Collision of No. 26 and Ex 1461 West at Melborn, 1/30/1918
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Sat Mar 5 14:39:09 EST 2005
>From the day I first saw Engineman Charles A. Jacobson's tombstone in
Evergreen Cemetery (Roanoke) about 1957, I have had an interest in the head on
collision at Melborn in 1918. On top of his tombstone, there is a three-dimensional
representation of the Class Z Mallet number 1361, on which he died.
I have never seen a picture of the wreck. Does anyone know if a photo exists?
Around 1960, I inquired at the cemetery office and was told that Jacobson's
widow had visited the cemetery around 1950, and had left her current address.
She was then Mrs. Vanda J. Thornton and living somewhere in Tennessee (as I
recall.) I wrote her and I received no reply, but the letter wasn't returned
Jasper E. Wilkerson, a 1915-hire Radford Division trainman, who had been at
the wreck site a day or two later, told me several things. (1) The old class Z
was leaking so much steam in the cold weather that forward visibility was not
good for the engine crew. (2) He had seen bloody prints in the snow,
apparently made by one of the engine crew members on No. 26 (which was doubleheaded
by K's 102 and 105) as he hobbled away from the wreckage. (3) Jasper also told
me what became of Heinz, but I cannot now recall the details.
Bill Harman, of Blessed Memory and well known to us all, told me that
Telegraph Operator Dickson at Radford (who let Ex 1361 West leave without information
that No. 26 was running late and had not yet arrived) realized his mistake
after the westbound Extra had gotten beyond his control. He frantically tried
to telephone the town's telephone switchboard operator, who was located in a
building somewhere near the end of the double track near New River bridge,
hoping she would be able to signal the train, but she had apparently "closed up"
the switchboard early that evening. Unable to stop the impending collision, he
hollered up through the message-passing hole in the ceiling, to the
yardmaster on the second floor, a warning that the wreck train should be called out
because there would soon be a head on collision.
>From other sources I learned that Jacobson was the youngest promoted
engineman on the Division at the time. He lived in a two story frame dwelling at the
northeast corner of Salem Ave and 13th (?) Street, SW, probably in a rented
apartment. By the 1960s, this place was in sordid condition.
You can read the ICC wreck report on-line by searching the Department of
Transportation archives at http://dotlibrary.specialcollection.net/ In the
first search field enter "Melborn" or "Dublin" and you will find the report. I'd
suggest reading the report in .PDF format (which is basically a scan of the
original document) rather than in the other format (which is easier on the
eyes, but suffers from all the defects of "optical character recognition"
Reflecting upon the circumstances behind this wreck, I would like to make a
few points that I have never heard discussed and which were not picked up by
the ICC examiners. Yet they are quite material to what happened that night.
Before offering this critique, I must say that we are lacking information on
two very important items of background, which I shall call "Practices" and
"Policies." (1) We do not know about "The Practices" (the unwritten ways in
which things were done, methods handed down from one generation of train
dispatchers to the next.) And (2,) we do not know what special "Policy" directives
had been issued to the Train Dispatchers by the Chief Dispatcher and/or the
Superintendent. So we kind of have to guess about "the way they dispatched
First, the N&W apparently did not use the "Positive Meet" system at that
time. The "Positive Meet" strategy had been recommended by the ARA (AAR) Train
Rules Committee for at least two decades before this wreck occurred. Under the
"Positive Meet" principle, opposing trains ALWAYS knew, by train order, where
they are to meet. Regularly scheduled trains do not meet "by timetable
alone," but their meets are always fixed by train order, even if the train order
only confirms the meeting point established in the timetable. And extras do not
meet opposing regular trains by "hunting a hole on their own" -- rather, their
meets with scheduled trains are always fixed by train order.
In the instant collision, Ex 1361 West only "had time on" opposing superior
first class trains, but not train orders fixing the meeting points. Jacobson's
train orders told him that 1st 42 was running 40 minutes late; 2nd 42 was
running 5 hours and 30 mins late, and that he was to meet 88 at Wurno.
APPARENTLY the practice was for extras to "hunt a hole" on their own and get out of the
way of opposing regular trains, based solely on timetable schedule or "run
late" train orders modifying the timetable schedule. If this is a correct
reading of "the Practice," it was real "windcat" railroading which should have been
rectified long before.
Second, Operator Dixon at Radford was allowed to "clear trains" (issue them a
clearance card, which allowed them to leave his station, listing the train
orders to be delivered) without asking the Train Dispatcher. APPARENTLY the
practice was for the Operator to write out the Clearance Card and list the train
orders which he THOUGHT should be delivered to a train, without confirmation
from the Train Dispatcher. If it had been the practice of "asking" to clear
trains, the exchange would have gone something like this: "Radford, clear Ex
1361 West with orders 6, 108, 126 and 128." The Train Dispatcher should have
caught the Operator's error and said "You overlooked order 102, running No. 26
late." Had this happened, there would have been no collision.
Are these two previously unmentioned flaws which existed in the N&W's train
dispatching system of 1918? If so, the railroad obviously was not going to put
them in writing in the package it sent to the ICC examiners to serve as the
basis for the ICC report. And the ICC examiners never picked up on these
points, but rather criticised the railroad for other things. The ICC rested the
fundamental blame for the wreck with Conductor Heinz of Extra 1461 West, for
failing to discern, in his examination of the Train Register at Radford, that No.
26 had not yet arrived.
It is sad for me to realize that the complete file on this wreck was in the
walk-in vault in the Radford Division Trainmaster's Office in General Office
Building, Roanoke, and I never asked to see it. Day late and dollar short...
Having spent the better part of my fourty-some year railroad career in the
"train control" side of the business, I could write a book on why people screw
up. To any younger railroaders I would say: Ferret out the bad practices like
a sleuth, and don't be bashful about it. Look critically at all the
processes which are in place. Codify everything you need into written instructions,
and drill your people on them until they become ingrained and unquestioned
methods of operation. And do not accept poor performance which does not measure
up to your expectations as embodied in the directives. Because most workers do
not see the whole picture and, left to themselves, will "do things the easy
Thanks for indulging my musings. Now back to my original question... Does a
photograph of this wreck exist?
-- abram burnett
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