Suwannee County and the surrounding areas have dealt with sinkholes and washouts for the entirety of its history, to varying effects. One of the most recent (and probably the most widespread) of these events happened during Tropical Storm Debby in 2012, when dozens of sinkholes opened around the County due to the heavy flooding. However, there have been other instances of raining and flooding leading to disastrous results. Today’s article details one of them.

In late December 1916, World War One had raged in Europe and across the globe for two and a half years, but the United States had so far remained neutral. By and large, life carried on in America as usual, although the newspapers carried the latest information on the World War that sometimes included the death of American citizens, mainly from attacks by German submarines on the high seas. The Suwannee Valley region was receiving a heavy amount of rain over a period of several days, one of the heaviest downpours in years; this would soon lead to tragedy. The Suwannee Democrat stated it thus:

“Six trainmen were killed at 10:45 last Thursday night (December 21, EM) 16 miles east of Live Oak when the Seaboard Air Line extra freight trains, Nos. 532 and 531, running as a double header from Tallahassee to Jacksonville ran into a washout near McKinley (a long-gone community in western Columbia County near Wellborn, EM). Only one member of the combined crews escaped, Flagman W. V. Varnedore of Jacksonville, who was riding in the caboose. The other members of the crew were riding ‘front end’ and were caught when the engines and the first 18 cars were piled up.

“Flagman Varnedore walked to Wellborn, where he telephoned the division superintendent’s office in Jacksonville. Immediately wrecking and relief trains were started to the scene of the wreck.

“The wreck occurred at a low place where heavy rains of the past several days had washed out the track. Both engines turned over, and the first 18 cars piled up. Several cars of naval stores caught fire, burning all of the cars which left the tracks. The six members of the crew were riding ‘front end’ and were burned with the wreckage.

“The deplorable accident, could not have been averted, and no one is to blame. The steady downpour of rain, the heaviest in years, had undermined the track for several hundred yards and the washout must have occurred just a short time before the disaster, as the west bound passenger train was only a few minutes ahead of the freight.”

The Ocala Evening Star, quoting the Associated Press, added on December 22, “Engineers E. M. Lee and C. M. Coxwell, Conductor C. R. Payne and three negro trainmen were killed. All were residents of Jacksonville.” The Evening Star went on to say, “The Seaboard Air Line is playing in hard luck. Beside the wreck on the western division reported in our dispatches (the one near Wellborn, EM), there is a washout this side of Lochloosa that compels it to run the trains on this division over the Coast Line (the Atlantic Coast Line, a competing railroad that eventually merged with the SAL in 1967, EM) between Ocala and Gainesville today.”

Despite the loss of six people from the accident near Wellborn, it appears that a far greater number of fatalities was avoided by the lucky passenger train which preceded the freight train by only a few minutes…

More history next week.

Eric Musgrove can be reached at ericm@suwgov.org or 386-362-0564.

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