Sunday, May 18, 2014

Mud Run Train Disaster - "A name of terror for all time" - Wrecks of Penn Haven Post 3 of 3

Ocotber 10, 1888 – Wednesday evening -Temperance Excursion Train Disaster at Mud Run: “A name of terror for all time.”

The most costly wreck in early Pennsylvania and Lehigh Valley Railroad history took roughly sixty lives.  The passengers had attended a Temperance Parade in Hazleton earlier that day.  There were men, women and children of all ages aboard the seven separate passenger trains boarded in Hazleton around 6:30 pm.  The special orders from the L.V.R.R. included the spacing of the trains at ten minute intervals.  This interval was considered more than sufficient since five minute intervals was standard practice.
The three passenger cars, borrowed from the Jersey Central, were telescoped together just above the Mud Run
station on October 10, 1888.  There were seventy-eight cars needed to haul the roughly 5,500 temperance attendees from the annual parade in Hazelton back to their homes in the Wilkes-Barre area.   Roughly 70 people were loaded into each car.  Some say the Central cars were of "flimsy" construction and led to the unnecessary death.  The Valley had to borrow cars from the Central because of the unusually high-volume of passengers that day.  Over work and lack
of sleep may have contributed.

The company also took the precaution of posting all the special orders associated with this huge undertaking and had all involved employees sign that they read them after they had been “studied for several days,” having been posted on all the bulletin boards.
Verbal instructions were also given to the engineers to “be careful.”  It would appear legally, the Valley Railroad did everything in its power to avoid the unthinkable.  But in the final analysis lack of sleep and over work seemed to play the most significant role.

All the special orders, signatures, and ten minute intervals were for naught.  The unthinkable indeed happened, killing at least sixty-four.

The victims were members of the Father Mathew Society.  Many were Irish Catholic coal miners relatively new to this country.  It was reported that there were seventy-eight car loads of people, of over 5,500 loaded onto the eight different trains, which would be about seventy people per car.
This broad sweeping curve shows the entry of Mud Run into the river.
The station would have been about one half mile toward the left.  The
train that was struck was sitting just above the station.  This would be one
of two curves the approaching train passed through before the collision.

The ill-fated sixth train was stopped at the Mud Run Station because the lights signaled that they were too close to the fifth train running ahead of it.  The rear of the sixth train was parked at the edge of a curve.

Brakeman James Hanighan later testified that the train stopped “a short distance above the station” at Mud Run.  He said he immediately took a red and a white light “as far back as the depot.”
The Mud Run as it flows into the Lehigh today
beneath the Valley bridge still in use today.

He went on to say he signaled with his red light and was on the platform when the last train went past him “at a lively rate.”  He estimated the speed to be twenty-five miles per hour, nearly twice the speed sworn by one of the engineers, Henry Cook.

This said train, the seventh, was pulled by Engine #466 (Engineer James Sharkey) and assisted by Engine #452 (Engineer Henry Cook assisted by his fireman Hugh Gallagher). 

According to rail officials of the Valley, it is alleged that lookouts aboard the #452 should have seen the flagmen and yielded to the red signal light.  However, it was the crew of the #466, not the #452, who had control of the air brake system. 

Engineer Cook’s testimony was at odds with Hanighan’s.  First, he estimated his train’s speed at “twelve to fourteen” miles per hour.  Other expert testimony supported this to be a safe speed under the circumstances.

Cook also said that he was alert, leaning out the right side of the cab and slowed to ten miles per hour when he approached the platform at Mud Run.  At this point, he noticed the “violent swinging of a white light.”

“I immediately whistled down brakes,” he said.  However, the engine behind him, the #466, had “charge of the train” and had the control over the air brakes.

Other witnesses said Cook had been on duty for several days “with but little sleep.”  Cook claimed to be still “fresh and wide awake.” 

Thomas Major of East Mauch Chunk had never run a passenger train before.  He thought one engine was enough to pull the train, and besides, had they had just one, the engineer would have had a better view. 

Major also said he had been on duty since Monday night at nine o’clock (a near twenty-four hours) with but six hours of rest.  Despite this, he said he “did not feel sleepy.”

Fireman Joseph Pohl testified from his hospital bed in Bethlehem, where he was recovering from leg injuries sustained in the accident.  He had been on duty since five o’clock that morning, a more than twelve hour shift.  He said he saw the white target and told the engineer everything was alright. 

He just then momentarily rested his head in his hands when the next thing he knew, he heard the “whistle for down brakes.”  He saw the engineer’s hand go to the lever, but had no recollection as to whether he was able to turn it or not.

Engineer Cook’s main defense was that he never saw or heard any danger signal, “when such should have been exposed.”  He also asserted, and no one disagreed, that there were no “torpedoes” deployed onto the tracks. 

(Torpedoes are small explosives/metal encased fireworks that detonate when a train approaches a disabled train.  See the accidental death received by a young woman from a prank torpedo left on a trolley track in Mauch Chunk – click here.)

Henry Cook alleged that no flagman or light was placed east, or below, the Mud Run Station.  Other witnesses alleged brakeman Hanighan was inside the station and not on the platform as he claimed to be.

The crash according to one survivor of the seventh train occurred at 7:45 pm.
Even at such a low speed as twelve miles per hour, the force of the impact was deadly.  The rear three cars of the sixth train were telescoped together, mangling and trapping people in a mass of flesh, blood, iron and steam.

Besides those killed outright, others were scattered about and pinned under the engines.  The trapped and wounded “could put their heads out of the windows but could get no further, as their lower limbs were held in the wreckage like a vice.”

On the scene was James J. McGinty who was the recorder of deeds in Luzerne County.  He estimated the speed of the train at fifteen miles an hour.  He said, “I have read thrilling accounts of railroad disasters, but never pictured in my mind anything like this.”

He went on to say, “The injured would say, “Oh, lift that iron and take me out; for God’s sake help me.”  Another would say, “My leg is fast, cut off my leg; get an axe and cut it off.”  Every few minutes another of the poor victims would die.  Some were scalded by escaping steam, some were crushed to death, and some dying slowly of their awful injuries.”

Directly beneath Engine #452 lay four young boys, mangled and severely burned.  They were members of the “Father Mathew Cadet Society” and were so ravaged that they were barely recognizable as human forms.

Some of these survivors, pinned in contorted positions, suffered fatal scalding burns from the escaping steam of the engines.  A man known only as “McGinty,” “risked all danger,” got inside the wrecked engine and “pulled out the fire.”

In the hope to free those trapped, a trainman attached a locomotive to the rear of the merged telescoped cars and engine, and tried to pull them apart.  The first tug brought “such cries of distress that the surrounding friends ordered the engineer to desist on pain of his life.”

One group attending the parade was known as the "St. Francis Pioneer Society."  One of the trademarks of their attire is to carry broad axes.  In the mayhem that ensued after the wreck, many sprung to action to help the suffering and dislodge the entangled.  The Pioneers soon discovered their largely decorative axes were of little use, breaking apart in demolition work.

Friends and relatives in most cases could do nothing to help in the agony of their trapped loved ones.

John Lynch was hanging outside the car, his legs trapped inside.  He screamed in such agony his friends supported his weight on their backs to help alleviate his suffering.  He was burned about his arms and shoulders and was in serious condition.

Another woman was also pinned by her legs.  The men with axes were able to free her one leg, but a misdirected swing severed her other leg from her body.  She calmly accepted her fate, withdrew a gold watch from her pocket, and directed those attending her to give it to her friend back home.  Her friends accompanied her to a hospital car where it was said she died en route home.
News of the Mud Run Disaster took on a national scope when Frank
Leslie's Illustrated newspaper of New York picked up the story.  The above
illustration most likely drawn from eye-witness accounts does bear
scrutiny to actual some of the nuances that unfolded just after the collision.

Some of the papers seemed happy to report that “many temperance pledges were quickly forgotten” as the survivors boarded trains away from the disaster.

Within thirty minutes, a train with the Valley superintendent and physicians was dispatched from Bethlehem.  Bonfires were built to give light to the rescue efforts. 

Though quite remote, there were a few homes in the area.  Soon these homes were lit up and converted into temporary shelter for the wounded who could be gathered there.

At 6:30 the following evening, “a funeral train arrived in Wilkes-Barre bearing fifty-seven bodies partially prepared for burial.”  The bodies were lain “upon boards across the backs of seats, each covered with a white cloth.”

Frantic friends boarded the cars despite officials asking for them to show some restraint.  They began tearing off the sheets in search of their loved ones, revealing the “gay uniforms of the St Aloysius’s men, cadets and other members of societies.”

Two special trains carried the wounded to hospitals at Bethlehem and Wilkes-Barre.  Forty doctors were said to be on the ground at daybreak.

The initial reports had the death toll ranging from the upper fifty’s to the low sixty’s.  An article in the following day’s Philadelphia paper recorded from a dispatch from Easton that fifty-six were killed outright and another forty injured could die. 

A Wilkes-Barre paper reported on the following day of forty-six dead names and also stated that there were still ten unidentified bodies.  It went on to say that two of the victims died overnight in the hospital with “six or eight more” expected to die.

On October 12, a New York Times reprint of a Scranton newspaper listed the dead and wounded.  There were seventy names listed under the killed column.  Of the wounded, several there were listed as “serious” and others listed as “will die.”  The small town of Pleasant Valley (today’s Avoca) had thirty-one names alone.

Reporters of the 1880s were perhaps more impetuously aggressive than one could imagine.  One reporter was able to track down engineer Henry Cook as he tried to sleep in his bed in Wilkes-Barre on the very night of the wreck.  The reporter noted with plain unspoken disdain of his only injury being “a bruised ankle.”

Despite his reluctance to talk, the reporter assailed Cook with provocative questions such as: “Were you asleep?...Were you drunk?...Rumor has set out some ugly stories about you.”

The New York Times of October 12, 1888 published Cook’s reply to his thoughts on the enormity of the accident.  They wrote, “Yes,” Cook said with a groan, “and I suppose the blame will be fixed on someone, and railroad companies don’t usually take such blame themselves.”

The alleged transcript between Engineer Cook and the
reporter on the night of the accident.

The coroner’s jury investigation cited the engineers of both the #452 and the #466 for negligence.  Also, the brakeman of the sixth train was cited for only going 400 feet instead of the proper distance of one half mile.  They also found fault with the conductors of the sixth train for not personally seeing to it that the brakemen protected the rear of their train.

A later trial acquitted all the defendants.

 Some debate was held over the use of the Jersey Central cars which according to one person interviewed then said that if Valley cars had been used, there wouldn’t have been as much loss of life.  The Valley cars were said to be of a sturdier construction.  The cars were on loan to the Valley due to the large number of excursionists signed up for the annual parade.

The Lehigh Valley Railroad took the lead in the court of public opinion by posting what they felt was a fair monetary settlement number in the papers.  Mr. William Connell, a coal operator was appointed by the L.V. R. R. as an impartial administrator for victim’s claims.  He was said to “not have interest in the Lehigh Valley Company.”

“He finds that nearly all the claimants want $5,000 each.  The company desires to avoid litigation, and is anxious for an amicable settlement…the general feeling is averse to going to law in case there can be a reasonable settlement outside the courts.”

It seemed like all the papers at once began to throw around the same numbers: $5,000 per adult and $1,000 per child killed.  A meeting of the St. Aloysius Society held a meeting of over 500 people in Scranton and passed a resolution authorizing Rev. Father Crave of Pleasant Valley (Avoca) to draw upon them for $500 or $1,000 to be at his disposal to help in cases of need for the “sufferers” of the Pleasant Valley parishioners.
The above list was printed in the New York Times the next day.  Of those listed here, at least two were said to be near death while another three were listed as "serious."  It is unknown how accurate these lists were, but these early reports listed 64 dead outright with several more not expected to live.

March 11, 1889 – Monday - One Last Mud Run Death –

The coroner’s jury inquest trial was conducted over three days in late October of 1888.  But other civil cases related to the trial were on-going into March of 1889.  Many witnesses, defendants, and concerned family members of the sixty-odd victims were flocking to town on both foot and rail.  

One man named Ottoman Schmidt had been in town and was walking the track home when he was struck and instantly killed at the Mud Run Station.  The paper reported that there were a “number of cases similar to that of Schmidts” at this terribly famous spot.   

One article describing the Mud Run Disaster from October 27, 1888.

This is a 64-person list of dead as of the next day's papers.  There are bound to be omissions and additions and other errors in this list.  Names from the above list of Annie Curran, John Coleman, and Owen Kilcullen appear both on the list and their graves are pictured below.
Also buried at St. Mary's is 15-year-old
Patrick Curran.  Also killed was Annie Curran of
John Coleman rests in Avoca's St. Mary's
Cemetery, a vicitim of the Mud Run Disaster.
Also killed were Michael and Patrick Coleman.
He was 40 years old at the time.
A native of Castle-Connor, County Silco Ireland was Owen Kilcullen thirty-five, vicitm
of the Mud Run Disaster.

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