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The Lockerbie Rail Disaster, 1883

By: Ardis E. Parshall - April 12, 2012

Lockerbie, Scotland, is no doubt best known world-wide as the scene of a 1988 terrorist incident. On December 21 that year, Pan Am Flight 103 en route from London to New York exploded overhead. Added to the deaths on board the aircraft were eleven people in Lockerbie who died when large pieces of the airplane fell on the town.

This was not the first time Lockerbie was the scene of a transportation disaster.

On Monday, May 14, 1883, a freight train traveling from Carlisle to Glasgow reached Lockerbie, and was shunted off to a side track; it resumed its travel northward at about eleven o’clock that night. Track signals were correctly set to warn oncoming traffic that the slow-moving freight train was re-entering the system, but for some reason the engineer of a passenger train on the Stranraer-Dumfries branch of the railroad, entering the main railway line at Lockerbie, did not obey the signal. Fortunately the passenger train was moving as slowly as the freight train when they collided, the passenger train striking the middle of the freight train where the tracks crossed.

There seemed to be little damage to either train. In fact, a passenger standing on the Lockerbie platform did not at first realize that there had been a collision – he heard a loud bump, but it seemed like nothing more than the rough start of the freight train causing its cars to slam harmlessly together.

What the trainmen did not at first realize in the darkness of the night was that the gear trucks had been knocked from under some of the freight cars, and that these heavy pieces of equipment extended across another set of tracks. They did finally discover the danger, but not soon enough.

Scarcely had the affect of the collision been realised when, to the horror of the officials, the whistle was heard of the mail from Edinburgh and Glasgow to the south. Drawn by two powerful engines, and flying along at the rate of over fifty miles an hour, the mail dashed into the wreckage with a terrible crash.

The mail train, an express that ordinarily would not have stopped at Lockerbie, had picked up additional speed as it traveled down an incline heading into the station.

In the darkness it was at first unknown how awful was the calamity which had occurred. As the eye, however, became accustomed to the gloom, it could be seen by the dim light of the embers from the engine fires that the front portion of the mail train was a complete wreck. From the broken carriages piled one on another were heard shrieks of pain and cries for help.

Those who had escaped at once set to work with the officials to extricate their less fortunate fellow-passengers. It was found that the driver and fireman of the first engine of the mail and four of the passengers had been killed on the spot, while some 30 persons were more or less injured.

One passenger, a Mr. McCall, traveling from Glasgow to Liverpool, wrote:

We left Glasgow at 9.15 on Monday night. The train was crowded, and in the compartment in which I traveled there was the full complement of passengers – five on each side. The train stopped, in the ordinary course, at Motherwell Junction, and at Carstairs. At the time of the collision the passengers in my compartment were nearly all asleep.

The force of the collision threw us into one another’s arms, and at the same moment we could hear, from the noise it was making, that the carriage had left the rails. It continued to run along the permanent way for several seconds afterwards. When it came to a standstill I looked out of the window, and seeing a large flame, which made us believe that the train was on fire, we all got out of the compartment with the least possible delay.

On getting out, I noticed that the pilot engine was lying on its left side. On going along the line we discovered a number of passengers very badly hurt and bleeding profusely, and we rendered them all the assistance we could in rescuing them from their dreadful predicament.

A number of ladies were among the wounded. Many of the carriages were smashed into pieces, and the night being very dark, and the lamps of the carriages having been put out by the collision, we could hardly make our way along the line. On searching among the debris of the broken carriages, we found a lady and her child, both of whom have since died. Had our carriage gone on another length, nothing could have prevented it and ourselves being smashed to pieces.

The front portion of the train was in atoms, and lay upon the killed and wounded. The shouting and screaming of the injured was fearful, and will not be easily forgotten by those who heard it. One of the wounded, I was told, had his spine broken, and, of course, recovery in his case was impossible. The doctors from Lockerbie were promptly in attendance, and did everything to alleviate the sufferings of the injured.

Did you catch the fact that Mr. McCall was traveling from Glasgow to Liverpool?

He wasn’t the only one.

Out of the chaos that night, from among the smashed carriages and the broken bodies, amid the screams and the fear, stepped John Dunlop (1854-1938) of Glasgow, a Latter-day Saint of four years’ standing. John held the hand of his five-year-old son, John, Jr. (1878-1956). Escaping without a scratch, father and son traveled on to Liverpool on the morning after the accident, arriving at Mission headquarters in time to sail with the S.S. Nevada on May 16. Following them about three months later was Margaret Burns Neilson Dunlop (1856-1906) with the couple’s smaller son, William. The family was reunited that fall, in time for yet another son, Hugh, to be born in Salt Lake City that December.



10 Comments »

  1. Absolutely fascinating, Ardis. I had never heard of this rail crash before, let alone the LDS connection. Thank you for posting this.

    Comment by Alison Spring — April 12, 2012 @ 8:46 am

  2. Kinda cool, isn’t it, Alison? I found a brief squib in the Millennial Star mentioning the “providential escape” of the Dunlops. I doubted anything would turn up when I Googled “Lockerbie train collision 1883,” yet an amazing number of modern articles and 1883 newspaper articles popped up. It would make a better story if I knew what John might have done to help other passengers, or how close to the deadline they made it into Liverpool, but just knowing that we had a brother involved in such a thing both connects us to wider history and also illustrates the risks and sacrifices of the Saints who left home.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 12, 2012 @ 9:20 am

  3. What a story. It’s also a good primer about how to write family history!

    Comment by Amy T — April 12, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

  4. Thanks Ardis for another link. Quite fitting when we are in the midst of celebrating 100 years since the Titanic sunk.

    Comment by peter Fagg — April 12, 2012 @ 1:28 pm

  5. That’s a thought, Ardis; any stories about Saints on the Titanic to post?

    Comment by Alison Spring — April 12, 2012 @ 2:45 pm

  6. Wasn’t there already a post about some Saints not on the Titanic?

    Comment by Mark B. — April 12, 2012 @ 2:48 pm

  7. Oh, and by the way, great post, Ardis. I looked at the railway maps and discovered that I must have gone through Lockerbie in late June or early July 2009, but the train didn’t stop and we passed without notice.

    And, we saw no sign of the tragic events of 1988, or of 103 years earlier–not too surprising, eh?

    Comment by Mark B. — April 12, 2012 @ 2:50 pm

  8. Thanks for this post- I too have been through Lockerbie (more times than I care to remember) and had no idea about this railway accident. I was helping a Canadian friend with some family history a couple of years back, and I came across a huge mining disaster near Motherwell (as mentioned above) that I knew nothing about either. It’s amazing the history that lies around us in such danger of being completely forgotten!

    Comment by Anne (UK) — April 12, 2012 @ 3:16 pm

  9. Joseph Soderborg uncovered a couple of Mormon-Titanic stories more than a year ago and offered to write them up as Keepa posts. I can’t really fault him for not having done that yet, given how many posts I’ve indicated were in the works that haven’t yet appeared! I’ll tell him, though, that there’s a special request and beg him to post.

    Elder Cook scooped us all somewhat in the October 2011 conference when he told about Irene Corbett, a Titanic passenger. (And didn’t he also mention the missionary group led by Alma Sonne who changed their plans and did not board that ship? I think he did, but I can’t be sure without looking it up.)

    Thanks for your comments, all. It’s fun to bring some local history to mind for those of you who do live close, and always rewarding to me to be able to bring a Latter-day Saint into focus.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 12, 2012 @ 3:35 pm

  10. What struck me about this story was the repeated comments about how dark it was. Just a few nights ago I was prompted to pray in gratitude for the creation of the moon “to rule the night.” In our modern, especially urban, settings we can’t imagine how difficult half of the hours are and have been for so many people.

    Comment by charlene — April 12, 2012 @ 5:12 pm

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