“Breakfast in Atlanta or in Hell”: Photographing the “Highlander” #7

On 23 June, 1900, Southern Railway’s steam engine #836 pulled into McDonough, Georgia on the “Ol’ #7” rail line from Macon to Atlanta with a stop in McDonough. The crew waited to connect with the Red Ball Freight train, which was coming from Columbus, GA.  It never arrived.  So, the Ol’ #7’s crew was given the order to depart for Atlanta.

McDonough experienced significant rainfall for several days.  So much so that Camp Creek, north of McDonough, was swollen and raging, which weakened the support piling for the train trestle crossing the creek. Some of the passengers expressed concern about the weather.  When the train’s conductor, J.T. Sullivan, heard of the concern, the legend is he responded, “We’ll be eating breakfast in Atlanta or in Hell.”

The train left the McDonough Depot at approximately 7:45 pm. It is said that Sullivan saw the condition of the trestle before reaching Camp Creek, but it was too late.  The trestle collapsed under the weight of the locomotive, and the engine, its tender, two coach cars, and a Pullman sleep plunged sixty feet into Camp Creek.  The engine caught fire and the coaches were destroyed by the impact and fire.

There were forty-nine souls on board.  Thirty-nine died and ten were rescued.  All those who survived were in the Pullman sleeper.

I have lived in McDonough for nearly thirteen years, but I had only a passing understanding of the history surrounding what is known as the “Camp Creek Train Wreck.”  The first time I became aware of the crash, I saw this photograph hanging on the wall of a local diner, called Gritz, several years ago.

The Henry County Parks and Recreation Department has a great family part called “Heritage Park.” In Heritage Village, an H.K. Porter steam locomotive is on static display.

 

The photos above are ones I took of the Porter steam engine and tender in Heritage Park, which stands as a monument for the Ol’ #7, Engine 836 and those who died. Here is the sign describing the engine and its meaning for the people of McDonough.

This year is the 120th anniversary of this tragedy.  My next photography project is to shoot thirty-nine photographs of parts of the Porter steam engine in Heritage Park in honor of the thirty-nine people who died in the train wreck in 1900.  I am going to shoot in digital black and white and assign a name of each of the dead to each of the thirty-nine photos.

This sounds pretty simple on the face of it; just go out to Heritage Park and take pictures, right?  In the words of Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend.”

In my mind, two major questions have to be answered in order for this to be a successful photography project.

First, how many actually died in the crash?  Initially, I wanted to made thirty-nine close-up photographs of the parts of the Porter steam engine in Heritage Park as a symbol of each of the dead because that is how many are said to have died in the internet research I have conducted thus far. Here is the rub – various sources have differing numbers of dead in the wreck.  They range from 35 to 39 dead.  I want to be as accurate as possible.

Second, which make and model of train was the real Engine #836 –  Ol’ #7?  How similar was it really to the “Highlander” Porter steam engine in Heritage Park?  I want to answer this question as accurately as I can because I don’t want any major anachronisms in my thirty-nine photographs.  I have already run into problems because I am learning the basic nomenclature of 19th century locomotives.  On the sign by the Porter steam engine in Heritage Park, it describes the Porter as a 0-4-0 locomotive, which is actually a mistake.  The locomotive in Heritage Park is a 2-4-0.  Also, it is a problem because Porter steam engines were built as train-yard utility engines, not passenger and/or freight trains.  This is something of which I am not quite confident, but this is something about which I will be reaching out to experts on 19th century locomotives.  If you are an expert, you can certainly correct me!

Based on my research thus far, Engine #836 was a 2-8-0 Consolidation type steam locomotive built in 1887 by the Baldwin Locomotive works.  This is a tentative identification. But, I have a line on some experts who can point me in the right direction. I will update in later posts.

As I research this tragedy, two things are happening.  First, I am becoming more and more fascinated by the Camp Creek Train Crash. There are remarkable stories of heroism and ancillary stories associated that invite quality photography.  I want to know as much as I can about it.  That is why tomorrow I will order Professor Jeff Well’s book, The Camp Creek Train Crash of 1900: In Atlanta or In Hell. Second, I am becoming more and more immersed in my adopted community.  

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