Out of the Depot

And He Whistled Down Brakes Forever

By J. K. Gurner


Engineer W. T. Ruffin died in a terrible wreck on the Tallahatchie River Bridge in the late 1800s. Bruce Gurner researched the event after he was told about it by engineer Bob Moore, who said he had learned of the wreck from some of the old engineers.
Moore said that the mothers in Water Valley would relate this gruesome tale to their teenage sons when they asked permission to go on the road working for the railroad.
Bruce found an an account of this disaster in the form of a resolution of condolence in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineer’s Journal from Division 99 in Water Valley. In the resolution, the Division made official notice of the loss of this brother.
Anxious to find a newspaper story if possible, Bruce went to the files of the old newspapers in the Chancery Clerk’s office in Oxford. Here after much searching he found this account:

Oxford Mississippi Thursday, January 28, 1886

Terrible Wreck on the Tallahatchie River Bridge


The Monday night mail was ditched in the Tallahatchie river about 7 o’clock Monday night. The engine and all of the coaches except the sleepers went down under the trestle. The faithful engineer, W. T. Ruffin, saw from the reflection of the headlight that one of the rails had been removed from the track.
He immediately reversed his engine, whistled for the brakes and made every effort to stop the train, but all was in vain. Almost within the twinkling of an eye the faithful pilot was suffering the pains of death and the passengers, who,  only a few moments before were still and cheerful, were now thrown into wild confusion and fright.
The engineer was found with one leg buried beneath the engine, down in the cold flowing stream, with scarcely his head above the water. The passengers stood with saddened eyes and hearts looking upon the faithful dying engineer, for efforts to rescue him were but idle attempts to remove from his mangled limb that great iron horse.
The dying man told of the missing rail, and then gave his soul to eternity amid the anxiety and sorrow of those that witnessed the horrible death, who, had it been for faithfully standing in his engine, many of their souls would have been hurled into the everlasting hereafter. The baggage master and the mail agent received injuries about the head and several passengers were slightly hurt.

Bruce said that no mention was made in this telling of the wreck of what was the warmest story of human concern and compassion in the midst of terror. Mr. Moore said that his mother told of two Catholic nuns who were on the train. When it became known that William Ruffin was hopelessly trapped under the locomotive, the sisters climbed out over the wreckage to the engineer and held his head up out of the icy water until he died.

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