Rockport train wreck
2012 photo of Hazen Road grade crossing and the wreck site
|Date||June 16, 1925|
|Location||Rockport, Mansfield Township, Warren County, near Hackettstown, New Jersey|
|Rail line||Lackawanna Old Road|
|Operator||Lackawanna Railroad (DL&W)|
|Type of incident||Derailment|
|Cause||Debris on grade crossing|
|Deaths||47 (est.) |
The Rockport train wreck was a train accident that occurred in Rockport in Mansfield Township, New Jersey, about three miles outside of Hackettstown, New Jersey, on June 16, 1925. A violent storm washed debris onto a grade crossing, derailing a Lackawanna Railroad (DL&W) train. The crash killed 42 passengers and five crewmen and injured 23 others. 
The train was a non-scheduled special train carrying 182 German-Americans travelling from Chicago, Illinois to Hoboken, New Jersey. At Hoboken, the passengers were to board the transatlantic steamer Pacific for Europe. The trip was an annual excursion organized through steamship agent Leopold Neumann to allow midwestern Germans to visit their homeland. The trip's itinerary would include visits to Bremen, Cologne, and Munich in Germany and Vienna, Austria.
The train left Chicago mid-morning on June 15, 1925, consisting of a locomotive, five Pullman cars and two passenger coaches. In the afternoon, the train stopped so that the passengers could visit Niagara Falls. Towards dinnertime, the passengers reboarded the train at Buffalo for the 400-mile (645 km) trip to Hoboken via the DLW. The train passed through Binghamton, New York, about 10:30 pm and then made a stop at Scranton, Pennsylvania, just before midnight for a crew and engine change. At 12:01 a.m. on June 16, Engineer Fred Loomis took over the controls of Lackawanna Engine No. 1104 and the train set off on the last leg of the trip through the Pocono Mountains, crossing the Delaware River near the Delaware Water Gap, and then east into New Jersey.
The train had been scheduled to travel via the Lackawanna Cut-Off, but because of freight traffic on the line the towerman at Slateford Junction rerouted the special over the Old Road of the Lackawanna, an alternate route that was to take the train through the New Jersey towns of Washington, and Hackettstown, before rejoining the main line near Lake Hopatcong. The rerouting of these types of trains on this section of the railroad under these circumstances was not unusual.
On the evening of June 15, and into the next morning, violent thunderstorms hit the Hackettstown area. Around 10 p.m., lightning struck Williams and Hibler's lumber yard in Hackettstown, starting a fire that would eventually consume the yard, despite the efforts of the townspeople. Shortly after midnight, rain from another thunderstorm sent water cascading down Hazen Road and onto Rockport Crossing, where the road crossed the Lackawanna's Phillipsburg Branch. The water washed dirt and gravel down a steep hill and onto the crossing, where this debris accumulated in the flangeways, metal pieces installed to allow trains to pass smoothly through the crossing.
About 2:24 a.m., with most passengers asleep, the locomotive reached Rockport Crossing. The lead pair of engine-truck wheels hit the clogged flangeways at the crossing and derailed the trucks to the right. With the left truck wheels running just inside the rails, and the right truck wheels just outside the rails, the engine continued down the track for another 198 feet (61 m) until the left front truck wheel hit a crossover frog from a trailing switch (part of a vestigal railroad switch track for a railroad siding at the location that in 1925 no longer existed), diverting the engine to the right and causing it to derail entirely. As the engine left the roadbed, it tilted to the left and buried itself in the railroad embankment parallel to the railroad tracks, with the front end of the engine 450 feet (138 m) from the east end of the Hazen Road crossing. The rapid deceleration of the engine caused the first passenger car, No. 23, to uncouple from the tender. The momentum of the cars behind it pushed No. 23 forward until it came to rest on the locomotive's boiler; the second passenger car, No. 33, followed, coming to rest across the rear of the boiler. The third car, the sleeper car Sirocco, came to rest next to the engine. The first two cars were carrying 90 people, the third nearly 20.
The crash ripped valves and steam fittings from the locomotive's boiler, allowing superheated steam to spray into the broken windows of the passenger cars above and beside. Many passengers who survived the initial impact were fatally scalded by the escaping steam. The New York Times dubbed the first coach the "Death Car". The porter of the Sirocco, Oscar (O.J.) Daniels, closed a door through which steam was spewing, saving many passengers' lives but suffering severe burns. Daniels then walked up the hill to the nearby game farm to use the telephone. His attempt would be in vain, however, as phone service to the farm had been knocked out by the storm. On his way back to the scene, he collapsed and died on Hazen Road.
The citizens and doctors of Hackettstown soon arrived, in spite of the fire that still raged across town. What they found was a horrific scene: in the pitch darkness of the cloudy night of this bucolic setting was indescribable suffering amongst dozens of train passengers. Seven bodies were ultimately pulled from the wreck, including Loomis who, according to the lurid accounts of the day, had been impaled upon the engineer's controls in the locomotive's cab. Many more people were severely scalded and would die after hours or days of agony. Pillows and sheets from the Pullman cars were used to try to ease the suffering. In addition to Engineer Loomis, the fireman, the conductor, and the head brakeman died in or because of the accident; the flagman, who was at the rear of the train, was the only employee of the railroad on the train to survive. Because the two tracks were blocked by the derailed cars, the injured were taken by rescue trains going in opposite directions to several area hospitals, most of which were fairly distant: Easton, Pennsylvania; Phillipsburg, New Jersey; Dover, New Jersey; and Morristown, New Jersey, as Hackettstown did not as yet have a hospital. Many of the victims died en route to, or in, the hospital. Joseph Snyder, a local farmer who witnessed the accident and also helped spread word across the town, would later say of the wreck site, "There were men and women and kids all around everywhere, screaming worse than I ever heard".
A watchman at a road in Hackettstown heard the whistle blowing for the Hazen Road crossing three miles away. When the train failed to blow its whistle for the next crossing (Airport Road), the watchman suspected that there was a problem and held a westbound freight train that was about to pass through Hackettstown minutes after the accident at Rockport.
In recognition of Daniels' bravery, the Sirocco was renamed the Daniels. He is the only Pullman porter memorialized. Engine 1104 returned to service and operated until it was scrapped in 1946. A joint investigation by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) and the New Jersey Board of Public Utility Commissioners found that there was no blame to be apportioned and that the accident had been caused by an Act of God.
It remains unknown whether the train was exceeding the speed limit at the time of the wreck. Locomotive No. 1104 did not have a speed recorder. The ICC report of July 11, 1925, incorrectly lists the speed limit at Rockport as 70 mph; the 1925 employee timetable lists the speed limit on the entire 40-mile DLW Old Road as 50 mph. When the ICC interviewed the train's flagman in the days following the accident, he said the train was traveling 70 mph at Rockport. Several porters told the ICC that they thought the train was traveling about 45 mph; the flagman subsequently revised his account to 50 mph.
It is unclear exactly how many passengers died in the accident. Five of the dead could not be identified: two adult males (Cochran's morgue); an unidentified girl about the age of eight (Cochran's morgue); a girl about the age of three (Easton hospital); and an unidentified woman (Farner? at a hospital in Morristown). Mrs. Farner is listed among the dead, but is also listed as possibly being the "unidentified" woman who died at the hospital in Morristown. Also, an off-duty railroader who was riding in the locomotive cab at the time of the accident, W. Kenney, was initially listed amongst the injured, but subsequently died. Ten people from the initial list of injured died from their injuries, but their names are not specified. Some families were completely wiped out. Others were separated from loved ones who may not have known where they had been taken, in a place nearly a thousand miles (1,400 km) from home. Indeed, rescue trains took the injured in opposite directions from the crash site to hospitals in Morristown, New Jersey, and Easton, Pennsylvania, destinations that were 50 miles (80 km) apart. Adding to the confusion, some passengers did not speak English, or spoke it poorly. All in all, 47 are thought to have died; some accounts placed the total number of deaths at 50, but this may include people who were counted twice.
In spite of the accident, 110 of the train's passengers boarded the steamship bound for Germany the following morning.
Several days after the accident, a jury convened in a coroner's inquest at the new opera house in Washington, New Jersey, heard testimony that pinpointed the cause of the derailment. Elmer Clayton, Mansfield Township's road supervisor, testified that the gutters on Hazen Road had been dug out recently near the area of the train accident and this material—dirt, gravel and stones—had been pushed to the center of the road to build up the crown in anticipation of laying macadam. He surmised that this loose debris had been washed down the steep slope during the rain storm and then onto the grade crossing where it clogged the flangeways, thus leading to the derailment.
Presently, the railroad past Rockport Crossing, now only a single track (the same eastbound track on which the Rockport Wreck occurred), is operated by Norfolk Southern Railway. A small garden and a brass plaque, laid on the 70th anniversary of the wreck, commemorate the site where 50 people died or were fatally injured, "some from the impact of the crash but most from the inescapable steam".
- Taber, Thomas Townsend; Taber, Thomas Townsend III (1980). The Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad in the Twentieth Century. 1. Muncy, PA: Privately printed. pp. 62–63. ISBN 0-9603398-2-5.
- Disaster at Rockport by Frank Dale, 1995.
- ICC report of 1925
- Railroad Wrecks by Edgar A. Haine, p100-4, publ 1993, ISBN 0-8453-4844-2
- Sterling Daily Gazette, Illinois, 1925-06-17
- "1925 Train Wreck Kills James Banker"
- www.hackettstownlife.com forum with photographs of the accident
- Mansfield Township was the scene of one of the worst railroad disasters 85 years ago
- Historians mark 85th anniversary of Warren County's deadliest accident, a train derailment that made international headlines
- Sterling Daily Gazette, Illinois, 1925-06-16