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Fatal 1920 collision on Ma & Pa Railroad recalled

Railway DisastersTransportation DisastersRailway Transportation

Last summer, when the paving trucks showed up, fans of the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad deservedly got a little nervous. The object of their veneration is a sliver of railroad track that bisects North Charles Street in the Woodbrook neighborhood of Baltimore County.

Thousands of drivers who pass over the track every day probably have no idea what it was and where it went. It is left over from the days when the Ma & Pa zigzagged for 77.2 miles across the Maryland countryside from Baltimore to York, Pa.

That track, which was left unpaved, is where a head-on collision shattered the tranquillity of a late-spring Saturday afternoon. It happened a half-mile south of the Charles Street crossing along the back edge of the Elkridge Country Club golf course on May 22, 1920, when a freight train and a passenger train collided, leaving two trainmen dead.

The freight, No. 32, was the second section of a train that had left York for Baltimore earlier that afternoon. It had two locomotives, one on the front and the other in the center of the train of nine cars and a caboose. The engineer on the second locomotive was Charles D. Thompson, who lived at 1927 E. Lafayette Ave. in Baltimore.

Just below Towson, his engine suffered a mechanical failure and the train was split, with the first section continuing on. Thompson told The Baltimore Sun after the accident that he expected the first section to wait at the next signal but instead it rolled on toward the city.

At 5:30 p.m., a passenger train with two baggage cars and three coaches began its trip to York when John William Blaney, an engineer who lived in Delta, yanked the throttle and its drive wheels began to turn.

W.O. Myers, the conductor on the No. 11 passenger train, told The Sun that the freight pulled into the Oak Street Station before he departed for York, and that he thought it was the entire train and had not been informed that there was a second section following.

T.M. Cushing, a Sun correspondent who lived in Woodbrook, wrote an account of the wreck in 1952 for the old Sunday Sun Magazine.

"I was seated at my typewriter in the living room of our home, distance of two city blocks from Woodbrook station, Baltimore County," recalled Cushing.

"Quite casually I heard the distant four-blast whistle of passenger train No. 11 northbound, just below the Belvedere Avenue grade crossing, about a mile and a half away," he wrote. "To me that whistle merely served to indicate the time of day (subject, of course, to check one's watch or clock); so, for a few moments, I gave it no further thought, but merely continued at my work."

The clock was edging toward 5:45 p.m.

"Not many seconds later, however, there came a single long, shrill blast of a southbound freight train, No. 32, near the Bellona Avenue bridge beside the present site of Armagh Village, which used to be the place where southbound trains sounded their whistles when approaching Woodbrook station at the Charles Street Avenue crossing," Cushing wrote.

He stopped typing and thought, "That's funny," because this wasn't the normal railroad practice.

Cushing could hear the passenger train working hard as it chugged past the Tuxedo-Evergreen telephone exchange building (still extant) on what is now Northern Parkway. A few moments later, and the train would be whistling for Lake Avenue and Homeland station (now a private residence).

Thompson's freight train was passing Woodbrook station. Since the passenger train had topped the grade, its engineer opened the throttle as it ran along the western edge of the Elkridge Club property and into a blind curve.

"Good Lord!" recalled Cushing. "They're going to meet on that sharp curve."

Cushing heard the collision as the two engines plowed into each other, accompanied by the awful sound of steel grinding on steel, as shattered wood and steel flew through the air. Several forward cars climbed over the stopped engines.

"The first two cars of the freight train, containing cattle, were telescoped, killing many of the animals. Some of them escaped unhurt, however, and wandered off through the grounds of the Elkridge Club," The Sun reported.

Blaney was killed instantly, scalded by steam and buried under the wreckage. Thompson, the engineer on the freight, jumped off seconds before the engines plowed into each other.

Cushing grabbed the telephone and asked the operator to summon emergency help. He then called The Sun's city desk and asked that a reporter and photographer be sent to the scene.

Cushing was shocked to see Blaney, his "favorite childhood engineer," dead on the cab floor with his legs buried under tons of anthracite coal.

Soon, the Towson Volunteer Fire Company arrived on the scene as scores of volunteers combed the wreckage and helped survivors.

Barely alive was Luther Peyton of 409 W. 23rd St. in Baltimore, the fireman on the freight. His foot was pinned between the engine and its tender.

Drs. J.M.T. Finney and William Fisher, two noted Baltimore surgeons, were thought to be attending a baseball game between Gilman School and the freshman team from Princeton. A call was placed to Gilman, and it was learned that they had left for their homes in Ruxton. When told of the wreck, Fisher sped to pick up Finney.

Realizing that the engine and tender could not be separated to free Peyton, Finney and Fisher decided to operate in the engine cab. After giving Peyton morphine and chloroform, Finney began to operate, assisted by Fisher.

It took Finney more than an hour to amputate Peyton's leg above the knee. He was taken to Union Protestant Infirmary, now Union Memorial Hospital, where he died shortly after.

Nearly a month later, Thomas D. Hughes, the brakeman on the first section of the freight train, was blamed for the crash by a coroner's jury convened at the Northwestern Police Station.

The jury found that had Hughes notified the engineer of the passenger train that another section of the freight was following, the accident would not have occurred, The Sun reported.

In his testimony, Hughes said he had given Blaney the "high sign" that signified another section was following.

The other contributing factor in the wreck was the lack of an automatic signaling system on the Ma & Pa to govern traffic.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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