Of the many things that I enjoy in my spare time, movies are probably one of my favorite pastimes. This November saw the release of the latest Denzel Washington movie Unstoppable across the United States and I was thrilled to see that it had a local flare to it as well. Set in the rugged railroad communities of western Pennsylvania, the movie stars Washington as Frank Barnes, a twenty-eight year veteran on the rail yard, who is assigned to work with the young hotshot engineer Will Colson, played in the film by actor Chris Pine. During the course of the day, a report comes in of a runaway train carrying molten phenol, a hazardous ingredient of paints and dyes, and Barnes and Colson decide to risk it all in order to try and slow it down. Intertwined with the high-speed chase of the trains are several personal subplots: Barnes’ estranged relationship with his daughter and Colson’s stressed relationship with his wife and son. As a backdrop to everything is the beauty of the Pennsylvania countryside and the rich railroading history of the mid-state helps to make the film much more believable and relevant. (To read a review of Unstoppable from Time Magazine, click here)
Though the plot might seem old-fashion, it’s actually based on real life events. Nicknamed “the Crazy Eights” incident because of the runaway locomotive’s number (Locomotive #8888), the original story began in the summer of 2001 when an unmanned runaway train carrying hazardous cargo ran for over two hours at speeds of up to forty-seven miles per hour through the state of Ohio before it was brought to a stop with the help of a second locomotive that caught up with it and coupled to the rear of the runaway. Screenwriter Mark Bomback used the incident as inspiration for Unstoppable. Most of the filming for the movie was done on location in the Commonwealth, mostly in the areas around Pittsburgh (What? No cameo for the Strasburg Railroad?).
While the film itself is meant to be a source of entertainment, its story and lesson is nothing new for the men and women who work on the rails in the Commonwealth on a regular basis. That story is the ever-present fear of disaster. Pennsylvania’s railroads have seen their share of catastrophes over the years, but none have been more influential than the Great Train Wreck of 1856, one of the deadliest railroad catastrophes in the world up to that time and one of the signature events of its era that saw America dealing with the growing pains of a young industrial nation.
In April of 1852, the Philadelphia, Easton and Water Gap Railroad Company was formed as a way to connect Philadelphia with the coal mines of the Lehigh Valley. A spur of the railroad, whose name was changed in 1853, to the North Pennsylvania Railroad Company, was formally opened in July of 1855, with an excursion from Philadelphia, to Wissahickon (present-day Ambler, Pennsylvania in Montgomery County). Farmers could now ship their produce more economically to markets in the city and the railroad, which transported both freight and people, was already becoming an important component of local commerce for the City of Brotherly Love. However, issues remained. There was no regulated safety protocol for the railroad industry and railroad operators kept few records of what train was traveling on which track. The stage was set for an epic disaster.
On July 17, 1856 two trains set out from different stations with different destinations in mind. The first train was a locomotive that had been contracted by St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia to send their Sunday School children on a picnic in Shaeff’s Woods, a sprawling grove near the railroad’s Wissahickon station. Nicknamed, “the Picnic Special”, the train left the station about twenty minutes late, mainly due to the large crowd of over one thousand passengers onboard. Throughout the course of he trip, the locomotive struggled with low steam pressure and was under a sizable strain as it pulled between ten and twelve cars overloaded with passengers, mostly women and children. At the Wissahickon station, at the opposite end of the trace, another train known as the Aramingo waited for the “Picnic Special” to pass on the single lane track. Since the “Picnic Special” had left late from Philadelphia and was traveling slower then expected due to its low pressure, the Aramingo’s conductor, William Vanstavoren, had no idea when the “Picnic Special” had left or where it was and neglected to try and use the rail’s new telegraph system to try and check up on the passenger train’s progress. After the customary fifteen-minute waiting period, the Aramingo, carrying 20 passengers, left the station.
Though the track was single lane, Vanstavoren believed that he could make up the lost time and use a sidetrack to avoid the “Picnic Special” wherever it may be. Just above the Camp Hill Station near Fort Washington (Montgomery Country), both trains went into a blind curve. As they rounded the curve, both engineers finally caught sight of one another. But it was too late. The trains collided in a massive explosion heard up to five miles away. The three forward cars of the “Picnic Special” were decimated and the subsequent derails caused a fire to spread quickly among the wooden coaches. The initial impact did not kill most of the victims; rather many were trapped in the wreckage of the derailed cars that were on their sides and ended up burning to death. The fames could be seen for several miles and the heat from the flames was so strong that they prevented rescuers from trying to help the trapped victims. In all, over sixty people were killed in the wreck (mostly women and children) and over a hundred were injured.
From the disaster, there did come heroes. Mary Johnson Ambler, a Quaker woman who resided near the Wissahickon station, quickly gathered first-aid materials and covered the two-mile distance between her home and the disaster site on foot to help care for the injured. After her death in 1868, the North Pennsylvania Railroad changed the name of the station at Wissahickon to Ambler in her honor. Eventually, the town itself changled its name to Ambler, Pennsylvania.
The North Pennsylvania Railroad took heavy criticism in the press for their carelessness in safety. Executives were quick to enact new regulations forcing trains traveling opposite directions to use different tracks as well as implementing the use of the telegraph to notify stations of late trains and communicate other relevant information. The number of passengers on trains also became a major concern, especially as it applied to children. The Railroad even took steps to provide financial benefits for the injured and survivors of the victims. They issued shares of stock to those who would accept it and gave cash settlements to those who would not, an extraordinary gesture for a company in the mid-19th Century. However, not all of the victims of the Great Train Wreck of 1856 would be innocent passengers. The conductor of the Aramingo, William Vanstavoren, who escaped uninjured from the wreck, apparently felt such guilt for the accident that he ended up committed suicide by taking arsenic though he was later absolved of any blame by a local grand jury.
Regardless of whether or not you are a fan of Denzel Washington or even plan to see Unstoppable, the film itself mirrors the rich railroading history of the Commonwealth and, for better or worse, is a testament to how far we have come to make sure that everyone is same on the rails…even if the film’s original intent is just for entertainment.
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