Terror Of Trains

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The precursor to the train was born at the dawn of the nineteenth century, in 1802, when the high-pressure stationary steam engine was invented. The first railroad engine was made in England in 1804, and by 1830 the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s steam locomotives had attained speeds of 14 miles per hour. On September 15, 1830, the very first fatality on a passenger railway was recorded. An engine of the Liverpool and Manehester Railway ran over a member of Parliament who had come to observe opening-day festivities. The train had no brakes and no whistle; the main problem in those early days was simply moving forward at all, while stopping or warning people was, until then anyway, an afterthought. A mere two years after that, speeds of 60 miles an hour were being reached on American railways.

In 1840 the United States had 2,800 miles of railroad track; by 1872 it had 52,000. With the-huge increase in train travel came inevitable mishaps. Figures from 1889 show that for every 117 trainmen employed in the United States, one was killed, and for every 12, one was injured. When the victims were passengers, the news reports were vivid and graphic. Train accidents, like plane crashes today, killed far fewer people than other disasters of the time. Shipwrecks, construction accidents, and road misfortunes like overturned carriages claimed many more lives, but train wrecks struck people as more deadly and horrific.

A particularly gruesome crash in Rhode Island in April 1873 riveted New Engländers with its images of fiery destruction. A train on the Shore Line approached a washed-out bridge in the middle of the night at full speed and crashed into the opposite riverbank; three coaches smashed together, splintered, and burst into flames, fueled by the train’s coal stoves and oil lamps. The newspapers played up the most grotesque details of the accident. ONE MORE HORROR , proclaimed a headline in the New York Herald , above an article describing “victims roasted and crushed to death in the debris.” The engineer and the fireman were “burned to a crisp at their posts.” the paper reported, and a survivor saw “numerous pieces of flesh and bones lying upon the bank of the river.”

Even the more staid New York Times called the accident a “fearful catastrophe” and “a great sacrifice of human life,” including that of a corpse identified as a woman only by the corset around her waist. The paper told of the agonizing death of a passenger trapped halfway out a window, who “was calling wildly, ‘Oh, save me! I am burned to death!’ His screams and moans were not heeded, and death put an end to his sufferings.” Other passengers walked away from the wreck virtually unscathed.

A British magazine writer commented after a local train wreck in 1868 that it was not the number of victims or the horror of the event that had riveted the public but rather “its nearness to us all,” for “we are all railway travellers; these trains and collisions, these stations and engines…are not only household words, but part of our daily life.” Readers in New York could easily imagine that they themselves might have been taking the Shore Line train to Providence that fateful night and also that had an accident occurred, it might have claimed them and left a fellow passenger uninjured. Freakish tales abounded of the arbitrariness of train disasters—not unlike that of today’s plane crashes—in which one railway car was destroyed while another was untouched, or even in which one passenger received not a scratch while a person across the aisle was killed. One’s death or survival on a train seemed completely random and unpredictable, subject only to some grim technological calculus of mortality.

All these ambient fears and suspicions of the marvelous new trains began to coalesce by the 1860s, prompting both a flurry of medical writings on the subject and eventually a flurry of lawsuits against railroads alleging railway spine. The English medical journal The Lancet published an eight-part report in 1862 on “The Influences of Railway Travelling on Public Health,” emphasizing the “severe mental impression of fright” induced by railway accidents and the fact that such collisions “exceed in violence any other kind of shock to which human beings are exposed in travelling.” Once Erichsen’s railway-spine thesis became the accepted diagnosis, within a few years the stage was set for a legal testing of the idea that trains made people sick.