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THE FIRST CATASTROPHE. 43

CHAPTER V.

TELESCOPING AND THE MILLER PLATFORM.

THE period of exemption from wholesale railroad slaughters referred to in a previous chapter and which fortunately marked the early days of the system, seems to have lasted some eleven years. The record of great catastrophes opened on the Great Western railway of England, and it opened also, curiously enough, upon the 24th of December, a day which seems to have been peculiarly unfortunate in the annals of that corporation, seeing that it was likewise the date of the Shipton-on-Cherwell disaster. Upon that day, in 1841, a train, while moving through a thick fog at a high rate of speed, came suddenly in contact with a mass of earth that had slid down upon the track from the slope of the cutting. Instantly the whole rear of the train was piled up on the top of the first carriage, which happened to be crowded with passengers, eight of whom were killed on the spot while

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seventeen others were more or less injured. The coroner's jury returned a verdict of accidental death, and at the same time, as if to give the corporation a forcible hint to look closer to the condition of its roadway, a "deodand" of one hundred pounds was levied on the locomotive and tender. This practice, by the way, of levying a deodand in cases of railroad accidents resulting in loss of life, affords a curious illustration of how seldom those accidents must have occurred. The mere mention of it now as ever having existed sounds almost as strange and unreal as would an assertion that the corporations had in their earlier days been wont to settle their differences by wager of battle. Like the wager of battle, the deodand was a feature of the English common law derived from the feudal period. It was nothing more nor less than a species of fine, everything through the instrumentality of which accidental death occurred being forfeited to the crown; or, in lieu of the thing itself, its supposed money value as assessed by a coroner's jury.* Accordingly, down to somewhere about the year 1847, when the practice was finally abolished by act of Parliament, we find

* "Deodand. By this is meant whatever personal chattel is the immediate occasion of the death of any reasonable creature: which is forfeited to the king, to be applied to pious uses, and distributed in alms by his high almoner; though formerly destined to a more superstitious purpose. * * * Wherever the thing is in motion, not only that part which immediately gives the wounds (as the wheel which runs over his body,) but all things which move with it and help to make the wound more dangerous, (as the cart and loading, which increase the pressure of the wheel) are forfeited. "—Blackstone, Book 1, Chap. 8, XVI.

THE DEODAND. 45

in all cases of English railroad accidents resulting in death, mention of the deodand assessed by coroner's juries on the locomotives. These appear to have been arbitrarily fixed, and graduated in amount as the circumstances of the particular accident seemed to excite in greater or less degree the sympathies or the indignation of the jury. In November, 1838, for instance, a locomotive exploded on the Manchester & Liverpool road, killing its engineer and fireman: and for this escapade a deodand of twenty pounds was assessed upon it by the coroner's jury; while upon another occasion, in 1839, where the locomotive struck and killed a man and horse at a street crossing, the deodand was fixed at no less a sum than fourteen hundred pounds, the full value of the engine. Yet in this last case there did not appear to be any circumstances rendering the corporation liable in civil damages. The deodand seems to have been looked upon as a species of rude penalty imposed on the use of dangerous appliances,—a sharp reminder to the corporations to look closely after their locomotives and - employees. As, however, accidents increased in frequency it became painfully apparent that "crowner's 'quest law" was not in any appreciable degree better calculated to command the public respect in the days of Victoria than in those of Elizabeth, and the ancient usage was accordingly at last abolished. Certainly the position of railroad corporations would now be even more hazardous than it is, if, after every catastrophe

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resulting in death, the coroner's jury of the vicinage enjoyed the power of arbitrarily imposing on them such additional penalty not exceeding the value of a locomotive, in addition to all other liabilities, as might seem to it proper under the circumstances of the case.

Recurring, however, to the accident of December 24, 1861, the numerous casualties in that case were due to the crushing of the rolling stock which was not strong enough to resist the shock of the sudden stop. Under these circumstances the light, short English carriages rode over each other and were broken to pieces; under similar circumstances the longer and heavier cars then in use in America would have "telescoped;" that is, the platforms between the cars would have been broken off and the forward end of each car riding slightly up on its broken coupling would have shot in over the floor of the car before it, sweeping away the studding and other light wood-work and crushing stoves, seats and passengers into one inextricable mass, until, if the momentum was sufficiently great, the several vehicles in the train would be enclosed in each other somewhat like the slides of a partially shut telescope.

Crushing in other countries and telescoping in America were formerly the greatest, if not the worst, dangers to which travel by rail was liable. As respects crushing there is little to be said. It is a mere question of proportions,—resisting strength

TELESCOPING. 47

opposed to momentum. So long as trains go at great speed it is inevitable that they will occasionally be brought to a dead-stand by running upon unexpected obstacles. The simple wonder is that they do this so infrequently. When, however, now and again, they are thus brought to a dead-stand the safety of the passenger depends and can depend on nothing but the strength of the car in which he is sitting as measured by the force of the shock to which it is subjected. This matter has already been referred to in connection with the Shipton and Wollaston accidents,* the last of which was a significant reminder to all railroad managers that no matter how strongly or with how careful a regard to scientific principles cars may be constructed, just so long as they are made by human hands it is easy to load on weight sufficient, when combined with only a moderate momentum, to crush them into splinters.

Telescoping, however, was an incident of crushing, and a peculiarly American incident, which is not without a certain historical interest; for the particular feature in car construction which led directly to it and all its attendant train of grisly horrors furnishes a singular and instructive illustration of the gross violations of mechanical principles into which practical, as opposed to educated, mechanics are apt constantly to fall,—and in which, when once they have fallen, they steadily persist. The

*Ante pp. 18-19.

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original idea of the railroad train was a succession of stage coaches chained together and hauled by a locomotive. The famous pioneer train of August 9, 1831, over the Mohawk Valley road was literally made up in this way, the bodies of stagecoaches having been placed on trucks, which "were coupled together with chains or chain-links, leaving from two to three feet slack, and when the locomotive started it took up the slack by jerks, with sufficient force to jerk the passengers, who sat on seats across the tops of the coaches, out from under their hats, and in stopping they came together with such force as to send them flying from their seats." On this trip, it will be remembered, the train presently came to a stop, when the passengers upon it, with true American adaptability, set their wits at once to the work of devising some means of remedying the unpleasant jerks.* "A plan was soon hit upon and put in execution. The three links in the couplings of the cars were stretched to their utmost tension, a rail, from a fence in the neighborhood, was placed between each pair of cars and made fast by means of the packing yarn from the cylinders." Here was the incipient idea of couplers and buffers improvised by practical men, and for a third of a century it remained almost unimproved upon, except by the introduction of a spring upon which coupler and buffer played. The only other considerable change made in the

* Railroads: their Origin and Problems, P. 49.

A PRACTICAL BLUNDER. 49

earlier days of car construction was by no means an improvement, inasmuch as it introduced the new and wholly unnecessary danger of telescoping.

The original passenger cars, however frail and light they may have been, were at least, when shackled together in a train, continuous in their bearings on each other,—that is, their sills and floor timbers were all on a level and in line, so that, if the cars were suddenly pressed together, they met in such a way as to resist the pressure to the extent of their resisting power, and the floor of one did not quietly slide under or over that of another. The bodies of these cars were about thirty-two inches from the rails. This was presently found to be too low. In raising the bodies of the cars, however, the mechanics of those days encountered a practical difficulty. The couplings of the cars built on the new model were higher than those of the old. They at once met, and, as they thought, no less ingeniously then successfully overcame this difficulty, by placing the couplings and draw-heads of their new cars below the line of the sills. This necessitated putting the platform which sustained the coupling also beneath the sills, and in doing that they disregarded, without the most remote consciousness of the fact, a fundamental law of mechanics. With a possible pressure, both sudden and heavy to be resisted, the line of resistance was no longer the line of greatest strength. During thirty years this stupid blunder remained  

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uncorrected. It was as if the builders during that period had from force of habit insisted upon always using as supports pillars which were curved or bent instead of upright. At the close of those thirty years also the railroad mechanics had become so thoroughly educated into their false methods that it took yet other years and a series of frightful disasters, the significance of which they seemed utterly unable to take in, before they could be induced to abandon those methods.

The two great dangers of telescoping and oscillation were directly due to this system of car construction and of train coupling,—and telescoping and oscillation were probably the cause of one-half at least of the loss of life and the injuries to persons incident to the first thirty years of American railroad experience. The badly built and loosely connected coaches of every train going at any considerable rate of speed used then to swing and roll about and hammer against each other after a fashion which made the infrequent occurrence of serious disaster the only fair subject for surprise. In case of a sudden stoppage or partial derailment, the train stopped or went on, not as a whole, but as a succession of parts, while the low platforms and slack couplings fearfully increased the danger;—for, if the train held together, the cars in stopping were likely to break off the platforms, making of what remained of them a sort of inclined plane over which the car-bodies rode into each other at different

MILLER'S PLATFORM AND BUFFER. 51

levels; or, if the couplings, as was more probable, held and the train did not part, the swaying and swinging of the loosely connected cars was almost sure to throw them from the track and break them in pieces. The invention through which this difficulty was at last overcome, simple and obvious as it was, is fairly entitled, so far as America at least is concerned, to be classed among the four or five really noticeable advances which have of late years been made in railroad appliances. It contributed unmistakably and essentially to the safety of every traveller. Known as the Miller platform and buffer, from the name of the inventor, it was, like all good work of the sort, a simple and intelligent recurrence to correct mechanical principles. Miller went to work to construct cars in such a way as to cause them to come in contact with each other in the line of their greatest resisting power, while in coupling them together in trains he introduced both tension and compression;—that is he, in plain language, brought the ends of the heavy longitudinal floor timbers of the separate cars exactly on a line and directly bearing on each other, and then forced them against each other until the heavy spring buffers which played on those floor timbers were compressed, when the couplers sprung together and the train then stood practically one solid body from end to end. It could no more swing or crush than a single car could swing or crush. It then only remained to 

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increase the weight and to perfect the construction of the vehicles to insure all the safety in this respect of which travel by rail admitted.

Simple as these improvements were, and apparently obvious as the mechanical principles on which they were based now seem, the opposition for years offered to them by practical master-mechanics and railroad men would have been ludicrous had it not been exasperating. There was hardly a railroad in the country whose officers did not insist that their method of construction was exceptional, it was true, but far better than Miller's. It was maintained that the slack couplings were necessary in order to enable the locomotives to start the trains,

-that a train made up without the slack, on Miller's plan, could not be set in motion, and that if it was set in motion it must twist apart at every sharp curve etc. The ingenuity displayed in thus inventing theoretical objections to the appliance far exceeded that required for inventing it, and indeed no one who has not had official experience of it can at all realize the objecting capacity of the typical practical mechanic whose conceit as a rule is measured by his ignorance, while his stupidity is unequalled save by his obstinacy. Even when

Miller's invention for one reason or another was not adopted, the principles upon which that invention was founded,—the principles of tension, cohesion and direct resistance,—at last forced their way into general acceptance. The long-urged objection

 

THE "IMPOSSIBLE" IN PRACTICE. 53

that the thing was practically impossible was slowly abandoned in face of the awkward but undeniable fact that it was done every day, and many times a day. Consequently, as the result of much patient arguing, duly emphasized by the regular recurrence of disaster, it is not too much to assert that for weight, resisting power, perfection of construction and equipment and the protection they afford to travellers, the standard American passenger coach is now far in advance of any other. As to comfort, convenience, taste in ornamentation, etc., these are so much matters of habit and education that it is unnecessary to discuss them. They do not affect the question of safety.

A very striking illustration of the vast increase of safety secured through this improved car construction was furnished in an accident, which happened in Massachusetts upon July 15, 1872. As an express train on the Boston & Providence road was that day running to Boston about noon and at a rate of speed of some forty miles an hour, it came in contact with a horse and wagon at a grade crossing in the town of Foxborough. The train was made up of thoroughly well-built cars, equipped with both the Miller platform and the Westinghouse train-brake. There was no time in which to check the speed, and it thus became a simple question of strength of construction, to be tested in an unavoidable collision. The engine struck the wagon, and instantly destroyed it. The horse had already cleared the rails when the 

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wagon was struck, but, a portion of his harness getting caught on the locomotive, he was thrown down and dragged a short distance until his body came in contact with the platform of a station close to the spot of collision. The body was then forced under the cars, having been almost instantaneously rolled and pounded up into a hard, unyielding mass. The results which ensued were certainly very singular. Next to the locomotive was an ordinary baggage and mail car, and it was under this car, and between its forward and its hind truck, that the body of the horse was forced; coming then directly in contact with the truck of the rear wheels, it tore it from its fastenings and thus let the rear end of the car drop upon the track. In falling, this end snapped the coupling by its weight, and so disconnected the train, the locomotive going off towards Boston dragging this single car, with one end of it bumping along the track. Meanwhile the succeeding car of the train had swept over the body of the horse and the disconnected truck, which were thus brought in contact with its own wheels, which in their turn were also torn off; and so great was the momentum that in this way all of the four passenger cars which composed that part of the train were successively driven clean off their rolling gear, and not only did they then slide off the track, but they crossed a railroad siding which happened to be at that point, went down an embankment three or four feet in height, demolished a fence, passed into an adjoining

1854 AND 1874. 55

field, and then at last, after glancing from the stump of a large oak-tree, they finally came to a stand-still some two hundred feet from the point at which they had left the track. There was not in this case even an approach to telescoping; on the contrary, each car rested perfectly firmly in its place as regarded all the others, not a person was injured, and when the wheel-less train at last became stationary the astonished passengers got up and hurried through the doors, the very glass in which as well as that in the windows was unbroken. Here was an indisputable victory of skill and science over accident, showing most vividly to what an infinitesimal extreme the dangers incident to telescoping may be reduced.

The vast progress in this direction made within twenty years can, however, best perhaps be illustrated by the results of two accidents almost precisely similar in character, which occurred, the one on the Great Western railroad of Canada, in October, 1854, the other on the Boston & Albany, in Massachusetts, in October, 1874. In the first case a regular train made up of a locomotive and seven cars, while approaching Detroit at a speed of some twenty miles an hour, ran into a gravel train of fifteen cars which was backing towards it at a speed of some ten miles an hour. The locomotive of the passenger train was thrown completely off the track and down the embankment, dragging after it a baggage car. At the head of the passenger portion of the train were two second-class cars filled with emigrants ; both of these

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were telescoped and demolished, and all their unfortunate occupants either killed or injured. The front of the succeeding first-class car was then crushed in, and a number of those in it were hurt. In all, no less than forty-seven persons lost their lives, while sixty others were maimed or severely bruised. So much for a collision in October, 1854. In October, 1874, on the Boston & Albany road, the regular New York express train, consisting of a locomotive and seven cars, while going during the night at a speed of forty miles an hour, was suddenly, near the Brimfield station, thrown by a misplaced switch into a siding upon which a number of platform freight cars were standing. The train was thoroughly equipped, having both Miller platform and Westinghouse brake. The six seconds which intervened, in the darkness, between notice of displacement and the collision did not enable the engineer to check perceptibly the speed of his train, and when the blow came it was a simple question of strength to resist. The shock must have been tremendous, for the locomotive and tender were flung off the track to the right and the baggage car to the left, the last being thrown across the interval between the siding and the main track and resting obliquely over the latter. The forward end of the first passenger coach was thrown beyond the baggage car up over the tender, and its rear end, as well as the forward end of the succeeding coach, was injured. As in the Foxborough case, several of the trucks were jerked out from under

1854 AND 1874. 57

the cars to which they belonged, but not a person on the train was more than slightly bruised, the cars were not disconnected, nor was there even a suggestion of telescoping.


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