Spectators gawk at the spectacular wreckage of the Nellie Bly a few days after the Feb. 21, 1901 wreck.
1901: The Nellie Bly's Bloody Demise
By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian

Streaking along at 60 mph, the Pennsylvania Railroad express was the fastest train in New Jersey when the 20th century began -- so fast, in fact, it became known as the "Nellie Bly" after the intrepid newswoman who had circled the globe in record time.

It hurtled up and down the state, shuttling passengers between New York City and Philadelphia and rumbling past a hundred small towns like the swift, sure herald of a headstrong age.

But on Feb. 21, 1901, on a track curving through the marshy lowlands of Hamilton, the Nellie Bly went from speeding marvel into a bloody, scorched scrap heap.

There, the Nellie Bly smashed head-on into a local train from Bordentown that wasn't supposed to be there -- crushing passengers in both trains in a shower of metal and wood, and then setting the derailed cars on fire.

The toll: 17 dead, 21 badly injured.

For years, the Hamilton tragedy would be known by two words to anyone who had lived through it -- "the wreck."

But the wreck never had to happen.

A tragic series of blunders on that winter day almost 100 years ago brought about the fatal collision of the two speedy trains.

From Camden, headed north to Trenton by way of Bordentown, came the local No. 330 under the direction of conductor Edward Sapp, who was impatient to get to his destination on time.

From New York City, headed south to Atlantic City, came the Nellie Bly -- traveling in three sections pulled by separate locomotives a few miles apart, as was the custom to lighten the hauling load.

Usually, the Nellie Bly traveled in two sections. But this day, for the first time ever, the railroad decided to run it in three sections. The reason for this fateful decision was heavy Lent holiday traffic and a large number of Italian immigrant laborers on their way to work on an Atlantic City reservoir project.

Both trains shared a single track, but local trains were supposed to pull over at sidings and wait for express trains to pass. At each station, they were handed up orders to let them know what was coming.

In keeping with that rule, Sapp stopped at a siding in Bordentown to let the first section of the Nellie Bly pass. There, he was handed this message: "No. 330 and 2nd and 3rd No. 495 [sections of the Nellie Bly] will meet at siding. No. 330 will take siding."

Sapp, a 40-year railroading veteran who had never been involved in a wreck in his career, dutifully pulled over at the next siding, known as Rusling's Siding, one mile north of Bordentown.

But he somehow misread the rest of the order, thinking he would meet only one section of the Nellie Bly at the siding. He would later testify that he held his thumb over the word "3rd" and didn't know there was a third section.

So, when he saw the Nellie Bly's second section pass him at Rusling's, Sapp assumed he had the all-clear to get back on track.

His mistake became clear at 5:20 p.m., three miles south of Trenton, his train approached a sharp left curve.

Out of the hazy dusk came a locomotive at more than 50 mph.

"My God, here comes a train!" said Edward Garwood, a fireman on the Bordentown train.

"Jump and save yourself!" the engineer, Walter Earle, told him. "Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!"

Garwood did so, hitting the dirt and suffering a deep scalp wound but escaping with his life.

Earle stuck to his post, putting on the brakes and blowing the whistle. It was a hopeless task, since the trains saw each other too late. Their locomotives met with a hideous crash and explosion.Lurching forward, the first two cars on the three-car local piled atop each other in a shower of splinters. The heavier Nellie Bly, pulling six cars, was not as badly crumpled. But its smoking car, baggage car and a Pullman sleeping car derailed, rolled down an embankment and plunged into the Delaware and Raritan Canal.

Earle was instantly decapitated. A baggagemaster on the local was crushed to death, a mail pouch clutched in his hands. However, most victims were to suffer a more agonizing demise as the ruined engines burst into flame and set fire to the derailed cars, built largely of wood.

Packed together in their own car, tossed nearly upside down and then trapped as the flames started to spread over them, the laborers suffered the most.

"For God's sake, help me!" came the screams.

Annie Bunting of Florence was uninjured in the wreck and stepped from her car in the Bordentown local to see a "sight too ghastly to describe."

"The injured Italians with their heads and hands cut and blood streaming from the wounds were pacing up and down the tracks, groaning," she told a reporter.

Soon after the wreck, cars from the Pennsylvania Railroad were on their way to rush victims to hospitals in Trenton and Bordentown.
But inexplicably, the crews made no effort to put out the fires consuming the derailed cars. Not until the following morning did a wrecking crew tear open the cars to discover, inside, three charred bodies. A fourth, decomposing body was found three days later.

Despite the grisly discoveries, the scene of the wreck took on a strange, carnival atmosphere the following day. Swarms of kids and ghoulish souvenir-seekers clambered atop the wrecked engines and posed for photographs.

Nine of the wreck's victims died outright; the rest lost their agonizing battles to survive amid the shrieks and blood-spattered accommodations of hospitals.

"The first sound reaching the ear of one drawing near the general ward is not unlike the low and mournful moaning of the sea," wrote a Trenton State Gazette reporter, describing the scene at St. Francis Hospital in Trenton.

"Here lies one whose head is bound in bandages, and one whose disablement is but temporary; here lies one whose face and body more resemble a mass of raw beef more than a human being.

"More pitiable than all are the frantic efforts of the unfortunate Italians, who cannot speak English, and who frequently call, 'monsieur,' and 'doctor,' and then fall back upon their beds with a heart-rending groan."

About half the dead and injured were Italians, most from the same Mulberry Street block on New York's Lower East Side. The youngest fatality, Giuseppe Maida, was 15.

The only female dead was an unknown woman believed to be Italian. Rescuers had half-pulled her from the burning car while flames licked at the lower half of her body. But her arm wrenched out of its socket and she fell back helplessly into the fire.

A call went out for anyone who knew her, along with a description of the corpse: "Wore white and black striped shirtwaist. One arm gone. On remaining arm, wore a black glove."

Four young men who worked together at Bordentown's Ironsides Pottery also died together as they commuted back home to Trenton. Two of them, cousins John Gate, 32, and William Cochran, 19, had their fate inscribed on their tombstone, which are still just a few feet apart at Riverside Cemetery. "Killed in the wreck," reads Gate's stark epitaph.

Sapp, the conductor who failed to understand his orders, survived, only to be charged with manslaughter.

He was never indicted, however, as a grand jury cleared him of any criminal wrongdoing. The jury said in its report that the railroad bore some responsibility by using dangerously brittle wooden passenger cars.

Eventually the directors of the Pennsylvania Railroad -- after being derided as a notoriously corrupt organization callously ignoring passengers' safety -- would reinforce all cars with heavier materials. But it would take tragedies like the Wreck of 1901 to make them do so.
1900s    1910s    1920s    1930s    1940s    1950s    1960s    1970s    1980s    1990s