The children who attended the Sunday school at St Michael’s Catholic Church in the Philadelphia suburb of Kensington were excited by the prospect of an outing to Fort Washington, outside the city, for a picnic in the park. They were up at dawn and were boarding the special excursion train by 05.00. Already the balmy mid July air gave promise of a warm day to come. There must have been plenty of lively chatter among the 1,500 children who clambered into the wooden box cars for the short journey. The year was 1856 and for many it will have been their first train ride as the North Pennsylvania Railroad on which they were travelling was just one year old.
The steam train was 20 minutes late leaving by the time everyone was safely boarded. The driver knew that a passenger train was scheduled to be approaching from the opposite direction on the same section of single-track line, but he reckoned that he could make up the time so that the two trains could pass each other at a siding along the route. The driver of the passenger train also knew about the excursion and he had slowed down to 16 kph (10 mph) and was blowing his whistle continuously as he approached a blind curve at Camp Hill. The excursion train, however, was on a downhill run and travelling much faster when it rounded the curve and smacked straight into the other. In the head-on collision the boiler of one of the locomotives exploded – it was said that the explosion could be heard 8 km (5 mi) away – and the Sunday school train came off the rails. The children stood no chance in the conflagration that followed as flames engulfed the tinder-dry box cars.
When was the Fort Washington Great Train Wreck: July 17 1856
Where was the Fort Washington Great Train Wreck: Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, USA
What was the Fort Washington Great Train Wreck death toll: Between 59 and 67 people died in the crash, mostly children. Hundreds more were injured.
You should know: The Camp Hill disaster, as the crash is also known, remains one of the worst railway accidents in American history.