Home  

58 RAILROAD ACCIDENTS.

CHAPTER VI.

THE VERSAILLES ACCIDENT.

GOING back once more to the early days, a third of a century since, before yet the periodical recurrence of slaughter had caused either train-brake or Miller platform to be imagined as possibilities, before, indeed, there was yet any record of what we would now consider a regular railroad field-day, with its long train of accompanying horrors, including in the grisly array death by crushing, scalding, drowning, burning, and impalement,—going back to the year 1840, or thereabouts, we find that the railroad companies experienced a notable illustration of the truth of the ancient adage that it never rains but it pours; for it was then that the long immunity was rudely broken in upon. After that time disasters on the rail seemed to tread upon one another's heels in quick and frightful succession. Within a few months of the English catastrophe of December 24, 1841, there happened in France one of the most

MAY 8, 1842. 59

famous and most horrible railroad slaughters ever recorded. It took place on the 8th of May, 1842. It was the birthday of the king, Louis Philippe, and, in accordance with the usual practice, the occasion had been celebrated at Versailles by a great display of the fountains. At half past five o'clock these had stopped playing, and a general rush ensued for the trains then about to leave for Paris. That which went by the road along the left bank of the Seine was densely crowded, and so long that two locomotives were required to draw it. As it was moving at a high rate of speed between Bellevue and Meudon, the axle of the foremost of these two locomotives broke, letting the body of the engine drop to the ground. It instantly stopped, and the second locomotive was then driven by its impetus on top of the first, crushing its engineer and fireman, while the contents of both the fire-boxes were scattered over the roadway and among the debris. Three carriages crowded with passengers were then piled on top of this burning mass and there crushed together into each other. The doors of these carriages were locked, as was then and indeed is still the custom in Europe, and it so chanced that they had all been newly painted. They blazed up like pine kindlings. Some of the carriages were so shattered that a portion of those in them were enabled to extricate themselves, but the very much larger number were held fast; and of these such as were not so fortunate as to be crushed to death in the first shock perished hopelessly 

60 RAILROAD ACCIDENTS.

in the flames before the eyes of a throng of lookers-on impotent to aid. Fifty-two or fifty-three persons were supposed to have lost their lives in this disaster, and more than forty others were injured; the exact number of the killed, however, could never be ascertained, as the piling-up of the cars on top of the two locomotives had made of the destroyed portion of the train a veritable holocaust of the most hideous description. Not only did whole families perish together,—in one case no less than eleven members of the same family sharing a common fate,—but the remains of such as were destroyed could neither be identified nor separated. In one case a female foot was alone recognizable, while in others the bodies were calcined and and fused into an indistinguishable mass. The Academy of Sciences appointed a committee to inquire whether Admiral D'Urville, a distinguished French navigator, was among the victims. His body was thought to be found, but it was so terribly mutilated that it could be recognized only by a sculptor, who chanced some time before to have taken a phrenological cast of the skull. His wife and only son had perished with him.

It is not easy now to conceive the excitement and dismay which this catastrophe caused throughout France. The railroad was at once associated in the minds of an excitable people with novel forms of imminent death. France had at best been laggard enough in its adoption of the new invention,

THE RETURN FROM THE FETE. 61

and now it seemed for a time as if the Versailles disaster was to operate as a barrier in the way of all further railroad development. Persons availed themselves of the steam roads already constructed as rarely as possible, and then in fear and trembling, while steps were taken to substitute horse for steam power on other roads then in process of construction.

The disaster was, indeed, one well calculated to make a deep impression on the popular mind, for it lacked almost no attribute of the dramatic and terrible. There were circumstances connected with it, too, which gave it a sort of moral significance,—contrasting so suddenly the joyous return from the country fete in the pleasant afternoon of May, with what De Quincey has called the vision of sudden death. It contained a whole homily on the familiar text. As respects the number of those killed and injured, also, the Versailles accident has not often been surpassed; perhaps never in France. In this country it was surpassed on one occasion, among others, under circumstances very similar to it. This was the accident at Camphill station, about twelve miles from Philadelphia, on July 17, 1856, which befell an excursion train carrying some eleven hundred children, who had gone out on a Sunday school picnic in charge of their teachers and friends.

It was the usual story. The road had but a single track, and the train, both long and heavy, had been delayed and was running behind its schedule time. The conductor thought, however, that the next station 

62 RAILROAD ACCIDENTS.

could yet be reached in time to meet and there pass a regular train coming towards him. It may have been a miscalculation of seconds, it may have been a difference of watches, or perhaps the regular train was slightly before its time; but, however it happened, as the excursion train, while running at speed, was rounding a reverse curve, it came full upon the regular train, which had just left the station. In those days, as compared with the present, the cars were but egg-shells, and the shock was terrific. The locomotives struck each other, and, after rearing themselves up for an instant, it is said, like living animals, fell to the ground mere masses of rubbish. In any case the force of the shock was sufficient to hurl both engines from the track and lay them side by side at right angles to, and some distance from it. As only the excursion train happened to be running at speed, it alone had all the impetus necessary for telescoping; three of its cars accordingly closed in upon each other, and the children in them were crushed; as in the Versailles accident, two succeeding cars were driven upon this mass, and then fire was set to the whole from the ruins of the locomotives. It would be hard to imagine anything more thoroughly heartrending, for the holocaust was of little children on a party of pleasure. Five cars in all were burned, and sixty-six persons perished; the injured numbered more than a hundred.*

*A collision very similar to that at Camphill occurred upon the Erie railway at a point about 20 miles west of Port Jervis on the afternoon Of July 15, 1864. The train in this case consisted of eighteen cars, in which were some 850 Confederate soldiers on their way under guard to the prisoner's camp at Elmira. A coal train consisting of 50 loaded cars from the hanch took the main line at Lackawaxen. The telegraph operator there informed its conductor that the track was clear, and, while rounding a sharp reversed curve, the two trains came together, the one going at about twelve and the other at some twenty miles an hour. Some 60 of the soldiers, besides a number of train hands were killed on the spot, and 120 more were seriously injured, some of them fatally.

This disaster occurred in the midst of some of the most important operations of the Rebellion and excited at the time hardly any notice. There was a suggestive military promptness in the subsequent proceedings. "T. J. Ridgeway, Esq., Associate judge of Pike County, was soon on the spot, and, after consultation with Mr. Riddle [the superintendent of the Erie road] and the officer in command of the men, a jury was impanneled and an inquest held; after which a large trench was dug by the soldiers and the railway employees, 76 feet long, 8 feet wide and 6 feet deep, in which the bodies were at once interred in boxes, hastily constructed—one being allotted to four rebels, and one to each Union soldier." There were sixteen of the latter killed.

THE CAMPHILL COLLISION 63

Of this disaster nothing could be said either in excuse or in extenuation; it was not only one of the worst description, but it was one of that description the occurrence of which is most frequent. An excursion train, while running against time on a single-track road, came in collision with a regular train. The record is full of similar disasters, too numerous to admit of specific reference. Primarily of course, the conductors of the special trains are as a rule in fault in such cases. He certainly was at Camphill, and felt himself to be so, for the next day he committed suicide by swallowing arsenic. But in reality in these and in all similar cases,—both those which have happened and those hereafter surely destined to happen,—the full responsibility 

64 RAILROAD ACCIDENTS.

does not rest upon the unfortunate or careless sub. ordinate;—nor should the weight of punishment be visited upon him. It belongs elsewhere. At this late day no board of directors, not president, nor superintendent has any right to operate a single-track road without the systematic use of the telegraph in connection with its train movements. That the telegraph can be used to block, as it is termed, double-track roads, by dividing them into sections upon no one of which two trains can be running at the same time, is matter of long and daily experience. There is nothing new or experimental about -it. It is a system which has been forced on the more crowded lines of the world as an alternative to perennial killings. That in the year 1879 excursion trains should rush along single-track roads and hurl themselves against regular trains, just as was done twenty-three years ago at Camphill, would be deemed incredible were not exactly similar accidents still from time to time reported. One occurred near St. Louis, for instance, on July 4, 1879. The simple fact is that to now operate single-track roads without the constant aid of the telegraph, as a means of blocking them for every irregular train, indicates a degree of wanton carelessness, or an excess of incompetence, for which adequate provision should be made in the criminal law. Nothing but this appeal to the whipping-post, as it were, seems to produce the needed mental activity; for it is difficult to realize the

THE STIMULUS OF PROSECUTION. 65

stupid conservatism of ordinary men when brought to the consideration of something to which they are not accustomed. On this very point of controlling the train movement of single-track roads by telegraph, for instance, within a very recent period the superintendent of a leading Massachusetts road gravely assured the railroad commissioners of that state, that he considered it a most dangerous reliance which had occasioned many disasters, and that he had no doubt it would be speedily abandoned as a practice in favor of the old timetable and running-rules system, from which no deviations would be allowed. This opinion was expressed, also, after the Revere disaster of 1871, it might have been supposed, had branded into the record of the state the impossibility of safely running any crowded railroad in a reliance upon the schedule.* Such men as this, however, are not accessible to argument or the teachings of experience, and the gentle stimulant of a criminal prosecution seems to be the only thing left.

* Chapter XIV, XVI.


Table of Contents | Contents Page

Home
Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery