A History of Pennsylvania Train Accidents – First 100 Years

Table of Contents

    The May 12, 2015, derailment of Amtrak Train 188 in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia has spurred public interest into the history of train derailments in Pennsylvania. As the former home of the now-defunct Pennsylvania Railroad, the state of Pennsylvania has a long and rich history involving travel by rail that stretches back, at least, to the 1846 founding of the Pennsylvania Railroad in Philadelphia. At the height of its power and operations the Pennsylvania Railroad employed approximately a quarter-million people, had a budget larger than the United States government, and it was the largest publicly traded company in the world.

    However, the Pennsylvania Railroad was only the largest player in the golden age of rail. Many others including the North Pennsylvania Railroad, the Erie railroad, the New Hope and Ivyland Railroad, the Philadelphia & Trenton Railroad, and others provided passenger and freight service throughout Pennsylvania.

    Today “the Pennsy” and most of the companies from the golden age of rail are no more due to changing consumer preferences including the rise of American car culture, urbanization, and – in some cases — mergers and business deals that saddled the companies with unsustainable yearly budget deficits. While we are prone to romanticize the golden age of rail, the truth is that many serious accidents, derailments and train collisions have occurred in Pennsylvania during the more than 100-year reign of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Today, organizations like Amtrak, SEPTA, and New Jersey Transit service many of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s former routes. While the rate and severity of accidents have decreased in recent history, severe train accidents causing catastrophic injuries and death have occurred with startling regularity through the history of railroads.

    The Great Train Wreck of 1856

    The Great Train Wreck of 1856 pre-dates the Civil War and is one of the earliest known major train accidents in Pennsylvania. While this accident did not precede the Pennsylvania Railroad, these tracks were actually under the authority of the North Pennsylvania Railroad when the accident occurred. At the time, the accident was the deadliest railroad accident ever and it was a touchstone moment of the era.

    The Train, known as “The Picnic Special” was an excursion train that traveled from Philadelphia to Wissahickon Station where a large picnic grove was present. A Catholic church contracted the train to send children enrolled in Sunday school classes to the picnic grove. At approximately 5:10 a.m. the train left Cohocksink depot at Master Street and Germantown Avenue with up to 1,500 passengers on board. Due to the unusually large number of riders, the train left the station a little more than 20 minutes late.

    A motion blur of an ambulance driving down a street.

    At the Picnic Special’s destination, Wissahickon, another train – the Aramingo — waited for the excursion train to pass. The tragic mistake was the engineer of the “Picnic Special” believed that he could make up the lost 20-plus minutes. Therefore he did not telegraph ahead to let the other train know that the “Picnic Special” was running late. Confusion over proper protocol regarding excursion trains also contributed to the Aramingo engineer’s decision to set out.

    Unfortunately, as the two trains traveling on the same track in opposite directions approached, they came upon a blind curve. As each train rounded the curve, the engineers soon caught sight of the others’ approaching train. The engineers attempted to stop the trains, but the momentum of the trains carried them into a head-on collision. The explosion from the colliding train boilers could be heard from 5 miles away. While the initial collision caused mostly minor injuries, the ensuing blaze killed up to 67 passengers trapped in the overturned cars. More than 100 were injures. This disaster resulted in the New York Times calling for major improvements in rail safety.

    Civil War & Reconstruction-Era Train Collisions

    The Civil War and Reconstruction-eras also present a number of train of serious train accidents. The most severe of these accidents occurred in July 1864. Due to a dispatcher’s mistake, he or she sent a cargo train carrying coal and a passenger train carrying Confederate POWs on the same tracks in opposite directions. The trains collided head-on near Shohola, Pennsylvania. Officially, 65 people lost their lives in the collision though the actual death toll may have reached 72.

    In another train collision in the same year, the engineer of a Pennsylvania Railroad train carrying passengers was unaware of a stopped freight train ahead. The passenger train collided into the rear-end of the freight train near Thomsontown. Like in the Great Train Wreck, the ensuing fire rather than the initial impact is responsible for many of the six deaths and 13 injuries.

    Finally, in 1877, poor track conditions killed seven and injured at least 25 when a train fell from a washed-out embankment near Kimberton.

    Pennsylvania’s Early 20th Century Train Accidents

    As the 20th century kicked into gear, transportation of people and good by rail was more important than ever to the burgeoning national economy. However, the newfound and relative ease of moving goods and people throughout the country continued to exact a human toll. Furthermore, while the interests of freight and passenger rail lines never quite aligned, these disparate interests drifted further apart during the 1900s. Perhaps the Connellsville train wreck foreshadowed this growing tension between freight and passenger-carrying lines.

    The Connellsville train wreck occurred when a train carrying a load of timber rounded a curve. Apparently unbeknownst to its crew, the stakes that held the timber in place gave way. The now unsecured timber rolled onto the eastbound tracks where it came to rest.

    Simultaneously, an eastbound passenger-carrying line known as the limited approached the site where the timber spilled on to the tracks. The train’s engineer did not see the timber until the last second, resulting in the train striking the debris at near full speed. The impact threw the locomotive onto its side and launched timber high into the air. The smoking car skidded up alongside the locomotive as the locomotive released a blast of hot steam killing all in the smoking car. The forces launched another train car off the tracks and down the embankment into the Youghiogheny River. The crashed caused 64 deaths and nearly 70 injuries.

    In addition, the 1912 Glen Loch wreck cost four lives and caused more than 20 injuries.

    The 1943 Frankford Junction & 1947 Blair County Derailments

    The 1943 Frankford Junction derailment is particularly interesting because the site of the accident is nearly the same as the recent Amtrak Regional Train 188 derailment. On Labor Day, 1943, the newly electrified Congressional Limited train set out on the familiar trip from Washington D.C.’s Union Station to New York’s Pennsylvania Station. To accommodate holiday travelers – 541 of them — an older dining car was added onto the Congressional Limited. Like the Amtrak 188 train, the ride was uneventful until the train reached Philadelphia.

    However problems began to appear once the train passed the North Philadelphia Station. After that point the junction box on the older dining car began to experience problems. After a brief period, the box started to show signs of overheating and soon started to throw off sparks. As the train approached the same curve involved in the Amtrak train 188 incident, an axle broke, fell off the train, and caused eight cars to derail.  In all, 79 passengers were killed and 117 suffered injuries. The 1943 wreck’s death toll exceeded the deaths caused by even the Great Train Wreck of 1856.

    The last of the first 100 years of Pennsylvania train crashes are the 1947 collision in Blair County Pennsylvania and the 1947 accident in Huntingdon. As for the Blair County crash, the “Red Arrow”, a Pennsylvania Railroad train, was traveling from Pittsburgh to New York City. As it entered a curve, it jumped the tracks due to traveling at excessive speeds. Two engines and several passenger cars careened down the side of a mountain killing 24 and injuring more than 100. In the Huntingdon accident, two steel plates from a freight train struck and sliced open the side of a passenger car. Four were killed in this accident and more than 100 were injured.


    Travel by train, like all other modes of transportation, has its own risks and dangers. The early years of railroading, show how much there still was to learn about safely operating trains. For instance, the practice of running trains headed in opposite direction on stretches of track where single rails are present, was quickly recognized as a terrible idea. The Great Train Wreck also showed the importance of constant communication among engineers, dispatchers, and crew members.  Furthermore, greater understanding of scientific principles, like the Doppler Effect, allowed engineers to understand how speed can affect our perception of sound. If this principal was understood at the time, the engineers may have known that a train was approaching and a collision was imminent.

    While we have come a long way from those early days, the Amtrak Train 188 derailment is a difficult reminder that we still have gaps in our safety knowledge. Unfortunately, these safety and operational blind spots can cause catastrophic, life-altering injuries like broken bones, brain injuries or death. Following an accident, there are always lessons to learn. However, it is a tragedy that it takes the death and severe injury of innocents for us, as a society, to stop and think about railroad safety and whether current practices are sufficient.

    In the next part of this article, the attorneys from The Reiff Law Firm will look at the next 65 years of train crashes and derailments in Pennsylvania.


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