Blown Into Atoms: Locomotive Dashes Headlong Into Freight Train

This post was taken from the front page of the Louisville Courier-Journal from 17 AUG 1883.

The Disaster Detailed

Full particulars of the Collision, How it Happened, and the Damage it Did

Lexington, KY, Aug. 17 1883 – Shortly before 7:00 this morning, the mixed train on the Chesapeake & Ohio ( C & O) rail between Mt. Sterling and Lexington, Charles McMichael, conductor, reached Winchester [KY], where three cars were to be switched.

McMichael, leaving the passenger coaches east of the switch, ran forward to the side track of the three freight cars, but a failure to switch caused an advance on the main track. To stop these detached cars and the passenger cars, which had not sufficiently breaker, he ran down on the front part of the train. The train on the Kentucky Central track backed across the C & O line in front of the advancing engineer, which, owing to the pressure behind, could not be stopped in time to prevent a collision.

The fireman jumped off on one side, and the engineer, after reversing the level, on the other side. The engine struck the third car from the rear of the Kentucky Central train, which was loaded with 70K pounds of blasting powder, billed to Richmond.

This was turned over, broken in two, and some of the power cans being broken by the shock, their contents spilled on the track and sparks from the fast revolving wheels of the reversed engine or from the fire-box, ignited the power, causing a terrible explosion.

Conductor McMichael, running forward on top of the train, to put on the brake on the first car, was blown from the car and picked up 200 feet away to the north of the track.

Randolph Martin, conductor of the Kentucky Central, a construction train, which stood away west of the track crossing, had just run down for orders, and was beside the car of powder when the explosion occurred. He, too, was blown more than hundred feet northward. The engine was badly wrecked all along one side, and beside the demolition of the car containing the powder, that on which Mr. McMichael stood was shattered to pieces, and its contents (staves) scattered in all directions with great force.

Two cars on the side track to the south were overturned and broken, the wheat in one of them pouring from its top. The new Kentucky Central passenger depot on that side had one end displayed and the wooden awning blown completely away. The whole building was charred by the heat of the explosion.

A portion of the side track and the platform across its whole extent was moved about a foot out of its place. On the north side of the track stands a restaurant, run by the Hawk Brothers, and this building is also badly torn and blacked. It caught fire inside, but the flames were subdued. Portions of the demolished cars also caught fire.

Five carpenters in the new Kentucky Central Depot were blown across the room in which they were working, and one of them, Charles Johnson, of Frankfort, was considerably burned about the head and hands. In the restaurant, William Hawk received a bruise on the head from a flying fragment; William Baker, a colored waiter, was burnt about the head and shoulder, and Henry Jackson, a colored waiter, somewhat hurt. 

Frank Hockersmith, a carpenter working in front of the restaurant, was badly burned. William Kelloway, head waiter, jumped out of a back window and sprained his ankle. 

Gus McKinney, a colored railway workman, near the trains when they collided, had his jaw-bone broken; others received slighter injuries. Most of the injured are burned and blackened, and the two conductors, both fatally injured, had their flesh burnt to a crisp. 

Martin was also torn across the bowels, had a gash in the head, and the nails and flesh were torn from his hands. He died at 9:20 am, after suffering terribly. McMichael was horribly burned outwardly and also inwardly, having breathed some of the death blast.

He was blackened all over except his feet. The muscles of one arm were laid bare and his eyes completely blinded. His first words were of his wife and two children, who reached there by a special train from Lexington shortly after 10 AM. He recognized the voices of his dear ones and was able to speak a few words but died at 11:15 AM. A special car this evening brought his remains to this city, where he resided.

Martin lived at Winchester with his wife and four children. 

The engineer on the C & O accommodation was Ben Shultz, formerly on the Louisville & Nashville railroad. He had taken the place of Gorham, the regular driver of that engine. Since he jumped from the locomotive, Shultz had not turned up, and probably fearing blame for the disaster, had fled.

The report came in that he had been seen several miles away on the pike, [making his way] across the country. Very few were about the junction when the explosion occurred, but a crowded Kentucky Central train for the Richmond fair was nearly due. The C & O construction train, closely following the accommodation, was stopped by the coolness of Brakeman John Kidd in the midst of the excitement. 

The explosion was seen and heard miles in the country, and a cloud of smoke hung over the junction for hours. 

The brother of Conductor McMichael reached here this afternoon by special train on the Louisville & Nashville railroad. He went to Winchester by a train delayed for his coming, and returned with the remains this evening.

Where the blame of the disaster should be properly attached is hard to determine, but the arrangement of the junction and switches at Winchester is certainly such as to render accidents liable. The loss to both roads is heavy. The restaurant building, owned by J W Hamilton, is well insured. The damages will reach at least $10,000.

Later, Schultz turns up

Dan Shultz, the missing engineer, arrived here [Lexington, KY] late to-night. He states that he feared harm from the people in Winchester.

Editor’s Note

This article is available at but was difficult to read so I transcribed it. Several newspapers reported the incident but the Courier-Journal did the best job, even considering some of the sensational details.

Feature artwork is courtesy of Charles H Bogart. He provided a fascinating tour of the Lexington and Eastern Railroad from Winchester to Jackson, KY.

About the author

Tricia Aanderud has been researching her Kentucky family since 2008. While the genealogy is interesting, the stories are what makes their lives compelling.

Surnames include Watkins, Hudson, Mann, Payne, Abney, Hollearn, Martin, Salyer, Spencer, and Hadley.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.