b2ap3_thumbnail_Eugene-Holcombe.PNGRoaming The Mountains

By John Parris

As it appeared in the ASHEVILLE CITIZEN-TIMES

Sunday,  June 19,  1966

  Perfect Timing Prevented Disaster 

DILLSBORO – The eastbound freight – a doubleheader panting to be away – stood on the main line.  It was ready to leave town as soon as Conductor Eugene Holcombe delivered the clearance card to the engineers.

    A trailing eastbound passenger train had just left Whittier, 10 miles to the west, and an 18-car westbound freight loaded with lumber, ore and wood had reached Addie, six miles to the east.

    By the clock in the depot, where Parsons Kincaid sat at the telegraph desk, it was 11:30 a.m.

    From across the way on that drowsy summer morning of 1913 came the whine of wood-cutting tools fashioning locust pins for electric insulators and tree nails for ship building at the Gilliland Locust Pin Co.  A creaking ox-wagon lumbered up Main Street.

    At the Southern Railroad division headquarters at Bryson City, dispatcher George Sandlin was in the middle of an order to the operator at Addie where the turnaround crews were switching engines on the freight.

    Everything seemed to be going fine.  The freight out of Dillsboro was going to Sylva, little more than a mile away, to let the three-car passenger train by, while the two crews at Addie would remain there for it to run.

    Then, out of a clear sky, the operator at Addie jumped in the middle of the order Sandlin was sending.

    “Good Lord, Sandlin, that train’s gone!” he thundered in the dispatcher’s ears.

    A picture of his first collision flashed through Sandlin’s mind.  He knew it could only be the 18 cars loaded with lumber, ore and wood that the turnaround crew had left on the main line and that wheels would roll from Addie to Bryson.

    Only six miles separated the runaway and the freight.  Five men and two of the division’s best engines faced certain destruction unless Sandlin could wreck the 18 cars.

    Then there was the passenger trailing the freight.  If Sandlin failed, the collision would send a portion of the freight down the hill to meet it. Only perfect timing and a lot of luck could play a winning hand that morning.

    As any railroader knows, the Murphy Division is the only line where you are either going up grade or down grade.  So by now, Sandlin knew those cars were clipping the miles faster than a boomer’s ballast-scorching ride.

    Less than seven minutes separated a disastrous collision, providing the freight had not left Dillsboro.  And Sandlin had only two chances to wreck the 18-car runaway.

    Frantically, he called Sylva, four miles west of Addie.  This was his first chance of ditching them.

    “They’re passing at 60 miles an hour!” replied Operator Verge Dorsey.

    Dillsboro, where Sandlin had cleared the eastbound freight, remained his only hope.  It was only 1.6 miles west of Sylva and those flying cars were really racing now.

    Sandlin knew that not a second could be lost.  But what, he wondered, if the doubleheader had already gotten under way?  Several minutes had passed since he had cleared them.

    He called Dillsboro.  Luck was with him.  Parsons Kincaid was at his key.

    “Where’s No. 60?” Sandlin asked quickly.

    And Kincaid answered, “They’re getting under way now.”

    “For God’s sake, stop ‘em!” Sandlin ordered.  “Tell Holcombe to throw the switch to the sidetrack, and then duck.”

    Sandlin knew he could depend on Holcombe to act without question, but the timing was too close for comfort.  Maybe Holcombe wasn’t in sight, or close enough for Kincaid to holler to him.

    Two locomotives, two trains and crews were doomed if Holcombe was out of place.  Sandlin knew that Kincaid couldn’t possibly get to the switch before the cars thundered into the engines.

    “I seemed to be living an eternity in a couple of minutes,” Sandlin recalled later.  “I sat there watching the silent sounder, but all I could see was the double wreck.”

    Finally, Sandlin heard his call, and he fairly fell on the key.

    “Holcombe at the switch,” Kincaid messaged.

    There was a pause, then the telegraph sounder clicked again.

    “He got the ball over,” Kincaid said, “as the head car blew his hat off.”

    Sandlin slumped in his chair, dripping sweat.  He barely heard the rest of the message.

    “George, them cars were running a thousand miles an hour when they went off at the switch,” Kincaid continued.  “Nothing much left of the pin factory.  They went through it like a hurricane.  Only one fellow hurt, not bad, but all the rest practically scared to death.”

    There was another pause, then Kincaid added:

    “And George, can you get a new outfit for me?”