On August 11, 1880 the town of Mays Landing was called to serve in a most unexpected and tragic circumstance. Just seven weeks before, the spur of the new railroad was opened, connecting their hometown to the cities of Philadelphia and Atlantic City. In a private excursion as many as 1,300 men, women and children, chartered this first event of the inaugural season. It was an exciting day for the new 'West Jersey Line'.
Passengers were Irish Catholic parishioners hailing from St. Anne’s Literary Society and neighboring Philadelphia churches. They left early from the city, taking the ferry into Camden then leaving for the shore with twenty four passenger cars scheduled. However, rather than run one consist to Atlantic City, the party was divided into two trains comprised of sixteen and eight passenger cars. Not only were the cars over occupancy limits, but rules of trains following each other would necessitate enforcement. On this first charter, regulations were neglected.
After a day of pleasant memories at the beach, they boarded the cars for the return. The first train left for a 6PM departure, followed by the second at 6:05PM. Seventeen miles from Atlantic City, they reached the town of Mays Landing during an evening rainstorm. After crossing the trestle over the Great Egg Harbor River, the lead train attempted to clear the single track for the down express by pulling over onto the siding. As the first train was still clearing the additional last two cars, the second locomotive telescoped the first in a rear end collision, erupting into a boiler explosion. In their panic, passengers broke through windows and jumped into the river below as others in the last car were scalded by the steam cylinder. With temperatures upwards of 200 degrees, the casualty list eventually climbed to a combined eighty injuries and fatalities. The accident scene overwhelmed the small community as the passengers outnumbered the town’s entire population. Unprepared for the extent of the calamity, neighbors then became unexpected first responders, while their homes were transformed into emergency rooms and morgues. Dozens of newspapers across the country carried the story, acknowledging the kindness extended by the citizens of Mays Landing. However, the story was squelched by New Jersey press outlets and ultimately veiled from the government agencies as well as history books. In an era when rails ruled the roads and class determined privilege, their story was mysteriously lost...until now.
The new Atlantic City excursion was in operation just under two months on August 11th of 1880. The beginning of the day was cloudy with intermittent light rain throughout the afternoon.
That Wednesday upwards of 1,300 travelers from St. Anne’s and the neighboring parishes made initial arrangements for the entire group to travel together under the power of one train. The Pennsylvania Railroad directed that the group be divided into two sections: a sixteen car consist and an eight car consist.
The excursion arrived in Atlantic City without incident at 9AM. Eagerly, passengers exited the trains to get their first glimpse of the boardwalk and the beautiful “city by the sea.” Stretching one mile, the Atlantic City Boardwalk was more than just an alternative to keeping beach sand out of hotel lobbies, it served as its own seaside attraction. One side overlooked an impressive span of the Atlantic Ocean, while the other offered a view of the most luxurious and ornately decorated hotels of the time.
The travelers with St. Anne’s could be found admiring the mighty force of the crashing waves and the unfamiliar sound of squawking seagulls overhead. Some collected seashells, while others took their first steps into the Atlantic, kicking their feet up with delight in unison with each swell of the surf. Although the overcast weather conditions were not the most ideal, it allowed for a pleasant stroll on the boardwalk, enjoying a packed shoe box lunch, and a walk down the beach to see the Absecon Lighthouse.
Both trains were ready for the 6:00 P.M. departure to Philadelphia, as the ominous sky hinted at an impending thunderstorm. While the travelers began making their way back to the station for their return trip, they were met with the anticipated rains. Despite the declining weather, the storm didn’t dampen the spirits of the hundreds of passengers preparing to board. Weather reports for the Atlantic City area later recorded a steady rain after 3PM, followed by summer lightning strikes.
Chilled by their soaked garments,
passengers shook off the rain water and settled into their seats. A last call for “All Aboard” went out, as the conductor from each section inspected and secured the windows against the downpour. The two conductors had 23 years of experience between them, but this was a night their experience had not prepared them for.
Locomotive No. 262, the first of the two sections, departed the station at New York and Atlantic Avenues with Engineer Daniel Cassidy and Conductor Elmer Mayhew in command. According to recorded accounts, No. 262 left the station at 6:00PM, while No. 627 followed soon after at 6:05PM.
Departure orders were given by the station superintendent and later confirmed by Edward Aitken, engineer of the smaller of the two trains. Running slower across the Atlantic City meadows, Engineer Aitken estimated their lag distance at Pleasantville to be approximately eight to nine minutes, or two miles behind the lead consist. They continued on at a five minute distance, traveling at a clip of 25 miles per hour. Aitken cut off the steam to the engine with approximately a mile between the first and second train.
Outside, lightning bolts crackled and thunder clouds rumbled in the evening summer sky as the pelting rain ensued. A brief stop was scheduled seventeen miles away in Mays Landing to allow the down express from Camden to pass on the tracks.
While the leaking rainwater started to form puddles inside the wooden cars, passengers chatted (and shivered), sharing stories of their days’ adventures as the train rattled along on the steel tracks. Father Quinn with St. Anne’s, following along in the second section was quoted to say, “Every person was very happy and delighted with the manner in which the day had been spent.”
On the approach to Mays Landing, the second train was still running at approximately 25 miles per hour with a five mile distance between sections. Engineer Aiken prepared for the wet rails by applying the air brakes a mile and a half prior to the stop. At the Mays Landing cut, with less than a mile to go, he foresaw a disaster quickly developing on the single track ahead of them. He could see the last car dead ahead on the bridge over the Great Egg Harbor River and surmised that it was waiting for the switch to be shifted.
Twenty four passenger cars, two locomotives and two tenders had to merge onto 2600 feet of siding in anticipation of the down express coming from the opposite direction. As the second consist approached the trestle over the river, the engineer blew the whistle four times to warn of the impending impact.
With just seconds to spare, a desperate Aiken threw the engine in reverse. Though traveling at a speed of just 8 miles per hour, there still wouldn’t be sufficient time or space to avoid a rear end collision. In a final attempt to bring the train to a stop, Sam Flower the fireman, applied the hand brakes. At ten feet away, Engineer Aitken yelled “Jump for God’s sake, Sam!” Both he and Conductor Hoagland also leapt for their lives into the murky water below.
...To Be Continued...
Introduction to our Investigation...
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Michelle Morris-Phy, Mays Landing, NJ
Louis Ferrero, Philadelphia, PA
Noreen McCall, Groveland, FL
John J Williiams, Freehold, NJ
Louise Dalbora, Mays Landing.
Roger Cutter, White Hall, MD
Mel & Mike Freda, Cranford, NJ
Barbara DeRiggi, Toms River, NJ
Wendy Fabietti, Margate, NJ
Rosina John, Toms River, NJ
Charles & Eileen Fedak, Stevensville, PA
A Special Thank You to our first contributors who believe in our quest to share the "DISASTER on the West Jersey Line", the true life story of the 1880 train wreck in Mays Landing. We hope to secure funding to complete the project within the coming year.
American Hotel (leftside)-Now home of the
Atlantic County Library and
Baker's Union Hotel (right side-demolished)
-the first locations where victims were brought after the accident. Upper left is what remains of the trestle today and photos of the cotton mill,
"Mays Landing Water Power Company"
Top photos are records found in the State Archives, indicating proper protocol was not followed in the documentation of this deadly event.