Alabama Folkways Articles

October, 1993

LOST BALLAD DOCUMENTS 1894 COOSA RIVER TRAIN WRECK

by Hank Willett

Nearly 99 years ago to the day, a passenger train on the B & A Railroad left Talladega on its regularly scheduled run to Pell City. While crossing the Coosa River at the Talladega/St. Clair County line on the evening of Thursday, October 11, 1894, the wooden trestle bridge collapsed, dropping the entire train into 22 feet of water. Talladega resident C. H. Simmons drowned and dozens of others were injured.

The Talladega newspaper, Our Mountain Home, reported the wreck in its October 17 edition: "Thursday evening the passenger train on the B & A Railroad went through the Coosa River bridge below Stemly. The bridge is 600 feet long and the west span, 150 feet long, gave way as the train ran on to it, when engine, cars, and passengers all went down into 22 feet of water. Train hands Jordan Cranford and Bill Street escaped unhurt and did heroic deeds in rescuing Mrs. Duncan and her two children, who were passengers."

It was the heroics of the two train hands, Cranford and Street, which caught the attention of the public. Old-timers in Talladega and St. Clair counties have reported that African-American field hands, in the early 20th century sang a worksong which recounted the events of the wreck of the B & A, though no one has been able to recall the words.

Others remember a Vernon Dalhart recording of the song, "The Wreck of the B & A," on the Cameo Records label, selling in Talladega in the 1920s for 25 cents a copy. However, no song of that title shows up in Vernon Dalhart discographies, and it is quite possibly being confused with Dalhart's "The Wreck of the 1256," released on the Cameo label in 1925. That song recounts a similar accident, in this case a train plunging into the James River near Clifton Forge, Virginia.

It seems unlikely that the ballad commemorating the events of that evening in 1894 when the B & A Railroad train plunged into the Coosa River has disappeared entirely from the memories of the citizens of Talladega and St. Clair counties. Perhaps, as the centennial of that fateful night approaches, the lost ballad of "The Wreck of the B & A" will be found.