1959 Alpine School Bus Wreck

The month was April. The year was 1959. A very vivid memory of that particular day more than likely still remains today in the minds of the thirty odd students from the Alpine community. Rayburn York told me that was certainly a day he would never forget. One of the Overton County school buses from the Alpine area was on the way to Livingston Academy on that spring morning. In just a week or so, baccalaureate and graduation services would be held at Livingston Academy. Members of the senior class of LA were on the bus. John McDonald, also known by some as Johnnie McDonald, was the school bus driver. As Mr. McDonald started down the very curvy part of the road just a couple of miles from the city limits of Livingston, he became aware of what must have been the most horrifying event in his career as a school bus driver. The brakes on the school bus had failed. In an attempt to slow the bus and maintain control, Mr. McDonald tried to gear the bus down which only resulted in the gears being stripped. As the bus quickly approached what is known as "dead man’s curve", he tried desperately to keep it in an upright position and away from the steep embankment on the other side of the road.

This photograph was provided by a member of the 1961 graduating class of Livingston Academy, the former Linda Robbins, who contacted me after reading the story in the newspaper.


 The April 17, 1959 issue of The Livingston Enterprise gave front page coverage of the accident as follows:

"Twelve Livingston Academy students in the Lady Ann Hospital suffering from injuries school bus overturned. The wreck occurred on the Alpine Mountain 2 miles east of Livingston on a curve as the bus was coming down. The driver, Johnnie McDonald, said the breaks failed, then he tried to slow the vehicle by going into low gear, but the gear broke, then on the curve, the bus careened into the ditch on the right side of the highway. The other side was a steep embankment. 36 passengers were on the bus. Two ambulances from Speck-Hyder Funeral Home and private cars were used to carry the students to Lady Ann Hospital. Students under treatment and their injuries:

Jerry Lee, 14, fractured clavicle (collar bone) and scalp lacerations;

Betty Beaty, 16, concussion, kidney injury, fractured arm;

Mable Savage, 15, fractured clavicle and head injuries;

Patricia Norris, 15, clavicle fracture and concussion;

Wanda Beaty, 18, concussion;

Nellie Ledford, 17, concussion and head lacerations;

Katherine Todd, 15, fractured clavicle and head injuries;

Keith Lee, 16, Alton York, 16, Earl Wright, 18, Margaret Turnbull, 17, and Nellie Copeland, 19, fractured spines.


Wanda Beaty

Earl Wright


This accident created wide spread interest with stories in daily newspapers, radio and television stations." John Turnbull remembers seeing a story about the school bus wreck being reported by Walter Cronkite on the CBS evening news. John was normally among the students who rode that particular bus, but was not allowed to ride during that period of time because earlier he had thrown an egg at the driver.

Rev. Frank Turnbull served as minister of the Christ Church Presbyterian at Alpine at the time of this accident. Rev. Turnbull and wife, Ellen Turnbull, were parents of eight children, most of which will be remembered by many of who read this story. Margaret and John are two of their children mentioned in this story. Rev. Turnbull gave an account of the accident in a newsletter he prepared for his church members dated April 22, 1959, which reads as follows: (Although the newspaper gave a total of 36 students on the bus, Rev. Turnbull’s count was 39.)


Margaret Turnbull

Nellie Copeland

"We have a lot to be thankful for!!! They are alive. All of the thirty nine young folk are alive. The bus swooped down Alpine Mountain, brakes gone, transmission gone. On ‘dead man’s curve’ the wheel went off. But the bus did not go over the cliff. They threw themselves to the right and the bus crashed against the rocky bluff. They are all right. All of the thirty nine are doing well. The skillful bus driver, John McDonald, was not hurt badly. Twelve were put in the hospital. A number of others had serious injuries not requiring hospital care. Bruce Smith, a fractured elbow; Sue Beaty, a broken wrist; Jean Franklin, bruised knees; Faye Upchurch, Dorman Norrod, Sammy Evans, Freddie Hughes, Rayburn York, Herbert Collins had minor injuries. Twenty of the thirty nine bus passengers were not seriously injured. Three had hitchhiked that morning. Others had ridden the other bus. The four seniors left the hospital Sunday evening to attend their baccalaureate service. With caps and gowns on over their pajamas, they marched in the processional. Three, Earl Wright, Nellie Copeland, and Margaret Turnbull, went with the fractured spines supported in body casts. Wanda Beaty wore a cast on her broken arm. After the service, they came back to the hospital tired, but happy, the only students in the history of Livingston Academy to attend baccalaureate in their pajamas.

Nella Rae Ledford has been able to go home from the hospital. Faye Norris, Betty Beaty, Jerry Lee, Keith Lee, Katherine Todd, Alton York, and Mabel Savage are still in the hospital. They are full of courage and good cheer."

Although the Livingston Enterprise did not have a picture of the school bus to include with their news coverage of the accident, the church newsletter Rev. Turnbull printed included a hand-drawn picture depicting a wrecked school bus at the very top on the front page.

Some forty-six years have come and gone since this accident happened, and the highway where the accident took place remains virtually unchanged. Approaching dead man’s curve today probably can still bring chilly thoughts to those students who were passengers on Mr. McDonald’s bus in April of 1959. The loss of many lives could have been reported had the hands on the steering wheel been those of someone less able to maintain his cool and keep his wits about him under extremely hazardous conditions. The Class of 1959 could have had a few less in their number, but instead, four of their members marked the occasion as an historical one. There is no doubt that any other class has ever had members leave their hospital beds to attend a graduation ceremony armed in a body cast and wearing pajamas underneath graduation caps and gowns. I hope there was a standing ovation for them. Those members, along with Mr. McDonald and all other passengers onboard that day, certainly deserved it.