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May 15, 2016

The stories in this week’s column will appear in the forthcoming book Splinters: Tales from the Lumberyard by Kirk H. Neely.

“Is that pie ready yet?”

Those were his last words.

The aroma of an apple pie baking in the woodstove wafted up to the pagoda of the caboose at the end of the moving freight train. Tantalized by the aroma, the brakeman, posted on top leaned over the railing. He shouted final question above the clatter of the rumbling train to the cook below.

Somewhere before Murfreesboro, Tennessee, at a bend on the mountain grade, he was jolted from his perch and hurled to the double tracks. Unnoticed and unconscious, the brakeman was struck and killed by a speeding train traveling on the opposing tracks headed toward Tullahoma.

William Morgan Neely was my great-grandfather. A tall man with dark eyes and a thick full mustache, his death is still somewhat mysterious.

More than thirty years ago another tragic accident occurred at Neely Lumber Company, my dad’s place of business. The shifter for Southern Railroad had placed three boxcars filled with building materials on the lumberyard railroad siding. An employees was preparing to unload one of the boxcars. It was an old type that had a single door, the kind that had to be unloaded by hand rather than with a forklift. The man broke the seal and tried to open the door, but the door wouldn’t budge. He hopped down off the platform, and using a crowbar, he tried to pry the door, moving it along on the overhead rollers. The rollers were misaligned and the entire steel door fell off crushing the employee beneath the weight.

My dad, my brother, and all of the employees were distraught. How could such a freak accident happen? The truth is that railroad-related accidents are far more common that most of us realize.

The United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) reports that each year nearly 1,000 people are killed in train related accidents.

Many drivers are under the mistaken assumption that an oncoming train will be able to stop in time if their automobile were to stall on the tracks. However, a 150-car freight train traveling 50 miles per hour will take over one mile to stop.

According to the USDOT, there are approximately 6000 train-car crashes each year in the United States. Most occur at railroad crossings. These accidents cause 600 deaths and injure about 2,500. More than half of all fatal train accidents occur at train crossings that do not have active or adequate safety devices. The lesson is to drive safely and expect the unexpected at train crossings.

Consider the following facts:

  • About every hour and a half a train collides with another object or is derailed.
  • Every two weeks a train that is carrying hazardous materials derails in the United States.
  • Rail companies rely on technology that was developed more than 70 years ago. Very little research and improvement has been made to update these safety measures.
  • Local governments often have no voice over the train traffic in their area, which can result in delays for local emergency responders.
  • According to the DOT’s Federal Railroad Administration, about 80% of railroad crossings do not have adequate warning devices.
  • While collisions between vehicles and trains have decreased in the past few years, pedestrians involved in train collisions have increased.

Nobody knows exactly why my great-grandfather died. He was a brakeman on the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railroad, traveling northbound from Tullahoma to Murfreesboro. Somewhere in a bend along a mountain grade he was thrown from the caboose onto a parallel track. The story is that a southbound train ran over him, killing him on the spot.

The mystery surrounding the October 9, 1903, death of Billy Neely, as the family knew him, has led to much speculation. His last remembered words were to the cook preparing the noon meal for the crew.

“Is that pie ready yet?”

With that final question, my great-grandfather was never heard from again. Some have said that, to no one’s surprise, his appetite got the best of him. My own grandfather was fond of saying, “A Neely never will have much. He’ll eat it all up.” Maybe it was the fragrance of the apple pie that precipitated the death of William Morgan Neely.

Several of Billy Neely’s Tennessee kin believe his was robbed by a hobo and thrown from the train. It is a plausible explanation given the economic hardship of the times. Many men rode the rails looking for work, persistently believing the grass would be greener somewhere else. So it is certainly possible that my great-grandfather was the victim of theft and murder by a desperate vagrant. The one bit of evidence against that theory is that William Morgan Neely still had his most valuable possession on him when he died. His railroad pocket watch was still in his vest pocket where he always carried it. My grandfather inherited the watch and often showed it to me when he told the story of his father’s death.

Though the family rarely talked about a third possibility, I have come to believe that it is the most likely explanation for his death.

My grandfather, who I called Pappy, had a difficult childhood. He was the oldest son in his family. He had an older sister, Bertha, and two younger brothers, Will and Hugh. On only two occasions that I recall did Pappy ever tell me just how disfunctional his family really was. Of course, with his job on the railroad, William Morgan Neely was away from home several days each week. When he came home after a time away it was usually after everyone else had gone to bed. More often than not Pappy’s father, Billy Neely, came home drunk. His turnaround point on the railroad run was Tullahoma. Tullahoma is only eleven miles from the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. Billy Neely customarily purchased a bottle of the famous Sipping Whiskey before he left for the return trip back to Murfreesboro. By the time he reached home he was drunk and mean.

Pappy said his father would often beat his mother for no discernable reason. When Pappy would try to intervene, his father turned on him. Sometimes William Morgan Neely would wake his oldest son up in the middle of the night and whip him with a belt for no particular reason. So, it comes as no surprise that the children of William Morgan Neely had problems with alcohol as adults.

On a trip back to Tennessee in the mid-1980s with my great-uncle Hugh, I had the opportunity to speak with three Neely cousins, all octogenarians. All were first cousins to my grandfather. I asked them about my great-grandfather.

They all confirmed, “Uncle Billy was bad to drink.”

My theory about the death of William Morgan Neely is that he was drunk when he fell from the train. To lean over the railing to inquire about the apple pie would have been difficult. But if he had been the least bit tipsy, he might easily have lost his balance and fallen to the tracks below.

So, it is not only trains that are dangerous. Alcohol can also be deadly. Perhaps it was the bottle, not the train that was the demise of my great-grandfather.

In any case, be careful out there. We don’t want to lose a single one of you.

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