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    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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