Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Life and Tragic Death of Ben Enloe

Today, September 8th, 2016, marks 100 years since the death of Benjamin F. Enloe, a member of one of the most prominent families in Swain County during the 1800's and early- to mid- 1900's.
Ben Enloe, circa late 1890s/early 1900s
Source: Laura Taylor

Frequent readers here know of my fondness for the Judson area, because I grew up about a mile from there. One of the most wealthy families in Judson was headed by William Aesoph  'Ace' Enloe. Readers are likely familiar with the Abram Enloe family as being among the early settlers of the Oconalufty Valley, relocating there from Puzzle Creek in Rutherford County sometime after 1810. Ace, one of Abram's grandsons, was born in the Oconalufty area in 1847 and likely lived in that greater area until sometime in the 1890's. He married Margaret Clarinda Conner, with whom (according to the 1910 census), he had 12 children.

William Aesoph 'Ace' and Clarinda (Conner) Enloe
Source: Laura Taylor

Ben, one of the 'middle' children, was born on June 9th, 1879. During his childhood, Ben would have been expected to contribute heavily to the family's day-to-day work: helping in the garden, gathering firewood, hauling water from the spring, feeding the livestock, and similar activities. His responsibilities would have increased as he grew older. The census records note that he was literate so he almost certainly attended school; an 1890 newspaper article noted that the Oconalufty school ran for 5 months out of the year. The Enloes probably also attended church at either the Oconalufty Baptist Church or at the Hughes Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church. Sometime in the late 1890's, Ace moved his family to the Judson area, purchasing the Amos Ashe property and mill. Ben probably had a role in running the mill prior to his departure from the area.

The Enloe Mill in Judson, circa 1910
Source: Great Smoky Mountains National Park archives

The Enloe Mill in Judson, circa 1909
Source: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Ben had left Swain County by 1900, as the census that year showed him working as a coal miner in one of the 8 coal mines near Big Stone Gap, Wise County, Virginia. By 1910, Ben had left the coal mines and moved much closer to home, living in Asheville and working for the Southern Railway as a fireman. Also called a stoker, the fireman's job was to shovel the coal that powered the steam engines. The job required close coordination with the engineer in order to ensure that the engine was adequately powered for all operations, stoking the fire higher when more power was needed, and making sure that the train didn't explode. Often firemen worked as apprentices to the engineers and were sometimes allowed to operate the powerful locomotives under their supervision.

Engineer and Fireman/Stoker on a tourist steam locomotive in Colorado
Source: The Durango Herald
By the time he was 37 in September of 1916, Ben was an engineer for the railroad, responsible for managing the very complex steam boiler and controlling the speed of the train, a massive vehicle that could weigh thousands of tons when considering the engine and cars. The engineer had to know the location of signals, curves, crossings, and changes in uphill or downhill grade along his route in order to safely control the train. The job was a good one, earning Ben, a lifelong bachelor with no family to support, a comfortable salary.

A Southern Railway freight train near Black Mountain, circa early 1900s
On the night of September 8th, 1916, Ben was backing a work train in toward the Biltmore train station, likely getting ready to head to his home. Unbeknownst to him, freight train #172, pulling several loaded coal cars, was having difficulty ascending Buena Vista hill 3.5 miles distant from Biltmore. The engineer of the freight train realized that it was not sufficiently powered to make the full ascent and attempted to avert derailment by pulling the engine itself just off the track, leaving the coal cars on the track with their brakes set.  Unfortunately, the brakes did not hold and the train began to hurtle backwards toward Asheville, picking up a great degree of speed along the way despite the valiant attempts of brakeman N.G. McGalliard to reset the brakes.

Coming into view of Ben Enloe's work train, which was situated on a small bridge at the Fairview rail crossing, McGalliard realized that disaster was imminent and jumped clear in the nick of time. Unfortunately though, Ben and his flagman Erwin Pitts did not escape in time and were instantly killed upon the collision of the trains. Pitts' body, buried under tons of coal, was found rather quickly. However, Ben's badly scalded and mangled body, found buried underneath both the work train's engine and the coal, was not recovered until the following afternoon despite what were described as frantic efforts to find him. The wreckage of the trains was spread over a good distance along the track, and the work engine was said to be torn up such that it looked as if it was made of cardboard.

A coal train wreck, circa early 1900s
Source: Norfolk and Western Historical Society

Ben Enloe's death certificate
Some of Ben's family arrived in Asheville on September 9th in order to accompany his body back to Swain County, where funeral services were held the next day. A cemetery committee chaired by D.K. Collins provided a burial plot for him in the Bryson City cemetery. Two days later, Ace purchased the plot and additional space for other family members to be buried in as they passed away.
Probate records indicate that Ben had $500 (almost $11,000 in today's currency) to his name at the time of his death. His father, Ace, was the recipient of Ben's entire estate.

Signature of Ace Enloe on Ben Enloe's Probate Record
Over the years, Ace and Clarinda, along with some of Ben's brothers and nephews, joined their brother and son in eternal repose in the family plot, a peaceful place with a beautiful view of the mountains. For those interested in visiting, the plot lies a short distance behind the cemetery's angel and in line with the Everett family graves. And if you do choose to visit, spare a moment to reflect on the young man buried here, cut down in the prime of his life in such a tragic manner.

Tombstone of Ben Enloe in the Bryson City Cemetery
Source: Don Casada

I would like to recognize the significant contributions of Laura Taylor to this blog. Laura, a great-niece of Ben Enloe, has contributed significant family history and numerous photographs of the Enloe family that bring this blog entry, and especially Ben Enloe, to life.
Don Casada
Laura Taylor
The Asheville Citizen-Times, September 9, 1916
The Charlotte Observer, September 11, 1916
The Durango Herald
The High Point Enterprise, September 11, 1916
The Tennessean, September 1, 1890
Western Carolina University Special Collections


  1. Interesting! Is this the Abram Enloe purported to be the father of Abraham Lincoln of presidential fame? If so then I cannot claim kin to young Ben. If not I still cannot claim Ben. At least not yet!
    I used to live over on the coal chute in Connelly Springs. That was where the coal was stored for steam trains. There was a section of track that ran up the hill where coal cars could be backed up and unloaded. When locomotives stopped for fuel, the coal be loaded into a chute that directed it into the tender car. There are still four big concrete piers there that held up a huge water tank used to supply the boilers. There are pieces of coal mixed into the soil all up and down the hillside. Maybe some geologist in the future will find it there and wonder why an outcropping of coal would be there when no others exist for hundreds of miles around. I hope so!
    Connelly Springs still has a siding where whole trains pull off and wait for trains of more priority to pass. The locomotives would often stop right below my bedroom window, sometimes for hours. You might think that huge earth shaking machines would keep me awake but fear not. The rumbling of the engines were my lullaby and the trembling of the earth the rocking of my cradle. I slept like a baby. Even a wisp of diesel smoke was aroma therapy to me.

    I think I have used up my allotted space talking about trains.

  2. I'am glad to read the whole content of this blog and am very excited.Thank you.