Preface in The Wreck of the Red Arrow

The Wreck of the Red Arrow
The Wreck of the Red Arrow: An American Train Tragedy
“Just after 3 am on February 18, 1947, a crack passenger train of the Pennsylvania Railroad pierced the fog and frigid air in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania.”

Preface and Acknowledgements

Every day, thousands of people drive past it without realizing it is there. No sign marks its location and no monument stands sentry over the site. Not many people know what happened there, and before writing this book, neither did I.

On February 18, 1947, the Red Arrow, an express passenger train of the Pennsylvania Railroad, crashed near Gallitzin, Pennsylvania. Aboard were 278 people, including 238 passengers. Twenty-four people died and approximately 140 were injured, many critically.

The Wreck of the Red Arrow is the story of that tragedy, a story told by eyewitnesses to the accident and participants in its aftermath: operators of the train, passengers, rescuers, physicians, nurses, cor-oners, reporters, photographers, police officers, salvage workers, federal investigators, and managers of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The Wreck of the Red Arrow relies on information from documents and interviews. The documentary evidence comes from three main sources:

Any book on a major train wreck in this country should begin with the report on the accident by the Interstate Commerce Commission, a federal agency created in 1887 by the Act to Regulate Commerce. In 1910, the Accident Reports Act authorized the Interstate Commerce Commission to investigate railroad accidents, and between 1910 and the late 1960s when it was disbanded, the Commission examined hun-dreds of rail accidents in the United States.

The Interstate Commerce Commission’s thirteen-page report of its investigation of the wreck of the Red Arrow was published on April 7, 1947 and is based partly on two days of hearings in late February 1947 in Pittsburgh and Altoona, Pennsylvania. At those sessions, Commission investigators heard testimony from some fifty people, including operators of the Red Arrow, witnesses to the train just before it crashed, and track and equipment inspectors from the Pennsylvania Railroad. In addition to citing the testimony of these and other people, the report by the Interstate Commerce Commission contains engineering data such as the overturning speed of the Red Arrow’s locomotives and tenders at the accident site, maintenance records on the locomotives and the rails where the train crashed, and the results of tests on the train’s brakes and suspension systems after the accident. The Commission’s report, Investigation No. 3078: The Pennsylvania Railroad Company: Report in re Accident Near Gallitzin, PA on February 18, 1947, is included in the appendices of this book.

Accounts of the Red Arrow accident in national newspapers are the second set of documents on which The Wreck of the Red Arrow is based. Within a day of the crash, reports by the Associated Press, the International News Service, and the United Press appeared in newspapers throughout the United States. To acquire these national newspaper stories, I searched and, with the help of a genealogist, I cataloged hundreds of national newspaper articles on the wreck of the Red Arrow, although most of these stories are very similar because they were based on the same wire service reports from the accident scene.

Pennsylvania newspapers covered the Red Arrow accident extensively, and to acquire these stories, I searched the Altoona Public Library and the Blair County Genealogical Society for local and regional newspaper articles published between February 18, 1947, the day of the wreck, and May 7, 1947, the day after a coroner’s inquest in Altoona effectively ended the investigation of the accident. Virtually every newspaper in Pennsylvania carried front-page articles on the accident, but the Altoona Mirror and the Altoona Tribune blanketed the story for a week and published detailed descriptions of the wreck; day-by-day lists of the dead and injured; and interviews with passengers, crew members, and first responders such as rescuers, physicians, and nurses. In 1947, the Altoona Tribune was the city’s morning paper and the Altoona Mirror was the evening paper. The Altoona Tribune ceased publishing in 1958. Most of the stories on the wreck published by the Altoona Mirror and the Altoona Tribune do not have “by-lines”; that is, the authors of the stories are not identified, as was the common practice then.

Records of the Pennsylvania Railroad associated with its investigation of the Red Arrow accident are the third set of documents on which The Wreck of the Red Arrow is based. These papers are in the Lewistown Station Archives of the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society in Lewistown, Pennsylvania where I spent a day researching in August 2009. Papers of the Pennsylvania Railroad are scattered in libraries and museums throughout the northeast, and among these major repositories are the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware; the National Archives in Bethesda, Maryland; the Pennsylvania Historical Society in Philadelphia; The Pennsylvania State University in University Park; Temple University in Philadelphia; the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum; and the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in the town of Strasburg, near Lancaster. To find information on the Red Arrow among papers of the Pennsylvania Railroad, I searched the on-line catalogs of these libraries and museums and retained their archivists to conduct searches on my behalf. Papers of the Pennsylvania Railroad on the wreck of the Red Arrow include bulletins, memoranda, calculations, tables, blueprints, maintenance records, and letters by senior officials of the company. These documents provide a rare look inside the company in the immediate aftermath of the wreck.

In addition to documentary evidence, The Wreck of the Red Arrow relies on information from interviews conducted by me, news reporters, and investigators for the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Interstate Commerce Commission. The most important witnesses to the accident were the crew members and passengers on the train, and, with the assistance of a genealogist, I sought to interview as many of these people as I could. The accident happened sixty-three years ago, and most crew members and passengers on the Red Arrow, adults at the time, are deceased today. I did locate a few passengers on the train who are living, but only a handful were able to offer much information. Some were young children when the wreck occurred and have little or no memory of the accident or little to say about it. Others were understandably unwilling to re-live the experience for this book. Still others did not reply to my requests for interviews.

I also sought to interview as many descendants of the twenty-four people who died as a result of the accident as I could. Some family members of victims of the Red Arrow accident generously shared information about their loved ones, but others could not speak about them. Some knew little about the accident or little about their relatives who died on the train. Others did not return my telephone calls or reply to emails seeking interviews.

I was fortunate to interview family members of passengers who survived the wreck, but have since died, and the descendants of crew members and first responders to the accident. About forty such people replied to my “Author’s Query” in February 2010 in the Altoona Mirror and in four newspapers in Cambria County: the Cresson Mainliner, the Ebensburg Mountaineer-Herald, the Nanty-Glo Journal, and the Portage Dispatch. Approximately twenty other people directed me to rescuers, physicians, or nurses who were at the accident scene or who treated injured passengers from the Red Arrow in Altoona hospitals.

I found no passenger manifest for the Red Arrow for February 18, 1947; American railroads in the 1940s typically did not maintain such lists. However, within hours of the wreck, newspapers, radio networks, and wire services raced to report the names, ages, and hometowns of the victims, using information pieced together from the Pennsylvania Railroad, hospitals in Altoona, the Blair County coroner, and passengers themselves. This information is, at best, sketchy. In many of the reports, passengers’ hometowns and ages were not disclosed or their names were misspelled. Some passengers on the Red Arrow remained unidentified for days, and one who was listed among those killed was not even on the train. Other people who were on the train were omitted from the list of passengers (and from lists of those injured or killed). After the wreck, surviving passengers were brought from the accident scene to the Altoona Passenger Station where some simply disappeared, boarding other trains and continuing to their destinations, checking into Altoona hotels, or returning to their homes by train or automobile. To try to avoid repeating errors on passengers’ names, ages, and hometowns, I compared multiple lists of passengers and retained a genealogist to research them and their descendants. The list of passengers’ names, ages, and hometowns in this book, however, is still incomplete, and undoubtedly I have made mistakes.

I wrote this book to tell a story that is not widely known. My goal was to find as much information as possible about the wreck and to synthesize that information into a detailed and dramatic narrative. I chose to focus on the people in the accident—the people who experienced it, responded to it, and investigated it—instead of on the engineering and mechanics of the train, a subject about which I know little. To try to compensate for that shortcoming, I asked experts on the engineering and operation of steam locomotives and passenger trains in the late 1940s to review the manuscript of this book. If there are technical mistakes in the book, they are mine. The Wreck of the Red Arrow has photographs, but it is not a “photos and captions” book, as many so-called “train books” are. The book is based on nearly three hundred sources that are cited in the Sources and Notes section and the Bibliography of this book.

The Red Arrow accident is not the worst train wreck in American history, but it is an American tragedy, as the sub-title of the book suggests. Other train wrecks produced greater loss of life and destruction of property and generated more dispute over their causes. Many train wrecks involve only the operators of trains or passengers on special trains such as “prisoner trains” or “troop trains.” But the Red Arrow, like most express passenger trains, carried Americans of different ages and races going to different places for different reasons. Aboard were husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, grandparents and grandchildren, newlyweds, sailors, soldiers, clergy, entertainers, physicians, and mail clerks, in addition to the members of the crew.

Some people on the Red Arrow were traveling to celebrate their marriages, others to bury their loved ones. Some were returning to work, others vacationing from it. Some were traveling with their family members, fellow workers, and army and navy buddies; some were traveling alone. Most were from Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, the states the Red Arrow crossed, but some were from other states and other countries.

Every book, it is said, has many authors, and I would like to thank the people who contributed to this book. At Saint Francis University, I thank my colleagues Nicole Bauman, Randy Frye, Margaret Garcia, Roxane Hogue, Ed Huttenhower, Betsy Lehman, Jim Logue, Bob Low, John Miko, Lisa O’Hara, Larry Rager, Ed Timmons, and Stacy Varmecky. I am grateful to Bev Bender of the university who served as a research assistant and acquired many of the documents on which this book is based. For help in obtaining other papers and photographs, I thank Christopher Baer and Marjorie McNinch of the Hagley Museum and Library; Kurt Bell and Nick Zmijewski of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania; David A. Pfeiffer of the National Archives; Cyndi Hershey and Larry Salone of the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum; and librarians and archivists at the Altoona Public Library, the Blair County Genealogical Society, the Cambria County Library, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania State Museum, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and the Lewistown Station Archives of the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society.

For the map in the book of the area near Bennington Curve, I thank graphic artist Olivia Shingle and the United States Geological Survey. For the design of the book jacket, I am grateful to graphic artist Renee Stimel. For permission to re-print photographs originally published by the Altoona Mirror, I thank Neil Rudel, managing editor. For scanning photographs associated with the wreck of the Red Arrow, I thank Sandy Evans of Saint Francis University. For showing me the railroad tracks between Cresson and Bennington Curve and for taking me on a walking tour of Bennington Curve itself, I thank Dennis Glass, retired operations inspector for the Rail Safety Division of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. For reviewing the May 6, 1947 coroner’s inquest on the wreck of the Red Arrow, I thank Wade Kagarise, assistant district attorney of Blair County, Pennsylvania. I owe a special debt of gratitude to the expert genealogist Vicki Houseman of Altoona, who researched the operators and passengers on the Red Arrow as well as first responders to the accident and the jurors of the coroner’s inquest on the Red Arrow wreck. For skillful editing, I thank Tim Bintrim and Robin Cadwallader, English professors at Saint Francis University.

At my request, several people read all or part of the manuscript, and I am grateful to them: Bill Brady, Gary Clare, George Dubbs, Pat Edwards, Ian S. Fischer, Dennis Glass, Terri Kirby, Paul Kutta, Patricia McIlnay, Tom McIlnay, Larry Rager, Dave Seidel, Dan Thomas, Barbara and Bill Tauber, Onelia Timmons, and Robert Watson.

I am especially grateful to the people who consented to be interviewed for the book, some of whom had loved ones who perished on the Red Arrow or family members who were first responders to the accident. These people include Janet Azeles, Kelly Brennan, the late Al Brunatti, John V. Cavrich, John Conlon, Jim Corbett, Jr., Sandy Cox, Antoinette Culley, William Eardley, Roy Goshorn, David Hart, Carlyle Hepler, Miriam Holtz, John Hooper, Catherine Iapalucci, Candice James, Bob Lockard, Sandra Lee Mertens, Zita A. Milliron, Gary Mittner, Herman Nagle, Jean Neely, Muriel Oswalt, Jim Parshall, the late Joe Ronan, Richard Smith, Paul Sweeney, Mike Turek, John Villarreal, Ronald Villarreal, and Ron Woodring.

I want to acknowledge members of my family: my mother, Katherine, and my late father, Paul; my brother, Tom, and his wife, Vicky; my sister, Patricia, and her husband, Joe; my niece, Erin, her husband, John, and their son, Bryce; my nephew, Ryan, and his wife, Megan; my niece, Megan; my wife’s father, Andy Randall, and her late mother, Pat; her sisters, Andrea and Lisa, and Lisa’s daughter, Madison. Last, I wish to thank my wife, Kathy, who enriches my life every day.

Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania
June 2010

Dennis P. McIlnay