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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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A Few Accounts of Railroad Accidents

by Fr. Dennis Morrow

Friday, August 29, 1873.  Michigan's first serious train wreck came less than twenty years after trains began running. Before dawn, the westbound night express of the Detroit & Milwaukee (later Grand Trunk Western) stopped about a mile east of Muir after it had lost a driving wheel. The flagman went back to protect the rear of the train from a freight train that was following. He went back the required 800 yards and stopped although he knew the train was on a downgrade. The freight train, rolling down grade, saw him. Despite reversing his engine and calling for hand brakes, the freight's engineman could not stop his train in time.  He plowed into the rear of the passenger train. Two mothers and two children, all immigrants from Iceland, died in the wreck. Eleven Icelanders and three others were injured. The coroner's jury determined that 800 yards was not sufficient to protect trains on a down grade, found the flagman criminally guilty for not going back far enough, and found all of the freight train crew negligent in some manner.  [GM].

Monday, September 15, 1873. It was only two weeks later that the Detroit & Milwaukee's westbound day train ran over a cow two miles west of Lowell. The cow had come through a break in the fence. The engine stayed on the rails, but several cars derailed. Two passengers died instantly and fourteen were injured. Two others died weeks later.  [GM].

Saturday, July 18, 1874.  A road train on the Detroit, Lansing & Lake Michigan (later Pere Marquette) struck a tree that had fallen across the track near Greenville.  The train derailed; six workmen were killed and four others injured.  [GM].

Wednesday, August 15, 1900.  This was the first serious wreck of the nineteenth century in Michigan. It was the height of the summer season for the Grand Rapids & Indiana. Its premier summer train, the Northland Express, left Grand Rapids at 4:05 a.m. It was scheduled to meet Number 2, the overnight Mackinaw City-Grand Rapids train, at Sand Lake, but the southbound was running late. To avoid delaying the summer train the dispatcher had already issued orders changing their meeting place from Sand Lake to Maple Hill, two miles south of Howard City. At the last minute, to help the southbound make up a little time, the dispatcher wanted to change the meeting place. He called the operator at Mill Creek, the crossing of the GR&I and the Pere Marquette at Comstock Park, and asked if the Northland had passed yet. The operator said "No," and the dispatcher issued an order changing the meeting point several miles to the south to Pierson. The southbound received the order and headed for Pierson. The Northland never got the order--the operator apparently was asleep when it passed Mill Creek. The fog was so thick that night that visibility was no more than a hundred yards. Both trains were running at full speed, about sixty miles per hour, when they collided head-on one-half mile north of Pierson at 4:52 a.m.  Both engineers and both firemen died as did the Northland's conductor and two passengers on that train. It was claimed that the baggage and mail cars absorbed most of the shock of the impact and reduced the number of casualties.  [GM].

Saturday, December 26, 1903.  It was evening, and it was snowing heavily. Both westbound Number 5 and eastbound Number 6 were running late. Before No. 6 left Grand Rapids it was given a train order directing it to meet No. 5 at Fox Siding, two miles east of East Paris, rather than the usual meeting place of Oakdale Park. No. 6 got the order, but No. 5 passed the station at Alto before the dispatcher could finish writing the order. The dispatcher then sent the order to the McCords station. The telegrapher put his signal at "stop" to indicate to No. 5 that he had a train order for it. Running in heavy snow and darkness the engineman on No. 5 never saw the McCords "stop" signal. He went through at a full sixty miles per hour. Not knowing he was to stop in just a few miles for the other train, he barreled on. The two trains met head-on near East Paris, now 32nd Street and Broadmoor Avenue, at about 5:40 p.m. The collision caused the instant death of nineteen and injured about forty more. Two others died later. The McCords operator later stated that the wind had extinguished his signal light. Not knowing that, he did not go out to try to flag down the train. The engineman of No. 5 survived the wreck, cleared his name in a subsequent trial, but later left his family and disappeared, still feeling the guilt. More details of the East Paris wreck are in Art Million's "Wreck at East Paris" in Pere Marquette Rails no. 14.  [GM; also Garret H. Ellison, “Wreck of the Century,” The Grand Rapids Press, Monday, 12/26/2011, pp. A3-4.]

Thursday, August 19, 1943.  Just before noon, the New York Central’s crack passenger train, the "Wolverine," southbound for Jackson and Detroit, was passing through the Hughart yards at about 30-35 miles per hour. Three children, two 5-year-olds and a 6-year-old, had placed stones on the track about 200 yards north of Burton Street. The stones caused the derailment of the engine (No. 4626), the tender, a mail car, a baggage car, and two coaches. The engine plowed off the track and down the right-of-way, finally stopping nearly against an old coal shed about 50 feet north of Burton. The engineer and a student engineer leaped from the engine's cab; but the tender jackknifed as the engine came to rest, pinning the fireman inside the cab, where he was scalded to death by the escaping steam. The other coaches and the dining car, which was the last car on the train, did not derail. Passengers were transferred to the incoming "Wolverine," which was late arriving and could not get through to Union Station due to the derailment. Passengers from the Grand Rapids-bound train de-boarded and were taken to the depot, and the train which had been incoming was backed up to Middleville, where the engine was moved to the front. The body of the fireman was removed by Grand Rapids Fire Department (No. 10) and railroad rescue workers about 1 p.m.

Monday, January 5, 1948.  New York Central R.R. at Burton S.W.  Crash of freight train with gasoline tank cars. Alarm received by Fire Department at 8:17 a.m.

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