Imagine you’re traveling aboard a train, watching through windows as a world of scenery slides beside you, some of it trees and some of it buildings; your eyes are drooping, you’re nearly sleeping. Then you explode.
Welcome to 1918, a bygone year in time holding the record for worst train tragedies in U.S. history. And note the plural; there were 3.
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In a single year, years of careful construction yielded calamitous results, resulting in the untimely deaths of hundreds of innocent individuals. Trains had gotten faster, but locomotive failures were in full force.
First, in late June, as Summer, sweltry, set into sway, a circus sideshow unlike any other unfolded; the Hammond Circus Train Wreck.
An inept and clearly overworked train operator fell sound asleep at the lever, missing miles of automatic warnings and signals from a careful crew manning a 26-car Hagenbeck-Wallace circus train. At full throttle, he drove his own 20-car train right into theirs. Or rather, he drove right through theirs, obliterating the caboose and 4 sleeping cars quite completely.
86 souls were lost in the wreck, most dying almost immediately before the wreckage caught fire. Over a hundred were seriously injured as well.
The engineer and his fireman were criminally charged, but the jury on the case came up deadlocked and the men were never tried again.
A mere month later, another massive catastrophe on rails would take place. This time, in Nashville, Tennessee. The Great Train Wreck of 1918 would come to be known as the worst train tragedy in the history of the nation.
Due to an incredible account of human error, two trains collided head-on while traversing a spot known as “Dutchman’s Curve”. A perfect storm of poor communication pitted the two trains against each other, to the demise of their unwitting passengers.
At over 50 miles per hour, the impact of the two trains was cataclysmic, resulting in a death clamor audible at over 2 miles away. Over 100 people were killed in the disastrous crash, including the engineers. Passersby picked people from the wreckage as a surprised swarm nearly 50,000 strong by the end of the day.
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Unfortunately, yet another train tragedy was waiting in the wings to occur before year’s end.
The Malbone Street Wreck came to be on the first of November in 1918.
While passing through a tunnel in Brooklyn, an inexperienced conductor took a curve at a far greater speed than was designated; the train ought to have been moving at 6 miles per hour, but was instead rolling at nearly 40 mph.
Its trailing cars derailed into the tunnel wall. The 2nd and 3rd cars took the brunt of the blow and burst, due to their wood construction, to smithereens along with the unfortunate souls sitting aboard them.
Motorman Edward Luciano had limited experience operating elevated trains, and never with passengers on board.
It was an ugly affair and the engineer was tried for his monumental mistake. A hung jury got him off the chopping block and he ducked into the real estate business from then on. Unfortunately, for the 100+ victims of the accident, there was no ducking their deaths that day.
Trains were largely improved in following years, with most companies opting to retire their wooden cars entirely in favor of tough steel ones instead. That being said, as recently as 2017, an Amtrak train flew off the rails in Washington, placing 3 individuals in early graves. Grave…