The Indianapolis Star earlier this week observed the centennial of a deadly interurban crash with this piece recalling the wreck near Bluffton, Ind. and the interurban period generally.
It’s amazing, this whole Interwebs thing. One of the comments on the Indy Star story was from an indignant Fort Wayne resident who pointed out that his hometown paper had done a more detailed piece on the 1910 crash two days earlier. A little more searching on my own turned up additional crash photos on the Transportation of Wells County, Indiana page, part of The USGenWeb Project. Another geneaological page, GenDisasters, offered a transcription of contemporary news accounts published in Nebraska’s Lincoln Evening News.
The short version is this: On a Wednesday afternoon, a fully-loaded northbound car and a southbound extra car, carrying only a motorman and conductor, collided head-on at high speed at Kingsland, about 16 miles south of downtown Fort Wayne. Human error was apparently to blame, as the crews (possibly both, the Fort Wayne paper notes) became confused about train orders calling for them to meet at a passing siding south of Ossian. The trains telescoped, as they say in railroad parlance, resulting in unimaginable carnage. Forty-one people lost their lives.
“That anything alive could have survived that terrible sweep of splintered wood and twisted steel is a miracle,” according to the following day’s wire service account of the awful scene (as quoted in this week’s Fort Wayne Journal Gazette retrospective).
As a journalist, the widespread dissemination of this news is of particular interest to me. It was, remember, an era when rail travel in all its forms was a way of life throughout the country and accidents were not uncommon. A tragedy of this magnitide, however, would have merited significant attention well beyond the local area. The GenDisasters’ Nebraska newspaper account cited above illustrates that point — and should remind us that the mass media infrastructure of a century ago was more sophisticated than the iPhone generation would probably like to admit.
Sadly, other forms of communication were decidedly less advanced, as evidenced by the painfully slow response by rescuers — and indeed by the dispatcher’s inability to contact crews aboard the moving trolleys and avert the crash.
The tragedy was perhaps all the more bittersweet given the occasion. Many of the passengers were headed for a popular fair in Allen County, Indiana; the extra vehicle had been dispatched to help move the masses.
Reports suggest this was the worst disaster of the interurban era — a point I’m not immediately able to confirm or dispute, but it certainly sounds about right. In any event, it was a horrible human tragedy, and I write this with prayers in mind for the victims and their families.
The interurbans of Indiana are a bit outside of my area of expertise, so I can offer little in the way of historical context on the line involved — and I don’t feel much more educated based on the few internet links I’ve encountered on the subject. Suffice it to say that the traction company was ruined financally by claims and had to reorganize. Successive purchases later brought it under the control of the Indiana Service Corporation and, later still, of the Indiana Railroad System.
A vintage photo as well as one of a preserved car can be found here, on the Don’s Rail Photos site.