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A deadly train crash

A head-on collision between a passenger train and a freight train that was described as "one of the worst wrecks ever experienced by the Seaboard Air Line" happened 100 years ago today in Hamlet NC.

The passenger train was a "colored excursion" from Durham, headed to Charlotte. The freight train, coming from Wilmington, was under the impression that it had the all-clear. The collision happened right in front of the roundhouse. Photo courtesy of the NC State Archives.

The track at this place makes a sharp curve and both sides of the mainline were lined with box and coal cars. The freight train was crawling into the yards under the impression that no train was coming and Engineer Koonce was heading for Hamlet at a good clip, sure also that the track was clear. The two engines lie now beside the track fast to each other in a grasp of death. The wrecking crew have so far been unable to separate them. The crash was heard all over town and the whistles of the round house and the sound of the escaping steam from the contending engines called the whole town to the scene of carnage and death.

Newspaper accounts of the accident include graphic descriptions of the injured, including one passenger who was asleep until he was decapitated. A field hospital was set up under a repair shed to tend to the injured.

The task was great. Sixty people were seriously injured. Twenty-eight more were slightly scratched. Seven were dead, and of the sixty, one died while on the table. Mrs. Landrum, a trained nurse from the Presbyterian hospital, Charlotte, was nursing a case in town and volunteered her services. She gave skilled aid in a very trying position.

Some of the injured were put on another train and taken to the hospital in Charlotte. Because so much of the train had been damaged, uninjured passengers had to remain in Hamlet because there were no cars to transport them.

The excursion was being run by the St. Joseph's Methodist church of Durham, and was scheduled to reach Charlotte at noon and return tonight. The excursionists will return to Durham with heavy hearts and without seeing Charlotte. -- The News & Observer 7/28/1911

The Interstate Commerce Commission investigated the accident  and determined that the dispatcher for the freight train, Mr. Purvis, sent a message that the passenger train had cleared the track. Although the dispatchers for both trains were working in the same room, Mr. Purvis failed to verify this information before sending the message.

State Library hours cut again

Beginning Sept. 12, the Genealogical Research Services section of the State Library’s Government and Heritage Library will be closed on Mondays, due to budget restrictions.

New service hours for Genealogical Research Services will be Tuesday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Earlier this month, the Saturday hours were reduced.

Narrow escape in Pullen Park fire

Pullen Park, claimed by the city of Raleigh to be the first public park in North Carolina, has a rich history. It was founded in 1887 by Richard Stanhope Pullen. In 1888, Wiley A. Howell was named park keeper, and together Pullen and Howell began to develop the park.

In addition to the familiar carousel and train, the park also featured the city's first swimming pool (built in 1891, of wood and replaced later with WPA money) and a small zoo housing bears, alligators and monkeys.
"In Pullen Park” in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill

The large trees, some as old as the park itself are the pride of the city. But many of those trees were threatened one night 100 years ago when fire broke out in the park.

Mr. W.A. Howell, keeper of Pullen Park, told a News and Observer reporter yesterday about the fire in the park before day yesterday morning. The fire was reported in yesterday morning's News and Observer, but it was necessarily meager of details, as forms of the paper were on the press when the alarm was turned in.

The fire started, Mr. Howell says, at about 2 a.m. A clock which was found near the ruins had stopped at 2:10. The cause of the fire is unknown.

The house, a one-story frame building, was completely destroyed, and Mr. Howell rescued practically none of his property -- only a bureau, three rocking chairs, and a washstand. Mr. Howell had $500 insurance on his movables, while the house -- a part of the park property -- was insured for $600. Mr. Howell's losses include a $300 piano, a range and practically all the furniture. All the clothing in the house was destroyed.

The family, including Mr. and Mrs. Howell and their six children, had a rather narrow escape. They were waked by the cook, who was sleeping in a part of the house which was cut off from the other rooms. She ran out crying "fire, fire," in time for the family to get out safely, though by this time the fire was well started. The fire was practically over, Mr. Howell says, in twenty-five minutes.

Mrs. Howell, who has been sick and is naturally nervous from the unpleasant event, is with her sister, Mrs. Annie Reavis. The rest of the family are with friends in the neighborhood.


In addition to the destruction of the house and its contents, a great deal of damage was done to the trees surrounding the house. The barn near by also caught fire, but a hose wagon arrived in time and the barn was saved.  -- The News & Observer 7/28/1911

Civil War roll call

If your research takes you to the Civil War, the NC State Archives has many resources covering that period. Individual states maintained records of creating and equipping their armies during the startup of the war. Beginning in 1862, the Confederate States of America took over, and records from that time forward reside in the National Archives. However, the State Archives has purchased copies of many of these resources, and many others have been digitized and are available online.

You can find a full explanation of Civil War resources on the North Carolina Civil War 150 blog.

One of the best places to find information about individual soldiers is the many rosters that have been compiled.

North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865, A Roster, which was begun at the Civil War's centennial in 1966, attempts to list every NC soldier, both Confederate and Union, with information from service records, muster rolls, Adjutant General’s records, pension applications, private collections, period newspapers, and another published roster, Roster of North Carolina Troops in the War Between the States (Moore’s Roster). It is currently up to 18 volumes, and more are planned, including an index. It is published by the Historical Publications Section of the NC Office of Archives and History and is available at many local libraries.

More information on individual soldiers can be found by searching his company or regiment records. The two most complete rosters of NC troops that will provide a company and regiment designations for individual soldiers are North Carolina Troops and The Roster of Confederate Soldiers 1861-1865.

Service records show enlistment and the whereabouts of the soldier at various points of his military career.

The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, which includes official correspondence and reports made during the war, is available and searchable online.  

The activities of troops following their service also creates a paper trail for researchers. These include pension records, the state auditor’s records of the old soldier’s home, and records of the issuance of artificial limbs.  The Governor's Office papers from each of the governors during the Civil War contains correspondence, such as petitions for help from the state, that provide information about the period and people.

Ashley Yandle, an information management archivist at the State Archives, will be giving a lecture August 8 at 10:30 about finding Civil War records online. She will introduce the Digital Civil War Collection available through the North Carolina Digital Collections in the NCDC and discuss how to search the online catalog. This program will be held at the State Library & Archives Building and  is free to the public.  Call (919)807-7310 to register and reserve your seat.

Confederate veterans. Photo courtesy of the NC State Archives.

Raleigh's little old lady in tennis shoes

By the time Isabella Cannon became the first female mayor of Raleigh at age 73, she had already had quite a bit of adventure in her life.

Born in Scotland, she came to the United States in 1916 at age 12 on a British steamship being "chased by a German submarine." As a young wife, she lived in Liberia and Baghdad, following her husband's career in the diplomatic service. She lived for a short time in Raleigh before moving to Washington DC. Her husband worked several more years overseas. His health began to deteriorate, and he died soon after their return to North Carolina.

She became known as a neighborhood activist and pretty soon, she found herself being talked into running for mayor against incumbent Jyles Coggins.

In a 1993 interview with the Southern Oral History program, she recalled the excitement of that 1977 campaign.

I was unknown to the biggest segment of the population, certainly to the wealthy segment, and to the big business and developers. I was known to ordinary people. I had no money, I had no organization, but I said, "Ok, let's go for it." I threw myself into it, fully expecting to win. I was always surprised when someone would say to me, "Aren't you surprised that you won?" I replied, "I went in there to win—I didn't go in to lose."

My campaign was the most fun, the most exciting campaign that anyone ever ran. It started out with my newspaper boy bringing me one dollar. I wish I had kept that dollar, but that's the sort of support I had—$10 here, $25 here, a very, very, rare $100 that I received as a contribution. Volunteers came from everywhere. ...  I would go to the grocery store and come home with my handbag full of little slips of paper with names of people saying, "I want to help." The telephone would ring, "We want to help."

It was a people's movement and was exciting. I made speeches all over, anywhere. I was going from eight o'clock in the morning to midnight making speeches. I went anywhere and everywhere, and I had fun doing it.  ... I ran as "The little old lady in tennis shoes" for a special reason. I live near NC State University and near Fred Olds School. At that time, it was the most derogatory thing you could say about anybody, "Oh, she dresses like a little old lady in tennis shoes," or "She thinks like a little old lady in tennis shoes." It made me angry because I saw all these young people walking by my door and what did they have on their feet? Sneakers, tennis shoes. It is no longer a derogatory comment, and perhaps I helped to change it.

If Mrs. Cannon had been so sure she would win the election, perhaps she was the only one.

Mr. Coggins really suffered by having a female run as his opponent. He was shocked. I had filed one hour before the deadline, and no one had thought that there was going to be a competition or that anybody else was going to file. He thought he was going to breeze in without any difficulty. ... It was total shock to the big business people and the developers. My campaign had been a joke to them, and I think the idea of "the little old lady in tennis shoes" perhaps added to them thinking of me as a joke. The business community had not taken me seriously. And Mr. Coggins himself really did not think I was going to win. He never conceded my election, never once admitted that I had won.

Immediately following the election that night, there was an explosion of media. I had telephone calls from Scotland, from the newspapers there, and from all over the United States. It was featured in newspapers from Tehran to Tokyo. The Stars and Stripes featured it in Japan. Reuters, the international news agency, picked it up, and it went all over the world since I had lived in Africa and The Middle East. I had fan clubs in Germany. There were people who wrote me from Australia, from Canada, from Korea. It was a real media explosion. Not only that, but in the United States ... Every major newspaper all over the United States featured me. Seventy-two major newspapers and magazines from all over the world, sixteen major magazines.

Being the first female mayor, and a tiny lady at that, brought its own special problems. The city council met behind a large, imposing table. The mayor's chair either sat so high that her feet didn't touch the floor, or if the chair were lowered to reach the floor, she couldn't be seen over the table.

The job brought other challenges, and there were clashes with a city council sympathetic to business and development interests. They did, however establish the first-ever comprehensive plan for the Capital City to help guide Raleigh's growth and make steps toward cooperating with the county on growth plans.

Her time as mayor lasted only two years. She was defeated in 1979 by fellow councilman Smedes York.

Unlike Coggins, Smedes York didn't underestimate Cannon. He treated her gently, outspent her 3-to-1 and beat her, 52 percent to 46 percent.

Cannon hardly acted like a woman defeated. "My voice will not be stilled, " she told her supporters on Election Night.

"She believed in the things she advocated, very strongly, " York said Thursday. "She didn't pick an issue just to get elected. She was an active neighborhood supporter before she was elected mayor, while she was mayor and after she was mayor. Certainly, in many respects, she could be a little feisty. But she was a very excellent speaker and very energetic and very intelligent. She is a very easy person to admire."  -- The News & Observer 2/15/2002

Isabella Cannon, at barely 5 feet, lost her re-election bid to the 6'4 Smedes York

Down on the boardwalk

Seaside amusements have changed over the years. In the days before cable television and video games, Bingo was a staple of the beach year round.

Columnist Jack Aulis described its popularity in 1974.

No place seems quite as deserted in winter as the arcade area of Carolina Beach. The food and drink stands, the thrill houses, the arcades filled with coin-operated games, the shops -- almost everything is closed.


But wherever you are in that area you can hear an amplified body-less voice saying: "Under the B, 39. B-39." A pause and then: "Under the O, 17. O-17."

It could be the ghost of Bingo past, come back from the dead summer to haunt the place. But it's real. One Bingo parlor is open. Always.

"For years and years now," Vera Holland said, "there's been a Bingo open on Carolina Beach, 365 days to the year." Even Christmas? "365 days to the year," she said firmly.

Mrs. Holland, a Carolina Beach native with white hair and eyeglasses, has owned Jim's Bingo since 1959 (Mrs. Mildred Bame is her partner). They inherited the name.

"The name originally, years and years ago, was 'Uncle Jim's.' But for the last 40 years it's been Uncle Jim's or Jim's right here on this spot." Really -- 40 years? "Give a little, take a little," Mrs. Holland said.

It was Jim's week to be open. The beach has five Bingo parlors in summer. In winter, four of them keep the game going, operating one wee at a time, in rotation. -- The News & Observer 1/28/1974

N&O staff writer Martha Quillin returned to Carolina Beach nearly a quarter century  later to find that Bingo had lost some of its appeal with boarwalk visitors.

For more than five decades, Lois Walton's family has run Carolina Bingo on the boardwalk of this once-booming seaside resort. Now, she wonders if its number is up.

It isn't just that beach bingo, with its $10 maximum prize, has lost business to casino-style operations that can pay out jackpots in the tens of thousands of dollars. It's also because most people don't yearn anymore for summer nights filled with snow cones and corn dogs, nor do they save their money all year to spend a week in a small motel where they're not sure the air conditioner and the cable TV will work.

Vacationers' tastes have changed, but Carolina Beach - home of one of the last Coney Island-style boardwalks in the Southeast - has mostly stayed the same for the past 50 years.


But summer in the bingo hall used to mean cigarette smoke so thick you couldn't see the lighted number board, and crowds so large players had to spread out cards on the window sills. Summer now is a lot like winter; there is room enough for the players to spread out along the narrow tables if they want.

"People used to come down here from all over North Carolina, " Walton says. "Some of 'em would come back year after year. They'd spend all day in here, playing bingo from 9 o'clock one morning until 1 o'clock the next.

"It was wonderful here then. There were rides, and places to eat, and little shops, and people out on the boardwalk all the time. It was wonderful."

Carolina Beach got its start as a resort in the mid-1880s when a local entrepreneur began hauling people to the little island by steamboat down the Cape Fear River from Wilmington, about 20 miles away. The trip took about an hour. It took 30 minutes more in an open narrow-gauge railroad car to cross the two miles to the beach.

By 1897, Carolina Beach had about 40 cottages and 48,000 summer visitors. Later, hotels were built, as was the Carolina Moon Pavilion, a romantic open-air place with a 10-foot wraparound porch and live bands that played over the sound of crashing waves.

Most of the buildings that make up downtown Carolina Beach today are of World War II vintage, built after a September 1940 fire that took out the pavilion, 24 other businesses and the wooden boardwalk that ran along the beach. Touted early on as a working man's retreat, the resort attracted vacationing factory workers from the Piedmont and servicemen from the military bases in the eastern part of the state. -- The News & Observer 1/5/1998


Once more into space

Even if you haven't watched a lift-off in a while, chances are you made sure to catch the space shuttle launch this morning. If you're old enough, it might have reminded you of that hot July night 42 years ago when everyone gathered around a television to see the first step on the moon.

Raleigh was no different. It was a true shared experience.

A man driving a truck full of potted plants stopped at a light on Wade Avenue and a man in a car alongside him said, "They landed on the moon. About five minutes ago."

The truckdriver hardly shifted his eyes from the road ahead. Finally  out of the corner of his mouth he said, "Made it, huh? Hope they're cooler up there than this truck is. Man it's hot." And off he drove.


At the Carolina Country Club there was some high spirited screaming and yelling by the 50 or so watching TV in the clubhouse. But nothing spectacular.

At police headquarters it was an "unusually quiet" afternoon, according to dispatcher Ira Rushing. "Just a few drunks and fights reported."

At Central Prison a life-termer sat across the desk from Lt. Bill Parker a few minutes after the moon landing. Parker couldn't give out the man's name and he couldn't let him talk on the phone. But he agreed to ask the prisoner what he thought of the landing.

In a moment Parker was back on the phone. "He's proud as hell, sir," he said. "I mean he's real proud."

Of the prisoners in general at the huge prison, Parker said, "Every man who could get to a radio or TV was glued to it. That's all they're talking about." -- The News & Observer 7/21/1969

North Carolina had a special connection to that historic first step. Neil Armstrong was one of the many astronauts from 1958 to 1975 who trained at UNC's Morehead Planetarium.

Astronauts came to Morehead  when they joined NASA to learn the basics of space navigation. They returned a second time in advance of a mission to take part in navigational training exercises specific to the mission on which they were preparing to embark.

All told, Armstrong, perhaps the most famous American astronaut, came to Morehead for training 11 times.

The training that astronauts received at Morehead aimed to prepare them to navigate using only the stars -- a backup mechanism in case the spacecraft's automatic navigational equipment malfunctioned during a mission.


"They needed to be prepared to recognize just parts of constellations, " said Richard McColman, a show producer at the planetarium who has studied the history of Morehead's astronaut training program. "So they had to get very, very good at recognizing star patterns."


The training exercises held at the planetarium arguably saved several missions during which astronauts experienced technical difficulties and were forced to tap into the conventional navigation skills that they had learned at Morehead.

With the final Mercury mission in 1963, astronaut Gordon Cooper became the first man to remain in space for more than 24 hours. At the end of the mission, Cooper experienced widespread equipment failure and had to rely on visual navigation skills to orchestrate the spacecraft's re-entry.

Cooper was able to pull off the correct re-entry angle, even without fully functioning equipment, preventing the spacecraft from rebounding off the earth's atmosphere into outer space or from burning up upon re-entry.

In fact, Cooper managed to execute the most precise landing in the history of the space program at that time -- even without full use of his navigational instruments.

"(The training) paid off pretty well for him, " McColman said.

Astronauts' ability to navigate and orient themselves using only the stars also proved critical during the Apollo 12 and Apollo 13 missions, when equipment failures forced them to rely on the stars. -- The News & Observer 6/8/2003

Listening to history

UNC Library's Southern Folklife Collection houses an amazing collection of American folk music, with more than 160,000 sound recordings on cylinders, acetate discs, wire, 78 rpm and 45 rpm discs, LPs, cassettes, CDs, and open reel tapes. Musical styles include old-time, country-western, hillbilly, bluegrass, blues, gospel, Cajun and zydeco. Other materials include photographs, posters, and manuscripts related to the music. More background on the collection is available here.

All the materials are non-circulating, which means you have to be on site at Wilson Library to use them. Until now.  The library has created six streaming radio "stations" to bring many of these recordings right to your computer.  Take a listen to any of the following channels:

Channel 1: North Carolina

Channel 2: Memphis

Channel 3: Jimmie Rodgers, The Father of Country Music

Channel 4: New Orleans

Channel 5: SFC Mix

Channel 6: African-American Music

They're all good, but the SFC Mix offers a great sampling of the music of the South.




Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, September 1938. Photo courtesy NC State Archives.

New Saturday hours for State Archives

Budget cuts are cutting into the hours of operation for the NC State Archives. Beginning July 9, the Genealogical Services division and the State Archives Search Room will be open Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Weekday hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Elephants on parade

One of the highlights of the circus coming to town is always seeing the animals and acts unload from the train. This photo shows the spectacle of a circus parade around 1898. A note on the back of the photo says the parade is "going west down Morgan and turning S onto Fayetteville" and that the photographer was "sitting in the window of the YMCA."

A visitor to Raleigh's 1937 circus described the life the circus took on after the audience had gone home.

They missed the drama of the circus. They didn't go back of the scenes, the "backyard" to showmen, where cook shop, hospital tent, dressing tents, dining tent and animal tent formed a little city of circus people.


Only in the "backyard" can the observer find this confused array of humanity that goes into a circus and sustains the life drama of circus people. In the mammoth tent of the cook shop, those 1,500 individuals eat three meals a day -- 4,500 sets of dishes to be brought out, served, washed and stacked for movement each day.

In that compact neighborhood of artists and workers, the heartaches, the hilarity, the tragedy and the triumphs of the show business create a drama more vital than that seen under the Big Top twice a day.

In the fully equipped, fully staffed circus hospital, known as the "Croak Top" the sprains and bruises and injuries of stuntsters are patched up.


Workmen test ropes, wires and vital apparatus. Ladies hang freshly laundered silks in the breeze to put costumes into clean, crisp condition for the coming appearance in Greensboro today.

Freighted into Raleigh over the Southern Railroad at dawn ... from Winston-Salem, the circus city mushroomed into being , went through the paces, came down again last night and was packed for the next stop at Greensboro by 3 o'clock this morning . Twenty fleeting hours. -- The News & Observer 10/27/1937

For many years, The News and Observer ran a promotion called the Fifty-Year Club in connection with the John Robinson Circus. Readers who had memories of the circus from more than 50 years earlier could share them and then attend the circus as a guest of the newspaper. Each year the paper would report the number who had "renewed" their membership and publish the names of new members.

In 1929, W.D. Terry, State Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds, became a member of the club. He had first seen the circus in 1877.

"When the show came to Raleigh in 1877, it struck a rainy season. It had been raining steadily for three days and on the day of the show it rained so hard and the wind blew with such force that part of the big tent was blown down."


Sidney Williams, of Essex, who saw the show about 1874 in Warrenton saw his first electric light when it was one of the sensational attractions of the show. R.A. Wilder, of Knightdale, who saw the show in Louisburg in 1873 remembers that one of the band wagons ran over a hog on the main street of the town during the parade. J.W. Mitchell, of Raleigh, recalls the show in the Baptist Grove in Raleigh in 1877 when the wind and rain wrecked part of the tent. E.S. Doolittle remembers the circus in Charlotte in 1877 when an elephant killed his keeper in a box car. -- The News & Observer 9/19/1929

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