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Locomotive Explosion Killing Avery County Engineer Ed Davenport Recalled on the Tragedy’s 75th Anniversary

Clinchfield Railroad engineer Ed Davenport of the North Carolina High Country, shown wearing his conductor’s cap and uniform, was killed 75 years ago (April 21, 1948) when the locomotive he was driving, exploded.  The accident is considered one of the worst in America’s railroad history.

By Tim Gardner

One of the worst locomotive explosions in United States history happened in the North Carolina High Country seventy-five years ago today (April 21st), killing engineer Clarence Edgar “Ed” Davenport from Avery County.

Davenport was a World War I veteran who was known to have a long-time fascination with trains. He had decided his chosen work profession would be as a locomotive engineer, a life’s goal that he achieved.

Early in the morning of April 21, 1948 in the Narrow Branch area of the Nolichucky Gorge, located near the Ramseytown community of Yancey County, Davenport died because the boiler of the Locomotive Engine Number 740 of which he was an engineer, exploded.  According to various accounts of the catastrophe, the train engine’s pressure literally blew sky-high.  Some parts of the engine simply disintegrated from the intense heat.

Davenport was only 53 years old at the time of the explosion. He was born on July 24, 1894 to the union of John Wesley and Maggie Burleson Davenport of the Ingalls Community, which was then Mitchell County.  Ingalls became part of Avery County when the latter was founded in 1911.  

The locomotive’s fireman, Rex Phillips, only 33 years old, also perished in the train explosion.

The massive train engine was headed from Erwin, Tennessee to Spartanburg, South Carolina, pulling several dozen cars of coal.

An old Erwin, Tennessee newspaper account contained much information about the train explosion.  Several excerpts (most set off by quotation marks) are used in this article and some others have been edited and used elsewhere in it.

That original account began with: “The big Western Union clock on the wall over the crew caller’s desk showed exactly 10:30 p.m.  A Boyd-DeArmond calendar was circled the 21st of April, 1948, and at that time, crew caller, Steve Williams, picked up the phone receiver, called and gave the telephone operator a number to ring.

“The phone rang three times.  On the other end was Ed Davenport, who awoke from sleep and answered “hello.”  Williams said, “Ed, you are called for 11:30 coal train south to Spartanburg.” Davenport replied: “Steve, you are calling me on my rest,” then asked, “But who is the fireman?”  Williams answered: “Your fireman will be Rex Phillips if he isn’t called out of place.”  “Davenport then said, “OK, Steve, I’ll be there,” and he hung up the phone.

“An April (rain) shower was in progress and the night was warm and humid.   Williams continued calling the rest of the train’s crew—Phillips and head brakesman, Floyd Sparks, just 28 years old, who had only worked for Clinchfield Railroad a short time.

“The pusher engine crew bringing up the rear on Engine 731-2-8-8-2 mallet, Class L-2, 10,000 pounds slighter than the 740, but otherwise similar, was engineer John Ivy.  Across from Ivy in the train sat his fireman, Clyde Evans.  Behind them in the red caboose was conductor, C.D. Morgan, and flagman, Burl Cooper.  

“Having recorded a clearance card, train orders and a brake test, coal train south Number 740 eased out of Erwin yard with seventy cars, Spartanburg-bound.  Frogs were singing along Martins Creek, serenading the arrival of spring as the train picked up speed going down the tracks.  Davenport’s wife, Ruby (formerly Houston-Clontz), was in Ingalls, and his parents (since divorced) and some other members of his family were there, and in nearby Spruce Pine.  Ed was looking forward to seeing them again soon.

“Everything was running smoothly until the train approached a point in the Nolichucky Gorge called Narrow Branch.  It was 1:15 a.m. Then it happened!  The big steam-powered locomotive exploded with colossal force. And so powerful was the explosion that the huge boiler was ripped from the underframe and thrown forward 361 feet from the wreckage. But yet, tender and the wheels of the giant locomotive were somehow left intact on the train.

“When his train suddenly stopped and remained idle for some time, Conductor Morgan stepped down from the caboose and walked to the front end of the train to find out the cause of the delay.  When he got to the front end, he was shocked and horrified to see what had happened.  Hot coals from the locomotive fire box had ignited the nearby woods as fire had lit up the dark skies.  Morgan found Fireman Phillips lying on top of the engine’s tender.  Phillips lived about an hour after being discovered and even talked briefly before passing away from major burns and multiple injuries to his body.  He is quoted as saying “we (him and Davenport) had plenty of water (in the boiler)…I can’t understand why it (the explosion) happened.”

 “The conductor eventually found Davenport’s body on the mountainside above the railroad track, about six car lengths north of what was left of the train engine.  If Davenport didn’t die instantly from the explosion or from the torrid impact of having his body thrown from the train, he surely did so very shortly afterward.  He was very badly burned with likely various broken bones.  And all of his clothing had been blown off with only his shoes left on his feet.   Those who knew Davenport attested to the fact that he didn’t trust banks or bankers, and that he wore a money belt around his waist beneath his bibbed overalls.  Money bills that had come out of his money belt when it broke from his waist (and out of the belt zipper compartment) were scattered all around the scene of the explosion.

“After finding Davenport’s body, Conductor Morgan ran back to the rear of the train and sent one of the other men on it to telephone for help.  It took an hour or longer to reach a phone to summon help, owing to the isolation of the scene and the fact that the area was not heavily populated.

“When help was finally summoned, a relief train carried a medical doctor, R.H. Harvey, and others to the scene, getting through at Caney Bottom, as the pusher engine pulled the string of train cars back.”

Firemen also arrived and help put out the fires at the explosion site and in the nearby woods.

Doctor Harney pronounced Davenport and Phillips dead and “he treated Sparks, who sustained a fractured right leg as well as many burns and a concussion.”  He was transported to Veterans Hospital in Johnson City, Tennessee, was hospitalized for some time and then released.  

“At times, railroad maintenance workers would replace the glass tube of a locomotive’s water gage when it became corroded and dirty.  In order to exchange the glass, a valve each at the top and bottom of the gage had to be shut off.  It’s possible that the train mechanics, engineer and fireman forgot about the valves on the water gage, not turning them back on.  That would have allowed the boiler to run dry, resulting in a red-hot crown sheet over the fire box, and then put on the injector permitting cool water from the injectors to cover the red-hot crown sheet.” 

But Davenport and Phillips were experienced railroaders who were known for their vast technical expertise about train operations, and it’s considered a near zero-percent chance that they allowed the boiler to run dry.  Plus, to make the possibility even more remote, as was written in a previous paragraph, Phillips had remarked that the boiler had plenty of water after the explosion and shortly before he died.  So, apparently, he and Davenport had kept a watch on the boiler.

An investigation was conducted by a panel heavy with Clinchfield Railroad senior railroad executives as well as state railroad officials, but no official reason for the explosion was ever known to be issued other than the train was “very old.”  An exact cause will never be known. Because some of the engine was blown to smithereens, investigators may not have had certain needed evidence to study to make a ruling about what caused the explosion.   

According to railroad experts, “the most plausible explanation for the explosion is that a water gauge on the cab of the 740 Engine was faulty and did not show the correct level of water in the boiler, thus hitting a red-hot crown sheet.”  It is typical of what happens when a boiler is heated with low or no water and then water is suddenly introduced into the boiler—a double-boiling that causes an explosion.

“Locomotive Number 740 was scrapped after the explosion and according to Clinchfield Railroad records, was retired twenty-one days after the tragedy on May 12, 1948… what was left to retire.”

Also according to railroad data, the Number 740 is still the only locomotive boiler explosion ever to happen on the Clinchfield Railroad.      

Railroad experts from across America have also reportedly continued to list this locomotive explosion as horrific as any ever.

Ironically, Davenport was said to have told his Clinchfield Railroad superiors after the last time Locomotive Engine Number 740 was used on a trip before the explosion, that it needed further inspection and maintenance besides the mandatory ones before it was operated again due to its age (it was said to be more than 20 years old) and other possible mechanical concerns he had witnessed.  However, his bosses thought the train could continue to operate and safely.  

Had Davenport refused to go out on the locomotive as an engineer on the night of the explosion, he might have been fired from his job, but saved his life.

Davenport‘s body was brought back to Avery County. His Celebration of Life service was held at Pine Grove Methodist Church in Ingalls, and he was buried in the church cemetery.  His niece, Gloria “Tink” Davenport, who lives in Ingalls, said the service and burial were held before a massive crowd of his family, friends and colleagues. She added that he was beloved by many and known for having a very friendly and outgoing personality. 

-Special thanks to Warren Harding of the Spruce Pine Model Railroaders for assistance with this article-

-Photos courtesy of Gloria Davenport-

Clarence Edgar (Ed) Davenport, a Clinchfield Railroad engineer, was a native of the Ingalls Community in Avery County.