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Saturday, September 27, 2008

COLLISION!

I know why George Lamb was anxious to get moving, and so do you. But according to the “rules of the road” George was supposed to wait at the “3 mile siding” switchover at the southern edge of Lafayette, Indiana for no less than thirty-five minutes for the Northbound “Cincinnati Express” passenger train to pass him on its way to Chicago. Instead, after only twenty minutes, George turned to his fireman, John McClory, and announced, “We can make Culvers”, referring to a small station and water tower (later renamed "Clarks Hill") some ten miles to the south, where there was another siding that would allow two trains to pass each other safely. It was a few minutes after three-thirty on Monday afternoon, Halloween, October 31, 1864. And what George Lamb could not have known as he throttled his fourteen year old 4-4-0 steam engine, named the “Clinton”, pulling its nine car cattle train back onto the main line track was that his attempt to save fifteen minutes would cost the lives of thirty-two human beings. Railroads were still new technology in 1864. The Broad Street work shops of the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia, where the “Clinton” had been assembled in 1850, were the Boeing Aircraft of their day; employing 1,700 highly skilled workers producing 2,000 locomotives every year. But the history of American railroads is in large part a series of abject lessons in how not to run a railroad.
Most of the lines were single track, meaning there were many more collisions in America than in Europe. The valid justification for this was that America’s railroads had to cover hundreds of miles between cities, which made dual track lines outrageously expensive to build and maintain. But worse still, in terms of bloodletting, was America’s addiction to unfettered capitalism. While producing many centers of growth and innovation, this horror of regulation also produced extraordinary waste, death and dismemberment.In 1860 the first vacuum braking system was patented by a mechanic, Nehemiah Hodge. In 1868 Eli Janny invented the knuckle coupler. And in 1869 George Westinghouse was granted a patent on his centralized air braking system. But it would not be until 1893 before the Federal Railway Safety Appliances Act required all of these safety features to be installed and used on America’s railroads. In the intervening thirty years literally thousands of passengers would be killed or injured and hundreds of workers would die or suffer crushed fingers, mangled arms and severed legs, and untold fortunes would be lost or destroyed in damaged freight, because of obsolete and needlessly dangerous equipment. The problem of communication was paramount. It was not until the advent of steam engines that humans were able to move faster than biology could carry them. No human or horse could maintain twenty-five miles an hour over thirty or forty miles. A civil war era steam locomotive, like the “Clinton”, had no trouble maintaining that pace.
And even though the telegraph allowed George Lamb to know that the “Cincinnati Express” had left Lebanon, Indiana almost sixty minutes before, there was no way for George to know exactly where that train was in the 37 miles between Lebanon and Lafayette. That was why the company rules required George’s “special” to wait until the Express was 35 minutes late before moving past “3 mile siding”. And that is when the safety rules ran up against the opportunitism of capitalism. Normally George Lamb worked in the machine shops in the rail yards on the north side of Lafayette. (Purdue University students, who often found part time work in the yards, are still known as “Boilermakers”.) And the local ticket agent undoubtedly charged extra for the “special” delivery of those nine car loads of cattle, bound to feed the Federal armies blocking old John Bell Hood’s attempt to re-capture Nashville. The trick for George Lamb was to smoothly slip his “special” in between the already heavily scheduled traffic between Chicago and the war front in Tennessee, without taking too long or gumming up the works. For doing that he would earn a bonus. And so when he heard a distant whistle he assumed it was the regular southbound train bound for Indianapolis that he was to follow, and he felt confident in heading south twenty minutes early. So engineer Lamb accelerated across the Wea Creek Bridge, and slipped along the rails onto the flat prairie beyond. Twenty minutes later, as he slowed for the graceful curve north of Culver’s Station he abruptly realized he had made a horrible mistake.
He was staring into the terrible Cyclopes eye of the “Cincinnati Express”, barreling toward him at over thirty miles an hour. There were five hundred and eight souls aboard the Express. Engineer Lamb said there was no time to even apply the brakes. He and fireman McClory threw them selves from the cab just before the two boilers slammed into each other a closing speed of over seventy miles an hour, exploding in screams of steam and souls. Everyone aboard the first wooden passenger car of the “Express” was killed as it splintered and telescoped into the rear of the engine, slamming its cargo into a mass of bent iron and brass and broken bone and splattered blood. A rescue train was sent at once and carried aboard it eleven local doctors. It was after dark before the first of the 35 injured reached Lafayette, and were sheltered at the “Bramble House” hotel at 3rd and South Street, and katty-cornered, in a billiard room at the Lafayette House Hotel. The thirty-two deceased were left in a freight house at the bottom of South Street along the tracks. Ten were later buried in St. Mary’s cemetery. Twenty-two Union soldiers (most on leave) who were either too injured to be identified or whose bodies were unclaimed were buried in Greenbush cemetery in Lafayette, their tombstones lined up in rank. The Grand Jury blamed Engineer Lamb for “…reprehensible carelessness and disobedience of rules and regulations”, but at least they also mentioned that the Lafayette and Indianapolis Railroad had employed him, despite being the cause of an accident at Culver’s Station the year before which had caused property damage but no injuries. It seems likely after this latest disaster the L&I would not continue to make that mistake. After the Grand Jury verdict Engineer Lamb disappears from history. But his is a conundrum that sounds far too familiar.
There were always working stiffs willing to take Engineer Lamb’s job, desperate for a paycheck or a promotion, who would violate the written rules and risk their own and other’s lives to secure a job. (The Jury didn’t even mentioned the ticket agent who sold the “Special”.) Engineer Lamb understood the unwritten rules. Most people who survive paycheck to paycheck understand the usually unwritten rules. But, like the members of the Coroner’s Grand Jury, they are torn between the reality they know and what they have been taught, between how they know the game is played and their faith in the sanctity of the rules.
As I said, it sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
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