WHOLLY apart from the derailment, which was the real occasion of the Des Jardines disaster, there was one other cause which largely contributed to its fatality, if indeed that fatality was not in greatest part immediately due to it.

The question as to what is the best method of coupling together the several individual vehicles which make up every railroad train has always been much discussed among railroad mechanics. The decided weight of opinion has been in favor of the strongest and closest couplings, so that under no circumstances should the train separate into parts. Taking all forms of railroad accident together, this conclusion is probably sound. It is, however, at best only a balancing of disadvantages,—a mere question as to which practice involves the least amount of danger. Yet a very terrible demonstration that there are two sides to this as to most other questions 


was furnished at Des Jardines. It was the custom on the Great Western road not only to couple the cars together in the method then in general use, but also, as is often done now, to connect them by heavy chains on each side of the centre coupling. Accordingly when the locomotive broke through the Des Jardines bridge, it dragged the rest of the train hopelessly after it. This certainly would not have happened had the modern self-coupler been in use, and probably would not have happened had the cars been connected only by the ordinary link and pins; for the train was going very slowly, and the signal for brakes was given in ample time to apply them vigorously before the last cars came to the opening, into which they were finally dragged by the dead weight before them and not hurried by their own momentum.

On the other hand, we have not far to go in search of scarcely less fatal disasters illustrating with equal force the other side of the proposition, in the terrible consequences which have ensued from the separation of cars in cases of derailment. Take, for instance, the memorable accident of June 17, 1858, near Port Jervis, on the Erie railway.

As the express train from New York was running at a speed of about thirty miles an hour over a perfectly straight piece of track between Otisville and Port Jervis, shortly after dark on the evening of that day, it encountered a broken rail. The train was made up of a locomotive, two baggage cars and five


passenger cars, all of which except the last passed safely over the fractured rail. The last car was apparently derailed, and drew the car before it off the track. These two cars were then dragged along, swaying fearfully from side to side, for a distance of some four hundred feet, when the couplings at last snapped and they went over the embankment, which was there some thirty feet in height. As they rushed down the slope the last car turned fairly over, resting finally on its roof, while one of its heavy iron trucks broke through and fell upon the passengers beneath, killing and maiming them. The other car, more fortunate, rested at last upon its side on a pile of stones at the foot of the embankment. Six persons were killed and fifty severely injured; all of the former in the last car.

In this case, had the couplings held, the derailed cars would not have gone over the embankment and but slight injuries would have been sustained. Modern improvements have, however, created safeguards sufficient to prevent the recurrence of other accidents under the same conditions as that at Port Jervis. The difficulty lay in the inability to stop a train, though moving at only moderate speed, within a reasonable time. The wretched inefficiency of the old handbrake in a sudden emergency received one more illustration. The train seems to have run nearly half a mile after the accident took place before it could be stopped, although the engineer had instant notice of it and reversed his locomotive. 


The couplings did not snap until a distance -bad been traversed in which the modern train-brake would have reduced the speed to a point at which they would have been subjected to no dangerous strain.

The accident ten years later at Carr's Rock, sixteen miles west of Port Jervis, on the same road, was again very similar to the one just described: and yet in this case the parting of the couplings alone prevented the rear of the train from dragging its head to destruction. Both disasters were occasioned by broken rails; but, while the first occurred on a tangent, the last was at a point where the road skirted the hills, by a sharp curve, upon the outer side of which was a steep declivity of some eighty feet, jagged with rock and bowlders. It befell the night express on the 14th of April, 1876. The train was a long one, consisting of the locomotive, three baggage and express, and seven passenger cars, and it encountered the broken rail while rounding the curve at a high rate of speed. Again all except the last car, passed over the fracture in safety; this was snapped, as it were, off the track and over the embankment. At first it was dragged along, but only for a short distance; the intense strain then broke the coupling between the four rear cars and the head of the train, and, the last of the four being already over the embankment, the others almost instantly toppled over after it and rolled down the ravine. A passenger on this portion 


of the train, described the car he was in "as going over and over, until the outer roof was torn off, the sides fell out, and the inner roof was crushed in." Twenty-four persons were killed and eighty injured; but in this instance, as in that at Des Jardines, the only occasion for surprise was that there were any survivors.

Accidents arising from the parting of defective couplings have of course not been uncommon, and they constitute one of the greatest dangers incident to heavy gradients; in surmounting inclines freight trains will, it is found, break in two, and their hinder parts come thundering down the grade, as was seen at Abergele. The American passenger trains, in which each car is provided with brakes, are much less liable than the English, the speed of which is regulated by brake-vans, to accidents of this description. Indeed, it may be questioned whether in America any serious disaster has occurred from the fact that a portion of a passenger train on a road operated by steam got beyond control in descending an incline. There have been, however, terrible catastrophes from this cause in England, and that on the Lancashire & Yorkshire road near Helmshere, a station some fourteen miles north of Manchester, deserves a prominent place in the record of railroad accidents.

It occurred in the early hours of the morning of the 4th of September, 1860. There had been a great fete at the Bellevue Gardens in Manchester on 


the 3d, upon the conclusion of which some twenty-five hundred persons crowded at once upon the return trains. Of these there were, on the Lancashire & Yorkshire road, three; the first consisting of fourteen, the second of thirty-one, and the last of twenty-four carriages: and they were started, with intervals of ten minutes between them, at about eleven o'clock at night. The first train finished its journey in safety. Not so the second and the third. The Helmshere station is at the top of a steep incline. This the second train, drawn by two locomotives, surmounted, and then stopped for the delivery of passengers. While these were leaving the carriages, a snap as of fractured iron was heard, and the guards, looking back, saw the whole rear portion of the train, consisting of seventeen carriages and a brake-van, detached from the rest of it and quietly slipping down the incline. The detached portion was moving so slowly that one of the guards succeeded in catching the van and applying the brakes; it was, however, already too late. The velocity was greater than the brake-power could overcome, and the seventeen carriages kept descending more and more rapidly. Meanwhile the third train had reached the foot of the incline and begun to ascend it, when its engineer, on rounding a curve, caught sight of the descending carriages. He immediately reversed his engine, but before he could bring his train to a stand they were upon him. Fortunately the van-brakes of the detached carriages, though insufficient


to stop them, yet did reduce their speed the collision nevertheless was terrific. The force of the blow, so far as the advancing train was concerned, expended itself on the locomotive, which was demolished, while the passengers escaped with a fright. Not so those in the descending carriages. With them there was nothing to break the blow, and the two hindmost carriages were crushed to fragments and their passengers scattered over the line. It was shortly after midnight, and the excursionists clambered out of the trains and rushed frantically about, impeding every effort to clear away the debris and rescue the injured, whose shrieks and cries were incessant. The bodies of ten persons, one of whom had died of suffocation, were ultimately taken out from the wreck, and twenty-two others sustained fractures of limbs.

At Des Jardines the couplings were too strong; at Port Jervis and at Helmshere they were not strong enough; at Carr's Rock they gave way not a moment too soon. "There are objections to a plenum and there are objections to a vacuum," as Dr. Johnson remarked," but a plenum or a vacuum it must be." There are no arguments, however, in favor of putting railroad stations or sidings upon an inclined plane, and then not providing what the English call "catch-points" or "scotches" to prevent such disasters as those at Abergele or Helmshere. In these two instances alone the want of them cost over fifty lives. In railroad mechanics 


there are after all some principles susceptible of demonstration. That vehicles, as well as water, will run down hill may be classed among them. That these principles should still be ignored is hardly less singular than it is surprising.

Table of Contents | Contents Page

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