From today's Journal-Gazette, http://www.journalgazette.net/article/20100919/EDIT10/309199954
Interurban crash a century ago killed 41, shattered lives
To get a close look at a piece of the past, go to Google Earth on your computer. Peer down from the sky high over Wells County. Now zoom in on Section 33 of Jefferson Township, just south of the Allen County line, 16 miles south of downtown Fort Wayne, to be precise. Home in on the junction of highways Indiana 1 and Indiana 224. You now have a sky view of Kingsland, a community that was once more than it is now.
Now move down just a bit, to the southeast of Kingsland. You will find what archaeologists call a "disturbance," evidence of something out of the ordinary. There's a tree line that makes a sort of diagonal from northwest to southeast and a narrow strip of land parallel with the tree line. It's neither a plot of land nor a clump of trees – more like a broad, long-gone pathway.
That would be the abandoned right-of-way of what was once the Fort Wayne and Wabash Valley Traction Co., an interurban line that ran south from Fort Wayne through Ossian and Kingsland to Bluffton and points south.
And it was just north of the Kingsland highway intersection that a century ago this week – Sept. 21, 1910 – the greatest collision of the interurban era took 41 lives and made front-page news around the nation.
It was shortly after noon on that Wednesday when Train 56, a single-car interurban, headed north out of Bluffton carrying a full load – an estimated 55 passengers, a conductor and a motorman – and headed for Fort Wayne. Most of the passengers had boarded in Bluffton and were headed for an Allen County fair.
The fair, in fact, was such an occasion that the interurban dispatcher in Fort Wayne had ordered an additional Fort Wayne and Wabash Valley Traction car to head south to pick up the overflow crowd waiting at Bluffton.
By 1910 these interurban cars and tracks criss-crossed Indiana, so this activity between Fort Wayne and Bluffton was not out of the ordinary.
Historian Jerry Marlette reckons there were 2,400 miles of interurban track in Indiana by 1920. In 1916 alone, 7.2 million Hoosiers rode the electric-powered single-car trains from cities and towns around the state to and from Indianapolis. Two-hundred and eighty thousand of the cars either came or went from Indi- anapolis in that year. You could hop on an interurban at any of a dozen points in Fort Wayne at 8 a.m. and be in Indian- apolis for lunch. With a little creative scheduling, you could go from Fort Wayne to New York City and never ride on anything but an interurban.
The interurban – those single-car trains with a trolley that extended up to the overhead electrical power line along the right-of-way – was both mass transit and rapid transit long before planners and bureaucrats began talking about such things. Fort Wayne's first electrified railroad – a street car – ran in 1891; the last streetcar run in Fort Wayne was June 27, 1947. In between was a half-century of Hoosiers going pretty much where they wanted when they wanted in comfort and safety before the automobile drove the interurban to extinction.
So there was nothing unusual about this September Wednesday along the Fort Wayne and Wabash Valley line. The traction company had been formed in 1904 and had built a mesh of lines linking Fort Wayne to Logansport, Peru, Wabash, Marion and Bluffton.
Ron Moser, a Fort Wayne resident who was born in Bluffton and has an interest in both railroad and Wells County history, has tromped around the area just north of Kingsland.
"There's nothing you can see today," he said. "The interurban line is gone and the best view of it is from that Google picture. About the best I can tell is that the site was several hundred yards north of Indiana 224."
But by mid-afternoon a century ago, that place was a frightful mess of death and destruction. The wire service report of the accident, published in newspapers around the nation the next day, described it thus:
"The spot where the wreck occurred is isolated and it was an hour and a half after the collision that physicians arrived on the scene from Bluffton and Fort Wayne and the actual relief work began.
"The dead were laid in rows in a grove nearby. The bodies were horribly mangled. Legs and arms were severed and heads in some cases nearly cut from bodies.
"Relatives of the dead arriving at the grove were hysterical, making the work of the doctors doubly difficult."
Reporters interviewed a man named John Boyd of Marion, who may have escaped as the only uninjured person on either train that day.
"Boyd owes his life to the fact that he was compelled to hang on to the rear step of the north bound car, unable to get in a place on the platform owing to the crowd. As the car was taking the curve, Boyd says he got a long look ahead and saw the southbound car coming head on. He jumped from the car," the newspaper account said.
" 'There was a splintering crash,' " he was quoted as saying. "A dull grinding as wood and iron resolved themselves into a mass of wreckage and mingled with human blood and flesh and bones. The big car seemed to climb upon the frailer and heavier loaded car and from its pilot to within six feet of the rear swept over the crowded coach making it almost clean. That anything alive could have survived that terrible sweep of splintered wood and twisted steel is a miracle. Following the crash, there was a period of appalling stillness and then the shrieks and groans of the wounded and dying rose upon the air."
So what went so very wrong that day?
The simple explanation: Human error.
The fully loaded northbound car – Train 56 – was doing what it was supposed to do. Motorman Charles Van Dine and conductor E.A. Spillars had taken command of the car in Bluffton and were headed to Fort Wayne.
The southbound car – Extra Train 303 – had only motorman Benjamin Corkwell and conductor Delford Wilson aboard.
Each crew knew the other was on the track, and orders had been issued to Van Dine that he was to meet Corkwell's car at a siding identified as "106" about a mile south of Ossian. One car would be shunted to the siding; the other would pass. Simple as that.
A detailed account of what happened next fills a state investigative report. Bottom line is that numbers and times and locations were confused by one or the other, if not both, of the crews.
Both trains were going 50 to 60 mph when they approached Kingsland.
The only person with a hint of what might happen was the Fort Wayne dispatcher, W. H. Friemeyer, who had been in contact with both cars when they were halted. Both were now in motion and he was helpless to contact them.
So, at full speed, they met. And the collision was horrific.
Historian George K. Bradley, in 1983, pieced together the most detailed account:
"Seconds later the air was filled with a resounding, earsplitting crash. The smaller car was telescoped more than halfway by the heavier car. And its floor slid over the lower floor crushing everything in its path, pushing baggage, seats . . . and bodies . . . to the rear of the doomed car. Forty-one people were instantly killed or succumbed later from the disaster. The two Wabash Valley train crews were injured but survived, although just how is not quite clear.
"There were as many different stories as there were survivors. Several are a matter of record and some must have been agonizing.
"Dispatcher Friemeyer, losing touch with the cars, must have realized what was happening, kept searching and finally, in despair, asked the Ossian agent if he had seen Train 56. Getting a negative reply he asked him to phone the Erie Railroad tower operator. This man reported the wreck to the agent who passed the news to Friemeyer."
The wreckage of Train 56 was burned at the site and the remains of Extra Train 303 were hauled back to Fort Wayne in the dark and stored out of sight until it was rebuilt months later.
Financially, the Fort Wayne and Wabash Valley Traction Co. was ruined. It paid about $300,000 in death and injury claims before it was reorganized the next year as the Fort Wayne and Northern Indiana Traction Co. A lengthy state investigation by the Indiana Railroad Commission was inconclusive at best. No charges were filed and none of the crew was fired.
But what of Bluffton? What of the lives lost and ruined?
The newspaper account from Bluffton on Thursday, Sept. 22, explains:
"Bluffton awoke this morning to a fuller realization to the horror of yesterday's tragedy.
"All of the dead were brought here last night. Nineteen Bluffton people were killed and the bodies of these were removed to their homes. Other bodies are in the morgue. The town is in mourning and business is practically at a standstill. There is hardly a home here that is not affected, either through the loss of members of the family or dear friends.
"Bluffton yesterday afternoon saw two score and more laughing people, home folks and visitors in the town, depart on one of the big swift-going cars of the traction company for a day of pleasure at the Fort Wayne fair. A few hours later two funeral cars, heavily freighted with forty broken, mangled bodies came slowly back and with them came hysterical crying men and women, weeping for lost ones.
"Bluffton today is bearing a heavy burden of grief."