A Deadly Derailment - 9/6/1943

US History |

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Back in the early 1940s, the Pennsylvania Railroad's Congressional Limited made regular trips between Washington DC and New York City, sometimes stopping in Newark, New Jersey. The same trip had been made many thousand times. However, the 541 passengers who boarded locomotive number 4930 that Labor Day Monday at 4pm in Washington DC's Union Station would suffer a different fate. 

At 6:06 pm on September 6th of 1943, this new, high speed Pennsylvania Railroad train traveling along its regularly scheduled route (nonstop to New York's Penn Station) derailed near Frankford Junction, Philadelphia. This tragedy ended the lives of 79 people and seriously injured more than a hundred other people onboard.

In 1943, Pennsylvania Railroad's premier train, the Congressional Limited, was a newly designed, super speedy passenger train that would transport riders through the Northeast corridor at the break neck pace of about 65 miles an hour (a speed virtually unheard of in those days). Due to an influx of so many hundred passengers on Labor Day weekend, it was decided that they would add an extra dining car to the back of the train. This car was an older model, and apparently had something wrong with its wheel axles. Also contributing to the tragedy was a large steel signal gantry near Frankford Junction, Philadelphia.

At around 6:04 pm, workers in a rail yard witnessed sparks flying from the wheels of the last car of the locomotive. They tried to signal the control tower, but they were too late. Before any message could be sent, the accident had already happened. Just two miles up the track from where the wheels were noticed sparking, the axle fell off the wheel and the train car popped off the track, dragging six or seven cars along with it. The derailment happened right near a signal gantry at Frankford Junction, in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The signal gantry sliced through the dining car like a giant axe, killing many passengers on impact.

The cause of the accident was said to be an overheated journal box on that last (older) dining car. The process of cutting open the railroad cars, extracting the injured, and removing the bodies of the dead took until well into the following morning. 

The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) was founded in 1846, and was one of the first railroads in the United States. In the first half of the 20th century, it was the largest railroad in the United States. In the mid-20th century, the PRR had more than a quarter million people on its workforce. The railroad was headquartered in Philadelphia, but made stops in eleven states, as well as Washington DC. At one time, the Pennsylvania Railroad was the largest publicly traded corporation in the world, and had a bigger budget than the United States government. The railroad was in service for 120 years, until 1968, when it merged with NYC to form Penn Central Transportation. Within two years, Penn Central Transportation filed for bankruptcy.

In 2015, an Amtrak train derailed on that very same curve into Frankford Junction, Philadelphia. In that incident, eight passengers were killed and many others were wounded. 

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Meg Wong

Editor

One of the hardest working individuals, Meg sets the bar high when it comes to work ethic and being a great teammate. She learned these values at a young age while she was the captain of her high school volleyball team. Leading her team to 3 state championships and coming away victorious twice. You can still see the leader in her through everything she does for us here.