By William Balsley and Karen Hechler
For the Herald Standard
The news has been full of stories about tragedies recently. We are overwhelmed by the reports from Southeast Asia and eastern Africa caused by the devastating tsunami resulting in unbelievable loss of lives and property. Daily we see results of torrential downpours in southern California where stories of mudslides wiping out houses and blocking roadways are common. Locally reports of rivers overflowing their banks. closed roads, and flooded basements remind us of the awesome power of nature.
These tragedies are caused by acts of nature resulting in human and material loss. Other tragedies are caused by accidents. One such accident, which resulted in terrible disaster for the Connellsville area, occurred in December 1903.
The "most appalling disaster in the history of the Pittsburgh Division of the Baltimore & Ohio railroad occurred at Laurel run, two miles west of Dawson last evening." This was a quote from the local newspaper when describing the wreck of the Duquesne Limited at 7:45 p.m. on Dec. 23, 1903.
The Duquesne Limited had only been in service by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Co. for about three years and was regarded as the top of the line in rail transportation between Pittsburgh and New Your. The Limited made its first stop in Connellsville after leaving Pittsburgh. the distance being 58 miles and the time required to cover this distance being on hour and 35 minutes made it quite popular with Connellsville patrons who got home by early evening.
The train involved in the wreck consisted of two Pullmans, a dining car, three day coaches, a regulation baggage and a sealed express car as well as the stream engine and tender. The train was unusually crowded in both the day coaches and the smoker. This was especially true on Dec. 23 because people had been shopping in Pittsburgh, and other people were trying to get home for the holidays.
Steam engine No 1465, which was pulling the Duquesne Limited, was one of several new locomotives that had been purchased for the Pittsburgh Division. At the time, it was the largest type of passenger engine in service and could haul a heavy train at great speed. When the accident happened, the train was traveling at 50-60 mph.
What happened that ultimately caused the death of 64 people and 14 people injured? All accounts attribute the wreck to huge pieces of timber (up to 60 feet long) falling from a loosely packed flatcar onto the tracks ahead of the Limited. One source said that the lumber fell from a westbound freight train onto the eastbound track. Another source said the freight train loaded with lumber had proceeded the Duquesne Limited and that the loosely packed cargo had fallen from a flat car.
The engineer, Bill Thornley, who had lived in Connellsville several years earlier, and his crew were totally unaware of the lumber strewn on the track. With the speed of the train, there was a violent collision, and the engine was totally destroyed being thrown across both the east and westbound tracks of the B & O main line. The engine crew died in the collision.
The tender attached to the engine, where the coal and water for the engine were stored, was propelled by the force of the cars behind it and landed about 150 feet ahead of the engine. Next in line was the baggage and express car, and that was thrown off the tracks and rolled into the Youghiogheny River.
Loss of life was so great because the next car, the smoker, was filled to capacity with standing room only. It was the only place on the train where people were allowed to smoke. The violent crash hurled the smoker into the air, and unfortunately, it landed on top of the engine. The steam from the engine scalded to death those who had been in the smoker. Fire broke out in the smoking car and the day coach next to the smoker when the boiler exploded scalding and burning people in the day coach as well. The day coaches were jammed between the engine and the heavy Pullman cars in the rear of the train.
Great heroism was noted during this disaster. Passengers who had not been hurt by the crash of fire hurried forward to help rescue those who were trapped. Using the tools carried by the train for emergencies, they broke into the smoking car to remove the injured and dead.
The tragedy could have been even more disastrous if it hadn't been for the efforts of Baggage master Thomas H. Dom, Conductor Lewis Helgroth, and Conductor Edward Baker, who were deadheading over to Cumberland on the Duquesne. These men realized that another passenger train, No 49, would be coming along the track at any moment, and the engineer had no way of knowing his train was about the plunge into a major accident. Having no way to flag down No 49, Mr. Dom set his coat on fire and used it as a flag. The second train came to a stop within half a car length of the wreck. Conductor Helgroth was so badly burned that he fainted alongside the track after No 49 was stopped, and he died about 3 a.m. the following morning at Cottage Hospital. Baggage master Dom was suffering from many cuts and bruises and was almost blinded by the blood from a wound eight to ten inches on his head. He was also suffering from internal injuries. Conductor Baker had been riding in the rear of the train and was uninjured.
The bodies recovered from the smoking car were laid side by side on a high bank above the railroad. Within half an hour after the news of the wreck reached Connellsville, a special relief train was ready with emergency first-aid packages; eight physicians, newspaper reporters and some railroaders went to assist. Two passenger coaches were turned into accommodations for the injured. In the baggage car of the train no 49, some doctors worked to ease suffering. The injured were carried to the relief coaches. Once the train reached Connellsville, the injured were taken to Cottage Hospital and the dead to the local morgues.
The Duquesne Limited was carrying passengers from Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware. Inquiries came into Connellsville from all over the United States as people frantically searched for information about loved ones who may have been traveling on this particular train. By Saturday, Dec. 26, 1903, there remained only four bodies not yet identified. The B & O Railroad was actively attempting to help with the identification of bodies by giving passes to people at all points that may have had family or friends on the Duquesne Limited. The transportation was given free of charge. the bodies were sent to their homes at the expense of the railroad, and the company paid for some funeral expenses.
The human-interest stories in this wreck were heart wrenching. A. Robert Davidson was on his way to Philadelphia to get married. A. Samuel Yuskovitz was on his way home to Europe where his wife and six children lived.
Three men from Connellsville died in the accident. Edison Goldsmith, 23, had been seated in the smoking car. According to the newspaper account, he had been invited by Andrew Haas of Connellsville to have dinner on the way home, but he declined saying his mother would be waiting dinner at home. M.K. Smith, Division Operator of the Connellsville Division of the B & O Railroad, was either in the smoker or in the car next to the smoker. His body was not identified until 5 a.m. Friday, Dec. 24. He had been expected at home by 8 p.m. the night before, but his friends assured his wife that he was not on the train and had been detained at work. Eventually he was identified through papers on his person, and his wife, expecting him for breakfast, got the heartbreaking news of his death.
Perhaps the most remembered loss for Connellsville was Father C.A. Feniello, 31, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Italian Catholic Church. He had only been in the United States for three years. He had come here as a mission priest amount the Italians of the coke region. Due to his hard work, a new church on Baldwin Avenue had been dedicated the Sunday before the accident that took his life. According to the Centennial History of Connellsville, Rev. Feniello was returning from Pittsburgh where he had purchased gifts, decorations, and treats for the children's entertainment on Christmas.
His funeral was held on Saturday, Dec. 26, 1903, at Immaculate Conception Church. Practically all of Father Feniello's Italian congregation attended the funeral mass. There were nine priests in attendance including Father John T. Burns of Connellsville, Father Murphy of Dunbar, Father Brady of Leisenring, and Father Kropinski of New Haven. Rev. Father Feniello now rests in St. Joseph Cemetery.
There was an amazing outpouring of grief and tributes to those who died. People worked around the clock to tend to the wounded and to identify the dead. The funerals were massive with many mourners and floral tributes.
At a time when one thinks of celebrations, family gatherings, and the joy of the season, in 1903, Christmas had a somber face in Connellsville. Special services were held in all the churches. People arrived in town not to celebrate, but to take loved ones back home to be buried. The tragedy might not have the scope of the tsunami devastation, but it had a sorrowful impact on the important railroad community of Connellsville.