The Picnic Train Tragedy of 1856

The Great Train Wreck of 1856 collision occurred between Camp Hill and Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, on July 17, 1856.

The incident was called The Camp Hill Disaster in Montgomery County, and The Picnic Train Tragedy in Philadelphia. This was the deadliest railroad catastrophe in the world up to that time and the number of children involved guaranteed its place one of the most significant events of its time.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper featured extensive coverage of the event on August 2, 1856. Their coverage, excerpted here, was published with a comprehensive set of illustrations produced specifically for the story.

The Collision

The Collision

Appalling Disaster on the Northern Pennsylvania Railroad

At five o’clock in the morning of July 17, an excursion train of ten cars left the Master street depot, Philadelphia, with the schools of St. Michael’s Roman Catholic church, in Kensington. The excursion party consisted of between five and six hundred persons, the great majority of whom were children. They intended proceeding to Fort Washington, fourteen and a half miles from the city, where they were to enjoy a picnic.

Owing to the number of cars, and the weight of the train, there was some delay, and the conductor, Mr. Alfred F. Hoppel, finding himself behind time, pushed forward with great rapidity when towards the end of his trip. The regular passenger train for the city left Gwynedd at six o’clock, and reached Camp Hill at six o’clock and eighteen minutes. Finding the excursion train had not yet arrived, Mr. Wm. Vanstavoren, the conductor, determined not to wait for it, and his train was moving along when the expected train came thundering on around a curve, at the rate of thirty-five miles an hour.

A collision of course ensued with the most appalling consequences. The down train escaped without serious damage, but the scene presented by the excursion train was fearful. The three forward cars of the train were crushed completely to pieces, and the wreck, mingling with that of the locomotive, took fire, and the flames communicated to the other cars of the train. The two next cars after the three that were wrecked outright, took fire, and were entirely consumed. The inmates of the three forward cars were completely mixed up with the wreck, and a large number of them were killed.

There were probably fifty persons in each of the three cars, and the lowest estimate fixes the number of killed at fifty while it was feared the dread aggregate would reach one hundred. As soon as the dreadful intelligence reached Philadelphia a car was dispatched with all possible speed from the Master street depot, with physicians and other assistance.

The excitement at the Willow street and other stations became intense. Excited crowds were eagerly inquiring for the latest intelligence from the scene, while those who had children on the ill-fated train were in the most dreadful condition of suspense. The excitement among the pedestrians, the majority of whom were females, appeared to increase as they reached the Cohocksink station.

Arranging the Dead in the Blacksmith’s Shop

Arranging the Dead

Arranging the Dead

The scene is represented as one of the most awful ever witnessed. Of five cars nothing was left standing but the wheels; every bit of woodwork was totally destroyed. A number of the dead were lying in a heap so dreadfully burned that you could not tell whether they were men or women. Among these, as was afterwards ascertained, was the body of the Rev. Mr. Sheridan, priest of St. Michael’s church.

Passengers not Injured Rescuing the Wounded

The people around the neighborhood hastened to the dreadful scene, and by every means in their power assisted in the relief of the wounded. Fortunately, there was a quantity of ice and ice cream on the train; this was given to the wounded; it refreshed them greatly. There was but one house in the immediate vicinity, and this was thrown open to the reception of the sufferers.

Rescuing the Injured

Rescuing the Injured

As the train of baggage cars sent up from the city approached the spot the scene beggared all description; some from the city, who had friends on the excursion, jumped out before the train stopped, and sought their friends, who, too often, were dead or horribly mutilated. Their shrieks would mingle with those of the dying.

Incident of the Lady, Giving Succor to an Infant Found Among the Ruins

Lady Giving Succor to an Infant Found Among the Ruins

Lady Giving Succor to an Infant Found Among the Ruins

A lady, who was boarding for the summer at an hotel near by, in her mission of mercy found an infant on the ground crying, and with the instinctive goodness of the sex, she immediately opened her bosom and not only sheltered it from further harm, but relieved its hunger. Our paper would scarcely contain a tithe of the details of this calamity, nothing can be done but glance at a few of the most horrid features.

Ceremonies at St. Michael’s Church

The Rev. Mr. Sheridan, priest of St. Michael’s church, was much beloved by his congregation, and his untimely death carried sorrow among a wide circle of friends. His funeral was attended by a large concourse. At an early hour St. Michael’s church was surrounded by hundreds of both sexes, all anxious to obtain places within the building, and pressing towards the main gate in front, which was kept closed. At this time the church was comfortably filled, principally with the friends and relatives of the victims of the accident.

The Scene in Front of the Church

Shortly after 9 o’clock, four hearses, containing the bodies of victims, drove up, and it was with the utmost difficulty that a passage could be made; the horses had fairly to be driven over the people before they divided and left a space clear. The coffin containing the body of Father Sheridan having been brought out of the parsonage, next door below, was borne into the church, followed by a number of mourners.

Inside the Church

With some difficulty we made our way into the church, and found the altar draped in mourning, as were the gas burners; six tall wax candles burned before a large picture of the Crucifixion, and other lesser tapers burned before images on the right and left. There were also tapers burning in the main aisle near the altar. Thirty deacons were kneeling within the railing, and the three officiating clergymen were passing up and down an elevated portion of the altar, clothed in black robes richly embroidered in white. Their backs were toward the people, and as they passed the picture of our Saviour, they bowed simultaneously. The coffin of Father Sheridan was permanently placed near the altar, and those of the other victims were laid across the backs of the pews on each side of the main aisle. These coffins contained the remains of persons belonging to the following families: Conlan, O’Neill, O’Brian, Campbell, McIntyre, Woll, and Dugan. The bereaved families occupied the pews nearest to the coffins.

The Services

The services had commenced on our arrival, and were participated in by Rev. Dr. Moriarty, Rev. P. Sheridan, Rev. P. O’Brian, of St. Mark’s, (deacon,) Rev. John McGowen, of St. Paul’s, (sub-deacon.) Thirty deacons were in attendance at the altar. Low masses had been celebrated during the early part of the morning, the high mass was celebrated between 9 and 10 o’clock.

Scene During the Delivery of the Discourse

During the rendition of the discourse, which was smoothly and gracefully delivered, the audience appeared to listen as to the words of inspiration. At an allusion to the character of the deceased pastor, as a priest, as a comforter of his people, as a benefactor to the neighborhood, low thrills of sobbing passed through the still air of the church like wails; when the orator pictured the priest at the bedside of the sick and children, this dreadful sound intensified, increased in force, though not in loudness, until every heart in the church appeared to be struggling with an emotion too powerful for concealment.

Close of the Proceedings in the Church

Dr. Moriarty closed his oration at 10:30am, when the Offertorium and the Libera were sung—ending: “Dies magna, et amara, Valde. Requiem, Eternam, dona eis. Domino et lux perpetua luceat eis.” The remains of Father Sheridan were then borne out into the churchyard, amid the greatest efforts of every one within and outside of the church to obtain a last look at all that remains of a pastor who appears to have enjoyed to the fullest extent the love of his people.

The Crowd Outside while the Ceremonies were in Progress

As it grew later and less hope of getting into the church remained to the people outside, they grew more anxious and unreasonable. They pushed, and struggled and crowded; hats, bonnets, corns and ribs suffered considerably, while the unpitying sun rained down his beams on all heads indiscriminately. The police at last obtained ropes, and stretching them from either gate passed out to the other side of Second street, thus keeping a narrow path clear of the door.

The Close

The corpse of Father Sheridan having been brought out, preceded by a draped silver crucifix, and followed by the officiating clergymen, was carried through the press and crush around to the side of the churchyard in Jefferson street, and there after prayer was said, was committed to the earth amid as full a demonstration of grief from every man, woman and child who could crowd about the grave, as we had witnessed during the entire morning. The crowd then at about quarter before 11 o’clock began to disperse, talking over the railroad accident, its cause, and the sad and fearful consequences.

Frank Leslie’s Weekly, published from 1855 to 1922, was an American illustrated news publication started by publisher and illustrator Frank Leslie. While only 30 copies of the first edition were printed, by 1897 its circulation had grown to an estimated 65,000 copies.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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