This should have been a routine run for a veteran crew, a normal night, yet it was destined to reinforce a railroader’s prime directive in case anyone had forgotten—always pay attention to what you’re doing.
No. 961 entered Ripley shortly after 8 p.m. with diesel 9248, a 12-year-old class SB-3 1000 h.p. Baldwin switcher. This was barely six years after the last steam engine had left town. The Baldwin was pulling three freight cars and caboose C1567, a class I-2 wooden crummy with neither cupola nor bay window, crafted by the B&O as a “poultry attendant car” in 1917 and converted to a caboose in 1920.
The first order of business was to make the statutory stop at Ripley’s combination depot, almost 3 hours late. On a Monday, No. 961 was supposed to be a mixed train, but even though the head brakeman position was still advertised as a “brakeman-baggageman,” the railroad had allowed the passenger trade to fade into oblivion without ever bothering to get permission from the West Virginia Public Service Commission.
The passenger schedule had disappeared from the system timetable in spring 1957, and the note requiring crews to carry passengers likewise vanished from employees’ timetables a year later. The train was provided with a combine, used earlier in the day on the nearby RS&G branch between Ravenswood and Spencer, but it was left behind by the evening crew, and if they didn’t have any loads for Ripley, they didn’t even make the trip.
When the crew went to work at Ravenswood on the Ohio River Subdivision at 2:40 p.m., they were starting their day as Work Extra 9248 and their first job was to switch the big new Kaiser Aluminum plant a few miles down the line. Only when they arrived at Millwood and started up the Ripley & Mill Creek Valley branch did they become a scheduled train.
In any case, it was providential that no passengers were aboard on this night. The crew’s next task was to pick up one load and one empty from the house track, which veered off the main line through a trailing-point switch not quite two-tenths of a mile from the end of track and snaked around the platform to a point behind the station. This accomplished, the crew backtracked about 35 carlengths to a point where the descending grade coming into town reached a steep 2.2 percent.
But this was a good thing. There was no runaround track, wye, or turntable at Ripley. The only way the crew could get their cars past the locomotive, spot them at various businesses, and leave town as No. 962 was to tuck the engine in the short stock-pen spur, restore the switch for mainline movement, and let the cars roll past the switch.
Once engineer I.L. Brown had backed the train onto the hill, flagman Charlie Flowers began bleeding the cars’ air and setting a couple of hand brakes. The brakeman-baggageman, who shall remain nameless here, helped with these tasks, then rode the engine’s footboard down to the switch, where conductor Pete Young was trying to thaw out a switchlock with a fusee Brown had tossed to him.
Once the brakeman-baggageman arrived, Young walked another few car-lengths toward the station to flag a street crossing that would be fouled by the rolling cars. His crewman finished the thawing procedure, threw the switch, and let the engine rumble into the spur. Then he gave Flowers, by now on top of the second car ready to release the handbrakes, a big highball with the fusee.
But in a mindless moment, he’d forgotten to throw the switch!
The five cars and caboose came whizzing off the hill in total darkness— there were no street lights close by, and Brown had turned off his headlight so Flowers could see the signal—and veered into the stock spur, coming against the diesel with a terrific impact.
Nothing derailed, but three men were injured.
Brown, sitting on the fireman’s side of the engine, which had proceeded cab-first to Ripley, was enjoying a sip of coffee. His view was blocked by the engine hood and the stock pens, and he didn’t have a clue what was happening until the cars hit. He was knocked against the windshield wiper cylinder on the front cab door, resulting in a bruised back.
A.F. Brown, I.L.’s brother and his fireman this night, had just walked out on the catwalk to relieve himself and had returned to the cab and shut the door. He was thrown against the electrical cabinet and into the floor, resulting in a bruised head and tail bone and briefly rendering him unconscious.
Flagman Flowers had tried to reset a hand brake when he finally saw what was happening, but there wasn’t time. He braced for impact, but still suffered a bruised back and left knee. Thankfully, he didn’t fall off or between the cars.
I.L. and A.F. felt around, saw no blood, and decided they didn’t need a doctor’s care. Everyone resumed the tasks at hand, spotting the three inbound cars and then leaving town. They marked off around midnight and starting driving home to Parkersburg before notifying dispatcher C.W. Lewis of the incident. Whatever they said to their hapless colleague was lost to history, and perhaps that’s just as well.
The poor brakeman-baggageman was restricted to yard service for well over a year before regaining his road rights. Months after the investigation, Assistant Trainmaster F.L. McGaha reported to Wheeling Division Superintendent G.S. Harris (who had recently replaced retiring railroad legend J.J. Sell) that crewmen working with the offender “prior to this incident complained about him not being dependable and standing around in a daze. Conductor Young would tell him to do things, then have to check to see if he did them. The man had his mind elsewhere but on the job, making our employees afraid to work with him.”
The R&MCV branch is gone, abandoned with ICC permission just three years later. Nothing is left of it except, oddly enough, the Ripley depot, which houses a flea market. Ironically, the C1567 met its doom a year or so after this incident when some cars rolled out of the Kaiser plant and reduced it to kindling.
Except for a dusty file unearthed in the attic of the Grafton, W.Va., passenger station a few years ago, no one might ever be reminded by this incident of how focused railroaders must be.
First published in Spring 2004 Classic Trains magazine.
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