Bovina Crossing as it appears today.
Taken from the approximate location of the school porch in 1922
All This Happened at Bovina Crossing
© 2010 Bob Pollard
The little Mississippi town of Bovina is just a short whistle-stop east of
Vicksburg. If you didn’t notice the sign on I-20, you would miss it completely. A lot
Of interesting things have happened there over the past hundred and more years that you ought to know about. Here are just a few of them.
It was a balmy October Tuesday in 1922 at the Bovina School as classes ended for the day. The usual crowd was sitting and spitting chewing tobacco off the porch of Child’s Grocery, just up the street from the school. World War One veterans had finally returned home to tell their stories of valor and describe the poppy fields of France. The flowers were losing the fight to maintain themselves before the coming winter. It was like all other fall days in central Mississippi that had gone on before.
Other historical events had occurred in Bovina. In 1863. General Ulysses S. Grant had marched past Bovina Crossing with the rumbling Army of the Tennessee to lay siege on the city of Vicksburg, a scant eight miles away. The Union army cleaned the town of food, supplies and equipment as they moved through and made Bovina a field hospital and impromptu prison camp.
One of the most unusual weather occurrences in Mississippi history occurred in the town on May 11, 1894. On that day a turtle totally encased in ice fell with the hail. It was proclaimed a miracle by the townsfolk and a topic of conversation for years after.
The new cantilevered Mississippi River Bridge at Vicksburg was still in the planning stage in 1922. Until then, trains had to be ferried across the river on this main intercontinental line between Southern California, Atlanta and points east. A special load of freight had just been reformed on the east shore of the river and was heading toward Bovina with a full head of steam. Freight and passenger trains would shortly follow the same busy route east.
The Alabama and Vicksburg Railway Company ran twenty eight trains on the Vicksburg to Atlanta route on a regular schedule. This one was due to whistle past Bovina Crossing at exactly 3:25. Unfortunately, it would arrive there on time. A loaded school wagon had left the school and started on the short drive to the crossing. A shattering catastrophe was about to happen. It would change the small town of Bovina in a way that General Grant could not have imagined. In the blink of an eye this October afternoon, the history of little Bovina Station and the world around it would come crashing down again, just as it had in 1863.
Typical 1922 School truck/wagon
Every time a child dies, the entire history of the world must be rearranged and rewritten. The space that Destiny had reserved for the lifetime cut short must hurriedly be filled with other things, other events, and other outcomes. On October 17, 1922, Destiny was due for a stop at Bovina.
As was their custom, the principal and his wife were standing at the school door as the children loaded aboard the Ford Model T truck that had been improvised into a school bus. Anything that hauled something was referred to back then as a “wagon”. Twenty five children were crowded in the back. Witnesses would later say that they could hear the oncoming train blowing the whistle and ringing the bell as the wagon loaded with children pulled away from the schoolhouse.
Ever since the depot had been closed, the trains never stopped or even slowed down on the quick trip over Bovina Crossing. The wagon driver seemed not to notice the oncoming train and continued driving. Eight year old George Potter, whose two sisters were sitting up front, had situated himself at the back of the wagon.
The train engineer saw the wagon coming across the track and, in a procedure called “jiggling”, blew the whistle in short blasts, the signal to the crew to brace for a panic emergency stop. The airbrakes on the train made a shrill effort to engage, but it was too late for the big locomotive to stop in time. In a matter of seconds, the little town’s hopes and dreams would be changed forever.
George's six year old baby sister Loretta had begged to no avail to be allowed to go with the big children to school. Had her mother relented, all of little George's sisters would have been killed that day.
Another lucky child had been Alberta Collier, who usually rode the wagon home but that eventful day her father had picked her up after school. Inea Holt and Ruth Wister were about to board the bus but a friend drove by and gave them a ride home instead.
George heard the big steam train screaming down the track and began to yell at the driver to stop the truck. George and his friend Victor Batchelor, whose father owned a plantation out from town, jumped off the doomed wagon and hit the dirt road just in time. For the other children it was too late. Propelled by a hundred tons of inertia, the oncoming train hit the wagon dead center of the Model T Fords' steering wheel.
Steam engine in general use in 1922 by the Alabama and Vicksburg Railway Company
“The engineer had been blowing his whistle from the time we started from the school house and I think all the children thought sure that Mr. Gibson would stop the truck. I had hardly touched the ground before the train hit and I saw all the children in a bloody heap”.
The children had been thrown against the front of the train and lay in a grotesque pile alongside the rails. George May, a train crew member who had been riding in the second car behind the engine, jumped off the still moving train to help. The train would take fifteen car lengths to screech to a halt, well east of the accident. He later described the scene as 'a mangled pile of little children’
“I may live to be an old man, but I will never live long enough to forget the sinking in my heart as I ran back to that heap of motionless, silent children and thought, My God, they are all dead”
Robert L. May, A&V Railway Machinist who was aboard the train
Little George frantically began to look for his two sisters in the rubble. He found Bertha dead on the gory pile. As he turned around, he saw the train mechanic holding the lifeless body of Charlie Ellison.
As the mechanic started lifting the small bodies out of the pile, he saw several arms reaching out to him. He heard crying and whimpering. Miraculously, all of them were not dead. God seemed to be helping George May sort the living from the dead.
The porch of the Log Store had emptied with the screeching sound of the crash and people were running from everywhere to help. The sight of the horror at the crossing must have been overwhelming.
Principal Price recalled later that his wife had an intuition of impending disaster when they watched the wagon pull away from the porch. She heard the train coming and told her husband to run after the driver and tell him to stop. Mr. Price would bitterly regret not following the advice of his wife. He would remember the sight at the sickening instant of impact.
“It was like a stick of dynamite had gone off under the wagon. Instantly the little children were thrown into the air with books and papers flying. They came to rest in a mangled heap. I wondered if any could still be alive. I couldn't say that the wagon driver had been going fast, although he did seem to speed up a little as he reached the slight grade leading to the track. I feel sure he could have seen and heard the train, as all the rest of us did.”
Professor J.H. Price, Bovina School Principal
The first child Mr. Price reached was 14 year old Alice Butler laying face down alongside the track. He turned her over and her questioning soft eyes looked up at him. It was a miracle and the expression on her face would stay in his memory for a lifetime. The next one he ran to was Annie Lea Potter. Little Annie had run out ofmiracles. She died in a few hours at the Vicksburg hospital.
“I then busied myself as well as I could, trying to separate the living from the dead.”
Adding to the sorrow that would envelope the town was the fact that three families would lose two children each. The Raines twins were eight years old and were at the bottom of the pile. R. C. was killed instantly and his brother J. B. would die several hours later. Their father, J. T. Raines, was manager of the Biedenharn Plantation near Vicksburg.
Longtime Bovina resident John Scott points to the graves of the Raines twins in St. Albans Cemetery
The two Cunningham children were found lying alongside the track, terribly injured. They would never regain consciousness.
The engineer and fireman must have sat stunned in the cab of the big engine, wondering if what they just experienced had really happened. A crew member saw the train was going to block emergency vehicles from the scene and unhooked the cars from the engine. The next train was due to arrive at the scene quickly and something had to be done to stop it from multiplying the scope of the disaster. As they had been trained to do, the caboose crew went running west back towards Vicksburg to set up warning flares to stop the next train now rapidly approaching from the west. Four trains each day made the crossing at Bovina one of the busiest on the A and V system.
We will never know what was going on in the mind of wagon driver Gadi Gibson. His body was found hanging off the front of the train, caught on the front cowcatcher and dragged down the track. He would be carried by ambulance to Vicksburg where he was pronounced dead. That day marked his anniversary. Exactly one month had gone by since he had been hired. There seemed to be some problem with his driving, as a petition had been circulating among the parents asking for his dismissal. A rumor would circulate for years that he was a drinking man and possibly was drunk that horrible day. Principal Price would venture charitably that he felt Gibson was simply trying to beat the train to the crossing to save time. Mr. Potter, father of Bertha and Annie Lea, echoed this theory. He thought the driver had “lost his head and tried to make a dash across the railroad tracks ahead of the train, so as not to be delayed.”
All of the injured children would eventually recover. The dead were buried before the week was over. There would be no county school sessions for several days after the accident. Principal Price requested that he and his wife be given a leave of absence from the school in order to recover from their grief.
“I have tried several times to set down an account of the awful occurrence but the words would not come and I gave up.”
The School Board met and adopted the following:
“The grim tragedy may serve as a warning to prevent in the future accidents of a similar nature. It behooves our county school authorities to see that none but the most careful and competent truck drivers are employed. It is a sacred trust that these drivers have, as they are entrusted with the lives of scores of little children. The accident should stir the county to speed the work of eliminating all possible grade crossings in this county.”
This was never done. The Bovina School was eventually moved away from the tracks. The family of Gadi Gibson would defend him until their deaths. The Alabama and Vicksburg Railway Company appears to have paid all the children's funeral expenses in addition to giving $10,000 to each family.
As Little George Potter would later observe “I just wish Mr. Gibson had stopped.”
In 1987, during the making of the movie “Mississippi Burning”, some scenes were filmed in Bovina. Filming had to be stopped momentarily because a train that had just gone through Bovina Crossing almost killed two of the actors. History seems to have a way of repeating itself. Eight decades later, people are still sitting around the Old Country Store, eating peanuts, drinking Orange Crushes and talking about the Civil War and the infamous frozen turtle and the day the train hit the school wagon and how Gene Hackman might have died at Bovina Crossing.
Pull off Interstate I-20 on the way to Vicksburg and join them.
The Grave Sites of the Victims
Bertha Potter, 10
Annie Lea Potter, 14
Vicksburg Cedar Hill Cemetery
John Omer Cunningham, 13 years
Annie Lee Cunningham, 7 years
Vicksburg Cedar Hill Cemetery
Charles Ellison Jr., 14
Vicksburg Cedar Hill Cemetery
J. B. Raines, 11
R. C. Raines, 11
Bovina St. Alban’s Cemetery
Gadi Child Gibson, 28
Bovina St. Alban’s Cemetery
Twins Katie Belle Skinner, 12, bruises and cut leg and
Frank Skinner, Jr., 12, Head bruises and concussion.
(The driver of the wagon was their uncle.)
T. S. Skinner, 7, chest injuries.
Bertha Ellison, 17, bruises on the head and face and a cut leg.
David Ellison, 12, cut over eye and scalp and bruises on the head.
Pat Brabston, 13, bruises on the face and cut lip.
Alice Butler, 14, taken to the hospital the next day
Willis Brabston, 14, bruises on the face.
P.T. Potter, Jr., 7, cut on forehead.
Rocille Raines, 18, shoulder and neck badly sprained and right arm broken
Leslie Tribble, 12, concussion and possible skull fracture.
Thomas Cunningham Jr., 10, severe bruises.
Adolf Tribble was slightly injured and taken to his home.
Albert, Victor and Nolan Batchelor, Thomas Brabston and George Potter escaped injury.
The Old Store at Bovina
While in Bovina, take a look at the multistory tin building that folk artist Earl Simmons has been constructing for over 10 years. The sign out front says “Earl Art Shop”, but it is not yet ready for visitors. Construction continues to go on and on with materials he finds or is given to him. He and his house was the subject of a book by University Press a few years ago. Some of his art is on display and may be purchased at the Old Country Store as well as galleries around Mississippi. His work is on display at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson.
Earl Art Shop
Folk artist Earl Simmons
and Some of His Work
Bill and Patricia Vinzant of The Old Store in Bovina
Archives of the Vicksburg Evening Post
Archives of the Vicksburg Daily Herald
Clinton Bagley, Mississippi Department of Archives and History
Jane Phillips, Mississippi Department of Archives and History
John Scott, Bovina, Mississippi
Archives of St. Albans Protestant Episcopal Church, Bovina, Mississippi
The Internet Movie DataBase, IMDb.com
Vicksburg Cedar Hill Cemetery, Walter and Annie Salassi Manuscripts, 1985
Venable Moore, Sexton, Cedar Hill Cemetery, Vicksburg, MS
Old Bovina Depot, now a private residence in Flowers, MS
NOTE: The following information is just a supposition on the Author’s part.
It appears that the Model T really never actually crossed the tracks. The fact that the driver was found on the cowcatcher would indicate that he had only put the front of the truck and himself on the track before the train hit. Had the train hit the middle of the truck, there would have been no survivors. I surmise that the train slammed into the cab of the truck, carrying him with it, swinging the rear end and the children in a counter clockwise direction back to the west, all on the school side of the track. Because the train was still in motion for several hundred feet after the wreck would indicate that the pile of children would have landed somewhat east of the crossing closer to the grocery. The right side of the wagon was sheared off in the impact, dragging those who were sitting on the right in a window seat out onto the tracks into the side of the engine. The rest of the children would be forced out the left side in mass. This would account for them being in a pile in close proximity to each other. Those who were sitting up front and on the right side of the wagon got the worst of it. Probably the Cunninghams as they suffered the most injuries. As was the custom of newspaper journalism back then, I would think that the written account would not have said that they were run over by the train wheels out of respect to the parents, but this is what must have happened. The fact that most of the children only suffered minor injuries would indicate that the inertia of the impact slung them away from the train onto the ground as the rear of the wagon spun around, leaving most of them with just a few broken bones and bruises. Children's muscles and bones are naturally soft and not easily injured.
Some of the details such as ages and names were wrong in the news accounts, which I attribute to the rush to make a deadline and the havoc that was going on at the scene. I would guess that some of the facts got screwed up also, but it is all we have to go on. Some of the names of the children were misspelled. I can envision a reporter scribbling as fast as he could, then not being able to read his scribbles back at his typewriter. Little Omer's name became Omar, Annie Lea became Annie Lee, and the ages of the Raines twins were wrong. They were not 10 but 11. Child's Grocery must have been owned by Gadi Gibson's kinfolks, as his middle name was Child. The job of driver was probably a political appointment, which would account for the petition asking for his dismissal being ignored. I would think that the Child family had some pull with the school system.