For 15 years, Benjamin Priddy had been driving a Shelby County school bus, picking up and dropping off students at the little schools in the Eads, Arlington, and Collierville areas. During that time, his driving record had been impeccable.
But on October 10, 1941, Priddy made a fatal error that would result in the worst school tragedy in Shelby County history. That afternoon, he picked up a busload of kids from the George R. James Elementary School, a little schoolhouse that once stood on Collierville-Arlington Road, just southwest of Eads. Driving along the two-lane county roads, he had dropped off all but 17 of his young passengers, when he made a sharp turn to cross the railroad tracks that once cut through the heart of the little farming community. Although he had a clear view of the tracks at the crossing, for reasons we will never know he pulled directly into the path of an N.C. & St.L. passenger train roaring towards Memphis at 50 miles per hour.
The tremendous impact almost ripped the bus in half, tumbling the wreckage into nearby woods. Priddy was killed instantly, along with seven of his passengers; many of the other children were horribly injured. In those days, few families in the county had telephones. News of the tragedy spread by word of mouth, and frantic parents rushed to the scene, piled the little victims into cars and trucks, and rushed them to the nearest hospital in Memphis, more than 20 miles away. “It was one of those sights you never want to see again,” one father told the Memphis Press-Scimitar. At Baptist Hospital, other parents found themselves “in a madly revolving world suddenly but surely spinning off its axis.”
No one aboard the train was injured, and investigators struggled to make sense of the accident. The engineer claimed the bus never slowed as it approached the crossing. Some of the children said they yelled at Priddy to stop when they saw the train hurtling toward them, but he didn’t seem to hear them. The sheriff told reporters that Priddy had complained of a headache that morning, and surmised that “he might have suffered an attack of illness.” Other townspeople conjectured that after driving this same route for 15 years and never encountering a train at Eads, Priddy had probably learned he didn’t need to stop there. On this fateful day, though, the train was running 20 minutes late, and the timing couldn’t have been worse.
Priddy was laid to rest in Bethany Cemetery near Collierville, and the six children were buried here and there in Shelby County.
The victims included Norma Jean Seward (12 years old), Guy Anderson Jr. (12), Melvin Richmond (8), Hayden Austin Williams (8), Kenneth Bryan (11), and brother and sister Glenn Sherrill (12) and Alma Sherrill (9). I managed to locate and photograph some of their gravestones (see below). Richmond was laid to rest in Eads Cemetery, directly across the road from where he met his fate. Seward and Bryan were buried in Reed Cemetery south of town. Anderson and Williams were buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Collierville, and the Sherrill children were buried near Atoka, Tennessee.
Today, the site of the tragedy (below), looking straight down the former path of the railroad, seems strangely serene. The tracks were pulled up years ago, but you can easily see where they once ran, and if you stand on that very spot, it’s easy to visualize the school bus coming down the hill to the right, driving parallel to the tracks for a hundred feet or so, then turning abruptly to cross them. The resulting collision remains the deadliest accident in the history of the Shelby County school system.