Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Death in the Alleghenies

The Train Wreck of The Red Arrow

The crash of The Red Arrow on Bennington Curve outside Altoona, PA. Courtesy of the great railroad photo collection at Bill's Pennsy Photos. Check them out!

Reconnecting with an old tale from my local area, I did some research on one of the deadliest incidents in the region past's--and one of the worst transportation accidents in American History for that matter. This past February was the 65th anniversary of the wreck of The Red Arrow. The following is my brief account of what transpired in the mountains above the Rail City that winter:

The terrain had always been treacherous.
The railroad tracks encompassing Bennington Curve in the rugged mountains of central Pennsylvania had often posed numerous problems for the workers of the bustling Pennsylvania Railroad – not only for the impoverished Irish immigrants who constructed it in the 1850s, but also for the railroaders of a century later. Situated well over 2,200 feet above sea level, the elevation of the curve was amongst the highest on the PRR’s main line. Here, engineers were forced to mix extreme degrees of caution with simultaneous aggression when it came to navigating the mountains by rail. By not implementing the correct level of acceleration moving uphill, a locomotive could stall or potentially reverse itself down track. If speeding too fast, trains could not properly maneuver the sharp curves of the mountainous passes and faced the likelihood of derailing off the steeply situated ledges. The latter scenario occurred in the early morning hours of February 18, 1947 as PRR Train 68, named the Red Arrow, jumped the tracks on the infamous Bennington Curve – killing twenty-four onboard and critically injuring scores of other passengers. Hence, one of the deadliest train crashes in American History took place on a bitterly cold night in a location hardly easily accessible to rescuers. The tragic news splashed across the front pages of newspapers across the country over the course of the ensuing week. Many pondered the question, “Could this disaster have been avoided?” Such is a question that many, including survivors, wrestle with to this very day – especially when considering the suspect and controversial investigations that followed.

The Red Arrow was a gem in the crown of the PRR’s passenger services. The two gargantuan K-4 locomotives at the head of the train, with a capacity to travel over 100 miles per hour thanks to 155 ton engines, were only one of many impressive aspects of the train’s features. Behind the locomotive were fourteen cars that mainly consisted of Pullman passenger cars.[1] Despite the vast advancements in air travel due to the technological progress of World War II, many “travelers still preferred the all-weather safety, reliability, and comfort of the railroad passenger train. This often meant booking space aboard the parlor and sleeping cars of The Pullman Company.” Companies such as the PRR were worriedly aware of the competitive threats newer and quicker air travel posed but “‘getting there by train is half the fun of any trip!’ became the rallying cry of rail-travel advocates in the face of this competition.”[2] Naturally, the Red Arrow, with its fast speeds, sleek interiors, and glitzy name embodied the post war efforts of railroaders to revolutionize and rebrand their method of travel as prompt and nostalgic transportation. Unfortunately for such visionaries, within two decades, rail passenger service would be only a shadow of its former self in the face of the rapidly dominating air industry.

Despite a luxurious and rather adventurous backdrop, matters were not always cheerful for men such as James Corbett, one of several African American porters who accommodated guests onboard. Such stewards were responsible for serving passengers amenities, assisting with baggage, and preparing “roomettes” – small but cozy compartments located within sleeping cars. Regardless of the frequently luxurious backdrop of their vocation, porters were subjected to abhorrent instances of racial discrimination. Although organizations such as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters demanded rights such as better wages and benefits for these service industry workers, they could do little to alter ingrained racial attitudes among many railroad passengers. However, Corbett and men like him saw the country, did their jobs, and were rightly proud of their work. Still, porters were frequently condescendingly referred to as “boy” or “George,” the first name of the Pullman Company founder.[3] But such racism was not as widespread in the morning hours of February 18, 1947 on the slopes below Bennington Curve. Lives were on the line.

The Red Arrow was running one hour late for its intended destination of New York City from its previous stop in Pittsburgh. Weather conditions were always of great concern while traversing through this terrain, especially snow and haze. Situated in a locality known for foggy conditions throughout the year, the mountain and its hazy conditions could prove especially harmful by limiting visibility for train crews. But not all factors were natural or climate related. Few locomotives of the time, including the Red Arrow, had speedometers. Engineman Mike Billig applied the brakes to the cars but not the locomotive itself as the train approached the large Bennington Curve. (Billig, who was badly scalded and scarred, was the only one of four enginemen to survive.) On the descent toward the curve, the train’s throttle inadvertently notched upward to half-open. Rather than proceeding at the recommended thirty miles per hour for this portion of track, the Red Arrow hit the curve at an astounding sixty-five miles per hour and derailed over the side. It was 3:21 a.m. 278 people were on board. Nearly one in ten of them did not survive.[4]

According to the February 19 issue of The Tuscaloosa News, “Five cars toppled into the gulley with the locomotives which lay on their sides, half buried in packed snow.” The train’s “two locomotives and five [of its] coaches careened down a steep 90-foot embankment to crash in a twisted maze.”[5] The actions of first responders included not only rescuing those who had survived, but recovering the bodies of those who had not. “By mid-afternoon the bodies of 17 had been brought into the morgue and four bodies were still entombed in the coaches and sleepers that lay scattered along the cinder-covered embankment,” reported the Schenectady Gazette. The article continued, “The dead included three of the four engineers and firemen who manned the two locomotives in the train’s hard climb over the mountains.”[6] Thus, the majority of the crew who may have been able to shed some light on the unfortunate circumstances of the wreck perished along with any of their potential explanations.

Meanwhile, passengers were left in a daze as to what exactly had happened. The train’s “sleeping passengers,” reported Oregon’s Eugene Register-Guard, were “jarred awake to death and pain and disaster, incoherently described only as a ‘series of bumps’ before the grinding crash of disintegrating steel.”[7] Indeed, both steel and lives were crushed that night. A full page spread on the front of The Pittsburgh Press noted that “Many of the passengers rallied to aid in the rescue of the more seriously injured. Others, their faces black with horror, wandered aimlessly around the cars, pitched topsy-turvy along the right of way. . . . Most of the victims were unable to talk as they were lifted from the wreckage.”[8] While most were in traumatic shock resulting from the death and devastation around them, others remained more concerned about material goods. British traveler Gerald D. Russell, for one, noted, “what worries me now is my luggage. I lost all my papers and my passport is missing. That’s quite serious for a foreigner, you know.”[9] Readers likely evoked little sorrow at that seemingly shallow comment, especially when comparing them to the account of Altoona photographer Tom Lynam. On scene to visually record the carnage, Lynam reported bodies lying indiscriminately across the rugged terrain. “I shone my flashlight inside [a car], he recalled, “and saw arms and legs sticking up” from the wreckage.[10] Meanwhile fellow photographer Howard Moyer hovered the skies above with pilot Johnny Evans, battling “winds, poor visibility and vicious downdrafts to picture” the wreck from their small engine Ercoupe. “There must have been 1500 persons around the wreck and perched on vantage points to view it,” Evans told The Pittsburgh Press.[11]

While many passengers were despondent and grieving about their plight, others attempted to alleviate the suffering of a horrendous situation by invoking faith and inciting assurance. Sally Ortega was a twenty-five year old Red Cross worker who was on her way home to New Jersey following a month-long visit with her aunt and uncle. Following the wreck, she too was pinned by debris in her car. Despite her confinement for over four hours, she kept her calm while telling stories and singing to entrapped passengers nearby. Rabbi George B. Lieberman, a traveler in the same car, attested to the fortitude of Ms. Ortega by recalling, “Sally was a great source of consolation.” She was caught between wreckage “but was very brave.” But Lieberman too revealed much endurance as he imparted interdenominational prayers and hymns among his fellow travelers.[12] However, even when accounting the goodwill displayed between the victims, their benevolence could not always preserve the lives or good spirits of those on entangled in the quagmire of twisted steel.

From a multitude of heart-wrenching tales arising from the Red Arrow tragedy, that of Postal Clerk G. C. Bowman may rank at the top. As a clerk in Postal Car 5473, Bowman’s duties included sorting mail en route to ensure more speedy deliveries. When his car was one of several that spun off the tracks, Bowmann’s feet became wedged between two pieces of twisted metal that left him hanging upside down for nearly nine exhaustingly painful hours. He could see the twisted corpse of his brother, Holland, also a mail clerk, in the nearby rubble. “While rescue crews burned away at steel with acetylene torches to free him, he dictated a will to a postal inspector. . . . Conscious all the while he was trapped, Bowman directed rescuers in their frantic efforts to release him.” Five of the mail clerks on board had already died. Bowman was the sixth. Despite remaining conscious and cooperative during rescue efforts, despite being freed from the carnage by blow torches and being successfully evacuated, Bowman’s ghastly wounds and likely loss of blood proved too much to overcome. He died in the Altoona Hospital the next day. [13]

Medical facilities in the nearby railroad hotbed of Altoona, Pennsylvania were swarmed with casualties like they had never been before. Victims were transported to the Altoona Hospital (also operated by the PRR), Mercy Hospital, and even the old USO Canteen from World War II that was located next door to the downtown train station. Within four hours of the wreck, casualties filled beds and cots in the increasingly crowded hallways of Altoona’s infirmaries. Drops of blood speckled the corridors of the hospitals as more and more victims were delivered. Crowds outside the structures lined the streets to both proffer assistance and take in the horrific spectacle. “Every ambulance and taxicab in the city was pressed into service. Local and State police moved into action to give them clearance.”[14] Passenger Frank W. Goldy of Detroit, who was brought to the hospital wearing an overcoat over his pajamas, noted that, “We [survivors] are a picture of gratitude.”[15] Observers of the medical care were both shocked and inspired, including local high school sophomore Janet Azeles, who was so moved as to study medical care and become a registered nurse for thirty-five years. But there was confusion as well as inspiration in the hospitals. Medical workers on hand were initially quite surprised to find so many children among the large number of wounded. Upon further investigation, they found that the small casualties were not adolescents, but members of Rose’s Midget Review, a travelling troupe of little people who were fatefully on board. [16] A group of ten Naval apprentice sailors were also passengers, on their way to training in Maryland.[17]

Some blame for the accident was easily thrust upon the train’s crew – and perhaps accordingly so. R. A. Smith and N. H. Neff, crewmen parked in a nearby freighter, attested to the dangerously high speed of the train in its final moments. She was “travelling much faster than usual,” testified Neff. “I saw sparks coming from the wheels, indicating that brakes were being applied.” Too little too late, many observed.[18] Or was the wreck a merely a result of the ominous terrain? Even when locomotives on Bennington Curve traveled at appropriate speeds, dangers lurked everywhere along the Main Line. Only eleven days after the wreck of the Red Arrow, the last Pullman car of the PRR’s New York to Texas Sunshine Special “tore loose from the train at the peak of the Alleghenies in pre-dawn darkness [and] careened wildly down the mountainside and plowed into an embankment, killing a Pullman porter and injuring 10 passengers and one crewman.” Those still attached to the train did not realize of the separation until they reached Pittsburgh, approximately 100 miles away.[19] Lee Keys, the black porter who perished onboard, attempted to save his passengers even though they may have previously spoken down to him. One of them concluded, “He was up and down the aisle doing everything he could. A real hero who thought first of us and disregarded his own safety.”[20]

Heroics aside, incidents such as the Red Arrow and Sunshine Special on Bennington Curve did not entirely depict train travel as the safe and comfortable mode of transportation it was advertised to be. But matters worsened for any would-be rail advocates hoping to protect the image of the industry. Within the same two week period, at least 300 passengers were killed in a train wreck outside of Kyoto, Japan. Travelers worldwide, whether warranted or not, began to further contemplate the safety of rail travel.[21] The following June, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) took preemptive action by ordering that railroads place automatic block signal systems along nearly 19,000 miles of track across the United States. “The order resulted from an investigation instituted by the ICC into accidents and their relation to scheduled speed of passenger and freight trains” – the Red Arrow undoubtedly being amongst them.[22] This crash was part of a much larger endemic in which more passengers were being injured in wrecks. Resulting from the downfall of short-haul passenger services, the number of passengers on trains doubled between 1930 and 1960. “Thus,” historian Mark Aldrich contends, “while accidents per passenger mile declined after World War II, the number of casualties per accident rose from the 1930s on, resulting in a disproportionate increase in the number of disasters.”[23]

The investigation into the wreck of the Red Arrow itself, however, remains shrouded in much more mystery and controversy. The ICC took a decidedly non-accusatory approach in their proceedings. The wreckage of the Red Arrow’s locomotives were salvaged by heavy duty cranes, transported to the Altoona Rail Shops, and pieced together like a detective might reconstruct a homicide scene. In spite of these results, commissioners could find no definite fault in the train’s engines, tenders, axles, wheels, or suspensions. The throttles of the train’s two locomotives were locked securely in place – placed in that position by engineer Billig immediately after he noticed one had slipped to half speed. Experts also ruled out the possibilities of poor weather conditions or physical obstructions. Perhaps not wishing to ruffle the feathers of the PRR’s still-mighty establishment, the Commission’s deliberations simply concluded that the train’s crash was caused by “excessive speed on a curve.”[24] (See Appendix A for the full investigation report.) Likewise, a Blair County coroner’s inquest and jury found Billig free of any guilt in the matter, though he carried the stigma like he did his scars from the Red Arrow for the remainder of his life.

Writer Dennis McIlnay has noted that Coroner Daniel Replogle’s “reason for convening the inquest seems to have been more political than judicial.” Possibly wishing to exonerate the crew – and thus the PRR itself – Replogle supervised a tight investigation that received little attention in local or national media. Similarly, those on the jury were employees of the PRR, and likewise cared not to risk the reputation of their employer or their own positions in condemning Billig or the company. The official transcript of this inquest is not to be found in any archive or courthouse, lost accidentally or purposefully in the shuffle of time. The suspicious nature and seeming partiality of the proceedings perhaps speaks best to the power such organizations as the Pennsylvania Railroad possessed over the course of multiple decades.[25]

The crash of the Red Arrow was both a literal and symbolic tragedy that coincided with the post-war decline of rail travel in the United States. The disaster’s aftermath nevertheless spoke to the mighty, swaying power the railroading elite held in the industry and society they dominated – even as that industry and power slowly diminished. No person was held accountable for the disaster, nor were any of its victims or their families compensated for the loss. Likewise, little or no remembrance or commemoration of the event exists physically or consciously in the very community where the incident occurred. Though the 247 souls on board the Red Arrow could never forget their ill-fated journey, historical recollection of the calamity remains as barren as the still-desolate slopes of Bennington Curve itself.


[1] McIlnay, Dennis P. The Wreck of the Red Arrow: An American Train Tragedy. Hollidaysburg, PA: Seven Oaks, 2010, 23-24.

[2] Welsh, Joe, and Bill Howes. Travel by Pullman: A Century of Service. St. Paul, MN: MBI Pub., 2004, 84.

[3] McIlnay, 24.

[4] Ibid., 28-9.

[5] "23 Identified in Train Crash." The Tuscaloosa News [Tuscaloosa, AL] 19 Feb. 1947: 1.

[6] "Passenger Train Plunges Over Embankment in Pa.; 20 Killed, 117 Others Hurt." Schenectady Gazette [Schenectady, NY] 18 Feb. 1947: 5.

[7] “Rail Accident Toll Reaches 25.” Eugene Register-Guard [Eugene, Oregon] 19 Feb. 1947: 1.

[8] “104 Injured When Flyer Goes Over Steep Bank On Curve Near Altoona.” The Pittsburgh Press [Pittsburgh, PA] 18 Feb. 1947: 1.

[9] “Wreck Survivor Says He’s Lucky.” Reading Eagle [Reading, PA] 18 Feb. 1947: 18.

[10] “Altoona Wreck.” Reading Eagle [Reading, PA] 18 Feb. 1947: 18.

[11] “Pilot, Cameraman Get Wreck Scenes.” The Pittsburgh Press [Pittsburgh, PA] 18 Feb. 1947: 1-2.

[12] “Murrysville Couple Tells Story of Heroic Niece in Train Wreck.” The News-Dispatch [Jeannette, PA] 21 Feb. 1947: 1.

[13] “Man Dictates Will Hanging From Train.” The Tuscaloosa News [Tuscaloosa, AL] 19 Feb. 1947: 1.

[14] “104 Injured When Flyer Goes Over Steep Bank On Curve Near Altoona.” The Pittsburgh Press [Pittsburgh, PA] 18 Feb. 1947: 1

[15] “Altoona Wreck.” Reading Eagle [Reading, PA] 18 Feb. 1947: 18.

[16] McIlnay, 123.

[17] Haine, Edgar A. Railroad Wrecks. New York: Cornwall, 1993, 123.

[18] “Railmen Testify Red Arrow Sped At High Rate.” Meriden Record [Meriden, CT] 25 Feb. 1947: 1.

[19] “Pullman Leaves Train, Races Down Mountain.” The Milwaukee Journal [Milwaukee, WI] 28 Feb. 1947: 1.

[20] “Runaway Car Porter Dies Saving Riders.” The Milwaukee Sentinel [Milwaukee, WI] 1 Mar. 1947: 1.

[21] “300 Reported Killed In Tokyo Train Wreck.” Meriden Record [Meriden, CT] 25 Feb. 1947: 1.

[22] “Train Safety Order Issued.” The Milwaukee Journal [Milwaukee, WI] 19 June 1947: 8.

[23] Aldrich, Mark. Death Rode the Rails: American Railroad Accidents and Safety, 1828-1965. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006, 291.

[24] McIlnay, 95.

[25] Ibid., 106-8.

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