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Did a locomotive ever crash into the Cape Fear River?

Ben Steelman
Seaboard Air Line terminal

This postcard illustration depicts the Seaboard Air Line Terminal docks along Wilmington's northern waterfront as it looked in 1911. It is the modern site of the Wilmington Convention Center. (Courtesy New Hanover County Public Library)

It happened at least once — on March 12, 1968. Brakes failed on a Seaboard Air Line locomotive, towing 13 freight cars, during a yard maneuver at the railroad’s Smith Creek yard.

“The train just kind of rolled downhill,” said Mark Koenig of the Wilmington Railroad Museum — and it kept going, through several intersections, into Wilmington’s north side. Witnesses told the Morning Star that the runaway train hit speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.

Engineer L.L. Poplin and assistant yard superintendent James Rooker, who had been aboard the engine vainly trying to stop it, hopped off the locomotive just east of Front Street. The train then ran down the Seaboard Air Line pier, at the foot of Red Cross Street, and slammed into the starboard side of the oil tanker Gulf Service, moored nearby.

A locomotive and two cars plunged into the Cape Fear River.

Somewhat scarily, several cars on the runaway train had been loaded with 105-mm artillery shells, bound for the Military Ocean Terminal at Sunny Point, across the river. (Fortunately, according to a Sunny Point official, the shells were “smoke-type” ordinance and were unlikely to explode.) None of the munition cars went into the river.

The Gulf Service was left with two gaping holes in its side but was able to maneuver away from the dock under its own power later in the day. No one was killed, and no one was injured, according to news reports.

The incident was front-page news the following day. Among rail buffs, the plunge is nearly as legendary as the USS North Carolina’s 1961 collision with The Ark floating restaurant.

User-contributed question by:
Robert Holt

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2 Responses to “ Did a locomotive ever crash into the Cape Fear River?”

  1. On January 17, 2012 at 3:28 pm Bill wrote:

    If it was March 1968 Then it would have been the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad not the Seaboard Air Line.
    SAL & ACL merger 7/1/67.

  2. On March 14, 2012 at 3:16 pm Mark Koenig wrote:

    A Curious Postscript

    In mentioning the 1968 accident to historian James Burke, he recalled that a similar incident happened in 1854 and sent the following article from a local newspaper. The shoreline was considerably different then, on the north edge of Wilmington and much closer to what we now call Nutt Street.
    From Mark Koenig, Wilmington Railroad Museum

    The Wilmington Journal
    December 23, 1854

    Last night the locomotive and tender of the Express train, on the Wilmington and Raleigh Railroad, ran into the river at the Company’s wharf, and now lie in about ten feet water. Luckily nobody was hurt with the exception of the Mail Agent, who injured his arm very badly by jumping out.
    We went up last night, immediately after the occurrence of the accident, and, as nearly as we could discover, the facts were as follows: That the engineer came on to the inclined plane at a very high rate of speed, as shown by the fact that in passing the “frog,” at the head of the plane, the train received a shock as though it had struck some obstruction placed there; that the reversing machinery was broken, or out of order, and that the engine could not be reversed so as to check the impetus in coming down the inclined plane, and that, in this state of things, the brakes were not sufficient to check the motion before the accident had happened. Two things are evident: that the cars came to the incline at a criminally high rate of speed; and secondly, that the engineer must have known that the engine could not be reversed sufficiently soon to check the motion on the level at the foot, for the difficulty in reversing had existed all day. The two brakes usually employed were on, and Mr. Laspeyre, the conductor, was at the third. After all our efforts to get the facts, we could come to no other conclusion than that the fault lay altogether with the engineer. [later note identifies engineer as William Piedmont]

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