In 1943, Train Crashed Near Same Spot as Amtrak Derailment
It was Labor Day, 1943. World War II was in full swing, but the mood that holiday weekend was festive. Many soldiers were on leave. And at 4 p.m. on September 6th, 541 people boarded the Congressional Limited in Washington D.C. It was scheduled for nonstop service to New York City and would arrive at 7:45 p.m. At the time, this was an unheard-of quick trip between the nation’s capital and the nation’s largest city.
The Pennsylvania Railroad train never arrived. It derailed at Frankford and Glenwood avenues, near the Frankford Junction. Seventy-nine people died in the crash. Another 117 were injured.
Last night’s horrific Amtrak train derailment in Port Richmond brought back echoes of that train crash 72 years ago. It was the worst train crash in the United States since 1918. It is still Pennsylvania’s worst railroad disaster, as a 2007 book with that title called it.
A few years ago, the Lancaster Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society wrote about it in its newsletter, the Lancaster Dispatcher. The crash happened after a journal box (the wheel bearing) on the train overheated; this is called a hot box. Harold McClintoc, a worker at a train yard, noticed flames and smoke shooting out of the journal box. He yelled to another worker, A.J. Carlin, who phoned ahead to the next signal tower.
John Boyer got Carlin’s call and went to pull the warning signal — but it was too late. At that moment, the journal box on car number seven froze up. The front axel of that car snapped in two. The front of car No. 7 was catapulted into the air. “The seventh car, a coach, left the rails, shot directly up into the air, tearing down every electric wire along the right of way, and came down like a split melon, its forward part crashing into the signal tower alongside, knocking the tower partly from its base,” the Inquirer reported.
The roof of the car was ripped off when it hit the signal tower. Fifty passengers were inside. Car No. 8 then hit the signal tower and Car No. 7, wrapping itself around the tower in a U-shape. Eventually cars 7 and 8 were destroyed, and six other cars had been derailed.
Like the wreck last night, neighbors rushed to the scene as first responders. Soldiers on leave who were on the train also tended to the wounded. “Cut and bleeding themselves, these men of our Nation’s armed forces pitched in and worked, brushing aside offers of first aid from doctors and nurses who arrived on the scene within a few minutes,” Kos Semonski wrote in the Inquirer. “Time and again I saw them refuse assistance when it seemed as if they had lost so much blood they must ‘fold up.’”
But the scene was grim. According to an Associated Press report from that day, a priest entered a crashed train car to give last rites. He saw 75 people and said at least half of them were dead. Frankford Hospital said it was full and couldn’t take any more wounded. Eighteen dead bodies, including four children, were lined up in the basement.
“The train came to a sudden stop after there had been some jerking,” Navy seaman George Davis told the New York Times. “There was a lot of screaming. I managed to climb out of the window and I noticed my car had cracked up against a trestle. … I climbed through the window back into the car and helped [passengers] out. Then I went in and saw a Negro soldier, apparently dead. He was badly mangled. I couldn’t stand it any more and I had to quit.” Headwaiter Bailey Beard told Time he saw one woman’s head cut off.
The last woman to be rescued, Christiana Nix, apparently told responders: “I’m Irish. I can take it.” She died the next day. “She was the bravest girl I ever saw,” Philadelphia’s chief police surgeon said. “She never gave up.”
The Lancaster Dispatcher said tower workers were always under orders to watch any possible problems with passing trains. A train crew is supposed to look out the windows at the rear of the train when it rounds a curve. Somehow, the problem went unnoticed until McClintoc saw it. But by then it was too late.
It took 24 hours to clear all the bodies from the wreckage.
Follow @dhm on Twitter.