The “little depot” which the Friends of the Museums plan to rebuild as a component of our railroad story in the museums was the scene of a horrible tragedy which has been recounted several times over the course of history. Here we repeat the details as we have learned them for the present generation. There are three sources for this account. Emery Smith gave an interview to Shirley Simmons recounting the story. Lonnie Womble is recorded in a 1999 interview which is available in the museums done by Shirley Simmons and Frances Senter. Al Rogers gave an interview which was the basis for an article written by Shirley Hayes in the Independent, April 11, 1990. Research of census records, death certificates, and estate papers verify further details.
This Little Depot picture post card lists the line at Raleigh & Southport. That line was the designation from 1905-1911.
On April 6, 1923, the Norfolk Southern train was in the process of backing down the track toward the south. After being stopped at the depot on Depot Street, it was necessary for the engine to back up a distance on level track in order to gain enough speed to navigate the grade into what is now Varina. This would involve the area which we today know, running from about Woodland Drive across West Academy Street (Highway # 42) and up the hill along railroad street toward the crossing at Wake Chapel Road.
That morning John A. Weathers, a local farmer, and his wife, Lillie Champion Weathers, had decided to come to town in their new car driven by their adopted daughter, Erma Johnson. The Weathers invited Emery Smith, whose father either owned the farm on which the Weathers worked or was a neighbor, to ride along that morning. Emery told Shirley Simmons in an interview, that he decided he had some work to do and declined the invitation.
Erma, according to her gravestone was 19 years old, although her death certificate lists her as 17, was a novice driver. The main road from West of town originally came across the area behind the Sessoms house and crossed the railroad tracks on the southern end of the depot and continued up what is now Depot Street into Fuquay Springs. This was the crossing identified by all three—Smith, Womble, and Rogers. Womble actually walked the area in the video recording to show Simmons and Senter the site. Rogers was photographed by Hayes standing at the crossing site.
Somehow Erma either stalled the new T Model Ford or choked the engine and was unable to move the vehicle off the tracks as she attempted to leave on Depot Street and go out toward Duncan. According to an eyewitness account given by Al Rogers who was then 9 years old, Al and his brother John, who was 11 years, had been working on the Talley Farm (in the Lincoln Heights area) and were walking home. They “heard the warning whistle of the train but the driver of an automobile which was attempting to cross the track at the depot did not hear or was not able to move the automobile.” The engineer did not see the vehicle and continued to back up. The scene was described as a horrifying accident by all witnesses.
The Weathers couple were killed instantly. Erma died at the hospital that same day. All three are buried in a triple grave site at Cokesbury Methodist Church. All three death certificates indicate “accidentally killed by train” while both the father and mother’s certificates identify the N & S RR. Epitaphs are intriguing. Erma: “Her end was peace.” J. A: “His toils are just, his work is done.” Lillian: “Faithful to her Jesus even unto death.”
Norfolk and Southern had purchased the track and depot from the Raleigh and Southport R R in 1911. Originally, the depot and track were owned by the Raleigh and Cape Fear RR and often are identified as the Mills’ railroad.
Erma’s biological parents were Lucian and Martha “Minnie” Rollins Johnson. March 20, 1904 is the birth date recorded on her tombstone. She had brothers Hayes and Burnsie Johnson and a half-brother Ray. Lillie was the daughter of James and Nancy Champion of Buckhorn in Harnett County. John was born to Emily and Rich Weathers and had siblings named, Frances, Namie, Vallie, and Loula. According to the 1880 census the Weathers family lived in Chatham County.
Norfolk and Southern RR appears to have settled all claims with the families of the deceased in Harnett County court records. The gravesite is located in Harnett County in a well cared for church cemetery.
The museums are still researching to determine details of the “little depot.” Since our History of Fuquay-Varina, we have found that the building was constructed circa 1902 on the land donated for a depot of the R & CF RR by Barney and Hattie Parker Jones . One single post card does exist showing the crowd of visitors at the depot (undated.) Later property records indicate a storage use of the building. The unique roof design is found in several early rail depots. Details of the interior are hard to determine. Exactly when it ceased to be a depot and the demise of the building are still speculative.
Local architect, Mike Weeks is designing a reproduction of the depot for the Ashworth Historic Park. This building will enable access to the NS Caboose # 375 already on display and will house our railroad artifacts. These components will enable our docents to interpret our rail history more effectively. Keep watching for more details on “the little depot.”