THAXTON, Va. — The weather in this small Virginia community Tuesday could not have been more different than the fateful day it was called to remember.
With blue skies and bright sun, the gathering was called to memorialize the event 126 years ago at the spot which brought about what some called “The Day Cleveland Cried.”
Three of its finest, off to see the world, were killed when that June morning brought torrential rains, causing the embankment on which the rails of the train they were riding to give way.
It is an event that has its monument in Cleveland, but the spot where it happened has never been permanently marked.
The site of the tragedy, recorded by historians as the “Thaxton Train Wreck,” is now marked with documented significance by the commonwealth of Virginia.
A new marker, sponsored by the Allan Jones Foundation, stands by the highway near the spot where the train and its passengers met their fates.
Often known as “Virginia’s forgotten train wreck,” a series of events has brought it back to the forefront.
Lifelong Thaxton resident Cindy Neely recovered pieces of the train from her daughter’s yard.
“One of them we are pretty sure was part of the brakes,” Neely said. “When we dug it out, I told my daughter this is not for a regular truck. It’s for something much bigger.”
The mother and daughter began to find more pieces, after which the daughter surmised they could be part of the train wreck.
“We started to study and found the site of the wreck was right here,” Neely recalled.
She said they have learned the current owner’s husband’s grandfather was one of the first on the scene when the wreck occurred.
Neely said she had been aware of the wreck since she was a child, but did not know exactly where it happened.
“Finding those pieces in 2012 started it all,” she said. “We tried to find articles and started a Facebook page.”
Neely then found Michael Jones, who was writing a book on the wreck which eventually became “Lost In Thaxton.”
“I had articles he didn’t have,” she said. “He called me one night to see what I had that he didn’t have.”
Jones credits Neely in the finished book.
“Back when I started the Facebook page, I wanted to raise the money [to get the marker] which was over $2,000 at the time,” she said.
“It was a dream and I wanted it to happen,” Neely said.
The dream became a reality, as benefactor Allan Jones said, “ironically because of an accident on April 25, 2015, when an unknown Lee University student hits the [Cleveland downtown] monument and it falls over,” Jones recalled.
It was an event that re-energized interest in the train wreck.
“It had been standing there for 120 years and I was devastated,” Jones said.
That led Allan Jones to searching for more information which led him to two authors and a Facebook page.
Locally, Debbie Riggs had written a book titled “The Day Cleveland Cried.”
And Neely had began posting information and pictures on her Facebook page.
Upon meeting with Michael Jones, Allan Jones found the spot of the wreck was not marked, despite efforts to make that happen.
“I want to make one point very clear,” Allan Jones said. “This is not an Allan Jones monument. This is a Michael Jones monument, and my hat’s off to you.”
“It was a lot of work,” Allan Jones said.
Despite his attempts to deflect credit, Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland would not let the local businessman go uncredited.
Rowland, who Allan Jones called “the mayor of the best little big town in the country,” noted how Jones has inherited a legacy through his recent purchase of Hardwick Clothes.
“Thank you for doing this today, and funding this through your foundation,” Rowland said.
There was a Hardwick connection to the tragedy of 1889.
John Hardwick, son of C.L. Hardwick who began the company, was one of the three Cleveland residents who were lost that day along with William Steed of Steed’s Pharmacy and City Recorder William Marshall.
Steed’s body was the only one of the three recovered.
Michael Jones recounted some of that harrowing night.
He recalled the words of one survivor, who said, “The groans and pleadings of the injured sounding like a wail from the grave. If your mind will grasp such a horrible picture, you can appreciate the agony of body and mind that I and many others suffered.”
He then read aloud the names of the 18 “who took their last breath here at Wolf Creek.”
The author recited the words of the Rev. C.D. Flagler of Cleveland, who said of those who perished: “We may not know where their ashes slumber, but God himself will keep a faithful watch over their sacred dust.”
“Nearly 126 years later, Reverend Flagler’s words ring true,” Michael Jones said. “God has indeed kept his eye on this final resting place for those sacred ashes.”
“As we dedicate this marker today, we all will remember those who were lost at Thaxton.”
Pastor Randy Martin of Broad Street United Methodist Church, the church the three Tennesseans attended, closed the ceremony with a benediction.
“All the way up here today, I kept thinking of that old gospel hymn which says life is like a mountain railway and the engineer is God,” Martin said. “Keep your hand upon the throttle and your eye upon the rail.”
Those words were spoken just as a train passed by.
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