The Wrong Side of the Tracks
Updated: May 4
Train wrecks were shockingly common in the last half of the 1800s.
Train travel was quite safe in the first half century of the 1800s. Trains didn’t go very fast and there weren’t many miles of track laid down. But around 1853, the number of train wrecks and people killed on trains suddenly rose sharply. Why? The spectacular industrial growth and westward expansion created a “perfect storm” for train disasters. Robert C. Reed explains in his book, Train Wreck:
“One of the major causes of the change from safety to danger was cheap construction. American railroads were very cheaply built. The Federal Government actually encouraged flimsy railroad construction through its land grant policy, which gave railroads land and loans only as mileage was completed. As a result, the government put a premium on speed in construction and length of track, not quality…Consequently, this cheap, hasty construction coupled with increased traffic and speed after 1852 produced a half century of frightful carnage.”
Accidents were compounded by running trains in both directions on single tracks and hasty and cheap trestle construction. In 1875, there were 1,201 train accidents. Five years later, in 1880, that rate had increased to 8,216 in one year.
PHOTOS: (1) In October 1884, the Cincinnati Eastern Railroad trestle collapsed into the Little Miami River near Batavia, Ohio, as the Manchester express train was passing over it. The engine, baggage car and first coach plunged into the river, killing three people in the engine and injuring seven in the first coach. Fortunately, most of the passengers were in the second coach that stopped precariously balanced on the edge of the broken trestle—a ride those lucky passengers never forgot! (2) In June 1864, a train in Quebec, Canada, fell through an open swing section of the Beloeil Bridge and into the Richelieu River. It was the worst train disaster in Canadian history, killing ninety-nine people. (3) The Bostian Bridge train wreck in August 1891 just west of Statesville, North Carolina. The engineer was late and trying to make up time. The train didn’t make the curve and plunged 60 feet into the valley, killing 23 passengers. The accident also started a long “Ghost Train Legend.” (4) Collision between two locomotive engines in 1892 on the Bay of Quinte Railway, Ontario. (5) An early 1900s locomotive ran off the track into Stony Creek in Pennsylvania. (6) The climatic scene in the 1926 Buster Keaton movie “The General,” in which an actual locomotive collapses into Row River in Oregon. (7) The 1911 Lehigh Valley Railroad derailment on the bridge over the Canandaigua Lake outlet, killed 29 and injured 62. The train was on route to Rochester, NY. (8) Arguably the most famous train wreck photograph: The Gare Montparnasse Paris wreck in 1895. The engine overran the buffer stop inside the station.
Read these related posts:
-The Incredible Story of Kate Shelley
-The Heartbreaking Tale of Orphan Trains
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