Someone once compared the study of history to going out on a windy day and gathering everyone’s blown off hats in an attempt to get each one back on the right head. Needless to say, this insightful illustration illuminates the difficulty of accurately retelling history as it actually occurred. Since we weren’t eyewitnesses to it, it is extremely difficult to unerringly educate others about it.

This blog was promoted by us being informed about a historical blunder; namely, our Little River Railroad & Lumber Company Museum’s mistaken date for the deadly boiler explosion of Locomotive Number 4, which occurred in 1917, not in 1914, as we had previously asserted. We’d like to thank Eddie McClanahan for pointing it out to us, as well as encourage others to do what Eddie did, provide us with documentation to correct any historical inaccuracies we may be guilty of. After all, like any historical museum, we continuously strive to be as accurate as we can retelling history and getting all of its blown off hats back on the right heads.

On April 27, 1865, the worst boiler accident in American history occurred, when 3 of the 4 boilers of the steamship SS Sultana exploded on the Mississippi River. Whereas over 1,500 passengers lost their lives on the RMS Titanic, more than 1,800 people died when the overloaded SS Sultana blew up en route from Vicksburg, Mississippi to St. Louis, Missouri. Overshadowed by the bigger news of the day, the end of the Civil War and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, this horrific tragedy received  little press and has long since been forgotten. Still, it serves as proof positive of the potential power and accompanying devastation of a boiler explosion.

Every railroader knows, as do others in other occupations, the dangers of his occupation. For instance, the firemen on old steam engines were well aware of the fact that their job was stoking a boiler, which possessed the potential explosive power of a bomb. On or around March 6, 1917, the bomb-like blast of an exploding boiler was heard high in the Smokies, when the boiler on Little River Railroad’s Number 4 Locomotive exploded. 

According to an eyewitness, who was working on a section crew making repairs to a
washout nearby, the blast of the boiler explosion blew engineer Walter Hall several feet from the cab of his Shay locomotive. Surprisingly, however, Hall, who came to rest “against a scrubby maple tree,” was neither seriously hurt nor badly burned. On the other hand, the fireman, Sam McClanahan, was not so fortunate. Severely scalded by the escaping steam, his eyes were burned out and much of his body covered with lethal burns.  Sam was taken to the Wonderland Hotel in Elkmont, where he died a few days later on March, 13. 1917.

A monument stands today at the grave of Sam McClanahan in the cemetery of the Tuckaleechee Methodist Church in Townsend, Tennessee. It reads:

JUNE 22, 1891
MARCH 13, 1917
A precious one from us has gone
A voice we loved is stilled;
A place is vacant in our home
Which never can be filled.

This blog, generated by a hat tip from one of Sam’s descendants, is our way of tipping our hat not only to Sam McClanahan, but to everyone, like him, who were killed on the job, while working for the Little River Railroad and Lumber Company.

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