During the Confederate invasion in June 1863, thousands of Pennsylvanians fled their homes seeking shelter from the storm of battle. These refugees fled utilizing the Keystone State’s hub of railroads, creating harrowing scenes of confusion in train stations across Central Pennsylvania. Amid the turmoil, a train filled with refugees jumped the tracks along the Susquehanna River in Northern Dauphin County. This is the story of a forgotten railroad disaster.
With Confederate cavalry roaming the southern Pennsylvania countryside in the days of mid-June, 1863, average Pennsylvanians took flight from the threat. From June 15-17, an immense wave of refugees funneled through Harrisburg looking to remove property, livestock, and their families from the Rebel “horde.”
The railroad depots in the state capital became a focal point in this human drama, and trains leaving for New York, Philadelphia, and other points east and west, were filled with passengers loaded down with their most cherished belongings. One newspaper correspondent observed: “The scene at noon at the depots was indescribable. A sweltering mass of humanity thronged the platform, all furious to escape from the doomed city.”1
By June 19, the panic subsided as residents heard that no immediate threat to Harrisburg and Central Pennsylvania from the Confederate raiders existed at that moment. Yet, a steady stream of those leaving from the region still existed. On the line of the Northern Central Railroad, the main north-south thoroughfare through the state, trains loaded with passengers seeking a reprieve from the threat still chugged north towards Sunbury, in the perceived safety of Northumberland County.
That was still true at 1 o’clock in the afternoon of the 19th, when the north-bound mail train from Baltimore arrived at the depot in Bridgeport (now Lemoyne), directly across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg. Those on the platform at the depot could likely here the sounds from the bluffs overlooking the river and the state capital. Hundreds of volunteers, many of them free black refugees from southern Pennsylvania, scraped and dug into the hillsides, constructing several forts in a desperate attempt to defend the hills and the capital below. That morning, the Daily Patriot & Union ominously warned, “We would not deceive our readers in regard to the real condition of affairs. We warn them that this city is in greater peril than ever before.”2
At 1:15 PM, the mail train departed the station at Bridgeport, destined for the depot at Sunbury. Between five and six hundred people were aboard as the train picked up speed along the western shore of the mile-wide Susquehanna River, which looked a muddy brown from late spring rains.3 At the “Dauphin Narrows,” the train crossed over the river to the eastern shore on a wooden bridge which had only recently picked up a squad of Union soldiers to patrol its covered span.
The river bluffs near Harrisburg turn to steep mountains north of the city and the Northern Central wound its way between them on its path further up the line. The afternoon mail train glided alongside the Pennsylvania and Wiconisco canals, which both hugged the rocky shores of the Susquehanna. Stops at Dauphin and Halifax to deliver postage and occasional passengers slowed the progress, but the timetable kept a tight 4:05 arrival time at Sunbury.4 Stops would be mercifully short.
In pulling out from the Halifax platform, the next stop scheduled was the Millersburg station of the Northern Central at the intersection with the Lykens Valley Railroad. This particular section of track wound its way along the shores of the river directly between the Wiconisco Canal and the Halifax-Millersburg road. The several mile journey would normally have been quickly completed, as the track here kept a consistent grade and relatively straight path.
However, along this straight section of track, disaster struck. The axle beneath the mail and baggage car failed, sending the remaining cars behind the failure tumbling from the track. Wooden passenger cars were thrust onto the ground, rolling and splintering as a result, leaving the train as “a complete wreck.”5
Dozens of people were left bloodied and severely injured as they emerged from the devastated wreckage. Many of the passengers “made some very miraculous escapes,” according to reports from the scene.6 The bodies of six men lay strewn around and underneath the debris. All were apparently riding on the platform of the passenger cars and subjected to terrible deaths when disaster struck. Their horrific fate would be blamed on their own risk-taking behavior, even though it was likely that the train was overflowing with people.7
The injured were rushed to Millersburg, which sat two miles up the track around a bend in the river. The engine, which had not left the track, could pull the remaining cars to the Millersburg depot and send the call for further assistance. By evening, the track was cleared and the bodies brought to the depot for identification and temporary storage. They were placed in coffins and prepared for removal to friends and family.
Remembrance of this tragedy has all but disappeared. Save for the meager descriptions provided by several local newspapers and the grave markers of the deceased, little is known about this unintended consequence of the invasion of Pennsylvania. Without the impetus of an enemy army, there is little likelihood that this train would have been overloaded with people. The increased weight on the train, including the baggage car, may have lead to the catastrophic failure that threw the train from the tracks.
However, without further evidence, it is merely hearsay as to what factors may have led to the disaster. Even its legacy has disappeared, despite being the deadliest accident along this stretch of the Northern Central Railroad. It is apparent that events occurring in Adams, Franklin, and York counties overtook the recovery and cleanup effort along the railroad tracks in upper Dauphin County. The body count at Gettysburg far outweighed the comparatively meager disaster along the banks of the Susquehanna River midway between Halifax and Millersburg.
Below is a transcription of the June 27, 1863 Sunbury American article about the disaster, from which many details here were gleaned:
A Horrible Railroad Accident.
On Friday afternoon, while the mail train on the Northern Central Railway was coming northward about two miles south of Millersburg, Dauphin County, an axle broke under the baggage car, throwing the cars attached off the track, and wrecking the whole train. The engine did not leave the track.
The mortality from this unfortunate accident is larger than we have chronicled for a long time, and was occasioned by an unforeseen defect in an axle, liable to occur on any railroad. There were some five or six hundred persons on the train at the time of the accident, many of whom made some very miraculous escapes. It was a complete wreck and many of the cars were almost entirely demolished. The following are the killed and injured:
Daniel Ettinger, brakeman, York, Pa.
Jacob Buckhart, Granville, Bradford Co., Pa.
W.H. Snyder (student), Williamsport, from Mauch Chunk, [Carbon Co., Pa.]
Mr. Knapp, unknown.
John W. Gabes, Springfield Centre, Bradford Co., Pa.
Lemuel Andrews [boy 17], Troy, Bradford Co., Pa.
Munday Page, right foot injured so severely as to require amputation, Williamsport, Pa.
Thomas Pipes, baggage master; back bruised.
Wm. Morris, dangerous, not recover, Kington.
John B. Hunter, of Danville, ankle broken.
Edward Stay, Troy, in foot.
Washington Armstrong, knee, slight.
Capt. Walters, stomach and arm, slight, Lewistown.+
John Bishop, head and back, bad, Colderville, Allegheny Co., Pa.
Daniel Getz, knee, Beaver Spring.
A.M. Gibson, back and ear, severe, Lock Haven.
Jos. Rathburn, wound not dangerous, Bloomsburg.
Morris Cohn, knee, not dangerous, Lancaster.
Wm. Smith, face and hip, not dangerous.
Caleb Barton, behind ear, slight, Bloomsburg.
Several others were injured, but not so badly as to prevent them from re-entering the cars and continuing on their journey. The dead bodies were taken to Millersburg, soon after the accident, placed in coffins and sent to their friends.
In justice to the railroad company, we will state that every one killed was standing on the platform of the cars at the time of the accident, and had these men been in the seats provided for them, they might still be living. What a warning is this to hundreds who travel over the different railroads in this country, addicted to this habit.
This post was adapted from a previous post on Wynning History.
Photo at Top: A train on the Northern Central Railroad, 1863. (LOC)
1. Coffin, Charles C. Four Years of Fighting. (Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1881.) 258-260.
2. “Local News.” Daily Patriot & Union (Harrisburg). June 19, 1863. 3.
3. “Refreshing.” Evening Telegraph (Harrisburg), June 20, 1863. 3.
4. Northern Central Railroad. “Northern Central Railway, Summer Time Table.” Published in the Evening Telegraph (Harrisburg, PA). June 19, 1863. 4.
5. “Horrible Railroad Accident.” Sunbury American, June 27, 1863. 3.
6. Ibid.; Newspaper reports also come from the Harrisburg Evening Telegraph (June 20) and Daily Patriot & Union (June 22)
7. All newspaper reports of the incident place the blame for the six deaths on those riding on the outside platform of the passenger cars.