The Hatfield Train Wreck in 1900
On 2 September 1900, on a foggy Sunday morning, a heavy excursion train bound for Atlantic City, New Jersey and a milk train bound for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania collided on the Reading and Philadelphia track in the little train station of Hatfield, located in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. 14 people were killed, and almost a half-hundred others were injured, though not all were serious. Four men were ultimately held responsible.
"What happened?" one may ask.
At about 7 in the morning, the daily milk train, which ran from South Bethlehem to Philadelphia, had stopped at Hatfield as it normally did to load up farmers' milk bound for creameries and such in Philadelphia. The train consisted of three cars devoted to the carrying of milk and two passenger cars, known as day cars.
A special excursion train, consisting of ten passenger day cars, also was on the tracks that day, behind the milk train. It too came from South Bethlehem, and was bound for the coast at Atlantic City with about 800 passengers on board. It intended to stop in Philadelphia to pick up passengers.
For whatever reason, the train barreled towards the Hatfield station and collided into the rear of the milk train, where the passenger cars were. It demolished one car and half of another. Most of the thirteen people killed in the crash were in the milk train's day cars.
The collision was horrible, according to the accounts of people who witnessed it or its aftermath. Many more people were injured, and some of the dead were mangled in ways that horrified onlookers. Doctors and nurses came from places as far as Philadelphia to help, and a local warehouse was made into a makeshift morgue for the large number of fatalities. People came out on that Sunday morning to help as best as they could, whether it be caring for the wounded, clearing the crash, freeing people that were trapped or moving bodies.
This train wreck changed the lives of many people, among them my own family. On that train was my great-great-grandfather, Florian Waldspurger, who had almost missed the milk train that morning, as he managed to climb aboard as it was pulling out of his usual station. Florian was bound for Philadelphia on the milk train for a day in the city visiting his eldest son, collecting some money owned to him, and making a payment on his mortgaged farm. He never made it past Hatfield. He was decapitated when the excursion train collided into his train car. He was fifty five years of age, an Alsatian of French and German descent and an immigrant to the United States. He was survived by his wife Marie Elizabeth Hans and five children.
Twelve other people died in that fateful crash. Among them, an owner of a hotel, a father and his daughter, a young woman about to be married, a farmer who had just delivered his supply of milk to be sent to Philadelphia and was not even on a train and several others who did not expect that early Sunday morning to be their last.
Who was to blame for this accident? Four men ultimately were charged in the accident. John Davis, the engineer of the excursion train was charged for running his train ahead of schedule and for not heeding a red flag that was put out at the Souderton crossing, a few miles before Hatfield. John Shelby, the conductor of the excursion train was charged because he allowed the train's engineer to run the train ahead of time and did not order him to reduce his speed. D. B. Beidler, the operator of the Souderton Station, was charged for not properly signaling that the milk train was on the tracks. W. S. Groves, the train dispatcher at the Reading Terminal, was charged because he failed to keep in touch with both trains and allow both trains to know the other was on the track.
John Davis was injured in the accident, having been thrown from the train when it collided. The other three turned themselves in after being charged, with Davis presumably arrested after he recovered from his injuries. To read more about what happened at the trials, click here.
It would be interesting to know what the stories of those who were hurt or killed in the accident were. But sadly, those are stories that may never be told.
If anyone ever finds info that will allow these stories to be told, please let me know!
"Awful Railway Wreck: Death Darted from the Fog – Atlantic City Excursion Crashes into Milk Train at Hatfield; A Great Scene of Horror," The Souderton Independent (Souderton, Pennsylvania), 2 September 1900, page 1.
"Day After Wreck," The Philadelphia Record (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 4 September 1900, page 8.
"Death Follows Victim's Ill-Luck: Pathetic Tragedy in Identification of the Unknown German, Who Proves to be Florian Waldspurger - The Coroner's Inquest," The Times (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 4 September 1900, page 3.
"The Hatfield Horror," Altoona Tribune (Altoona, Pennsylvania), 4 September 1900, page 1.
Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, probate case files, fn 21995, Estate of Florian Waldspurger (21 September 1900)
"Officials Probe Into the Reading Railway Disaster," The Times (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 4 September 1900, page 3.
"Railroad Wreck; Frightful Rear-End Collision at Hatfield; Atlantic City Excursion Train from Bethlehem Crashes Into a Milk Train With Frightful Results -- Thirteen Meet Almost Instant Death and a Half Hundred More are Bruised and Wounded in a Fog in the Early Morning," The Lansdale Reporter (Lansdale, Pennsylvania), 6 September 1900, page 1.
"Victims Buried: Towns in Mourning for those killed at Hatfield on Sunday," The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 6 September 1900, page 16.
Also stories that were passed down from my grandfather's family.