1901 Steam Engine Collision

Crash in White Pigeon, Mich., left one steam engine perched atop another

White Pigeon Train

In 1901, the White Pigeon, Michigan, area saw a head-on steam engine collision on New York Central Line that left one person dead, four hurt and one engine atop the other.

Courtesy Lew Rineholt

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Mr. Lew Rinholt, Vicksburg, Michigan, sent in this article from the Kalamazoo (Michigan) Gazette. — Ed.

John Blue, 80, of White Pigeon, Mich., retired New York Central Railroad fireman, says that if he didn’t have pictures to prove it no one would believe the fantastic results of a train crash here in 1901.

It was shortly after dusk on a cold Sunday early in January, most people were settled by their heating stoves as a blizzard whipped up deep drifts in the White Pigeon area.

Engine No. 362 pulling a westbound freight had been delayed several hours by drifts on the prairie north of here, and engineer Frank Bock, of Elkhart, had just pulled on to the mainline at a “Y” junction. The junction was considered one of the most dangerous on the line and had been the scene of a number of costly wrecks and had claimed three lives.

Bock’s plan was to back his train off the main line on to a siding to allow a snowplow train out of Elkhart to pass.

The brakeman, Earl Allison, was supposed to have walked ahead to flag the expected train. Instead, he rode on the engine until it stopped and got off to walk ahead from there. He was securing a red lantern on the engine as the two trains came together.

Engine No. 431 was eastbound, pushing a snowplow and pulling a string of freight cars. The snowplow was shaped similar to a box car with a broad shovel in front.

In the incredible seconds following the impact, the snowplow wedged under Bock’s engine and acted as a ramp to send the 60-ton mass of machinery climbing up to settle almost squarely atop of engine No. 431.

Brock’s fireman, A. E. Stauffer, leaped from the cab just before the impact, spraining his ankle. Bock rode the engine to the top then jumped to the ground, breaking two ribs as he landed.

Engine 431 in its ascent left its tender on top of the splintered snowplow. Pinned in the wreckage was the body of Louis Stears, conductor of the eastbound train who had been riding on the snowplow.

William White, brakeman, riding with Stears on the snowplow, received internal injuries and was pinned down by broken timbers. A passenger, identified as “trainmaster Wheaton” in news stories of the wreck, received a slight cut while assisting White to free himself.

Engineer S.A. Messenger and W.A. Swinton of the snowplow train were not injured. The tip of engine 362 poked into their window, but both men leaped to the ground for safety. A brakeman, H. J. Dalrymple, also escaped injury.

After the crash, with the one engine balancing grotesquely atop the other, all action seemed frozen for a moment in the bitter cold and then a piercing wail of a broken steam whistle cut across the countryside.

The shrieking whistle sent shivers through the residents of the area, attracting many to the scene, but sending others in search for cover, news stories of the day recorded. The eerie sound continued for several hours and has been variously described as a sustained shriek and a plaintive, mournful wail.

Crowds of onlookers gathered at the wreck scene during the night and continued to grow most of Monday as wreck crews pulled the tender from the shattered plow.

Engine 362 remained perched at an angle atop the other engine when the wreckage was cleared. Trainmen decided to tow them in that weird pose to Elkhart, a distance of 20 miles, where the engines were extricated.

Blue says that as far as he is able to determine he is the only person shown in the accompanying photographs that is still alive.
An inquiry in the crash established that the snowplow train was traveling between six and 15 miles an hour and the other engine was standing still at the time of impact. IMA