It Came from the Archives: Langford family members killed in 1963’s ‘worst train wreck to date’ in Dothan

The ACL Extra East train on the siding at Grimes, a few miles east of the accident. (Wiregrass Archives)

The ACL Extra East train on the siding at Grimes, a few miles east of the accident. (Wiregrass Archives)

The year 1963 was historically important in and around Alabama.  It opened with the gubernatorial inauguration of George Wallace. That spring, civil rights marches erupted in Birmingham, including Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and the Children’s March.  In May, to welcome Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, Governor Wallace raised the Confederate battle flag over the state capitol (Governor Guy Hunt moved it in 1992).  That summer, Governor Wallace “stood in the schoolhouse door,” President Kennedy proposed the Civil Rights Act, and the March on Washington took place.  On November 22, President Kennedy was assassinated.

Not much of that directly affected many in rural Southeast Alabama.  One case in point was the Langford family of Dale County.  On December 7, two weeks after Kennedy’s assassination, twelve members of the family joyously piled into their old station wagon for their regular Saturday trip to town.

Only three of them made it, and only one returned.

Townsfolk survey the wreck scene on 5th Street. (Wiregrass Archives)
Townsfolk survey the wreck scene on 5th Street. (Wiregrass Archives)

Henry and Louvinia Langford, at least five of their children, at least two daughters-in-law, and five of their grandchildren lived in the same house and worked on the C. E. Dasinger farm on the Pinckard – Midland City road.  People considered them hard-working, if poor, and religiously devout.  Their Assembly of God preacher said if they weren’t in a pew on Sunday, he knew something was wrong, and they had attended every service in the revival of the preceding week.

Usually the family took a weekly excursion to Ozark or Dothan, but that Saturday morning, eighteen-year-old Douglas Langford was driving his father Henry to a doctor in Headland.  It was common to pile as many passengers into a car as possible because seat belts were not mandatory until 1968.  Four grandkids needed shoes, and the rest of the passengers were excited to visit Santa Claus and shop for Christmas.  One was a 13-month old granddaughter.

The route Douglas drove (now AL 134) from Pinckard crossed the Atlantic Coast Line railroad tracks at 3rd Street in Midland City.  But ACL Extra East, a pulpwood train driven by a Dothan engineer, bore down on the crossing, so Langford turned right onto Napier Field Road and headed for the crossing at 5th Street.  The left turn onto 5th street was sharp, there were no grade crossing gates, and the crossing was steeply inclined.  It’s impossible to say if the driver was recklessly trying to beat the train or if he had time to cross.  One witness reported he saw the car stall on the tracks, heard the engineer blow his whistle twice, then heard the sickening sound of the collision.

Townsfolk survey the wreck scene on 5th Street. (Wiregrass Archives)
Townsfolk survey the wreck scene on 5th Street. (Wiregrass Archives)

Witnesses ran or jumped in their own cars to drive to the wreck site only to find the crumpled car and its passengers lying in the ditch 128 feet east of the crossing.  Two were alive, including the driver.  They were transported to the Southeast Alabama General Hospital in Dothan where they succumbed to their injuries.  The baby was thrown twenty feet from the wreck and survived with only a bump on her head.

The Dothan Eagle coverage was extensive, and the aftermath ghastly.  The visitation was held in the Langford home where all the furniture had to be removed to accommodate the eleven coffins.  The funeral was at the nearby Assembly of God church, with interment at the Magnolia Freewill Baptist Church cemetery.  

The community response was substantial.  The Eagle reported that 300 cars processed from the church to the cemetery, and charities collected many donations to support the burials and the surviving family members.  Having read the story in their local paper and thinking the baby was orphaned, a Huntsville couple offered to adopt her.

Townsfolk survey the wreck scene on 5th Street. (Wiregrass Archives)
Townsfolk survey the wreck scene on 5th Street. (Wiregrass Archives)

The engineer required sedation, and the Eagle later showed him visiting the baby and her father.

Tom Solomon took four snapshots of the scene within days of the accident.  In each one, people are examining the spot where the crushed car landed.  Three show the scene from northwest of the impact, including the steepness of the crossing.  One shows the scene and crossing from the southeast, including another station wagon causally straddling the tracks.

Solomon took another photo of ACL Extra East on the siding in Grimes, a few miles east of the accident.

The ACL Extra East train on the siding at Grimes, a few miles east of the accident. (Wiregrass Archives)
The ACL Extra East train on the siding at Grimes, a few miles east of the accident. (Wiregrass Archives)

You can see these images and more in the Tom Solomon Photograph Collection, RG 146, at this website: https://www.troy.edu/about-us/dothan-campus/wiregrass-archives/inventories/146.html

[Nota benne: The Eagle wrote that this was the worst car-train collision in Alabama history (to that point). I included only enough names to keep the story straight in order to protect the privacy of family members who might still be alive]

Sources:  The Dothan Eagle, December 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 1963; Find A Grave, https://www.findagrave.com/.

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