Upland Chronicles: "Poor Daddy breathed his last"
On July 5, 1909 an excursion train rolled into the Elkmont area in Sevier County and discharged a group of holiday tourists. The group was a festive bunch of city dwellers, intent on getting away from the urban heat and enjoying the sparkling cool waters of the Little River drainage in the Smoky Mountains.
The tourists were all dressed up in their Sunday “finery.” Some had bathing suits tucked in with their picnic baskets, for the day’s activities offered a chance to wade or swim in the river and enjoy food in the outdoor setting.
But in addition to enjoying the fun activities that day, the tourists were subjected to a scene of raw industrial destruction and carnage. Just five days earlier, on a rainy June 30th, a train had run out-of-control down the Jakes Creek Branch rail line and left the tracks in a screaming jumble of rolling engine, cars and logs. It was a horrible industrial accident, and the tourists were drawn to the wreck like moths to a campground lantern.
The doomed log train had been guided by a veteran engineer named Gordon A. “Daddy” Bryson. He and his crew (which included brakeman Charles M. Jenkins) had coupled five flatcars of logs to the train pulled by Shay locomotive #3 for the descending trip to the lumber camp at Elkmont, instead of the normal load of three cars.
Some say the crew took five cars in order to finish work early, since a dance was scheduled that evening. In addition to the extra weight from the added cars, the train was also reportedly plagued by a faulty sanding system that prevented sand being applied to the rails for traction. The extra weight, the slippery tracks from rain, and the lack of sand all created a hazardous situation. Bryson and Jenkins had their hands full as the train’s momentum pushed the speed to an unsafe limit for the grade.
As the train approached a curve above the confluence of Jakes Creek and Little River, it jumped the tracks and tons of steel, logs, coal, and hissing steam and hot water cascaded in a horrific wall of destruction, dust and death.
Three of the crew members jumped and survived, but engineer Bryson and brakeman Jenkins perished in the bone-crushing mix of logs and steel. The incident was one of the worst in the history of logging railroads in the Smokies, and even today it is remembered in song and story.
Daddy Bryson and crew were part of a railroad operation that worked hand in hand with a major lumber company on the Tennessee side of the Smokies. The company, Little River Lumber Co., was owned by “Colonel” Wilson B. Townsend, a Pennsylvanian who brought his timber operations south at the beginning of the 20th century to initially provide “tanbark” to a Walland tannery.
Col. Townsend incorporated the company in today’s Townsend. Shortly thereafter, he created another company, the Little River Railroad, which was chartered not only as a hauler of lumber, but as a “common carrier” of passengers also.
For several decades the lumber company and its affiliated railroad pushed their operations deep into the drainages and steep slopes of the Tennessee Smokies. It’s estimated that the company cut a billion board-feet of timber and even harvested trees within one-half mile of the summit of Clingmans Dome.
Along with facing the dangerous nature of the work, many folks who worked for Townsend’s operations led a somewhat nomadic life, sometimes moving from one lumber camp to the next and even living in small shacks in remote locations along the rails.
Many jobs were created over the decades, but Col. Townsend saw the coming of the national park in the late 1920s and sold 76,507 acres to the State of Tennessee (while shrewdly retaining logging rights in certain areas for the next 20 years), acreage that eventually became part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
With the establishment of Great Smoky Mountain National Park in 1934, logging operations started to shut down on lands that comprised the new park, leaving behind a compelling story of lumbering and railroading that faded into history as the participants passed on.
Nature then went to work reforesting the cut-over lands (75 percent of the new national park’s acreage had been logged prior to the park’s establishment). And Daddy Bryson’s calamitous train wreck also faded into the history of the area, with several local poems and songs commemorating the mishap. One such rendering is called “The Ballad of Daddy Bryson,” and concludes thusly:
Down the hills on Jakes Creek
This wicked train did run.
Till the brakeman and conductor
Saw there must be something done.
Poor brakeman Charlie Jenkins
His last words did relay
“I hope that nothing will happen
On the last trip we make today.”
The engine speed increasing
Forrester picked his place and jumped.
There was a mighty crashing
As he landed on a stump.
Old Three spot she turned over
And the tank by Daddy passed.
The logs, they fell upon him.
Poor Daddy breathed his last.
— Arthur “Butch” McDade is a retired Great Smoky Mountains NP ranger with 30 years of service in the National Park Service. The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for topics or would like to submit a column; contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email firstname.lastname@example.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to email@example.com.