The 1864 Fast Line East Train Disaster

Looking westward on the Juniata River toward Thompsontown Station (on the left bank)

Note: Newspapers at the time interchange Thompsontown Station and Thompsontown in their reporting. To keep things organized, I will refer to the wreck location as Thompsontown Station, which was the stopping place on the Pennsylvania Railroad where the wreck happened.

I stepped out of the vehicle and into the cool morning air. Normally I would not stop on bridges to enjoy the view, but with no one around, I pulled to the side of the bridge and put the hazard lights on. Standing along Route 33, I enjoyed the scene. Beneath me, the Juniata River lazily flowed toward the confluence with the Susquehanna. On the southern bank of the Juniata, a train passed by Thompsontown Station toward Lewistown and points beyond.

Despite today’s peaceful setting, in September of 1864, this location was everything but peaceful. Here, in the early morning hours of September 21 – on a dark and foggy morning – another deadly accident occurred on the Pennsylvania Railroad.

A freight train hauling coal, which is referred to as the Fast Freight in many newspaper articles, arrived at Thompsontown Station around four that morning. The eastbound freight train was running behind schedule when it arrived and those on board were aware another train, known as the Fast Line East, was expected to arrive at the station at any moment. The Fast Line East had left Pittsburgh at 8:30 the night before, headed for Philadelphia.

The freight train had just arrived at the station to refill with water and the flagman got off and ran to the end of the train to unfurl the warning flag. The flagman made it roughly fifty yards past the end of the freight train when the Fast Line East loomed out of the fog and darkness. The engineer, who did not have a stop scheduled at the Thompsontown Station, had the Fast Line East running at full speed, believing the tracks were clear of other trains.

The engineer of the Fast Line East spotted the flagman, applied brakes and placed the train in reverse in an attempt to reduce the damage. However, it was too late and the Fast Line East slammed into the rear of the stopped freight train. It hit with enough force that the engine of the Fast Line East crashed through one coal car and half of another. The baggage and three passenger cars of the Fast Line East were smashed together and forced into the tinder car. Within moments the cars caught fire. Those who survived the accident scrambled to get all people out of the wrecked passenger cars.

In the aftermath of the disaster, the exact number of people killed was debated. The “official” list of those killed in the wreck are: brakeman L. Imbrie – also spelled Emory – and conductor John Mullison who could only be identified by the personal items found with his body. Included on this “official” list were four unidentified dead. Note: The report written in the Daily Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pa) mentions a John Adams from Juniata County had also been killed in the wreck. This was the only time the name John Adams appears in any of the articles involving the wreck. I don’t believe he was one of the four unknown, because the same article states six bodies had been transported to Harrisburg – the two identified men and the four unknown. Exactly who John Adams was is unclear.

Despite the listing of six known dead, many newspapers reported the number killed as being much higher. In the immediate aftermath of the collision, newspapers claimed closer to thirty people were killed in the disaster. Surprisingly, a couple newspapers noted the death toll was closer to eighty people, but these claims were doubted by most because there were not that many remains discovered in the wreck.

In addition to the six known dead, another man would pass shortly after due to his injuries. Solomon Brooks – also reported in the newspapers as Brookes or Bookes – would die due to injuries sustained during the wreck. Brook was a mail agent who had often made the run between Altoona and Harrisburg. Sadly, Brooks had boarded the Fast Line East at Mifflin – located just across the river from Mifflintown – only a short time before the deadly wreck.

A coroner’s inquest was held and it was declared had the flagman been dropped off at a distance from the train, rather than at the station, the wreck would not have occurred. However, because the flagman had to run back the length of the stopped train, the Fast Line East was not given ample warning to stop,

Note: I am not an expert and I am not sure the exact distance flagmen were supposed to set up from a stopped train, and I’m not positive a flagman dropped off at any distance that morning would have helped. The freight train had just stopped when the Fast Line East appeared out of the dark and fog, moving at full speed. I cannot imagine that the flagman’s warning would have done much good in preventing a collision because of how close the two trains were traveling. It may not have been as destructive, but if the trains were traveling that close, there is little chance the accident could have been avoided.

In the aftermath of the deadly crash, two wrecker crews arrived to clear the tracks. By ten that morning, they had cleared the tracks of all debris and trains soon resumed traveling along the Juniata River in both directions.

This was not the first deadly wreck at Thompsontown Station. On November 4, 1863, two freight trains collided, killing twenty Government horses, but no humans were killed in that wreck.

As I stood there, another train passed eastward and I wondered if those onboard were aware of the deadly wreck which happened here more than a century and a half before. I finished remembering those killed – both known and unknown – before leaving the area and the memories of the tragic accident to linger beside the flowing waters of the Juniata River.

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