$10,000 reward offered
Ten–thousand dollar reward for the arrest and evidence to convict the party or parties who wrecked or caused to be wrecked the bridge over the Cahaba river in Bibb County, Ala., belonging to the Southern Railway, and thereby causing the wreck of Birmingham Mineral passenger train No. 40, Sunday, Dec. 27, 1896, and the consequent death of 21 persons and injury to others.”
This notice appeared in the Birmingham News, Dec. 30, 1896. It ran adjacent to the many stories that comprised reports of this headlined ‘Awful Accident!’
Historian Ken Penhale has long been gathering information about the details and people involved in this local tragedy.
The route of No. 40 Mineral was considered particularly scenic, winding through the Cahaba hills and valleys connecting small mining towns such as Tocoa, Boothton and Blockton.
A highlight of the trip would have been the passage over the 110–foot high, 1,200–foot long bridge over the Cahaba River.
Upon approaching the bridge, the engineer saw a rail in the bridge center had been tampered with and tried to put the locomotive in reverse, but to no avail.
Rocked violently, the bridge collapsed, and the passenger cars fell to the shallow waters below, where they were ignited from the heating stoves in the cabins.
Three of the stone girders were pulled down with the rails.
Reports were that ‘three savage-looking men’ were seen leaving the area, leading to supposition that robbery was the motive behind the tampered rails.
This particular gang was credited with staging two other wrecks. They were never caught.
One of the survivors compared the descent to that of a ‘down-dropping elevator.’ Crews searched for bodies and physicians were dispatched to the scene; the death toll eventually stood at 28. The Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company supplied caskets and internment for all.
Families on holiday filled the train. Conductor Henry Hanbury’s own wife, Ora, and two children were on this excursion.
Hanbury, trapped by wreckage, would watch helplessly as his family burned to death. Their bodies are buried in the Helena Cemetery.
Hanbury met his own death in a collision near Woodstock in 1905.
He was hailed as a hero for remaining on the platform and keeping panic-stricken passengers safe inside their boarded train, even as it became apparent that an oncoming train would crash into the platform.
Laura Brookhart can be reached by e–mail at
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