MSU professor recounts historic Cotton Plant train wreck

April 13, 2009 marked the 60th anniversary of the day residents in Cotton Plant, Miss. will remember forever. On April 13, 1949, two trains collided with each other in Cotton Plant, resulting in one fatality. The fatality was John Oatis Cannon, who was a mail clerk in the Railway Post Office section of the power unit. The two trains were the No. 1 Engine 354, also known as Rebel, and No. 32 Engine 747.

Cotton Plant is located approximately seven miles north of New Albany. New Albany was the central city and location of the dispatcher’s office for the GM&N’s (and later Gulf, Mobile, and Ohio’s) Tennessee division between Louisville, Miss. and Jackson, Tenn.

According to the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), “the wreck was caused by the failure to meet a train order.”

This train order said that the actual “meet” of the two trains would have taken place at the north siding switch at Cotton Plant. The Rebel was traveling southbound and No. 32 was traveling northbound.

According to David Bridges, author of The Wreck at Cotton Plant, “the Rebel” had authority to proceed south on the mainline only to the north siding switch, where it was required to take the siding. Similarly, No. 32 had authority to proceed north on the mainline to a point just south of the north siding switch then wait until No. 1 (Rebel) to be cleared.”

The crew of No. 32 included engineer Charlie Pugh of New Albany, fireman Grady McMillen of Louisville and brakeman John Patterson of Jackson, Tenn. The ICC report states that the crew of No. 32 received their copy of the train order in New Albany, the last open office before reaching Cotton Plant.

Also, No. 32 also received word that the Rebel would be arriving 25 minutes late at Cotton Plant, the designated meeting place for both trains. No. 32 was three and a half hours late at this point.

“When the Rebel neared the south siding switch, the crew of No. 32 realized that the Rebel was occupying the main line, not the siding, and was coming too fast – too fast to be stopped short of their train. The engineer threw the brake into emergency and both the engineer and the brakeman jumped from the train, which came to a stop just about the time it was struck by the Rebel,” according to Bridges.

No. 32 left New Albany at 10:35 p.m., approaching Cotton Plant at 10 miles per hour (mph). The Rebel was traveling at a speed of 60 mph when the train conductor spotted the headlights from the approaching train. The wreck occurred at 10:52 p.m. at Cotton Plant and 24 people were injured.

The Rebel was owned by Gulf, Mobile, and Northern (GM&N). The Rebel’s crew was engineer Joe Liddell of New Albany, conductor Dick Norwood and brakeman R. R. Crumpton.

One report states that fog and the engineer’s disorientation was one result of failing to meet the train order. However, the ICC said that the order was received clearly and the weather was clear that night. Either way, it was a day that all people in Cotton Plant will never forget.