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Railroad History Story:  Disaster in Porter, Indiana - 1921

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Michigan Central Trail Runs Over

Derail Onto Crossing and New York

Central Train Cashes Into It - 37 dead

 

From Railway Age

March 4, 1921

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     On Sunday evening, February 27 (1921), westbound New York Central passenger train No. 151 plowed through the third coach of eastbound Michigan Central train No. 20, at an interlocked crossing of these lines at Porter, Indiana.  Thirty-seven persons were killed and four seriously injured.  Preliminary investigation indicates that the engineman on the Michigan Central train had run past a home interlocked signal in the stop position at a high rate of speed, his train being derailed on the split point derail which was open.  After running on the ties for a distance of approximately 800 ft., the third coach of the train remained upright and standing directly on the crossing of the New York Central.  The New York Central train, traveling at high speed, struck this coach, reducing it to a mass of kindling wood.

     The trains involved in the collision were New York Central westbound passenger train NO. 151, known as the "Interstate Express," and Michigan Central eastbound passenger train No. 20, known as the "Canadian."  The accident happened on the crossing of the interlocking plant at Porter, Indiana, 40 miles southeast of Chicago on the New York Central and 44 miles southeast of Chicago on the Michigan Central.  Both trains were approaching the crossing at a high rate of speed.  Investigation after the accident disclosed that the levers in the interlocking machine were in the proper position to permit of a westbound movement on the New York Central and that the routes on the Michigan central were set against the passage of trains.  The New York Central train No. 151 leaves Buffalo daily at 8:30 a.m. and is due to arrive in Chicago at 7:30 p.m.  This train is scheduled to arrive at Porter, Indiana (Norwood), at 6:21 p.m.

 

Michigan Central train No. 20 leaves Chicago at 5:05 p.m., arriving at Windsor, Canada, at 1:45 a.m., where it is turned over to the Canadian Pacific for movement to Toronto, Montreal and points east.  The train was made up largely of Canadian Pacific cars, the baggage car, smoker, day coach and three sleepers being Canadian Pacific equipment, while the diner and two sleepers were Michigan Central and Pullman equipment, respectively.  This train was due to arrive at Porter at 6:16 p.m. and was running a few minutes late at the time of the accident.  The schedule time of this train is 50 miles an hour between Hammond, Indiana and Michigan City.  The schedule running time of the New York Central train between La Porte, Indiana and Englewood (Chicago) Illinois is 41 miles per hour.

 

At the point of the accident the Michigan Central tracks run almost due east and west.  About 1,000 ft. west of the crossing there is a curve to the north of about 1 degree, after which the track is again tangent, while east of the crossing the track is tangent for some distance.  The New York Central tracks at this point are tangent.  The interlocking at this place is a mechanical plant equipped with electric route locking and approach indicators on both railroads and is maintained by the New York Central.  After the accident the levers in the machine were found in the proper position to give the New York Central train the route over the plant.

Editor's Note:  As a life-long resident of Michigan and rail traveler on the former Michigan Central NYC, Porter Indiana was a significant demarcation point when taking the train to Chicago.  After the MC began using the Lake Shore line to Chicago, this was the location were the Michigan Central turned its passenger trains over to "others".  It was a division point.  Porter is where you left "home territory", and entered a new world. 

On the trip back home, going around the wye at Porter meant you were back in the homeland - on MC tracks.  In its day, Porter (also known by the telegraph call letters "PO"), was a very important tower on the NYC's Lake Shore - even surviving for a long time after CTC closed most block stations west of Toledo.  Today, the tower is gone, but Amtrak trains to and from Michigan still use the wye at Porter, Indiana to get to and from the Windy City.

 

The preliminary investigation indicated that the engineman of the Michigan Central train ran past the eastbound home signal in the stop position and through the open derail.  The train then ran on the ties for a distance of 300 feet, when the engine was re-railed on the crossing diamond, continuing across the crossing to a point where the day coach, Canadian Pacific 1560, the third in the train, was on the crossing of the westbound New York Central main when the New York Central train crashed into it.  It was in this coach, which was of wooden construction, that the heaviest loss of life occurred.  The impact of the New York Central engine was so great that the day coach was reduced to a mass of splinters, part of the wreckage braking out the windows on the south side of the interlocking tower as well as the siding in some places.  One peculiarity of the accident was that those killed were mostly decapitated, and a number were mutilated so badly that identification was difficult.  After the New York Central engine plowed through the day coach it left the track near the northwest corner of the tower and plowed into the ground, which was level at this point, digging a hole about 10 feet deep.  The momentum was so great that the engine and tender were turned completely around and over on their sides upon the wye connection between the New York Central and Michigan Central tracks, braking and twisting the rails.  The engineman and fireman of the New York Central train were killed and many of the passengers in the Michigan Central day coach were buried under the engine and tender.  In this coach were between 60 and 80 passengers, many of whom were railroad employees returning to Michigan City, Indiana and Niles, Michigan after spending Sunday in Chicago.

 

An examination of the stock rail at the eastbound derail on the Michigan Central indicated that the top had rolled slightly and at the point where the wheels dropped to the ties the lower corner of the head was sheared.  From this point for a distance of about 800 feet the ties in this track were reduced to pulp.  The crossing frogs were skewed, the lugs on several being broken and it was necessary to replace four of them.

 

After the accident Engineman Long of the wrecked Michigan Central train was reported as saying:  "My fireman, Block, first sighted the signal that meant a clear track and called my attention to it.  We were running a full speed and did not slow down when we were certain the signal was right.  Proof that we were not to blame for the wreck is seen from the fact that the engine and one coach passed the derail.  I will not state what I believe caused the wreck.  The derail was locked and I could not be to blame". 

 

Historical railroad terms used in these articles

  • Buzzer - also known as "the bell", this is a brief alarm that goes off when a train enters a section of track near a tower.  This alerts the tower operator that a train is approaching.
  • Distant signal - a train signal which is prior to the regular tower crossing signal.  Depending on allowable train speed, this signal may be as many as 2-3 miles prior to the tower signal.  If the distant signal is "restricting", an engineer must slow his train down and be prepared to stop at the next signal.
  • Electric route locking - once a route was set by the tower leverman, the route cannot be changed if a train is on the track circuit.  Any permissible changes requires the operator to reset a timer.  This allows a train to slow down and  stop before the route is taken away and given to a different train or movement.
  • Frog - this is where two rails cross, usually in an "X" shape.  In this case, the frog helped re-rail the train which was bounding along on the ties after being derailed.
  • Interlocked crossing - at a crossing of two train tracks at grade, the interlocking machine  protects against an error by the tower operator.  The interlocking mechanism prohibits both routes from being set to proceed at the same time - similar to today's highway traffic signals.  In 1921, interlockers were intricate steel bars, usually in the first floor of the tower weighing thousands of pounds.  Today, interlocking is done by computer logic.
  • Levers - these were part of the interlocking machine in the tower.  The tower leverman would pull levers (often called "strongarm" levers because of the strength needed to move them) to change switches and signals.  Some levers were electric or pneumatic and easier to operate.
  • Leverman - the employee in the tower who moves the signal and switch levers.  He takes his orders from the telegraph "operator", who communicates with the dispatcher and other tower and block operators along the route.  Most towers had one employee who was both operator and leverman.  Busier towers like Porter, had more than one person.
  • Split Point Derails - a "derail" is a device which intentionally derails a train.  Today, these are only used on spur tracks, to prevent a wayward freight car from rolling back on to the main line if the brakes don't set correctly.  But in much of the 1800's and 1900's, interlocked crossings were protected be derails.  If a train went past a stop signal, the "derail" would derail the train in hopes of stopping it before it hit a train on an opposing track.  A "split point derail" was essentially a half switch.  One wheel on the engine would be forced into a non-existent siding and the train would go "on the ground".
  • Tangent - a straight section of track.
  • Train Order Signal - in addition to having signals which govern the direction and speed of trains, some railroad towers (and stations) also had train order signals.  These signals are often affixed to the tower or station structure, or on poles immediately adjacent thereto.  Train order signals indicate whether the tower (or station) operator has written orders for the engineer and conductor.  If the train order signal is green (proceed), the train may proceed without getting written orders.  If the signal is restrictive in any way, orders must be received before passing.  Few railroads use train orders today.  Instead, track warrants or direct traffic control is used.

 

Joseph Cook, the leverman on duty at the interlocking plant at the time of the accident, declared after the accident that Engineman Long ran by the home signal.  The New York Central train had been given the route, as its approach was announced first by the indicator in the tower.  In his statement he said, "Under normal conditions the block is set against all trains.  The train hitting the buzzer first is then given the right of way.

 

"That is exactly what happened when the buzzer sounded yesterday.  It showed that the New York Central train was the first to hit the buzzer by almost a full minute ahead of the Michigan Central flyer.

 

"I released the block which permitted the New York Central train to to through.  Just as the train hit the crossing I saw the Michigan Central train coming around the curve at 60 miles an hour.  I saw right away what was going to happen and thought the tower would be demolished.  I called to Charlie Whitehead, the telegraph operator in the tower with me, and made for the steps which lead to the ground.  The Michigan Central train by this time had hit the derail, which clearly showed that the block had been set against it and plowed over the ties and track, tearing them up as it went across the New York Central track.  When the third coach of the Michigan Central train passed over the New York Central right of way the New York Central train cut through it.  As the locomotive of the New York Central train passed over the track it toppled over and the coaches of both trains were scattered in all directions.

 

"I cannot understand how the engineman of the Michigan Central train could have proceeded against the two blocks which were set against him.  I can't help but feel that the engineman must have been asleep, for there are two blocks which are visible for almost a mile and half before he reached the crossing.  I heard later that his fireman had admitted that the engineman disregarded the block.  Investigation of the scene of the accident will show that the Michigan Central train hit the derail and the plowing up of the ties is conclusive proof that the blocks were correctly set."

 

In a statement issued by General Manager Henry Shearer of the New York Central at Chicago, it was said that "at 6:23 p.m., February 27, Michigan Central passenger train No. 20, engine No. 8306, ran past the eastbound home signal at Porter (Norwood), Indiana, interlocking plant 40 miles east of Chicago, striking the open derail, derailing its engine and entire train.  The train kept on going on the ties and the engine jumped back on the track at the crossing.  The engine, baggage car and smoker of the Michigan Central train had gotten over the crossing and as the day coach, Canadian Pacific No. 1560, the third car, was on the crossing, New York Central train No. 151 struck the Canadian Pacific coach, demolishing it, derailing and turning over the New York Central engine and derailing four cars behind the New York Central engine."

 

On Monday morning, February 28, a preliminary investigation of the accident was held at Michigan city, Indiana by officers of the Michigan Central and the New York Central.  Representatives of the Indiana State Railway Commission have also started an investigation, as have representatives of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

 

Henry Shearer, general manager of the Michigan Central, on Tuesday issued the following statement:  "In the matter of the unfortunate collision at the crossing of the New York Central and Michigan Central at Porter, Indiana on February 27, after careful investigation of the facts with all interested employees and conference with officials just completed, it has been determined that engineer W. S. Long and fireman George Fl. Block, on engine No. 8306, train No. 20, violated rules and regulations in failing to observe and properly obey signal indications, and will be forthwith dismissed from the service."

 


 

Bureau of Safety Reports on Porter Collision

 

Engine's Fault Clearly Set Forth - Speed Was About 50 Miles an Hour - Fireman Also Culpable

 

     The Interstate Commerce Commission has issued a report, dated March 14, and signed by W. P. Borland, chief of the Bureau of Safety, on the crossing collision at Porter, Indiana, on February 27, when westbound passenger train No. 151 of the New York Central ran into the side of eastbound passenger No. 20 of the Michigan Central, completely demolishing one coach.  Thirty-five passengers and two employees were killed and eleven passengers, two employees and seven other persons were injured.

 

This collision was reported in the Railway Age of March 4, page 495, and there is reproduced here the drawing which was tiven with that report showing the approximate location of the tracks at the crossing.  The present report says that the Michigan Central crosses the New York Central at an angle of about 45 degrees; and that the train order signal (not shown in the drawing) is 57 feet north of the New York Central tracks and nine feet east of the Michigan Central

 

Approaching on the Michigan Central from the west (southwest) the line, beginning at the distant signal, is tangent for 500 feet; then a curve of 33 minutes, to the left, or 3,960 feet, then tangent 600 feet to the crossing.  The home signal, No. 35, is on this tangent 366 feet before reaching the crossing.  The derail is in the south rail, 55 feet east of signal 35.  The Michigan Central siding, on which a freight train was standing, is at the right of the main track (not on the north side as shown in the drawing).  The grade is slightly descending eastward.

 

On the New York Central the distant signal is about 4,500 feet east of the crossing and the home signal is 600 feet and the derail about 500 feet from the crossing.  At the time of the collision it was dark, and the weather was clear.

 

The conclusion of the report is that the engineman of Michigan Central No. 20 saw and heeded the cautionary indication; reduced speed from 60 miles an hour to perhaps 50 miles; took the word of the fireman that the home signal indication was clear; and did not look for the home signal himself, although by leaning out of the car window he should have seen it about 1,980 feet before coming to it.  The New York Central train was moving at about 50 miles an hour.

 

The interlocking is Saxby & Farmer, 54 levers; electric locks on all home signal levers; screw releases on the New York Central, requiring two minutes to operate, and clockwork release on the Michigan Central, set to operate in one minute.  Approach enunciators are in use on both roads; the New York Central sounds when any part of the track is occupied for a distance of about two miles before coming to the crossing; and the eastbound Michigan Central enunciator operates when the track is occupied for about one mile before reaching the distant signal.

 

The greatest miracle in this story is that the 2-story interlocking tower was not  demolished, along with the telegraph operator and leverman that were inside!  Unfortunately, 37 other perished.

The Michigan Central distant signal is three-position, upper quadrant.  The home signal is the same, but with a two-position, upper quadrant, calling-on signal below the main signal.  The train order signal, 57 feet beyond the crossing, is on a mast 29 feet high.  There is no train order signal for the New York Central.

 

Tower operator Whitehead said that prior to the entry of either train on the enunciator circuits, all levers were in normal position; the New York Central buzzer sounded first, and the signals were set for it before the other train announced itself, which was about 20 or 30 seconds after the N.Y.C.  Whitehead, and Cook, the leverman, when they saw that No. 20 was not going to stop, started for the door; but the collision occurred before they reached it.  Cook was a temporary man, his regular position being assistant signal maintainer at this tower.  He said that after seeing the danger there was not time to set the home signal against No. 151; and that on account of the time release it would have taken about three minutes to change the routes.

 

Engine Long, of No. 20, said that fireman Block called the home signal when at about the middle of the curve - that is to say, about 2,500 feet from the crossing.  He said "all the way" meaning that the home signal indication was clear.  Long then released the brakes.  Continuing Engineman Long's testimony the report says:  When the engine reached the tangent he looked for the home signal and thought he saw a green light above a red one; as he got close to the home signal he looked for the signal again, but it was hidden by smoke and steam; at that time he thought the speed of his train was between 35 and 40 miles an hour; he did not see the train order signal on account of the smoke and steam, neither did he see any hand signals.  In discussing the indication of the home signal, in response to the inquiry:  "What do you think caused those indications that you received?"  Engineman Long replied: "The only thing that could be, if I did not have them, is that I mistook the order board for the green light."  Long further stated that he does not depend entirely upon the fireman when he calls a signal and that he has never before had any trouble in distinguishing the signals at this point.

 

Fireman Block said that when about a mile from the home signal he observed the indication of that and the train order signal;  two green lights and a red light.  There was some steam or white smoke escaping from the freight engine standing on the side track, but he could see the signal lights notwithstanding.  When he called "all the way" to Long, the engineman answered, after about 30 seconds, "all right."  At that time, said Block, the speed was between 35 and 40 miles an hour.  After the engineman answered him he got down and began to work on the fire.  He did not see any hand signals given from the track.

 

Engineman Curtis, of the freight standing on the siding, testified that the home signal and the other blade on the same post were in the stop position when he arrived there;  and that he looked again when he saw the light of the headlight of train No. 20, and both blades were still in the stop position;  he also noted that the train order signal displayed proceed.  Some smoke or steam from his engine was blown across the main track.  He said that it had never appeared to him that the train order signal could be confused with the home signal at this point.

 

Fireman Arthur, of the freight, also saw the signal blades in stop; and he observed two brakemen of his train, standing on the track, giving stop signals with their lanterns to No. 20.  These two brakemen testified that they were west of the home signal; that they gave "ease off" signals with their white lights, but receiving no acknowledgement they began to give violent stop signals.  One of these men was on the fireman's side and one on the engineman's side of the track; no response was received to the signals.  They stated that there was no reason why there signals could not have been seen from the cab of No. 20.

 

The rule on the Michigan Central allows a passenger train to pas this interlocking at 40 miles an hour; that of the New York Central says 50 miles an hour.  The report says:  "The speed of train No. 20 is variously estimated to have been from35 to 55 miles an hour.  These is no variation in the estimates of the speed of train No. 151; about 50 miles an hour...   The lapse of time between the announcement of train No. 151 and train 20 was 20 or 30 seconds, and as the distance between the announcing points on the two roads and the crossing is about 1,000 feet longer on the New York Central, this time interval would place train No. 151 about the same distance from the tower as was train No. 20 when it was announced.  Therefore, if train No. 151 was running at 50 miles an hour it is obvious that No. 20 was running at a still higher rate of speed, as it arrived at the crossing before train No. 151."

 

No fault was found in the interlocking plant or signals.  The electric circuits could not be tested on account of the destruction of a large amount of wires and trunking, but a careful check of the circuit plans, locking sheets and dog charts indicates a satisfactory condition.  As the signal system was operating properly a detailed description of the circuits is deemed unnecessary.  Observations made after the investigation disclosed that from the fireman's side of the engine the home signal could be seen from a point about 4,000 feet back, and by leaning out the window on the engineman's side at about 1,9080 feet back.

 

Conclusions

 

"The direct cause of this accident was the failure of Engineman Long to observe and obey the signal indication of the home signal.  A contributing cause was the failure of Fireman Block properly to observe the home signal indication and convey the correct information to Engineman Long.  The evidence indicates that Long relied practically if not entirely upon the announcement by Block of the indication off the home signal instead of observing it himself.  The location of the signals is such that it was both possible and convenient for him to observe the signals personally and for his failure to do so there is no excuse.  even if he did confuse the train order signal with the top blade of the home signal, he still did not receive a proper indication to proceed at normal speed, as his movement was also governed by the train order signal, the indication of which he was required to observe before passing it.

 

According to his own statement, Engineman Long received a caution indication at the distant signal; this informed him that the home signal governing the crossing was then in the stop position, and required him to proceed under such control as to be able to stop before reaching the next signal.  The evidence discloses that Engineman Long observed and heeded this caution indication, as he made a brake application and slightly reduced the speed of his train.  It was then necessary for him to ascertain the indication of the home signal and be governed by that signal.

 

"Under these circumstances, knowing the arrangement of signals at this point, Long should have exercised particular care, after having received a caution indication at the distant signal, to see that the signals governing his train were clear... before passing the home signal and starting over the crossing at high speed.  In addition to his failure to observe and obey the stop indication of the home signal, Long failed to see and be governed by stop signals given with lanterns by two trainmen of the freight train standing on the siding.

 

"The failure of Engineman Long in this case... together with the appalling loss of life resulting there from, adds another to the already long list of accidents resulting from the fallibility of enginemen, upon whom the safety of passengers depends.

 

"This accident again calls attention to the necessity for an automatic train control device to be used in connection with existing equipment.

 

"A signal should not be called by a fireman until he is absolutely certain of its indication.  In this case Block called the signal when, according to his own statement, it was nearly a mile away and partially obscured by smoke.  If the home signal was in this instance obscured, it was the engineman's duty to reduce speed, or to stop if necessary, and determine its indication before passing it;  nevertheless, every effort should be made to so locate signals that they are not likely to become obscured by steam or smoke from engines or to be confusing.  It is believed the location of both the eastbound home signal and the train order signal on the Michigan Central at this point should be improved.

 

"It is believed that with a train running at the maximum prescribed speed limit of 40 miles an hour, the derail located 311 feet from the crossing does not afford the protection intended, and that in order actually to provide the protection intended the maximum speed limit at this point should be accordingly be reduced or the location of the derail changed.

 

"It  is noted that the coach which was struck by the locomotive was of wooden construction, with steel center sills and that it was demolished by the impact.  While steel passenger cars generally are safer than wooden cars, nevertheless, with the tremendous impact in this case, which was applied to the center of the side of the car, it is doubtful whether greater protection would have been furnished the occupants had the car been of all-steel construction.

 

"Engineman Long entered the service of the Michigan Central as a fireman in 1890, was promoted to yard engineman in 1990 and to road engineman in 1901.  His service record contains the following entries:

  • October, 1901, suspended 10 days for running off interlocking signals against him.

  • September, 1907, suspended 10 days for failure to stop for telegraph signal not burning.

  • December, 1907, suspended 10 days for failure to stop for block signal not burning.

  • February, 1909, taken out of service on account of defective vision.

  • June, 1909, restored to service on account of improved vision.

  • April 1, 1914, observed surprise test; light out on telegraph signal.

  • April 28, 1918, record suspension 30 days; collided with caboose car, flag out.

"Fireman block entered the service of the Michigan Central as a fireman in December 1915, was promoted to road fireman in February, 1916, in military service from May, 1916 to January, 1919; promoted to switch engineman in March, 1920; April, 1919, given suspended sentence of 30 days, which was later modified to reprimand, for disregarding fixed signal in stop indication.

 

"At the time of the accident Engineman Long and Fireman Block had been on duty 1 hour and 47 minutes, prior to which they had been off duty 7 hours and 50 minutes."