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82 RAILROAD ACCIDENTS.

CHAPTER IX.

DRAW-BRIDGE DISASTERS.

It is difficult to see how on double track roads, where the occurrence of an accident on one line of tracks is always liable to instantly "foul" the other line, it is possible to guard against contingencies like that which occurred at New Hamburg. At the time, as is usual in such cases, the public indignation expended itself in vague denunciation of the Hudson River Railroad Company, because the disaster happened to take place upon a bridge in which there was a draw to permit the passage of vessels. There seemed to be a vague but very general impression that draw-bridges were dangerous things, and, because other accidents due to different causes had happened upon them, that the occurrence of this accident, from whatever cause, was in itself sufficient evidence of gross carelessness. The fact was that not even the clumsy Connecticut rule, which compels the stopping of all trains before entering on any

THE "FOULING" OF TRACKS. 83

draw-bridge, would have sufficed to avert the New Hamburg disaster, for the river was then frozen and the draw was not in use, so that for the time being the bridge was an ordinary bridge; and not even in the frenzy of crude suggestions which invariably succeeds each new accident was any one ever found ignorant enough to suggest the stopping of all trains before entering upon every bridge, which, as railroads generally follow watercourses, would not infrequently necessitate an average of one stop to every thousand feet or so. Only incidentally did the bridge at New Hamburg have anything to do with the disaster there, the essence of which lay in the sudden derailment of an oil car immediately in front of a passenger train running in the opposite direction and on the other track. Of course, if the derailment had occurred long enough before the passenger train came up to allow the proper signals to be given, and this precaution had been neglected, then the disaster would have been due, not to the original cause, but to the defective discipline of the employees. Such does not appear to have been the case at New Hamburg, nor was that disaster by any means the first due to derailment and the throwing of cars from one track in front of a train passing upon the other; nor will it be the last. Indeed, an accident hardly less destructive, arising from that very cause, had occurred only eight months previous in England, and resulted in eighteen deaths and more than fifty cases of injury. 

84 RAILROAD ACCIDENTS.

A goods train made up of a locomotive and twenty-nine wagons was running at a speed of some twenty miles an hour on the Great Northern road, between Newark and Claypole, about one hundred miles from London, when the forward axle under one of the wagons broke. As a result of the derailment which ensued the train became divided, and presently the disabled car was driven by the pressure behind it out of its course and over the interval, so that it finally rested partly across the other track. At just this moment an excursion train from London, made up of twenty-three carriages and containing some three hundred and forty passengers, came along at a speed of about thirty-five miles an hour. It was quite dark, and the engineer of the freight train waved his arm as a signal of danger; one of the guards, also, showed a red light with his hand lantern, but his action either was not seen or was misunderstood, for without any reduction of speed being made the engine of the excursion train plunged headlong into the disabled goods wagon. The collision was so violent as to turn the engine aside off the track and cause it to strike the stone pier of a bridge near by, by which it was flung completely around and then driven up the slope of the cutting, where it toppled over like a rearing horse and fell back into the roadway. The tender likewise was overturned; but not so the carriages. They rushed along holding to the track, and the side of each as it passed was ripped and

SCIENTIFIC INVESTIGATION. 85

torn by the projecting end of the goods wagon. Of the twenty-three carriages and vans in the train scarcely one escaped damage, while the more forward ones were in several cases lifted one on top of the other or forced partly up the slope of the cutting, whence they fell back again, crushing the passengers beneath them.

This accident occurred on the 21st of June, 1870; it was very thoroughly investigated by Captain Tyler on behalf of the Board of Trade, with the apparent conclusion that it was one which could hardly have been guarded against. The freight cars, the broken axle of which occasioned the disaster, did not belong to the Great Northern company, and the wheels of the train had been properly examined by viewing and tapping at the several stopping-places; the flaw which led to the fracture was, however, of such a nature that it could have been detected only by the removal of the wheel. It did not appear that the employees of the company had been guilty of any negligence; and it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that the accident was due to one of those defects to which the results of even the most perfect human workmanship must ever remain liable, and this had revealed itself under exactly those conditions which must involve the most disastrous consequences.

The English accident did, however, establish one thing, if nothing else; it showed the immeasurable superiority of the system of investigation pursued

86 RAILROAD ACCIDENTS.

in the case of railroad accidents in England over that pursued in this country. There a trained expert after the occurrence of each disaster visits the spot and sifts the affair to the very bottom, locating responsibility and pointing out distinctly the measures necessary to guard against its repetition. Here the case ordinarily goes to a coroner's jury, the findings of which as a rule admirably sustain the ancient reputation of that august tribunal, It is absolutely sad to follow the course of these investigations, they are conducted with such an entire disregard of method and lead to such inadequate conclusions. Indeed, how could it be otherwise? The same man never investigates two accidents, and, for the one investigation he does make, he is competent only in his own esteem.

Take the New Hamburgh accident as an example. Rarely has any catastrophe merited a more careful investigation, and few indeed have ever called forth more ill-considered criticism or crude suggestions. Almost nothing of interest respecting it was elicited at the inquest, and now no reliable criticism can be ventured upon it. The question of responsibility in that case, and of prevention thereafter, involved careful inquiry into at least four subjects:—First, the ownership and condition of the freight car, the fractured axle of which occasioned the disaster, together with the precautions taken by the company, usually and in this particular case, to test the wheels of freight cars moving over its road, especially

THE DRAW-BRIDGE FRENZY. 87

during times of severe cold.—Second, the conduct of those in charge of the freight train immediately preceding and at the time of the accident; was the fracture of the axle at once noticed and were measures taken to stop the train, or was the derailment aggravated by neglect into the form it finally took?—Third, was there any neglect in signaling the accident on the part of those in charge of the disabled train, and how much time elapsed between the accident and the collision?—Fourth, what, if any, improved appliances would have enabled those in charge of either train to have averted the accident? and what, if any, defects either in the rules or the equipment in use were revealed?

No satisfactory conclusion can now be arrived at upon any of these points, though the probabilities are that with the appliances since introduced the train might have been stopped in time. In this case, as in that at Claybridge, the coroner's jury returned a verdict exonerating every one concerned from responsibility, and very possibly they were justified in so doing; though it is extremely questionable whether Captain Tyler would have arrived at a similar conclusion. There is a strong probability that the investigation went off, so to speak, on a wholly false issue,—turned on the draw-bridge frenzy instead of upon the question of care. So far as the verdict declared that the disaster was due to a collision between a passenger train and a derailed oil car, and not to the existence of a draw in the bridge

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on which it happened to occur, it was, indeed, entitled to respect, and yet it was on this very point that it excited the most criticism. Loud commendation was heard through the press of the Connecticut law, which had been in force for twenty years, and, indeed, still is in force there, under which all trains are compelled to come to a full stop before entering on any bridge which has a draw in it,—a law which may best be described as a useless nuisance. Yet the grand jury of the Court of Oyer and Terminer of New York city even went so far as to recommend, in a report made by it on the 23d of February, I871,—sixteen days after the accident,—the passage by the legislature then in session at Albany of a similar legal absurdity. Fortunately better counsels prevailed, and, as the public recovered its equilibrium, the matter was allowed to drop.

The Connecticut law in question, however, originated in an accident which at the time had startled and shocked the community as much even as that at Versailles did before or that at Abergele has since done. It occurred to an express train on the New York & New Haven road at Norwalk, in Connecticut, on the 6th of May, 1853.


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