The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Dream That Prevented A Train Accident

By Emily P. Cary © 1985

Issue: July, 1985

Did one man's dream prevent a Virginia train tragedy?

Perhaps some old timers can supply the missing facts and verify the actual location of the accident that never happened.

For me, the story of the dream began several years ago when I inherited a scrapbook compiled by my great-uncle, Colonel Edward E. Stebbins, containing news accounts of supernatural events.

At the Battle of Fredericksburg, Stebbins experienced a spirit visitation and learned that he would be wounded, but his life would be spared. Exactly as prophesied, a bullet pierced his arm. The wound - dressed at a nearby hospital - healed quickly.

More visions followed of close friends dying, distant relatives suffering, and the North emerging victorious. Stebbins, a member of Company B of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry, was so inspired by miracles both on and off the battlefield that he began collecting written records of every such event he could find.

After his death in 1923, the scrapbook was passed around our family until it reached my mother. She stowed it in an attic carton where it whiled away the decades.

So it was that I discovered the strange "A Doctor's Story" pasted on a prominent page. This is the tale exactly as it appeared in the Baltimore World on Saturday, November 1, 1890.

Several years ago, I resided in a wild, mountainous, and rather lonely region of Virginia. There was a railroad but few rods in front of my door, and a station and considerable village about a mile to the west. The nearest station to the east was about ten miles distant.

I moved to the place with my young wife late in the autumn, and about the first of the following March I was attacked with typhoid fever and was ill for about a month. But, thanks to a naturally strong constitution and the careful nursing of a loving and intelligent wife, I slowly recovered.

As soon as I was strong enough to sit up and walk a little, I told my wife she had better take the cars and go visit her brother who lived about, fifty miles east of us. She had been taking care of me so faithfully through my illness, both by day and night, that I feared her health and strength would fail her if she did not rest awhile. I knew she had been very anxious to go, and I felt sure that her brother and his family would try to make her visit a pleasant one.

She hesitated about leaving me, fearing I might need her care, but after waiting a few days and seeing that I continued to regain my health and strength, she decided to follow my advice. Accordingly, one pleasant morning about the middle of April, after doing everything she could for my comfort and bidding me to be careful about taking cold or walking too far, she started, intending to be gone a fortnight.

One day l exercised beyond my strength and felt quite tired at night and lay awake for a long time. At last I fell into an uneasy slumber and dreamed a very curious and startling dream. I seemed to have gone forward into the future a couple of days and instead of Wednesday, the 24th, it seemed in my dream to be Friday, the 26th.

It appeared in my sleep that a heavy rain had been falling most of the day and all of the night before, but the evening was clear and pleasant and not very dark, though the moon was not shining. I seemed to be walking along the railroad line toward the east.

I first passed through a wood about half a mile wide; then crossed a half mile of fields containing a couple of farm houses, one inhabited, the other deserted. I then entered another wood, and after walking about a mile and a half, I came to a stream gently swollen by the rain, which had weakened the railroad bridge so much that the passenger train, in attempting to cross, had broken it down, and the bridge and carriages, completely wrecked, were lying on both sides of the stream, except portions that were floating down.

Some of the passengers lay dead or dying among the ruins; some were floating in the water, and a few were clinging to trees and bushes on the bank. It was a fearful and heart rendering sight, too terrible for description, and such as I trust I may never see in reality.

The next day early in the morning, it commenced raining, and continued to rain through the day and the following night. I felt very lonely and uneasy all day, which feeling was increased by receiving a letter from my wife, saying that she intended to come home on Friday night by the express train,

I retired late, feeling much worried on account of my dream. And to add to this fear, presentiment, or whatever you may call it, the dream was repeated, even more distinct and vivid than the first time.

When I arose in the morning the rain was still falling. This was Friday, and therefore was the day on which my wife was to start for home. There were two passenger trains from the east each day, one at 9 o'clock in the forenoon, and the other at 9 in the evening. This last was the express, and the one on which my wife was coming.

Toward the middle of the afternoon, the rain ceased falling, and the clouds slowly cleared away. The dream had made such an impression on my mind that I resolved to attempt to find the stream I had seen so plainly in my dreams, and if it appeared at all dangerous to attempt to stop the train before it reached the bridge. Accordingly, soon after the rain was over, I got ready and started.

I had never before had occasion to visit the station in this direction, and therefore was entirely unacquainted with this part of the country. But I found everything just as it appeared in my dream.

Immediately after starting, I passed through the wood I had seen in my dream, and then entered the open field and found two farm houses, one inhabited and the other deserted. In fact, everything seemed as natural as if I had really been this way before.

I walked slowly, and late in the afternoon I came to the stream which flowed rapidly and seemed much swollen. But the bridge, instead of being broken down and mingled with the broken carriages and mangled passengers, was still standing; and though its timbers looked quite old and weather-beaten, there seemed to be little danger of its breaking down beneath the weight of a passing train.

There was a heavy goods train due from the West about 6 o'clock and I resolved to wait at least until it came, and if it passed over safely there could be, I thought, but little danger of accident to the lighter passenger train.

In due time, it came thundering along, and passed safely over the bridge, but though it might have been owing to my excited imagination, it seemed to me that the bridge bent and shook beneath the weight of the train in a manner highly suggestive of danger. At all events, I resolved to wait a while longer and see if the stream, which was still rising, would have any apparent effect upon the bridge. I took with me a lantern, and also a thick blanket to protect me from the damp night air.

Shortly after sunset, as I was sitting a few rods from the stream, I heard a loud splash, and hurrying to the bridge I saw that a portion of the bank on the opposite side had broken away, and also that the action of the water, or some other cause, had weakened the foundation of the bridge in such a manner that a portion of the line was bent and lowered enough to make it impossible for a train to cross. I immediately crossed the bridge, determined to stop the train if possible before it reached the bridge and certain destruction.

Well, to make a long story short, I went on in the direction from which the train was to come, and soon found a place which commanded a good view of the line for a considerable distance. I lit my lantern, wrapped my blanket closely around me, and sat down to my wearisome vigil of two hours.

The night was clear, and not very dark, though no moon was shining. I suffered nothing from the cold, as it was remarkable warm, even for the climate of Virginia, and I succeeded in keeping awake, though the task was a difficult one.

Slowly the moments passed by, but at last I saw by my watch that the time had nearly expired and a few minutes would decide the fate of the train and its human freight.

Soon I saw a light, far away, and very small at first, but rapidly growing larger and brighter. I arose, trembling with excitement, and commenced swinging the lantern above my head, and, as the train drew near, I redoubled my exertions and shouted as loud as I could.

Onward came the train at a rapid speed. It was a time of terrible suspense to me. Should the engineer fail to see my signal, or not see it in time to stop the train before going a few rods past me, I knew that no human power could save it.

On it came, and, of joy unspeakable! Just as I gave up my exertions and stepped from the line my frantic signals were observed. The engineer whistled for brakes, arousing like an electric shock the sleepy brakemen who flew quickly to their stations.

The train was quickly stopped, and I then informed the engineer and conductor of the danger ahead while the frightened passengers left the carriages and gathered around me. Many a brave man grew pale when he learned what a fearful death he had so narrowly escaped.

Among the passengers I found my wife, not mangled and lifeless but alive and well, though somewhat frightened, and a good deal surprised at seeing me. The conductor gave me a seat next to my wife, and then the train backed to the station it had just left, from which telegrams were sent to warn all other trains of the danger.

In the morning, my wife and I took the stage for home. I have but little more to add, except that the company insisted upon making me a handsome present, and also gave me a free pass over the road. I do not pretend to be able to explain the dream, which was certainly a remarkable one, though doubtless no more so than others could relate. But I am satisfied that this dream was the means of saving many human lives from a sudden and most terrible death.

How does one go about proving a century-old vision? At the library of the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, I found the original copy of the World, but there was no "by-line" or record of the "doctor's" name. This is not unusual, because many newspaper feature stories of that day were written anonymously.

The next step was to examine the Official Railway Guides containing early rail routes. By searching for stations conforming with the author's description, I narrowed the possibilities to four Norfolk and Western Railway sites: between Radford and Christiansburg on the New River, between Waynesboro and Stuart's Draft on the South River, between Forest and Bedford on the Otter River, and between Burkeville and Farmville on the Appomattox River. A fifth contender was between Glasgow and Buchanan on the James River where the N & W runs parallel to the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad.

If the railroad companies kept records of near-disasters and of the recipients of free passes awarded for heroic deeds, the mystery would be solved quickly.

The C & O headquarters in Baltimore never answered my letter, and when I phoned them, I was shuffled from one department to another. The bewildered employees had no idea where - and if - such records exist.

The reception at N & W in Roanoke was another matter. Don Piedmont of the Public Relations Department listened attentively then requested a copy of my data. I posted a letter to him, before setting out to explore the five locations.

By examining each for topography, probable appearance a century ago, and existing houses from that era, I decided to concentrate on the Forest-Bedford and Glasgow-Buchanan sites.

The railroad right-of-way from Buchanan to Glasgow courses through terrain which meshes exactly with the author's description, right down to several immaculately preserved farm houses of that period. Certain that I had discovered the right spot, I stopped to see the freight agent at the Buchanan railroad station. He had never heard of the man with a dream, but he knew someone who might be able to help me.

That's how I found myself at the Amoco gas station in Glasgow seeking Edward Douglas McClure, the town historian. When I tracked him down and stated my mission he beamed.

Indeed he did know of a bridge that washed out - just six miles up the line at Natural Bridge. This was during the Flood of 1877 when the tracks running between Richmond and Clifton Forge were part of the Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio Railroad.

On the North Fork of the James River, known locally as the Maury River, a railroad bridge had been built across the James River Canal at Balcony Falls, a point named for the curious way in which the Blue Ridge Mountains appear to overhang the falls. After the flood, the A M & O company decided against rebuilding the bridge and diverted their trains to the nearby tracks of the C & O and the N & W. Subsequently, the A M & O was absorbed into the N & W.

As for the man with a dream, Mr. McClure recalled hearing that a serious train accident was prevented during the flood by advance warning. He promised to review his old books and newspapers, apologizing because his arthritis would not allow him to write. "You come back soon," he urged.

I drove home, pleased by his invitation to return soon to tape his remembrances. The mystery seemed to be solved, the writer's identity the only missing quantity.

Meanwhile, Don Piedmont had not been idle. Waiting at home for me was a letter which read in part:

I think I might be able to help you, or at least I know someone who can. He is Mr. Arthur Bixby, a Roanoke man active in the local Railway Historical Society, who has an absolutely oceanic reservoir of railroad knowledge and lore. He was in my office this afternoon quite by chance, and immediately recalled the incident you talked about. He promises to respond to you directly and soon. He confirms that the incident took place on the Little Otter between Forest and Bedford about 1882-1883.

True to Don Piedmont's word, Arthur Bixby, Sr., Historian for the Roanoke Chapter of the National Railroad Historical Society supplied this information:

FACT: On the night of July 2, 1883, a freight train of the Norfolk and Western Railroad, pulled by a 4-4-0 American type steam locomotive, went through a washed out bridge over the Little Otter River, with the engineer and fireman killed.

HEARSAY: There was a westbound passenger train the other side of the bridge that had taken a siding to enable the freight to pass. This was unusual, as freight trains usually took the siding, but the siding was not long enough to hold the freight train. When the passenger train was waiting on the siding, there was a man who got to the passenger train and warned them of the washed out bridge. From the annual reports of that year, there is no mention of whether the man had a these reports deal with facts and not supposition.

So there it was: two floods, two washed out bridges, and two trains saved by two men! Both events matched most of the criteria set forth in the World story. Which was "mine"?

Clearly McClure held a crucial piece. I hastened back to Glasgow for my belated appointment with Mr. McClure, only to discover that our meeting was not in the stars; he had passed away several weeks earlier. The clues he might have supplied are lost forever in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

And so...I am left with the mystery. Simple logic points to Mr. Bixby's documented wreck, but there is the matter of the date. July is not April. The 1877 calendar reveals that the 24th of April fell on Wednesday and the 26th on Friday, exactly as the writer stated. Thus, the evidence leans toward Mr. McClure's account of the "great flood."

Throughout the ages, unusual or tragic events have often been foretold in dreams, so it is quite likely that the doctor's tale truly is the historical record of an inexplicable happening in the Virginia mountains.