The Cannonball Express head on with another train

Cannonball Express and an Atlantic Coast Line freight at Dunlop (not Dunlap) near Petersburg VA on the Saturday, 27th June 1903. The Cannonball was one of N&W crack expresses and on this day it was hauled by N-class 4-4-0 No 29 ( the engine closest to the camera). The train ran from Richmond to Norfolk twice a day and on this day the accident befell the 9 am from Richmond. Running on time, the Cannonball was passing at speed through Dunlop when it collided at speed with a stationary ACL freight hauled by Copperhead 4-6-0 No 335. The freight had stopped to pick up a car but in doing so had fouled the interlocking preventing the pointsman at Dunlop to set the road. This should have indicated to the driver Harry Covington, of the Cannonball that the line was blocked and to slow down but he either did not see the signal or ignored it. He must have seen the standing freight at the last minute as the air brakes were applied and he jumped. Unfortunately, he hit his head on a rail and was killed.

Harry’s nephew Robert was the fireman. He was caught in the wreckage and also killed. In all 2 died and 25 were injured. Amongst the injured was captain Robert Eckles the conductor of the Cannonball. he was attended to by Dr George Font who was a passenger on the train. Less seriously injured were distiguished passengers Judge Mann and Rev. Henry Johnson a well known methodist minister. The crew of the ACL freight were not injured as they jumped when they saw the Cannonball coming. The Coroner’s inquest blamed the ACL for blocking the line in the first place. However, Driver Covington must carry the most blame for driving beyond his ability to stop at the signal.

In an interesting sequal the wreck was the subject of a song by Cleburne Meeks who published it uder the title The Wreck of the N&W Cannonball. This was written long after the wreck in 1927 after Meeks was told the story by W.C. Cousins who had been a flagman on the Cannonball. Meeks himself was a hostler for N&W.

Songs about railroad wrecks were popular and often took liberties with the accuracy of the events. Meek’s song held very much to the details of the accident. Details can be verified in the Richmond Times-Dispatch for 28 to 30th June 1903 and subsequent issues.

In background of the photograph a steam switcher brings up the wrecking train. No 29 has suffered badly in the collision as did the mail car (not visible) immediately behind the overturned tender. No 335 cab has been stove in by telescoping with its tender and the third car of the freight has been demolished by the second over-riding it. At the time mail cars were marshalled behind the locomotive which made mail clerks and sometimes conductors ( who could often be found in the car) vulnerable in the case of accidents. In 1903 an advertisment offered mail clerk jobs at $1600 to $2300 per year.
– per Ray State




  1. […] The Cannonball Express was a reference to the fastest train, at least at the turn of the century, that motored between Chicago and New Orleans.  It’s the same train that was operated by the immortalized Casey Jones, who would be killed at the reins of the train, attempting to slow it before it crashed into boxcars. […]

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    The Cannonball Express head on with another train | Sick Crashes – car, train and plane crashes and wrecks

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