Last week we made mention of a railroad tragedy on the Pickering Valley Railroad, where a cow on the tracks led to the death of an engineer. But an 1877 storm led to a much bigger disaster, at the time the most fatal train wreck in Chester County history.
On Oct. 4, 1877, a torrential rainstorm washed out the track near Kimberton. The railroad was running a locomotive, two passenger cars, and a combination milk and baggage car (as the line’s primary business was milk runs). Up in Schwenksville that day, at what is now called Pennypacker Mills, was a reunion of the Pennypacker family, to which 1500 descendants of Heinrich Pennypacker, who settled in the area around 1700, were invited, and they came from all over the country. Rain forced the celebration indoors for the most part. Returning to their homes in the evening, reunion attendees made up most of the 130 passengers who left Phoenixville just before 6 p.m. for Byers Station. As The New York Times put it:
“The night had closed in intensely dark, rain was falling in torrents, the small streams along the route had overflowed their banks, and in many places the track was covered with water, which the ditches were unable to carry off as fast as it fell. Near Kimberton, about four miles from Phoenixville, the train ran into a wash-out at least 30 feet deep. The train consisted of the engine, two passenger cars, and a combination baggage and milk car, in the order named. The engine fell a mass of shattered iron at the bottom of the cavity, instantly killing the engineer, Frank Kenney, and the fireman, George Griffith. Conductor Golden, Brakeman Major, and Baggage-master Gamewell were in the baggage car, which remained on the track and escaped without injury. The first passenger car fell on top of the engine, and the second went crashing down on both, tearing off the roof of the first car, its end remaining on the bank. The conductor walked to a farm-house in the neighborhood, procured a horse and wagon, and drove back to Phoenixville, from which he sent a train with surgeons and medical appliances. It was 8:30 when the relief train felt its way cautiously to the edge of the chasm, and the storm was still raging furiously. By this time many of the wounded had been rescued and cared for in the baggage car and in the neighboring farmhouses, though the work of getting them up from the badly-shattered wreck was one of great difficulty. The wounded, of whom there is a terribly long list, were first attended to, and then the dead were got out from the wreck, the body of the fireman, Griffith, not being reached until late to-day.”
A 1999 article said that the bells in Phoenixville were rung to call rescuers to the train that went to the scene. It also said that the Masonic Hall became a morgue for the dead, and physicians came in from Pottstown and Norristown. The Times listed seven killed, including Nathan Pennypacker, and thirty-two wounded, including a barrel full of Pennypackers. A coroner’s jury noted that there had been two inches of rain between 5 and 6 p.m., and 4.92 inches had fallen in total; the jury called the storm “not only severe, but indeed phenomenal.” There was no question that this tremendous torrent through a steep gully of sandy soil was phenomenal, but the jury did find some design flaws in that the railroad had not allowed for sufficient drainage in the area. But it also did something else stupid and possibly lethal on a dark and stormy night: it ran with the engine backwards, its light shining onto the tank, not out onto the tracks. Somewhat different from the Times account, the jury found the train was constructed as follows:
“First, the engine reversed, with tank foremost and engine running backward, with the head light upon the front end of the tank as it ran; second, the gentlemen’s car, on the night in question, occupied by both sexes; third, the combination of ladies’ and baggage car in one; fourth, and last, the milk car . . . The train was run in this manner in violation of the rules of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company, operators of the Pickering Valley Railroad …”
The jury found that if the railroad had followed its own rules, the order of the cars would have been locomotive and tank first, milk car second, and then the two passenger cars; the rear car would have been the gentlemen’s car, which theoretically would have remained on the track, which the milk car did. Of course, the women would still have been toast, but so it goes.
They found another problem, too, and thought that perhaps the practice of putting iron bars across the windows wasn’t necessarily in the best interests of passengers:
“We find that the practice of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company, in placing rods of iron across the outside of the windows of its passenger cars, forming an unyielding grating, is one fraught with great danger. In an accident similar to that on the Pickering Valley Railroad, on the evening of October 4th, by the windows being clear of these obstructions, the escape of passengers from a wrecked train would be greatly facilitated.”