In all the times I have passed through Harrisburg, I’ve made very few stops at the cemeteries to visit the graves of community members buried there. On this particular trip I was detouring from my journey to visit a memorial within the borders of Paxtang Cemetery, located along North Paxtang Street. Knowing the memorial I sought was close to one of the roadways in the cemetery, I continued straight ahead to start my search – almost immediately I could see the memorial on the right side of the road.
Stepping out of the vehicle into the cool morning air, I studied the memorial from the roadway. From where I stood, I could see writing on top of the stone slab. With reverence, I stepped carefully onto the mowed grass and walked around the memorial to view it from the front side. On the side opposite the road, I saw the emblem for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Stepping closer, I read the words engraved on top of the flat memorial: “In reverence / For / The five unknown dead who departed this life in the / Railroad accident near Harrisburg PA. May 11th 1905. / And in sympathy with unknown mourners, this stone is placed / By / The Pennsylvania Railroad Company.”
As I stood before the memorial, my mind drifted to the disaster that claimed the lives of twenty-three travelers just south of my current location.
When the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Cleveland and Cincinnati Express left Philadelphia on May 10, 1905, none of those aboard could imagine the horror that awaited them in the early morning hours of May 11. Onboard were a number of notable people, including: Samuel S. Shubert, who founded the Shubert Theater with his brothers; Victor L. Crabbe, the son-in-law of Robert Pitcairn who was the assistant to the head of the Pennsylvania Railroad; W. E. Miller, President of Miller Lumber Company, Pittsburgh; Mrs. Albert Barr – her husband was the editor of The Pittsburgh Post – and her two daughters; H. P. Bope, the vice president of Carnegie Steel; Miss Florence Brown, the daughter of Congressman J. W. Brown of Pittsburgh; and Mr. and Mrs. James Tindle, the daughter and son-in-law of U. S. Senator Philander Knox. Note: Some newspapers include Albert Barr among those who survived the wreck. The majority of the newspaper reports do not include him, which is why he is not included on this list.
The majority of the 168 on board – 162 passengers plus crew – had settled into their sleeping quarters as the express train, which consisted of eight Pullman cars and a day coach. The trip was uneventful until it approached Harrisburg.
As the express train entered the train yard, a 68-car freight train was also making its way through the rail yard. The freight train had been flagged to stop and its sudden stop caused the 34th boxcar to buckle. It leaned into the westbound track as the express train was passing the freight train. The boxcar was filled with close to 50,000 pounds of blasting powder.
The engineer attempted to avoid a collision and increased the speed of the express train to approximately sixty miles per hour. Unfortunately, the “Socrates” – one of the sleeping cars – was unable to clear the tilting boxcar and sideswiped it.
At 1:38 a.m. on May 11, 1905, the Lochiel neighborhood in South Harrisburg was rocked as the blasting powder exploded. There were two explosions which destroyed the express train and set it on fire. The fire quickly spread among the ruins of the wrecked train, burning those that were trapped within. The explosion shattered windows for over a mile in every direction. Local citizens quickly arrived at the scene and helped rescue the trapped and wounded. Note: In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, many of the national newspapers reported looting and a death total upwards of 140 people. In the weeks after, some of them corrected their dramatic, over-the-top rendition, lowering the death total to the proper number and revealing that looting did not happen.
Twenty-three people were killed in the explosion and its aftermath. Among the dead were: Samuel S. Shubert; Victor Crabbe; Jacob Silverman, a Philadelphia clothing merchant; Mrs. Mary Dougherty; and W. H. Thomas, the engineer of the express train.
Five of the unidentified dead are buried in a mass grave on the grounds of Paxtang Cemetery. The grave site was purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad who also provided caskets, flowers, and pallbearers for the unknown victims. Note: A number of newspapers stated the names of the dead were placed on a memorial in Paxtang Cemetery – I did not see any names listed on the memorial, so I’m guessing that idea had been abandoned for reasons unknown.
In the aftermath of the disaster, the Pennsylvania Railroad settled with the families of the deceased with the average settlement around $250. The Pennsylvania Railroad was found not to blame for the accident and both crews – the express and the freight trains – were also found not to blame for the disaster.
The blame for the wreck was placed upon the “Air Brake Law,” which was a federal law that required only fifty percent of the train to have air brakes, while the other half could retain hand brakes. Because the air brakes stopped the train too quickly, the second half of the train could not stop fast enough and was still moving forward. The boxcars, trapped between the front section which was stopped and the rear section which was still moving, buckled and came off the track.
In the aftermath of the disaster, federal regulations were changed on how explosive materials could be transported.
I stood paying my respects to the unknown dead buried here and to all those who lost their lives in the disaster. I finished remembering the victims of the tragedy before leaving the five unknown to rest among the rolling hills of Paxtang Cemetery.
Note: In the May 11, 1905 edition of the Harrisburg Daily Independent, it is listed that Mrs. Mary Dougherty, who was killed in the explosion, had a premonition regarding the disaster. She was traveling with her husband, Robert, and their son. She had a premonition of upcoming danger and was only on the train due to the insistence of her husband. This had been her first trip on a train and sadly, it had been her last.