Robert T. Pierson grew up in Carroll County hearing about the 1905 Western Maryland Railway wreck that killed 26 people.
Pierson, 32, owns the Whistle Stop Shops & Cafe in Patapsco, some 300 yards from the site of the wreck, which happened 100 years ago yesterday.
"As a kid, I used to go down to the Whistle Stop to buy penny candy and they had old photos of the wreck on the walls. I was fascinated by them, and my grandfather, who was a Western Maryland conductor and who had lived in Patapsco, told stories of the wreck," Pierson said.
Pierson recently finished restoring the 150-year-old board and batten railroad station, not far from the shores of the Patapsco River, that houses his business. In its heyday, it had also been the rural community's post office and general store.
During the renovation, Pierson found a first-person newspaper account of the accident and decided to do something about the wreck.
Next Saturday and Sunday the Whistle Stop Shops & Cafe will commemorate what has become known as the "Ransom Wreck."
On a warm, humid June afternoon, an eastbound freight train double-headed with two locomotives rumbled off the single-track line into a siding at Gorsuch, 3 1/2 miles east of Westminster, at 4:25 p.m., to wait for three westbound passenger trains to pass.
"The schedule on the road, which saw at least nine passenger trains going each way every day, had just been changed," James G. Henry, who had visited the wreck, recalled in a 1956 article in the Sun Magazine. "It had been changed because another westbound passenger train had been added -- the famous Blue Mountain Express, which carried heat-wilted Baltimoreans to the cool of the Blue Ridge hills."
The first passenger train, the Union Bridge Accommodation, rolled by on time. Soon, the Blue Mountain Express, making its inaugural run of the summer season, thundered by, also on schedule.
The third passenger train, No. 5, a regularly scheduled train, had departed Baltimore's Hillen Station at 5 p.m., carrying 35 Western Maryland railroad employees home from clearing a wreck at Mount Hope.
Back at the site, the engineer of the ill-fated freight train had climbed back into the cab and opened the throttle. The train slowly began chugging and clattering through the switch and back onto the main line as its flagman, George T. Lynch, swung aboard.
"They called to me to jump aboard if I was going, and I did. Then I looked at my watch and saw that No. 5 was not due for a few minutes. I yelled out to the fireman ahead: 'Where are you fellows going to pass No. 5.' He yelled back, as near as I could catch it, 'At Lawndale,'" Lynch told The Sun.
"I shouted, 'For God's sake, look at your watch.' He waved his hand at me, and I could only think that my watch must be wrong. There were two engineers, the two conductors and the fireman -- five men all of whom had the time and knew the schedule as well as I did," Lynch said.
The freight train never made it to the siding at Lawndale. At 5:57 p.m., the trains, each traveling at an estimated 30 mph, collided head-on at a curve seven miles west of Emory Grove.
Killed in the collision were six of the freight crew, including the engineer, firemen and conductor. The passenger train's engineer, George B. Covell, 42, and his fireman, J.J. St. Leger, 24, were killed instantly, as were 15 of the rail workers. Others died later.
"We were going down grade and I was back at the rear of the train when we struck. There was a jar and then a succession of bumps, but I was not thrown down," Lynch said.
George Buckingham, the passenger train's conductor, told The Sun, that when the trains collided, both "engines reared upward and the front freight engine fell sideways across the track. This saved many lives. The locomotive falling as it did, blocked the track and checked the momentum of the second engine and prevented the long train of cars behind from plowing ahead through the passenger train."
The real hero in the disaster was Covell, a Bible-carrying engineer, whose quick response in the waning moments of his life, saved other lives.
"The imminence of danger and sudden death did not cause him to lose his head or forget his duty. His first thought was for the six score lives that were depending on him, and he threw on the emergency brake," said an editorial in The Sun.
Because many of the key personnel on both trains were killed, the cause of the wreck was never fully determined.
"Wrecks occur for which there is no rational explanation, and this seems to be one of that kind," F.S. Landstreet, Western Maryland vice president, told The Sun. "To say that both engineers and the conductor forgot the wrecked passenger train would seem hardly plausible, and to say that they expected to make the siding at Lawndale is equally incomprehensible."
Pierson says that pieces of broken rail jutting from the roadbed may date to the wreck; otherwise, nothing remains to remind visitors of the accident.
The Whistle Stop Shops & Cafe is at 2815 Patapsco Road, north of Finksburg. For more information, call 410-848-9656.