By Frank Green
On the afternoon of November 3, 1924 several citizens of the Messick area of Poquoson met a bus at Amory’s store for a ride to the city of Hampton.
It was supposed to be an exciting experience for some of the women as they were going to pick out a wedding gown. It was going to be a sad event for David Hopkins because he was going to Dixie Hospital to be with his father dying father, William Hopkins, during his final hours.
The bus was owned and driven by Mortimer Rand. Rand was a former Army sergeant from Hartford Connecticut who had been stationed at Langley Field. He married a local Poquoson girl named Missouri Bunting and left the Army to settle in this area.
The bus service was a convenience for the long winding trip from Poquoson, most of which took place on the Back River Road.
At approximately 2:40pm the bus was struck by a C&O train at the Back River Crossing. The train was coming from Newport News and was estimated to have been traveling about 45 miles per hour.
Eleven Messick citizens were killed. This may have been the single largest loss of life at one time on the Peninsula since the Civil War. The victims were William Forrest and his son Essie, Gilbert Insley and his son Floyd, Albert and Waverly Firman. David J. Hopkins, Miss Mary Elizabeth Dixon and her two little nieces Nannie Mae Dixon age 5 and Virginia Wade age 4. Joseph Huggett was seriously injured and died at Dixie Hospital a few days later. Mrs. William Dixon and Mr. Rand were also seriously injured. Two year old Alice Frances Dixon escaped with only minor bruise and cuts. Alice is alive to this day. This was to be a fateful day for her. She was originally in back with Nannie and Virginia, but was ordered to the front of the bus by her mother just before the bus arrived at Back River Crossing.
Eight of the victims died instantly. The little Dixon girl died while on the way to the hospital and David Hopkins and J. F. Firman passed away shortly after arriving at the hospital.
The force of the crash totally destroyed the bus. Newspaper accounts of the time told of bodies strewn about area and crash debris for many yards past the crash scene. Mrs. Dixon was found on the cow catcher tightly holding onto Alice. She told rescuers to be careful with her and they pried Alice from her hands. Mrs. Dixon became unconscious after her daughter was removed. She survived the incident, but was hospitalized at Dixie Hospital for the next six months.
Because of the fact that the only survivors were in the front of bus, the train must have hit is just to the rear of center.
The Elizabeth City County Coroner, Dr.George Vanderslice, convened two coroner’s courts. The first one met at the scene and interviewed several witnesses. They all stated that Rand did not stop at the intersection with the railroad tracks. Dr. Vanderslice interviewed Mr. Huggett in his hospital room and he stated that that Mr. Rand did stop at the crossing. He stated Rand looked towards Hampton, but did not look towards Newport News, the direction in which the train was coming. Huggett remembered telling Rand that he had better “step on it”. It was undetermined whether or not the bus stalled on the tracks or Rand just “froze”.
Dr. Vanderslice had the bodies removed to Harry Cunningham's funeral parlor. Mr. Cunningham had to call in extra embalmers to help prepare the bodies.
Soon family members starting arriving for the sad chore of identifying their loved ones. The Rev. Charles McAllister of St. Johns Church and Rev. Charles Friend of Hampton Presbyterian Church soon arrived at the funeral home to give comfort to grieving family members.
A second coroner's court ruled that the incident was a tragic accident and actions should be taken to make the railroad intersections safer. Six people had already died at railroad crossings that year in Elizabeth City County.
William Hopkins died a couple of days later without ever knowing that his son David had died at the railroad crossing. Joseph Huggett died after doctors tried desperately to save him.
Gilbert Insley left a wife and four children. Essie Forrest left a wife and four children and was taking care of two other children. William Forrest left his wife and three children. J. F. Firman left a wife of less than one year.
Within the next few days, the victims of the bus crash were removed to Poquoson for burial. The services were attended by several thousand people from both York County and Elizabeth City County.
Hundreds of businesses in Hampton closed their doors for business from 12:00 to 1:00pm on the day of the funeral in honor of the crash victims. Elizabeth City County Sheriff Curtis brought several deputies to assist York County Sheriff Lawson with traffic and crowd control. Many Hampton civic organizations passed special resolutions in sympathy for the crash victims and their families.
Services for four of the dead were held at Forrest home, after this was over the crowd went to the Insley home, then to the Firman home. At each home the caskets were placed in the front yards and were covered with flowers. The services were conducted by Rev. Burke of Trinity Church. He was assisted by Rev. Cunningham of the Hampton Church of Christ and Rev. W.W. Beasley of Central Methodist Church in Hampton. A quartet consisting of H. S. Cunningham, William Martin, A. Tyler Hull Sr. and Joe Gardner sang "Someday you will Understand, Nearer My God to Thee" and other hymns.
The graves of the Forrests and one of the Firman brothers are at the Weston Cemetery. The other Firman brother is buried at the Eastern Cemetery. The little girls, Nannie Mae Dixon and Virginia Wade, are buried at the Phillips Cemetery off of Wrenn's Road. The author of this article has been able to find the graves of all the victims except William and David Hopkins.
The Merchants Bank of Hampton later gave $45.00 to each of the victim's orphans for Christmas. The Peninsula communities later combined to raise $5000.00 for the families of those who perished in the crash.