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Historic McDonough train wreck remembered this week

Special Photo
Thirty-nine people died in a well-documented train wreck, in McDonough, on June 23, 1900. Events are ongoing in the city, this week, to commemorate the crash.

Special Photo Thirty-nine people died in a well-documented train wreck, in McDonough, on June 23, 1900. Events are ongoing in the city, this week, to commemorate the crash.

More than a century ago, McDonough was gripped by tragedy when 39 people died in a train wreck at Camp Creek.

This week, the story of that train will take center stage once again. A series of events are scheduled in the coming days, to commemorate the 112th anniversary of the McDonough Camp Creek train wreck. Those events include a stage production entitled “Old No. 7.” It is set for Tuesday, at 7 p.m., in the Henry County Performing Arts Center, in McDonough. The production will feature theater students from Dutchtown High School.

Gene Morris, historian for Henry County, has researched and written about the wreck, which rocked the Southern Crescent City of McDonough shortly before 10 p.m., Oct. 23, 1900. In his book, True Southerners, Morris described the incident as one of the most tragic stories in Henry County’s history.

“The horror of the facts and circumstances has not been dulled by the passing of 100 years since that awful night in 1900,” Morris wrote.

“Old No. 7 was traveling from Macon to Atlanta, when it stopped in McDonough to clear the tracks for another train. After the second train passed, Old No. 7 then continued toward Atlanta.

“As the train proceeded north from McDonough, it started down the long grade to Camp Creek, about one and a half miles away,” Morris penned. “As the tracks approach Camp Creek, they make a slight curve to the left as they approach the 30-foot high embankments of the creek crossing. In the few minutes between the passing of ‘Red Ball Freight’ and the approach of ‘Old No. 7,’ the solid embankment had washed out from under the tracks. The engineer applied his brakes, but it was too late.”

The author added the train entered, engine first, into a chasm which was about two train-car lengths in size, and the rest of the cars piled on top of it.

“As the cars hit the rain-swollen creek, they began to fill with water,” Morris wrote. “As survivors attempted to climb from the wreckage, they were swept down the raging torrent ... Witnesses told that almost as soon as the train crashed, it was engulfed in flames.”

Former McDonough City Councilwoman Sandra Vincent is among the individuals who are working to educate the community about the train wreck. Her daughter, Saraiah, will appear in the upcoming stage production.

Vincent said the train wreck continues to carry significance for the city of McDonough, even today.

“This was a very sad period in our history,” said Vincent. “We’re just trying to memorialize the lives of those who died tragically in that event.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that the railroad was central to the development of McDonough,” she continued. “When the crash occurred, there was such a flurry of activity in trying to process the bodies. Some of the bodies were dismembered. Some of them, only partial pieces were recovered.”

Amid the destruction and chaos associated with the train wreck is a story of heroic acts by survivors of the wreck, and dozens of others who were nearby at the time. One of those heroes, Vincent said, was J.J. Quinlan, a flagman who was on the train the night of the crash.

“He actually ran from there to the Depot to let them know that a crash had occurred,” said Vincent.

Morris’ book states that Quinlan, after surviving the crash, climbed from the water to a steep, slippery embankment before reaching the train tracks.

“He assumed he was the only survivor,” Morris wrote. “However, his first thought was to get back to the McDonough Depot so as to prevent any other train from experiencing a similar fate.”

Quinlan’s contribution to rescue efforts in the wake of the wreck will be remembered, June 23, at 7 a.m., with a two-mile run. It will begin at Old Ivy Road and Ga. Highway 42, and end at the old McDonough Train Depot. Registration, which is free, is required, and forms are available at the McDonough Welcome Center on the Square.

John Quinn, of McDonough, serves with Vincent on a committee to commemorate the train wreck. Similar events, he said, will be conducted annually, in McDonough, during the month of June.

Quinn has worked for 14 years to secure a historical marker to pay tribute to victims of the incident. He was pleased, in March of this year, when the McDonough City Council voted to move forward with a plan to erect a marker.

“This was one of Georgia’s worst train disasters ever,” said Quinn. “Nobody’s ever put up a historical marker for these people. ... If I’ve never done anything right in my life, I wanted to do this for the train victims.”

Quinn and other supporters of the marker endeavor will find out, in October, whether their goal will become a reality. A Savannah-based group which makes historical markers will review the request, at that time, and decide whether to approve the request.

Other events have been scheduled for June 23, at the Chafin Building on the Square, in honor of the wreck. They include an exhibit, from 10 a.m., to 5 p.m., featuring a model replica of the train; and presentations by historians Jeffrey C. Wells and Mark Pollard, from 11 a.m., to 2 p.m.

The same day, at Alexander Park on Ga. Highway 42, a group from Bible Baptist Church, in Hampton, will perform. The concert will be followed by a candelight ceremony with Pastor Timothy McBride, from Tabernacle of Praise Church International, in McDonough.