead

Norfolk and Western Railway company officers began working on the case shortly after the accident occurred but did not get a lead or club until Thursday when Boss Johnson, Welch’s colored city officer, received information that the Smith boy was in the habit of placing obstacles on the railroad tracks.

He told the N. & W. officers and Thursday afternoon they accosted the Smith youth. At first he denied any part in causing the wreck but later broke down and told his story.

His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Charles E. Smith, were called to the office of the prosecuting attorney and he told a complete story.

He admitted placing spikes on both the east and west bound tracks that caused the two wrecks. The pony truck of passenger Train No. 16 was derailed but the engine and cars remained on the tracks.

A short time later, at almost the same spot, the freight train wrecked, the engine and 14 loaded cars of coal overturning. About 1,600 tons of coal was dumped along the tracks and the coal cars badly torn up.

Traffic Tied Up

Traffic on the main line of the N. & W. was tied up for about 24 hours while all available workmen of the railroad were called in to clear up the wreckage.

Young Smith told officers that he had placed rocks and other obstacles on the tracks “hundreds” of times but none caused the trains to wreck.

He also admitted throwing a rock into an engine several months ago, striking the fireman and causing him a severe head injury.

He also said he threw rocks into passenger trains, breaking windows, on numerous occasions.

The lad was committed to jail. He will be arraigned before Judge G. L. Counts next Tuesday in juvenile court.

Railroad officials said the freight wreck might have been very serious had the train been traveling at a fast rate of speed. Following the derailment of the pony trucks on the passenger train orders were issued to other trains not to travel more than 15 miles an hour.

Train Moving Slowly

The train was moving slowly when it struck the spike and was not traveling at the usual average speed of 35 miles an hour. The engineer and fireman escaped uninjured when the engine turned over.

Young Smith was questioned by Prosecutor Anderson and his assistant, Joseph G. Travis.

Officers working on the case were A. M. Richardson, of Roanoke, Va., chief detective for the N. & W. Railway company, A. R. Pittman, G. M. Callaway and Minus Hall, special agents.

Mr. Pittman was loud in his praise of the work of Officer Johnson in getting the information that led to the solving of the case.

Young Smith it was said, was one of the interested spectators at the wreck last Sunday and stayed most of the day watching the workmen clean up the coal and smashed coal cars.


McDowell Recorder
October 14, 1936

Lad Sentenced To Reform School For Wrecking Of Train

Judge Expresses Regret That He Had to Pass Sentence in Case

Judge G. L. Counts ordered that Harold Smith, 14-year-old lad of Hemphill, be sentenced to the reform school for his part in causing the $100,000 train wrecks a few days ago. The lad was sentenced Thursday afternoon when arraigned before the jurist, sitting in juvenile court.

Character witnesses, who told of the good behavior of the lad in school and at play, were brought into court Thursday afternoon.

Well Behaved Boy

The witnesses included school teachers and mothers of boys with whom the young Smith boy played. All described him as a well behaved and clean living lad.

Judge Counts expressed his regrets about having to send the boy off but declared the court hardly get out of it under the circumstances.

The boy, who is living with his grandmother at Hemphill, told the judge he placed the spikes on the tracks because he saw other boys doing the same. He said he realized that it might wreck the train.

Spikes were placed on both railroad tracks and a passenger train narrowly missed being derailed and wrecked. A large engine, pulling a load of coal cars, left the track and piled up. Fourteen cars were smashed up in the wreck.

Regrets Sentence

“I regret that I have to make a decision in this case,” the jurist stated after listening to the testimony of several of the youth’s neighbors and Sunday school and public school teachers, as to the character of the youth. He had postponed his judgment after hearing some evidence in the case Tuesday.

“The practice of putting things on the tracks just to see them flattened out must be broken up,” stated the judge. He remarked on the great damage done and on the fact that but for the slow speed of the train and the caution of the trainmen, the loss of life might easily have been heavy.

“The seriousness of the danger created from placing objects on the railroad tracks is so great,” he stated, “that although the boy’s act was one of thoughtlessness, merely to flatten out the spikes and not with intent to wreck the train,” he felt he had no alternative than to sentence him to the reform school.

“In spite of the fine record of good behavior and good character which these witnesses say Harold Smith has, if I let him off, some other boy might try the same thing with more serious results,” he said before finally asking that an order be issued sentencing the youth to the reform school.

Judge Counts called Harold to the stand and asked the youth why he placed the spikes on the tracks. “I wanted to see them flattened out by the trains which would run over them,” he said.

“I did it because I had seen other boys at Hemphill do it,” he answered when the judge asked where he learned to do such things. The youth said he placed the two spikes on the track about 7 o’clock that night as he was going to Welch from his grandmother’s at Hemphill, where he has been living the past three months.


Crime and Punishment

West Virginia Archives and History