Whalen, Mountain Heroine Averted Train Wreck in 1874

Today’s column is the story of Julia Whalen, a young girl unknown in the annals of East Tennessee folklore except for one brief moment of valor displayed in a near train collision in the vicinity of Carter’s Station (Elizabethton) on the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia (ETV&G) Railroad in December 1874.

The railroad was created in 1869 by the consolidation of the East Tennessee and Virginia (ET&V) Railroad (connecting Knoxville with Bristol, through East Tennessee, east of Bay’s Mountain and between the Holston and Nolichucky rivers) and the East Tennessee and Georgia (ET&G) Railroad (linking Knoxville and Dalton, GA). Julia’s brief instant of fame occurred when she observed an approaching freight train speeding forward unaware of another train on the same track.

The sketchy details are noted in a newspaper clipping from that era: “Her presence of mind on that morning was wonderful. She first thought of motioning down the freight train from Bristol, then reflected that it was coming down grade and would be impossible for it to be checked up, so she ran on the track toward Carter, tore her red shawl from her shoulders and waved it, pointing back to the train that was invisible to the engineer but fast approaching.”

The article went on to say that Julia barely escaped death; she was confined to her bed after witnessing a near tragedy. Miss Whalen’s selfless story received national attention from the media. Her actions were described as being “exciting, earnest and persistent in her efforts to save the lives of others on the train without regard for her own safety.” Witnesses confirmed that the young lady bravely remained on the track until the engine was less than five feet from her person. The conductor and engineer, who initially thought the heroic mountain girl had been struck and killed by the train, stated emphatically that were it not for her timely appearance at the scene, everyone on the train would likely have been killed.

The article offered a brief glimpse of Julia’s life. Her father was described as being a warm, charitable, compassionate Irishman with a weakness for strong drink. He served in the Union army and died in Kentucky during the conflict. After the war, Mrs. Whalen married Johnny Burke, another kind Irishman who was employed as section hand on the ETV&G Railroad. After being smitten by paralysis, his disposition changed dramatically, causing him to became extremely bitter especially against young Julia, frequently threatening her life. Consequently, Mrs. Burke sought refuge for her daughter at night at the residence of her grandmother who lived nearby. Julia always returned home every morning with a forgiving heart and the desire to show love toward her unnatural, cruel and cold-hearted stepfather.

The situation grew from bad to worse until Mrs. Burke was confronted with a difficult situation – give up her husband or surrender her child to a family who would properly take care of her. She made the obvious choice; Johnny had to go. He surprisingly complied with his wife’s request and left the premises. 

Julia grew up adjacent to the railroad and became acquainted with a large number of railroad employees. The workers referred to her as “Little Julia,” a pet name that remained with her the rest of her life. She had an unusually beautiful face and an easy and gently disposition that drew the attention of all who came in contact with her. Although her education was limited, she carried with her a strong desire for formal schooling.

It is wonderful to discover a heartwarming story from the annals of yesteryear and bring an outstanding individual into the spotlight for a brief bow after all the years.