Railroad Wrecks (and other disasters) Menu
Michigan's Internet Railroad History Museum
Significant Railroad Wrecks and Railroad Car Ferry sinkings in or near Michigan...
Notable Disasters in Michigan...
Elkhart, Indiana, 1851. During an excursion train from Elkhart to White Pigeon, 3 boys were thrown from the top of a box car during switching. One of the boys died. [LS]
Adrian Michigan, 1851. This wreck is noted in [LS], which quotes the Goshen Democrate of September 10, 1851: "The first train arrived in Elkhart last Friday (September 5th) night.... It had been delayed by a collision between a passenger train and a freight train near Adrian, Michigan in which one man was killed."
Grand Crossing, Illinois 1853. According to the book "Railroad Wrecks" (Haine. Cornwall Books), Two trains crashed at a railroad grade crossing somewhere Adrian, Michigan. (Note: Historian Ray Slate writes that Haine is wrong about the location of this wreck. It is actually at Grand Crossing, Illinois (near Chicago) on Illinois Central tracks. He notes that it is correct in Reed and Shaw). An eastbound Southern Michigan Railroad express train collided at a grade crossing with a southbound Michigan Central Railroad train carrying German emigrants, headed for Toledo. 21 people died and about 60 were injured, mostly emigrants. The investigation revealed that negligence and "competition" caused the accident. The Central train had the right of way, but lingered in the area for the purpose of holding up the rival Michigan Southern train. The Central train also did not have a "regulation headlight". Go To Top.
Mishawaka, IN, 1859. On June 28, 1859, the Springbrook river bridge broke apart from heavy rains. A Michigan Southern express train east bound from Chicago late at night, fell through the bridge into the mud thirty feet below. The engine and tender were buried completely below the cars of the train. Forty one people perished in this accident. Go To Top.
Jackson, Michigan, 1879. Not long after midnight, on Friday, October 10, 1879, the yardmaster of the Michigan Central's Jackson yards authorized a switch engine to move nine cars and a caboose from a siding on the north of the main track into the yards on the south side. It had moved onto the main track about a half mile west of Dettman Road and was starting to shove into the yards when the westbound Pacific Express rounded the curve east of Dettman Road. Running at twenty-five miles per hour in a heavy fog off the Grand River, the passenger's engineman could not see the switch engine or switch lights until too late. The crew on the switch engine jumped in time. The passenger collided head-on into the switch engine at 1:10 a.m. Both engines derailed, and the first three passenger cars derailed. The fourth car telescoped into the fifth and most of the deaths occurred in these two cars. The engine crew of the passenger train died instantly. Thirteen passengers were killed and twenty-six more were injured. In forty years of railroad operations, this was the most serious wreck in Michigan. The Jackson yardmaster was found criminally negligent for not learning how late the passenger train was running before authorizing the switch move. The switch engine crew was censured for being on the main track knowing that a passenger train was overdue. Apparently there were no automatic signals in use to protect the move and the jury recommended that these be installed. The railroad agreed with this, but could not identify any system that would provide such protection. [GM] Go To Top.
Kipton, OH, 1891. The Toledo express was to take siding at Kipton to allow the fast mail to pass. The two trains met newr Kipton station in a crash which killed both engineers and six postl clerks. The scene was on a curve so the two engineers did not see one another until it was too late. This crash led to the adoption of "standard watches" to that more accurate time could be kept. [LS]
Detroit, MI, 1903. Accident occurred on May 4 at Canfield Avenue on the GTW's line to Brush Street Station. Earlier in the day, a LS&MS train brought a group of people from Toledo to a Polish festival held at St Josaphat's Church and Harmonia Hall. When the train returned at 8:00 p.m. that evening, it stopped on the main line to pick up passengers. This was not a regular station stop and the train apparently did not send out an employee to flag the track. At 8:30 p.m., a GTW train from Chicago was heading for Brush Street station. It was most likely No. 8. The crew knew nothing abut the train at Canfield Avenue until they were right on top of it and had no chance to stop the train in time. Hearings showed that the crew on the excursion train were all "off the extra board" and not acquainted with the area and took too much for granted. [MRC-4/1976]
Salem, Michigan, 1907. An excursion train made up of Pere Marquette Railroad employees was traveling from Ionia, Michigan to Detroit for a day of shopping and other activities. A train order had been transmitted from the dispatcher in Detroit, giving the excursion train rights over all trains (except first class) from Ionia to Delray Tower in Detroit. Schedule times were listed for each town along the route. About 9:00 am, a local freight train left Plymouth, knowing it would need to take siding at Salem, about 5 miles west. The engineer and conductor transposed times, thinking they had until 9:25 to get to Salem. Unfortunately, the schedule called for them to be in the clear at Salem by 9:10 am. The head on ("cornfield meet") collision occurred about 2 miles east of the Salem depot, just east of Napier Road in Wayne County. 30 were killed and many more were injured. Many people were found at fault in the inquest. The Plymouth operators (both the night and day shift) were found culpable because they delivered an order which was not clearly written. The dispatcher was faulted for not holding the excursion train at Salem until he was sure that the freight had cleared (though it was noted that the station agent at Salem was gone to the post office at the time that the excursion train passed). The freight train crew was also found at fault, along with the railroad itself for having faulty rules. It was recommended that train order forms be "lined" so that transposition of times would not occur in the future. The Master Mechanic of the Pere Marquette was also faulted for burning the remains of the railroad cars the night of the collision. Those looking into the matter felt that he was destroying evidence - specifically covering up for the fact that the cars had wood underframes instead of steel or iron. Go To Top.
Porter, Indiana, 1921. At a grade crossing of the Michigan Central's Detroit to Chicago line, and the Lake Shore's Toledo to Chicago airline, a collision occurred which killed 37 and injured 100 people. The westbound Interstate Limited of the Lake Shore, from Boston bound for Chicago, had the right-of-way through the crossing. The eastbound MCRR Canadian apparently ran through red signals at the crossing. The Canadian passed the signal, and was derailed by the "derail" which was on the track to protect the crossing. After leaving the rail, the train proceeded along the ties until it reached the "frog" at the crossing. The frog apparently re-railed the train, which stopped across the grade crossing. The Interstate Limited then drove into the side of the Canadian. No crew members were killed. An investigation revealed that the MCRR train had received a yellow approach signal, but failed to stop for the red signal at the crossing. It was noted that the "derail" was only 310 feet from the crossing, making it ineffective given the Canadian's speed. Go To Top.
Near Botsford Yard, 1924. Individual drove his touring car across a private crossing and the left rear wheel fell off the crossing, sticking the car. Michigan Central passenger train #1 was running 7 minutes late and consisted of a mail car, combination baggage/club car, five Pullman sleeping cars, two coaches and two more Pullman sleeping cars. It was traveling 50-60 m.p.h. The engine was 8338, a K-3 Class 4-6-2 Pacific tyoe steam locomotive. About 4:30 a.m. the fireman called a clear automatic block signal to the engineer about a mile east of the crossing. The train then hit the car. The engine tipped on its right side and was badly damaged. 550' of track were torn up. The cars remained upright, but 3-4 were damaged badly. The fact that the cars were of the all-steel type was credited with saving lives of the passengers. The Engineer was scalded to death by escaping hot water and steam when pipes within the cab burst. The fireman broke his shoulder and arm. Information from the NYC Historical Society publication Central Headlight, 4th Quarter, 1987. More Photos. Go To Top.
Burton, Michigan, 1952. From the Owosso Argus Press, 9/26/1952. Autopsies on bodies of Engineer Beer and Fireman Morrison, this mornign showed that neither of them sustained any fractures but dies of extreme shock, plus generalized second and third degree burns from steam and heat. Dr. Charles Black, state pathologist who performed the autopsy, estimated the two men lived five or ten minutes after the crash, but they were probably both unconscious from the start. Grand Trunk officials said they expected that the track would be cleared by tonight. The passenger train from Muskegon to Detroit, due here at 3:05 this afternoon was canceled. Two Detroit trainmen are dead and one is in Memorial Hospital seriously injured as the result of a wreck on the Grand Trunk Western RR one mile east of Burton shortly before 4 O'clock this morning in which two passenger trains figured. The engine and three cars on one train were derailed and the engine turned over on its side, while one car in the other train was damaged and tipped partially over. None of the new passengers on the two trains were injured. The wreck occured at a sidetrack. According to Harry Moot, of Detroit, conductor of the eastbound train, the train had orders to meet at the siding, with one of them pulling in on the siding to permit the other to pass. Moot's train stopped west of the siding and waited for the westbound train, Moot said. J. R. Albertson, of Detroit, brakeman on the eastbound train was still at the switch, after throwing it to put thw westbound train on the siding when the latter came in sight. He said that as the train entered the siding it appeared to be traveling too fast and the engine swayed first to the right as it went into the siding, and then to the left. As it swayed to the left, he said, it ight have hit something on the track; although this was conjecture on his part, he added. Then, he said, the engine hit the north side of the third car back of the engine on the eastbound train, ripping the siding out of it, and then hurtled off the tracks and landed on its right side at an angle from the siding. The three cars behind it jackknifed but remained upright. Go To Top.
Muir, Michigan 1873. Michigan's first serious train wreck came less than twenty years after trains began running. Before dawn on Friday, August 29, 1873, the westbound night express of the Detroit & Milwaukee (later Grand Trunk Western) stopped about a mile east of Muir after it had lost a driving wheel. The flagman went back to protect the rear of the train from a freight train that was following. He went back the required 800 yards and stopped although he knew the train was on a down grade. The freight train, rolling down grade, saw him. Despite reversing his engine and calling for hand brakes, the freight's engineman could not stop his train in time. He plowed into the rear of the passenger train. Two mothers and two children, all immigrants from Iceland, died in the wreck. Eleven Icelanders and three others were injured. The coroner's jury determined that 800 yards was not sufficient to protect trains on a down grade, found the flagman criminally guilty for not going back far enough, and found all of the freight train crew negligent in some manner. [GM] Go To Top.
Lowell, 1873. It was only two weeks later, on September 15, 1873, that the Detroit & Milwaukee's westbound day train ran over a cow two miles west of Lowell. The cow had come through a break in the fence. The engine stayed on the rails, but several cars derailed. Two passengers died instantly and fourteen were injured. Two others died weeks later. [GM] Go To Top.
Greenville, 1874. On July 18, 1874, a road train on the Detroit, Lansing & Lake Michigan (later Pere Marquette) struck a tree that had fallen across the track near Greenville. The train derailed; six workmen were killed and four others injured. [GM] Go To Top.
Jackson, 1893. It was Friday, October 13, 1893. The Michigan Central was moving nearly a dozen special trains west to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. One special was stopped at the Jackson station for its passengers to grab a quick breakfast. At 9:10 a.m. it was preparing to move out when a following special train came up behind it running somewhere between 18 and 30 miles per hour. It did not stop; its engineman claimed he was running with caution and that his air brakes failed when needed. His engine slammed into the rear car of the standing special, telescoping it completely into the car ahead. Husbands standing on the platform for a smoke saw their wives killed instantly. Fourteen died in the crash and a staggering seventy more were injured. The engineman of the following train was held completely at fault. [GM] Go To Top.
Nichols, 1893. In nearly sixty of operations, this was the worst wreck to occur. It was the early hours of Friday, October 20, 1893. The Chicago & Grand Trunk (later Grand Trunk Western) was moving an eastbound special to New York and Boston from the Columbian Exposition. Westbound Number 9, the Pacific Express, was due at Nichols, on the east side of Battle Creek, at 1:35 a.m., but was running hours late. The dispatcher issued a train order for the two trains to meet at Nichols. The eastbound train arrived first but did not stop. At 3:45 a.m. the two trains collided head-on a mile or so farther east near Nichols Yard. Both engine crews reversed their engines and applied train brakes, then jumped before the impact and received no serious injury. Two cars of Number 9 telescoped and were engulfed in flames. Many of the twenty-eight who died in the wreck were burned beyond recognition. Another twenty-six were injured. The crew of the eastbound special were held at fault for the wreck. [GM] Go To Top.
Pierson, 1900. The first serious wreck of the nineteenth century in Michigan happened on Wednesday, August 15, 1900. It was the height of the summer season for the Grand Rapids & Indiana. Its premier summer train, the Northland Express, left Grand Rapids at 4:05 a.m. It was scheduled to meet Number 2, the overnight Mackinaw City-Grand Rapids train, at Sand Lake, but the southbound was running late. To avoid delaying the summer train the dispatcher had already issued orders changing their meeting place from Sand Lake to Maple Hill, two miles south of Howard City. At the last minute, to help the southbound make up a little time, the dispatcher wanted to change the meeting place. He called the operator at Mill Creek, the crossing of the GR&I and the Pere Marquette at Comstock Park, and asked if the Northland had passed yet. The operator said "No," and the dispatcher issued an order changing the meeting point several miles to the south to Pierson. The southbound received the order and headed for Pierson. The Northland never got the order--the operator apparently was asleep when it passed Mill Creek. The fog was so thick that night that visibility was no more than a hundred yards. Both trains were running at full speed, about sixty miles per hour, when they collided had-on one-half mile north of Pierson at 4:52 a.m. Both engineers and both firemen died as did the Northland's conductor and two passengers on that train. It was claimed that the baggage and mail cars absorbed most of the shock of the impact and reduced the number of casualties. [GM] Go To Top.
Durand, 1903. After the day's show at Charlotte the two sections of the Wallace circus train were rolling toward Lapeer for the next performance. A little before 4 a.m. on Friday, August 4, 1903, the first section was brought to a stop a half mile west of the Durand station by the flagman of a livestock train stopped ahead of it. The flagman of the circus train started back but before he got far he saw the second section coming up fast. Engineman Charles Probst, when he saw the flagman, applied his air brakes, reversed his engine, and whistled for hand brakes. But at the speed he was running he could not stop his train in time. He and his fireman jumped before the crash. His engine demolished the caboose of the first section and plowed into the sleeping car ahead of it. When it stopped the locomotive was resting on its side. The sleeping workers never knew what hit them. Many died instantly. Townspeople quickly came to aid in the rescue. The Hotel Richelieu was made into a temporary hospital and morgue. There were forty-eight riding in the last sleeper, twenty of them died. Three others also died and at least forty were injured. The circus missed two performances, at Lapeer and Caro, but then opened on schedule at Bay City. The wreck also claimed three camels, a dog, and an elephant, all of them from the second section. The animals were buried about 1,500 feet west of the South Oak Street crossing. The coroner's jury later held that engineer Probst was at fault, claiming had he watched his air gauge he might have prevented the collision. [GM] Go To Top.
East Paris, 1903. It was Saturday evening, December 26, 1903, and it was snowing heavily. Both westbound Number 5 and eastbound Number 6 were running late. Before No. 6 left Grand Rapids it was given a train order directing it to meet No. 5 at Fox siding, two miles east of East Paris, rather than the usual meeting place of Oakdale Park. No. 6 got the order, but No. 5 passed the station at Alto before the dispatcher could finish writing the order. The dispatcher than sent the order to the McCords station. The telegrapher put his signal at "stop" to indicate to No. 5 that he had a train order for it. Running in heavy snow and darkness the engineman on No. 5 never saw the McCords "stop" signal. He went through at a full sixty miles per hour. Not knowing he was to stop in just a few miles for the other train, he barreled on. The two trains met head-on near East Paris. The collision caused the instant death of nineteen and injured about forty more. Two others died later. The McCords operator later stated that the wind had extinguished his signal light; not knowing that he did not go out to try to flag down the train. The engineman of No. 5 survived the wreck, cleared his name in a subsequent trial, but later left his family and disappeared still feeling the guilt. More details of the East Paris wreck are in Art Million's "Wreck at East Paris" in Pere Marquette Rails no. 14. [GM] Go To Top.
Ivanhoe, 1918. It was almost 4 a.m. on Saturday, June 22, 1918. The second section of the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus train was rolling west on the Michigan Central main line through Hammond. Its twenty-six cars included seven cars of animals in cages and four sleepers filled with some 300 performers and roustabouts. Conductor R. W. Johnson thought he smelled an overheated journal--a hot box--and had the train brought to a stop just east of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern crossing at Ivanhoe on the east side of Hammond. Flagman Trimm dropped off and jogged back to protect the rear of his train against any train that might be following. The train that was following was an empty troop train headed to Chicago that had left Michigan City 27 minutes after the circus train. Engineman Alonzo Sargent, an experienced man at the throttle, had had little or no sleep in the last twenty-four hours. The effects of a heavy meal, some kidney pills, and the gentle rolling of his locomotive made him drowsy. On that clear night flagman Trimm could see the approaching headlight of the troop train. It rolled past a yellow caution signal, then a red stop signal set by the circus train. Trimm waved his lantern frantically, then threw a fusee in an attempt to stop the troop train. Sargent realized his peril when he saw the red marker lights of the train directly in front of him. But by then there was no stopping. His engine, rolling at about thirty miles per hour, plowed into the circus train. Cars telescoped into one another. The kerosene lanterns in the sleeping cars caused the old wooden cars to burst into flames. There was no water to douse the fires and one performer after another perished in the disaster. Relief trains came as soon as possible to give what relief could be given. Survivors were transported to the Hammond and its hospital. The final count was awful. Sixty-eight had been crushed, suffocated, or burned; one hundred twenty-seven went to the hospital. The city of Hammond turned out and gave all the help it could. Most of those killed, many of them burned beyond recognition, were buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, at the intersection of Cermak Road and Des Plaines Avenue in Forest Park, Illinois, in a section set aside as Showmen's Rest. Few of those buried were identified and their graves are marked "Unknown Male" or "Unknown Female." One grave is marked "Smiley," one "Baldy", and another "4 Horse Driver." This wreck is described in fuller detail in Stewart H. Holbrook's The Story of American Railroads (New York, 1947), pp. 284-287. Some photos are at: http://www.hammondindiana.com/history/circus.htm. [GM] Go To Top.
Elmwood, 1887 (estimate). The water tank was built on the C&NW at Elmwood on a pile foundation. Some of the piles were not properly driven. The tank was on the south side of the track, which ran east and west. There was a gang of about 50 track laborers there. At lunch time, they sat on the track in the shade of the tank to eat their lunch. As they sat there one day after the tank had just been filled, the foundation failed and the tank fell in among the gang, killing eight or ten and wounding 25 others. Some were saved by the force of the water, which carried them away. Some had broken arms in several places. It was a terrible sight.
Elmwood, 1889. A C&NW train derailed and overturned a coach at the rear end of passenger train on the Menominee River Branch at point about eighteen miles west of Iron River in Iron County. The wreck took the lives of two prominent citizens. Killed was Michigan Lt. Governor James H. MacDonald and one of his associates, Mr. W. F. Cochrane. Cochrane was the manufacturer of the Cochrane Roller Mill and they were enroute to Bessemer and Ashland, Wisconsin on a business trip. When the train arrived near Elmwood and was turning on an "easy" curve, the rear truck of the car in which they were riding "mounted the rail" and carried the rear of the coach down a slight embankment and, as it did so, the coach was overturned upon its side and dragged some 300 feet before the train was stopped. The forward end of the coach was still held by the coupling and was lying upon the embankment, itself and partially upheld by the coupling. The rear was clear of the embankment and was torn by stumps. The first stump struck and penetrated the car. Both individuals are buried in Lakeview Cemetery, Escanaba, MI. On February 2, 1889, John T. Rich, the Michigan Railroad Commissioner, issued a circular to all railroad companies in the state commanding rigid compliance with the law in respect to trees which might obstruct their tracks and urging the removal of stumps or other obstructions from the right of way to such a distance from the track as to be beyond the reach of the derailed car. [FFTF-IR]