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The Story of the Hatfield Train Wreck of 1900


Source: Lansdale Reporter, 13 September 1900



Held in $1000 Bail Each for October Court on the Charge of Criminal Negligence - the Reading Management is Practically Exonerated - The Testimony is Adduced Before the Coroner's Jury



William C. Blackburn, of Ambler, and others, came to their deaths from shock and injuries at Hatfield Station in a collision on the Philadelphia and Reading Railway on Sunday morning, September 2, 1900.

We, the jury, strongly recommend that the Philadelphia and Reading Railway company strictly observe the five-minute rule in running of all trains not guarded by some sort of block system.

We recommend a continuation by the Philadelphia and Reading Railway company of the Hall signal system to Bethlehem.

We condemn John Davis, engineer of special excursion train No. 249, for running past the red flag at the crossing at Souderton, for running his train ahead of time and running his train recklessly.

We condemn Conductor John Shelby, of the special excursion train, for permitting Engineer John Davis to run recklessly and ahead of time and for not ordering Davis to reduce speed.

We believe that Operator D. B. Beidler, at Souderton Station, neglected his duty in his failure to raise the red board after the milk train had passed.

We are aware of the opinion that Train Dispatcher W. S. Groves did not perform his duty in failing to keep in constant touch with the milk train and the first section of the excursion train.

John J. White, foreman
J. Crawford Johnson
Joseph B. Anders
Frank Pownall
Hiram B. Weachter
John H. Kindig


Considerable interest was centered in the proceedings of the inquest conducted by Coroner Grant B. McGlathery in Fred's Hall, Lansdale, last week to ascertain the cause of and fix the individual blame for the disastrous rear-end collision on the P. & R. Railway at Hatfield Station on September 2nd, which resulted in the loss of 13 precious lives and the wounding of half a hundred others as reported in last week's paper.

The inquest covered a period of two days and attracted a crowd of spectators sufficient to crowd the spacious hall both days. All the leading Philadelphia papers were represented at the long reporters' table provided immediately in front of the stage on which sat the Coroner, District Attorney Hendricks, the six jurymen, railroad representatives, and the witnesses as they in turn gave in their testimony.

The testimony was interesting as a narrative of the incidents leading up to the awful tragedy, coming as it did from the lips of those who lived through the dreadful ordeal as passengers on either train, as well as from those upon whom rested the suspicion of being in part of at least responsible for the wreck. And as the inquest proceeded it became patent to all that the wreck was due either to gross mismanagement or criminal carelessness, probably both. At times the scene in the hall was emotional, at times sensational; and could Engineer John Davis of the ill-fated express, who lies in a hospital at Bethlehem battling for life but have been there to give in his testimony, the effect would have been but little less than dramatic.

The finding of the jury on the strength of the evidence adduced appears at the head of these columns. They divide the blame pro rata upon four employees of the railway company - Dispatches Groves, of the Reading Terminal; Operator Beidler, of Souderton, and Engineer Davis and Conductor Shelby, of the express train. As a result of the jury's findings, District Attorney Hendricks on Monday held Groves, Beidler, and Shelby each in the sum of $1000 bail for trial at October court on the charge of criminal negligence, and nothing saves Engineer Davis from like treatment but the fact of his precarious condition and inability to appear.


Charles H. Gorman, of South Bethlehem, a passenger in the third coach of the excursion train, said there was some fog on Saturday morning, but it was not very dense. He felt the brakes before the milk train was struck and before the engine was reversed. This was probably 300 feet before the accident. Between Bethlehem and Quakertown, the speed of the excursion was about 20 miles per hour. Passed Quakertown, the speed was 40 or 45 miles an hour.

John D. Souders, of Telford, had finished unloading the milk just before the crash came. The operator at Telford told Mr. Souders that the trains were six minutes apart. There was a heavy fog, but the excursion train could be seen a quarter of a mile away.

Jonas Kulp, of Hatfield, said he did not know anything of the wreck until he found himself lying on the floor of the middle milk car. He had been working one-half minute before the crash. There was a pretty heavy fog, but the excursion train could be seen a quarter of a mile away.

John Derstine, of Hatfield, a farmer, saw the excursion train coming first 300 feet above the milk train running very rapidly. He ran off the platform. There was about a minute interval between the milk and excursion trains. The weather was intensely foggy.

Horace Bergey, a farmer of Hatfield, heard the whistle of the excursion train about 450 feet above the point of the crash. It was pretty foggy, but believe he could have seen 1200 feet. He ran about 200 feet between the time the milk train stopped and the crash.

Henry Moyer, of Hatfield, was on the platform when he was the excursion train coming, but he ran away, when there was a 300 foot interval between the trains. He could not see the engineer when the excursion train was only 30 feet from the milk train.

George S. Snyder, living a hundred feet away opposite wreck, could see his brother Monroe, when he was one-eighth of a mile away. This was just when the wreck occurred. When asked if the trains passed close together at Hatfield, Mr. Snyder said that this was the first time they ever passed as close as this. Usually they are separated by six or seven minutes. He did not see the wreck, but heard the crash.

William Mumbauer, of Centre Valley, engineer on engine 416 of the milk train, which has been his regular run for six years, said his orders on Sunday were to be passed by the special excursion train at Lansdale. These orders were given to him by the conductor Ira K. Knaufl. The train left Bethlehem at 5.25 on time, but the train was five minutes late at Souderton, the time having been lost below Quakertown. He arrived at 6.24 at Hatfield, 3 minutes late. The crash came within 30 seconds. He opened the throttle when he saw the people running just before the crash. The weather was very bad all the way down, and he could not see very far ahead, not over 100 feet. Continuing his testimony the engineer said he would have stopped at the red flag. He had lost his order papers on Sunday. This train usually waits about 1 minutes at Hatfield. Mr. Mumbauer said he was not at all anxious about the following train, depending on orders to pass at Lansdale. Under no circumstances is it permissible to pass a red flag, said the engineer. He also said that he could have made up all of the time he was behind by the time he got to Lansdale. An engineer can never see as far ahead in a fog as a man walking because of the change of speed. The flag on the ground at Souderton could be seen much sooner than the board would be visible.

Conductor Ira F. Knauff, also of the milk train, testified that he inquired at Hatfield where the special was. Within thirty seconds of the time of stopping, the crash came. He had previously told the Souderton operator to let him know as to the special. There were no orders at Bethlehem but there were some at Quakertown which said that the special would pass the milk train at Lansdale. When a regular train said the conductor, stops for more than two minutes at a station, a signalman must be sent back. In his opinion, it would have been absolutely impossible to have sent a signalman back far enough to prevent the catastrophe even if the man had jumped from the train before it had stopped. The reason he wanted to know whether to go directly onto the siding or to pick up other cars before letting the special pass. Further testimony tended to confirm previous statements of other witnesses.

The milk train, three and a half minutes late, said the conductor, would have made up time and had been just two minutes late at Lansdale and thus the excursion and the milk trains would have arrived at the same moment. The orders gave the milk train right of way over an extra. A scheduled train has right of way even if late, no train to query for further orders unless six hours late. Under no conditions can a train pass a red flag was the conductor's assertion.

The conductor of the special excursion train, Thomas Shelby, of Trenton, was called. He exhibited orders given by H. G. Carns, station master of Philadelphia, ordering the running of trains between Philadelphia and Bethlehem the evening before the accident.'These orders,' he said, 'were to leave Bethlehem at 6 o'clock Sunday morning with the Atlantic City excursion. I informed Engineer Davis of our orders to take out the first section, and he suffered no objection. He was put on that run because he was a good reliable man. He has been an engineer six or seven years. The witness produced orders concerning the running of the excursion train from Bethlehem to Lansdale. "My train was No. 249, and my orders gave me the right of way to Lansdale as long as I did not encroach on the time of the milk train. I was to pass the milk train at Lansdale. I left Bethlehem two minutes late, and arrived at Hatfield at 6.57, on time to the minute. I left Souderton three minutes late, and arrived at Hatfield on time."

Mr. Shelby said he passed Souderton at 6,54, but insisted he came into Hatfield on time, and said his train was going only forty or fifty miles an hour. He said his first stop after leaving Bethlehem was to be Reading Terminal, and he was not on a lookout for a train ahead. He declared he saw no fog until he reached Hatfield. "I passed Telford six minutes late. I referred to the schedule at every stopping place. I collected 875 tickets on the train and was still collecting when the collision occurred. I have known Mr. Davis personally seven years. He was perfectly sober on the morning of the accident."

James B. Benner, the flagman at Souderton, who placed the red flag at the crossing, said the milk train had passed his station about two minutes when the excursion train came. The engineer waved for him to remove the flag. He replaced the flag when the train had passed. "I was so close to the train when the engineer waved to me that I had to jump to save my life."

Operator Wildonger, of Hatfield, was examined and said that the crash came within half a minute after the milk train had stopped.

Charles R. Wild, yardmaster at South Bethlehem, testified that the milk train departed on schedule time and the excursion train was two minutes late in leaving the yards. Engineer Davis made no complaints against running the extra. None of the crew made any complaints. The engineer was looking well and apparently felt in good spirits. He was considered a competent man.

Frank P. Heller, night operator at South Bethlehem, testified to receiving orders from the train dispatcher at the Reading terminal, which were given to the conductor and engineer of the excursion train. The orders were received at 5.22 a. m. The wires were working fairly well and there was no trouble in receiving the orders.

D.B. Beidler, the Souderton operator, said that Sunday had been his day off and that Night Operator Ritter had agreed to relieve him. Despite this fact, however, he said Ritter, Station Agent Zendt and himself were in the office when the milk train left the station at 6.52 o'clock, having arrived at 6.50. It had been due to arrive at 6.46. He had been supplied with the schedule of the special's time and knew from this that the special was due at 6.51, or on minute after its arrival and one minute before its departure. It passed at 6.54 o'clock, two minutes after the milk train drew away from the station. Beilder says Ritter was at the operating table at the time of the departure of the milk train and the signal lever was under the table. Beidler attempted to explain the failure of the three men to pull the lever and thus throw out the warning board by saying that the operator, not knowing that the second train was so close, had decided to first notify the officials at the Reading Terminal of the departure of the milk train. Beidler admitted that if the signal board had been thrown the collision would probably have been avoided.

At 4 o'clock the Coroner adjourned the inquest until Friday morning.


When H. W. Ritter, the night operator at Souderton, told the story of the events preceding the arrival of the milk and excursion trains, he declared that he made an attempt to call up the General Superintendent at the dispatcher's office. It was more than two minutes before Ritter could get the office and had to repeat the request to Operator Gross at Philadelphia. He then heard the call for Hatfield. "I think I would now have put up the red board had I been on duty and knowing the schedule." Mr. Ritter said he was off duty and so did not pay any attention to the stopping of the train. Ritter, while giving his testimony, spoke very slowly as if he wished to avoid giving any more information than he had to. His eyes were cast down and he avoided the coroner's searching eye. He said he never received any orders from Philadelphia in any particular. He stuck to the story absolutely, but a few details were mixed.

M. O. Zendt, agent at Souderton, told Ritter he was relieved about 6.03 and Beidler took charge a minute or two later. Zendt had been at Souderton since 1875, so it may be judged he was familiar with the rules of the company on a question as to what was the best thing to do. Zendt said the thing to do was to stop the train if there were orders. "I would do it to save an accident. I would risk anything to save an accident."  Zendt illustrated the way to pull the special board, which in his opinion could not have been seen far away. The agent said that if the first section had been stopped at Souderton there would have been danger of a wreck along this station by the second section going into the first train. "After the special train passed I was satisfied and was afraid. I knew there would be a wreck." Beidler soon told Zendt. "We are to get the doctors. No dispatch saying there was a wreck at Hatfield had been heard by the operator at Souderton. The special went by when Beidler was at the window. If I had orders to stop the special," was Zendt's version of Beidlers explanation.

William S. Groves, train dispatcher at the Reading Terminal, was by far the most important witness of the second day. To the coroner's pertinent question, "Were the special train and the milk train under your control last Sunday morning?" Groves answered, "No, they were not. All the operators from Perkasie down to Souderton were slow in reporting them, because none of these operators answered our repeated calls." Groves' testimony made not only Engineer Davis, but everyone who had anything to do with running the special responsible in some measure for the accident.

Shelby, conductor of the excursion train, was again called. He swore that immediately after the wreck Davis told him that he saw no signals, no red flag from Bethlehem to Hatfield. This statement contradicted that of the watchman at Souderton, who swore that he had seen the engineer wave to him as a signal to take the red flag from between the tracks.

Ritter, the night operator at Souderton, virtually corroborated the story told on Thursday by his assistant, Beidler. He testified that he reported both the milk and the excursion trains to the train dispatcher.

Groves produced his records, which showed that reports had not been promptly made. The excursion train passed Sellersville at 6.48 and the report was received at 7.09. The train passed Telford at 6.52 and the report was made at 7.11. Groves said that his operator was calling Hatfield at the time of the collision. He was positive that there was no trouble in holding the second section of the excursion train after the wreck. It was held at Quakertown. The witness further declared that it was the duty of Davis to have stopped his engine at Souderton when he saw the flag which had been placed by Watchman Benner. No engineer has a right to go by a danger signal. The red board should had been displayed after the milk train had left Souderton. The lever was easy of access and it could and should have been worked. Davis also violated the rules by running into Hatfield ahead of time.

E. C. Tomlinson, after being sworn, stated that he is the superintendent of the New York division. A special timetable has no authority in the movement of trains, but simply a guidance.

The timetable was used a year ago for the same business and without mishap. The timetable was made up by a clerk in his office, who is considered competent. All orders are issued for the movement of trains over the Superintendent's orders. He explained the order before referred to, under which the trains were running. Right of way means prior authority, and train 416 had that right. A special train knows what trains are ahead of them.

The rate at which the special was running was too high for such a heavy train. "An engineer has no right to pass a danger signal," said witness in reference to trains passing crossing watchman Benner's flag. The special had no right to be at Hatfield at 6.55, when the accident occurred. Ordinary judgment on the part of an engineman would warn him to be careful. Davis has been an engineman since 1897. There is nothing against his record. A train dispatcher should keep tab on his trains. He must know where they are. The Souderton operator should have displayed the red signal, as per rules 87 and 142.

The accident was due to neglect. If the operator at Souderton had been on the alert, the engine man would have stopped. Again I say Davis was running too fast, and the force in Philadelphia was not as alert as they should have been. They didn't have trains under control. The clerk who drew the special schedule was experienced. Mr. Tomlinson admitted the schedule was defective. It was accordingly imperfect a year ago. Groves should have called up and found out the train's whereabouts. There was no accident a year ago on the same schedule and there was no occasion for it this year.

John H.L. Gross, of Norristown, operator for Train-dispatcher Groves, sent out the orders governing the movement of the trains Sunday morning. It is his duty to work the train sheet. While it is written on the wire he records it on the sheet. He has worked a little over two years on train sheets. The Buffalo train was reported all right that morning, passing Telford at 6.32 and Souderton at 6.34. The next message received from Telford was at 6.48; then asked him to report train 416, but got no response.

He remarked to Groves; "What do you think of that?" He then proceeded to try to raise them. He reiterated Groves about calling Hatfield in response to conductor Knaufl's request. The instruments worked all right when the Buffalo was reported.

"I was not away from my table between 6 and 7 o'clock. Mr. Groves was at my side all the time."

On receiving message at 6.54 he went for Hatfield and got a reply: "A wreck."

Gross didn't receive reports from Telford and Sellersville until 7.09.

Operator Warren Weil, of Telford, and assistant agent, reported the passage of the train at 6.46. He heard no calls from the terminal. He was engaged selling tickets. Had no circuit at first, but in a minute got wire and reported special passing at 6.52 and received O.K. from Groves' office.

He was supposed to sell tickets, tend to the wire and look after the baggage. Have stopped trains without orders according to Rule 142.

Levi M. Landis, station agent and operator at Sellersville, reported milk train's leaving at 6.37 or 6.38. Received an acknowledgement. Reported special passing at 6.48. Received proper acknowledgement.

Have stopped a train without orders by the five-minute rule.

Did not hear call from the Terminal.

When all witnesses had been heard Coroner McGlathery gave his charge to the Jury. This was a resume of all the evidence that had been brought out, and was succinct and to the point. The jurors then retired and in a short time returned with the verdict, which was read in public.

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Posted 15 December 2003 by Kelley Wood - Davis  - Last updated 30 March 2011