The Wreck of the R. & P. Railroad

July 1, 1883

"All were appalled at the horror of the night" (The Bradford Era, July 2, 1883).

The age of the railroad has gained an almost romantic aura about it, as we look back on those days of train travel, steam engines, and the whistle and chug of a locomotive as it sped along a track. But like all things, even the best of railroads sometimes had accidents, and the new Rochester and Pittsburgh rail line was no exception. It occurred near Rasselas, about 25 miles southeast of Bradford, and many of the dead and injured were from Bradford. The following is an excerpt, taken from the Bradford Era:

A frightful accident occurred to a Rochester & Pittsburgh train, near Rasselas, early yesterday morning, resulting in the death of six persons, and the wounding of eleven others, more or less seriously. The first news of the calamity was received with general dismay in the city, as since the opening of the new road there is considerable travel between here and DuBois, and none knew but that a relation or friend might be on the wrecked train. As the hour wore on from the first misty daylight, when the startled telegraph operator received the message, the general details of the disaster became known, brings a sense of assurance to many, but untold anguish to a few happy homes. When the mournful record was complete, it read as follows: killed: S.N. Toles, conductor, of Bradford; Robert A. Clement, of Bradford; George Quinn, of Bradford; Adam Angelo, of DuBois; Michael Downs, brakeman, of Bradford; Samuel McKee, of Bradford. dying: John Collins, of Limestone, terribly cut on the head. wounded: Charles Jordan, of Limestone, injury of the shoulder; James O'Connell, of Alton, badly cut and scalded; W. L. David, of Olean, two ribs fractured, injury of spine, right hand badly lacerated, head scalded; Davis Ford, brakeman of Tarport, both legs broken; Joseph Revels, of Alton, severely scalded; R. Casmillo, of DuBois, fracture of the ribs and grave internal injuries; L. Casmillo, of Dubois, fracture of the left leg; Mrs. W.H. McCurdy and four year old son, of Bradford, cuts and contusions; an unknown Italian, severe bruises and scalds."

The Rochester & Pittsburgh, since an arrangement with the Erie Railroad for the use of its tracks to haul coal, ran its coal trains at night, so as not to interfere with the regular trains. Late Saturday evening, the regular coal train started out from DuBois in four sections, the first of which was attached to a passenger coach containing about fifteen passengers. Nearing Rasselas, the first section stopped to take on water from a tank situated on a steep grade. It was then 3AM, and very dark. The engineer jumped off and began oiling the engine, and was suddenly surprised to see the rear of the train break away from his locomotive, and moving down the tracks at great speed. Thinking that his brakemen would be able to check the cars in time, he leaped back into the cab, and backed the engine down the grade after the runaway cars.

But the brakemen had their hands full. Unknown to the engineer, the train had come apart in two sections - the first being the coach full of passengers, and the second being two coal cars - not an uncommon thing on a heavy coal train on a steep grade. Meanwhile, the second section of the train was below, unknowing that two groups of railroad cars were speeding back towards them at over 40 miles per hour down a fifty seven foot grade.

Engineers Pat Downs and Fireman Prosser were having a smoke, when they heard a sound, looked up, and saw the light of the flying coach coming straight at his train from around a bend. He instantly reversed his engine, and jumped for his life, with Prosser doing the same. Both men landed in a pile of stumps, and received severe bruises, but these were forgotten in the fearfully fascinating sight that met their eyes. The runaway coach plunged into the engine with a crash that could have been heard a long distance, and the roaring of steam from the dismantled mogul mingled with the noise of splintering timber drowned the death cries of the victims, if indeed they had time to utter a sound. The engine forced its way far into the coach, splitting it like a wedge, and the wrecked framework was lifted high in the air. At this moment, Mrs. W. H. McCurdy (coincidentally, the only woman on the train) succeeded in escaping from the wreck with her son, Marshall, and one or two others may have jumped. But a crowning horror remained for those wretched people imprisoned in the car. In a few moments, the second detached set of cars came flying down, striking the first wreck with such force that it collapsed, killing and maiming as the ruins fell while from the broken steam pipes, a torrent of boiling hot vapor parboiled everything in its path. There were a few stout hearts, however, among the less injured, who kept their heads, and began the dismal work of pulling from the wreck the poor, crushed, scalded bodies of the dead and dying, but hands were few, and all were appalled at the horror of the night."

The aftermath of the wreck saw an investigation of the accident and a coroner's report. All the passengers and trainmen were interviewed, and an inquiry concluded that the brakemen on the runaway cars had been asleep, and that a coupling had left loose, causing the train to roll backwards down the grade. John Collins died the next day.

The railroads existed in Bradford for many more years after the accident, and rail travel became second nature to most Bradfordians. But it is likely that those who lived through the wreck of the Rochester and Pittsburgh railroad always kept that night in the back of their minds.