An Antebellum Tragedy on the Old R&D Railroad

By Herman E. Melton, 1993.

Richmond and Danville Steam Locomotive

Old Richmond and Danville Railroad Steam Locomotive

The locomotive pictured here was similar in design and size to the “Pittsylvania,” which was destroyed by a steam boiler explosion in 1859.

The boiler burst with a roar that shook the earth and interrupted the tranquility of the Virginia countryside on that September day in 1859. It was not the first disaster on the old Richmond and Danville Railroad, which had come into being a decade earlier. It was, however, the first time a boiler had exploded on one of its steam locomotives.

Of interest to most Pittsylvanians in the event is that it occured on the locomotive Pittsylvania, named for the home county of the railroad's founder, and first president — Whitmell Tunstall of Belle Grove.

After the steam, dust and debris settled, the first to the scene found the lifeless, battered and scalded body of L.D. Thomas, the engineer on the Pittsylvania. Fortunately, the Pittsylvania's fireman was injured only slightly.

By the time of the tragedy, the Richmond and Danville Railroad had a total of 19 steam locomotives (1858 Annual Report of the Board of Public Works). Six were pulling passenger trains, and 13 were pulling freight only. Luckily, the Pittsylvania (Old No. 10) was a freight train, thus probably lessening the number of fatalities in the disaster.

The Pittsylvania was by no means the largest engine on the R&D, but its huge 40" diameter driving wheels were powered by an equally impressive 14" steam cylinder with a 20" stroke. Moreover, Old No. 10 with her water tender, weighed a whopping 32 tons. She came from good stock, having been built by the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, the Confederacy's largest armament works.

The Pittsylvania first chugged out of the Tredegar shop in 1853. Certainly the R&D prexy, Tunstall, saw to it that her brass was shining and her shell glistening. It is, however, hard to accept the fact that Tunstall waited until the 10th locomotive came on the R&D right-of-way to name one after his home county.

The line's locomotives were christened (in order of their service date) as follows: Roanoke, Fury, Tempest, Potomac, Elvira, Appomattox, Atlanta, Charlotte, Carolina, Pittsylvania, Richmond, Chesterfield, Virginia, Henry, Amelia, Banister, Powhatan and Danville.

Then came a series of five larger locomotives that were named Whitmell Tunstall, Vincent Witcher, Lewis Harvie, John McFarland, and Charles Campbell — all officers of the company. Two others — the Pocohontas and the Atlas — were built during the Civil War.

The records of the most famous of the R&D locomotives, the Seddon, were not available to the writer.

According to the latter day publications of the Danville Register, it was this locomotive that pulled the train carrying Jefferson Davis to Danville when Richmond fell. It was named in honor of James E. Seddon who was CSA Secretary of War.

With this background in place, it is appropriate to return to the question of the cause of the boiler explosion of the Pittsylvania. Official records do not reveal the answer.

The best guess is one obvious to anyone who has fired a steam boiler. During the early years of steam, the most common cause of explosion occurred when a careless fireman would allow the water to trop below visibility in the sight or “gauge” glass. Upon discovering the boiler water's level low, some inexperienced and unsuspecting firemen were known to quickly open the makeup water valve in order the raise the level. The cold water striking the superheated dry surface of the boiler drum caused a violent shock which often shattered the boiler shell as if it were made of glass.

Another guess is corrosion (rust) which ate away at the metal. Also, in those primitive days, it was common practice for engineers (with less caution than impatience) to clamp down the safety or relief valve in order to garner a few more pounds of steam pressure. If excessive enough — disaster resulted.

Perhaps the maintenance was inadequate and fatigue developed. In any case, the busy Pittsylvania pulled only freight i.e. heavy loads, and in the year prior to her accident, she chugged 14,003 miles. This left little time for maintenance. The answers to the above may never be known.

Thankfully though, the saga of the Pittsylvania closes on a happier note. The 1864 annual report of the R&D listed the Pittsylvania as back in service, but this time as locomotive No. 9 carrying Confederate Army freight.

Presumably, the Pittsylvania continued her service on the R&D through the dark days of the Reconstruction, after which, the R&D became a part of the Southern RR system.

The Ringgold depot in Pittsylvania County, where old No 10 chugged past many times, remains standing today. If one is an incurable romantic and tries hard enough, he or she can stand on the platform at this depot (the oldest in the county) and hear the ”rumble and roar” of the Pittsylvania as she chugs east towards Richmond with carloads of tobacco.


Books by Herman Melton

(Available from the sponsor.)

Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On

Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On

Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

Other Books Concerning Pittsylvania County History

(Available from the sponsor.)

History of Pittsylvania County, VA

Clement: History of Pittsylvania County

Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Fitzgerald: Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County, VA

Hurt: Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County

An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Hurt: An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County

Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Dodson: Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina (Dover)

Byrd: Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina

Tales About People in a Small Town

Jones: Tales About People in a Small Town

Herman Melton's online articles are posted by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House as part of an effort to document Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville, Virginia.