The 1896 Atlantic City rail crash occurred shortly after 6:30 pm on July 30, 1896 at a crossing just west of Atlantic City, New Jersey, crushing five loaded passenger coaches, killing 50 and seriously injuring approximately 60.
A train consisting of seven cars left Atlantic City over the West Jersey Railroad bearing a special excursion of Red Men and their friends from Bridgeton and Salem, New Jersey, and had reached the crossing of the Atlantic City Railroad when it was struck by the 5:40 down express train from Camden. Two cars were demolished and the two following cars were telescoped.
The engine of the Reading train was wrecked, the engineer killed, and the fireman fatally injured. The car behind it was thrown from the track and many of its occupants were killed or injured.
In 1896, leaving Atlantic City, the tracks of the West Jersey Road ran parallel to those of the Camden and Atlantic until they crossed the drawbridge, when they switched off to the south, crossing the Atlantic City Railroad at an oblique angle.
John Greiner, the engineer of the West Jersey train, saw the Reading train approaching the crossing at a swift speed, but as the signals were open for him to proceed on his way, he continued. His engine had barely cleared the crossing when the locomotive of the Reading train, which left Camden at 5:40 pm, struck the first car full in the centre, throwing it far off the track in a nearby ditch, and completely submerging it. The second car of the West Jersey train was also carried into the ditch, the third and fourth cars being telescoped. The engine of the Atlantic City Railroad train was thrown to the other side of the track, carrying with it the first coach.
A few minutes after the collision, the boiler of the Atlantic City Railroad locomotive exploded, scalding several to death and casting boiling spray over many of the injured passengers.
As soon as the news reached Atlantic City it spread rapidly, and thousands of people flocked to the scene. The road leading to the collision was a constant scene of hackney carriages, omnibuses, bicycles, and all kinds of vehicles, while thousands of pedestrians hurried along the path to render what assistance they could or to satisfy their curiosity.
Darkness fell quickly, and the work of rescuing the injured and recovering the bodies of the dead was carried out under the glare of huge bonfires.
As onlookers watched through the night, the mangled and burned bodies of the dead were carried from the wreckage which trapped them and laid side by side on the gravel bank near the track, with no other covering than the few newspapers gathered from the passengers.
The wounded were quickly gathered together and carried by train and wagon to the Atlantic City Hospital, where six of them died shortly after their arrival. Two others died within a day, with 42 having been killed at the collision scene.
The old Excursion House at the foot of Mississippi Avenue was converted into a morgue, and the dead were taken there.
During the first night after the crash, the streets in the vicinity of the Excursion House and the City Hospital, as well as the road leading to the scene of the accident, were packed with people anxious to learn the latest news.
The Bridgeton and Salem excursionists who escaped injury were brought back to Atlantic City and sent home on a special train several hours later in the evening.
James W. Hoyt, Secretary of the New Jersey Department of Public Safety, immediately upon learning of the extent of the accident, telegraphed for the Philadelphia Medical Emergency Corps, fifteen of whom responded, and hurried to Atlantic City on a special train which left Philadelphia at 10:45 pm. These surgeons materially aided Atlantic City's volunteer corps, which was composed of almost every physician then living in the city.
Many of the injured were taken to hotels, as the city hospitals soon became overcrowded. About thirty of the wounded had their injuries dressed and were able to proceed on their way.
The wife of Edward Farr, the Atlantic City Railroad engineer who died while on the job, and was found with one hand on the throttle and the other on the brake, when informed of the accident and of her husband's death, was unable to withstand the shock, and fell to the floor dead.
County Coroner William McLaughlin, immediately upon hearing of the accident, went to the scene. He went directly into the block tower and questioned operator George F. Hauser. Houser told him that he thought the excursion train had time to cross the tracks of the Atlantic City Railroad before the express got there and he set the "clear" signal for the West Jersey train. (The signalling system worked as follows: the interlocking block system was used. There were three poles with semaphores controlled by the tower on the reading tracks and two on the West Jersey. The pole furthest from the tower on the Atlantic City Railroad tracks was distant about 2,000 yards. The other two were much closer. When the operator set the "clear" signal on the Pennsylvania track, this would automatically set the "danger" signal on the Atlantic City Railroad track, and vice versa.)
Before Hauser could make a further explanation to the coroner he received an order from the railroad officials to say nothing. He obeyed, and made no further explanation. Pending an investigation, Hauser was put under arrest by the coroner, but was released on $500 bond. A jury was impanelled the following day.
Testimony on August 4 appeared to implicate the dead Atlantic City Railroad express engineer, Edward Farr. His action in running at a speed of forty-five miles an hour past a danger signal seemed inexplicable to those present at the inquest. His reputation was that of an experienced engineer and a man of exceptionally high moral character, and not of a reckless or careless disposition. Only two weeks previous to the accident his train was signalled to stop at that very crossing, and he promptly brought his train under control.
The coroner's jury returned verdicts on August 7. Six jurors merely stated the manner of the passengers' deaths. Three found that "Engineer Edward D. Farr of the Atlantic City Railroad failed for have his engine under proper control on approaching [the] crossing, and that Tower Man George F. Hauser, in giving the excursion train of the West Jersey Railroad the right of way over a fast express used bad judgment... [and] that Engineer John Greiner of said excursion train erred in not exercising greater care on crossing ahead of said fast express." Three others found that "the cause of the collision was the failure of Edward Farr, engineer of Train No. 23, to give heed in time to the semaphore signals and crossing under the rules...the tower man, George F. Hauser, may have used poor judgment in his estimate of the distance away of the Atlantic City Railroad train when he gave the white boards to the West Jersey and Seashore Excursion Train No. 700."
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