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Oakland Tours in Focus: Ben Dewberry and Transportation in Atlanta

by Marcy Breffle, Education Coordinator
TerminustoTerminalsLogoOn May 21, Historic Oakland Foundation premieres its newest special topic tour, “From Terminus to Terminals: People Who Put Atlanta in Motion.” Developed by Oakland volunteer Pat Powers, this dynamic tour explores the history of transportation in the Gate City and how several Oakland Cemetery residents had a hand in Atlanta’s transformation, from small-time rail town to bustling metropolis. One story that tour participants can expect to hear is the tale of Ben Dewberry.
Benjamin Franklin Dewberry was born in 1857, and began working for Southern Railroad as an engineer when he was 25 years old. As an engineer, Mr. Dewberry operated the train and was responsible for driving the engine, train speed, and all train handling. As he traveled his routes, Mr. Dewberry would often toss apples to children from his engine window. Mr. Dewberry was popular and respected among his fellow engineers, conductors, and brakemen.

Ben Dewberry's marker at Oakland Cemetery

Ben Dewberry’s marker at Oakland Cemetery

On August 23, 1908, the No. 38 passenger train left Atlanta under Mr. Dewberry’s command and traveled north towards Washington D.C. Mr. Dewberry sat at the throttle of Pacific engine No. 1237 as the train passed through Chamblee and approached Buford. Further down the line, 12-year-old Lewis Cooksie stood near the tracks and held an iron spike in his hands. Curious about what a train wreck looked like, Cooksie placed the spike on the tracks and retreated to a safe distance. The locomotive engine hit the spike, and Mr. Dewberry applied the emergency brake to save his passengers. The engine toppled onto its side, crushing the steam pipes. Both Mr. Dewberry and his fireman Mayson Wadkins were scalded by steam and died from their injuries.
Mr. Dewberry’s choice to sacrifice the engine was later immortalized in song. Reverend Andrew Jenkins, a composer of songs popular with southern gospel singers, wrote “Ben Dewberry’s Final Run” several decades after the engineer’s death. The song was recorded in 1927 by Jimmie Rodgers, a country music pioneer. Bill Monroe, Hank Snow, and Johnny Cash also recorded the popular ballad. Ben Dewberry may be gone, but his name lives on in song.
Stationed near the graves of Great Locomotive Chase hero Jeff Cain and Atlanta pioneer Richard Peters, Ben Dewberry’s grave marker sits within sight of Bobby Jones’ final resting place and the Memorial Drive gate. He is buried next to his wife, and his epitaph reads “A faithful servant, Rewarded in heaven.” 
Ben Dewberry was portrayed by Oakland volunteer Tom Deardorff during Capturing the Spirit of Oakland Halloween Tours

Ben Dewberry was portrayed by Oakland volunteer Tom Deardorff during Capturing the Spirit of Oakland Halloween Tours

Attend the premiere of “From Terminus to Terminals: People Who Put Atlanta in Motion” this Saturday, May 21, at 7:00 pm to learn more about the actions of brave engineer Ben Dewberry and other Oakland residents who shaped Atlanta through transportation. Spaces are limited, and tickets must be purchased in advance at ticketalternative.com.

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