The Western Division of our road runs through a very mountainous part of Virginia, and the stations are few and far between. About three miles from one of these stations, the road runs through a deep gorge of the Blue Ridge, and near the center is a small valley stood a small one-and-a-half-story log cabin. The few acres that surrounded it were well cultivated as a garden, and upon the fruits thereof lived a widow and her three children, by the name of Graff. They were, indeed, untutored in the cold charities of an outside world—I doubt much if they ever saw the sun shine beyond their own native hills. In the summer time the children brought berries to the nearest station to sell, and with the money they bought a few of the necessities of the outside refinement.
The oldest of these children I should judge to be about twelve years, and the youngest about seven. They were all girls, and looked nice and clean, and their healthful appearance and natural delicacy gave them a ready welcome. They appeared as if they had been brought up to fear God and love their humble home and mother. I had often stopped my train and let them get off at their home, having found them at the station some three miles from home, after disposing of their berries.
I had children at home, and I knew their little feet would be tired in walking three miles, and therefore felt that it would be the same with these fatherless little ones. They seemed so pleased to ride, and thanked me with such hearty thanks, after letting them off near home. They frequently offered me nice, tempting baskets of fruit for my kindness; yet I never accepted any without paying their full value.
Now, if you remember, the winter of ’54 was very cold in that part of the State, and the snow was nearly three feet deep on the mountains.
On the night of the 26th of December, of that year, it turned around warm, and the rain fell in torrents. A terrible storm swept the mountain tops, and almost filled the valleys with water. That night my train was winding its way at its usual speed around the hills and through the valleys, and as the road-bed was all solid rock, I had no fear of the banks giving out. The night was intensely dark, and the winds moaned piteously through the deep gorges of the mountains.
It was near midnight when a sharp whistle from the engine brought me to my feet. I knew there was danger and sprang to the brakes at once, but the brakesmen were all at their posts and soon brought the train to a stop. I seized my lantern and found my way forward as soon as possible, when what a sight met my gaze! A bright fire of pine logs illuminated the track for some distance, and not over forty rods ahead of our train a horrible gulf had opened to receive us!
Although this drawing is of a European train, it illustrates what might have happened in Virginia if the above train hadn’t been warned of trouble ahead. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The snow, together with the rain, had torn the whole side of the mountain out, and eternity itself seemed spread out before us. The widow Graff and her children had found it out, and had brought light brush from their home below, and built a large fire to warn us of our danger. They had been there more than two hours watching beside that beacon of safety. As I went up where that old lady stood drenched through by the rain and sleet, she grasped my arm and cried: “Thank God we stopped you in time! Oh, I prayed to heaven that we might stop the train, and, my God, I thank thee!”
The children were crying for joy. I don’t very often pray, but I did then and there. I kneeled down by the side of that good old woman, and offered up thanks to an All Wise Being for our safe deliverance from a most terrible death, and called down blessings without number upon that good old woman and her children. Nearby stood the engineer, fireman, and brakesmen, the tears streaming down their bronzed cheeks.
I immediately got Mrs. Graff and the children into the cars out of the storm and cold. I related the story and begged the men passengers to go forward and see for themselves. They needed no further urging, and a great many of the ladies went also regardless of the storm. They soon returned and their pale faces gave full evidence of the frightful death we had escaped. The passengers vied with each other in their thanks and heartfelt gratitude towards Mrs. Graff and her children, and before the widow left the train she was presented with a purse of four hundred and sixty dollars, the voluntary offering of a whole train of grateful passengers. She refused the proffered gift for some time, and said she had only done her duty, and the knowledge of having done so was all the reward she asked. However, she finally accepted the money and said it should go to educate her children.
In gratitude, the railway company built her a new house, gave her and her children a life pass over the road, and ordered all trains to stop and let her get off at home when she wished, but the employees needed no such orders, they appreciated such kindness—more so than the directors themselves.
The old lady frequently visits my home and she is at all times a welcome visitor at my fireside. Two of the children are attending school at the same place.
Some ordinary folks can be heroes without even knowing it!
– Sam Moore