By Mike Steely
You’ve probably driven Interstate 75 north across the mountains into Kentucky. It’s a beautiful drive but busy with trucks and cars. There’s another way to cross the state line along Highway 25W from Caryville to Jellico and on into the Blue Grass State.
You’ve seen the Cumberland and Pine Mountain ridges from above on weather reports and the scenic two-lane highway allows you to see it from the foot of the mountains. There’s so much to see along that route, from an Indian Mound near Jacksboro to Big Creek Gap in LaFollette. The road climbs, turns and twists through some old coal mining communities and basically parallels the railroad across the Clear Fork River.
One of my favorite places along the route is Clear Fork Gorge, with its tall rock bluffs on the east side of the river. If you watch closely after you pass the bluffs you’ll see a huge boulder that sits down in the creek. There are some faded words on the big rock that once told a story.
That story, noting the site of a troop train wreck there in 1944, will soon be echoed by a new historic marker on the right side of the road near Jellico in a spot known locally as Sandy Beach. The marker is covered now but may soon be unveiled.
The small town of Jellico has a history of triumph and tragedy. An earlier train tragedy literally rocked the town when an explosion in a railroad car in 1906 destroyed much of the town. Noted personalities Grace Moore and Homer Rhodeaver are from there, and thousands of people around the nation call Jellico home. At one time the town was much larger than it is today.
Sandy Beach is located just downstream of the large river rock, where the train derailed while hauling American soldiers in the rush and hush of World War II. The wreck drew national attention and saw many local residents respond to the accident to help recover the injured and dead. About 1,006 fresh Army recruits were on board and the July 6 wreck claimed 37 lives and 74 injured.
The historic marker’s unveiling will happen when state Senator Ken Yager can attend the event.
“This has been a two-year process, complicated by a pandemic. Application is first made to the TN Historical Commission, a branch of TN State Government. A state senator must sponsor such a project. Thanks to Senator Ken Yager for doing so,” Jellico librarian Mark Tidwell told The Focus.
“The project involved untold hours of behind-the-scenes work. David Prater, the originator of the project, pushed us along with GREAT enthusiasm, keeping us on track through the downs, and moderated us during the highs, that all the red tape led us through. Every single thing said on the sign had to be historically verified, checked, re-checked and approved. Only ten lines are available on an official marker following the five header lines. It is a ’booger‘ to tell the story in so few words. Assistant librarian Sheyanne Taylor and I counted letters, wrote and re-wrote, until we were emotionally distraught, to best tell the story and get approval from Tennessee Historical Commission,” he said.
“This long overdue marker commemorates a time when America was united as never before, or since. WW2 was epic and shaped the world in which we live today,” Tidwell said.