Haunting Photos Show Aftermath of 19th-Century Train Wrecks

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Oct. 23 2013 1:00 PM

Haunting Photos Show Aftermath of 19th-Century Train Wrecks

The Vault is Slate's history blog. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @slatevault, and find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

These photos, all of which depict train wrecks on the New York Ontario & Western Railway in New York State in the 1870s, are part of a larger group of images of railroad life assembled by De Forest Douglas Diver, a railroad engineer and photographer. This collection is currently held at Cornell University, and many of the photographs are available for view on Flickr.

Some of these images are quite aesthetically pleasing, despite their subject matter. The wreck of N.Y.O. & W. Engine 140, in particular, is framed as a near-perfect pyramid, with six onlookers (including one babe in arms) decorating the pile of broken steel. Other images show the crews of laborers it took to get the rubble off the track after the violence of a crash.

Advertisement

Little information is available about these wrecks beyond their dates. Historian Richard Selcer writes that although 19th-century railroad accidents were distressingly common, it’s hard to arrive at an official tally, because record-keeping was informal: “Companies were not even required to report all collisions and derailments until 1901, when the Interstate Commerce Commission assumed control over railroad safety standards.”

Two of the photos show an 1870 wreck that sent a train into the water along with part of the bridge it was traversing. Users on Cornell's Flickr site propose that this might be the wreck at the hamlet of Fish’s Eddy, on the Delaware River (part of the town of Hancock, N.Y.).

Contemporary newspaper coverage of this accident reported a derailment caused by a 4-foot broken rail. The caboose struck the rail, and went “bumping along the ties” until its weight dragged the next car off the track:

Striking the bridge, [the car] knocked the span off the abutment and, with a tremendous crash, precipitated two cars and one span of the bridge about 150 feet in length, into the river, and threw the caboose to one side of the abutment from which it jumped, a distance of 40 feet into the river bed, landing bottom side up and immediately taking fire.

Four workers who were trapped in the caboose died. The wreck, the newspaper reporter added, “will cost the company about $25,000.”

TrainWreck1Final
O&W Wreck Loco. 140.

Courtesy of De Forest Douglas Diver Railroad Photographs, ca. 1870-1948/Cornell University Library

TrainWreck2Final
Wrecked Bridge and Coal Cars, 1870. (Possibly the wreck at Fish's Eddy in the Delaware River.)

Courtesy of De Forest Douglas Diver Railroad Photographs, ca. 1870-1948/Cornell University Library

TrainWreck3Final
Wreck Cleared Off Track, 1878

Courtesy of De Forest Douglas Diver Railroad Photographs, ca. 1870-1948/Cornell University Library

TrainWreck7
Train Wreck Loco 201, 1878

Courtesy of De Forest Douglas Diver Railroad Photographs, ca. 1870-1948/Cornell University Library

TrainWreck6
Wreck in Snow Bank, Boiler Explosion, Engine No. 70

Courtesy of De Forest Douglas Diver Railroad Photographs, ca. 1870-1948/Cornell University Library

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Altered State
Sept. 17 2014 11:51 PM The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 17 2014 11:48 PM Spanking Is Great for Sex Which is why it’s grotesque for parenting.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?