In the summer of 2009, two trains collided on Metro’s Red Line in Washington, D.C. The train operator and eight passengers were killed. Dozens were injured. A city and region were saddened and stunned. Friends and family mourned. In honor of the victims, nine stone pillars stand at Legacy Memorial Park. Anniversaries remind us of the tragedy.
A similar rail tragedy, long, long forgotten, shook Washington and Alexandria in the winter of 1885. On a cold and snowy night, six people were killed in a fiery collision of two trains at Four Mile Run north of Alexandria. Others were badly injured, including burns from the fire that erupted when the flames hit drums filled with oil.
The Alexandria Gazette wrote it “was without doubt the most terrible railroad accident which ever occurred in this section of the State.”
The railroads were sued for damages, with the case going to the District of Columbia Supreme Court.
Here is a summary.
The Gazette titled their headline — “Terrible Railroad Disaster.” The next day the story led with:
“The terrible disaster of Thursday night at Four mile run continues to be the leading theme of conversation in this city, and many parties have visited the scene.”
The news made front page headlines in the Post, a long column sharing space with reports on the preparations for the dedication of the Washington Monument and the inauguration of President Grover Cleveland (March 4). Other newspapers across the region and the country splashed ink on the story on their front pages.
(Note: Newspapers at this time did not use the current method of banner headlines across the top. The Gazette placed ads and a few stories on the first page, national reports on the second and local news on page 3. The train collision article was the first, moving left to right.
The collision took place at the Four Mile Run Station in what was then Alexandria County, located about two miles north of King Street and roughly halfway between Alexandria and Washington. Alexandria’s population was about 14,000. The capital city was at the dawn of a population boom (230,000 in 1890).
Four Mile Run, whose mouth flows into the Potomac River a short distance from where the collision took place, had been a familiar place name through the years, seen in newspapers and on maps.
Beth Mitchell’s “Map of Fairfax County (1760)” shows Four Mile Creek as the boundary for Gerrard Alexander and John Alexander’s lands. The two were great grandsons of John Alexander (1605-1677), the patriarch who acquired the land that would become the oldest part of Alexandria and the south-eastern portion of Arlington. The city was probably named after the family.
Country homes dotted the rural area around Four Mile Run, including the home of Sarah and Mary Swann. Preston, a plantation home that had been located just steps from Four Mile Run, burned down during the Civil War. The Preston family cemetery remained until the 1920s when it was moved. Where National Airport lies one mile to the north stood Abingdon, once the home of John Parke Custis (adopted step son of George Washington) and his family.
Eventually, Four Mile Run would provide a natural border between Alexandria and Arlington. There are no remnants of the crash or infrastructure, but the site is where a short bridge sends Route One motorists across the body of water.
Crossing Over Four Mile Run
Poor roads were always a problem for coaches and the like. After the turn of the century, and with the need for a route to Washington via the Long Bridge, the Washington-Alexandria turnpike, a toll road, was laid out more or less where Route One runs today. The builders constructed a rock and earthen filled causeway and the first bridge over Four Mile Run.
In the 1830s, business leaders in Alexandria turned their attention to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company. George Washington, who had invested in the Potomac Canal Company, had always dreamed of a grand flow of farm products from the mountains and valleys into the new Federal capital.
It never panned out the way he and others wanted, but there was a hey day for coal in Alexandria. Stretching for seven miles and connecting Alexandria with Georgetown, the Alexandria Canal opened in 1835. It basically paralleled the turnpike and crossed over Four Mile Run at an angle on the earthen dam.
In 1854, passenger and freight service to and from Alexandria and Washington arrived with the Alexandria and Washington Railroad Company. James E. Foley tells us the Virginia General Assembly chartered the new enterprise. Of its importance he writes:
The A&W trackage paralleling the existing Washington Highway would ultimately become the single most important section of railroad on the East Coast.
A Dangerous Situation at Four Mile Run
After the Civil War, Alexandria began to slowly recover. The seaport was becoming a rail port, if you will. By 1877, tracks ran along most of Union, N. Henry, N. Layette and Wilkes streets. An extensive railroad yard and roundhouse covered much of the area near Henry and Duke.
With the closing of the Alexandria Canal and more and more railroad service, life moved along at speeds the colonials never knew. Modern conveniences such as electricity, and phones picked up the pace, too.
Shaped like an X, and in what amounted to a unique and dangerous situation, a single railroad track ran through a narrow tunnel under the arches of the canal’s viaduct (None of the infrastructure - the canal, the viaduct, the tunnel or the railroad tracks - remains).
Photo Credit: "RF&P Railroad Historical Society Collection. "William C. (Bill) Sheild, President
Foley describes the crossing.
In 1855, the A&W laid its single track running parallel to the east side of the highway and crossing the Run at the same point as the canal did. There was not enough room between the east and west abutments of the canal’s trough bridge over the highway portion to permit clear passage for both the highway and the railroad traffic at the same time. So the A&W had to construct a tunnel or culvert east of the Turnpike. The resulting brick and stone faced arch was only wide enough for a single track.
A legal document prepared in later years provides an additional description:
The tracks of the Alexandria & Washington Railroad were laid through a short tunnel or culvert under a canal. This culvert was not of sufficient width to permit trains to pass each other therein, and the double tracks, which extended over the whole line, closely interlaced in the culvert, and for a short distance from each end thereof; but each track remained practically unbroken and independent, so that in passing this point it was not necessary that a train on either track should stop, provided no other train was upon or about to be upon this portion of the road where the tracks converged.
The trains brought prosperity to the city and the region. There was, however, had a downside. Accidents, sometimes fatal, occurred all too frequently. The February issue of the Railroad Gazette in 1885 listed more than three dozen collisions.
A Cold, Snowy Night
For the most part, Washington avoids crippling snows in the months of November and December. When the new calendars go up, it’s another story. January and February have yielded whoppers, such as 35 inches in 1899 and 32 in February 2010.
On the evening of Thursday, February 19th, snow was on the ground and likely falling when a north bound passenger train of the Virginia Midland Railroad left the railroad station in Alexandria. The station, whose site is covered with homes and not historically marked, was located at the corner of Cameron and N. Fayette streets.
The time was a little before 10 pm. Headed for Washington and due there at 10:20 pm, the express train was the last to leave Alexandria that night.
Sometime around 9:45 p.m., a south bound freight train of the Washington and Alexandria departed Washington. Thirty-five-cars long and headed for Quantico, the freight train’s cargo consisted of a baggage, mail and express car, a passenger coach, two Pullman sleepers, and a smoking car, as well as merchandise, oil, paper and machinery. Its four new passenger coaches had just been built.
The Companies & Crews
Virginia Midland Railway
In 1882, the Virginia Midland Railway Company published a proud valentine for their cause.
The Midland Railway is the natural and proper outlet of that huge volume of travel which the Baltimore and Ohio and the Pennsylvania Railroads pour into Washington City. Second to demonstrate that is the Short Line, par excellence, of travel from North to South, and vice versa.
The National Railway Historical Society tells us the Virginia Midland was leased to the Richmond and Danville RR in 1886, and then swallowed up by Southern Railway, the grandaddy of them all in 1894. Their station in Alexandria was located on Fayette and Cameron.
With a crew that included postal employees, the express train (Virginia Midland) carried passengers, money and mail. The conductor was Charles F. Bennett of the Washington and Alexandria Railroad. He was an employee of the Pennsylvania Railroad and likely an experienced driver.
The crew were as follows:
John T. Bruce, Engineer
Thomas J. Darbey, Fireman, lived in Alexandria.
J.T. Franey, Postal Clerk, married with nine children.
J.W. Jones, Postal Clerk
O.T. Stewart, Postal Clerk
W.B. McNeil, Postal Clerk
J. Taylor, Postal Clerk
Washington and Alexandria RR
The Washington and Alexandria RR was chartered in 1854 and opened service from the Long Bridge to Alexandria in 1857. Falling on bad times, the company reorganized in 1887 as the Alexandria and Washington Railway.
The four man crew of the freight train were as follows.
Andrew Augur, conductor, married.
George Freer, engineer, married with three children.
Thomas Maloney, fireman.
George Miller, brakeman, wife.
All four lived in southwest DC near L’Enfant Plaza. Their homes and neighborhood were demolished during Urban Renewal.
Trains running between Alexandria and Washington used double tracks, except at the Four Mile Run tunnel. Its width was wide enough for only one track. To prevent accidents, an automated signal system, with a light on each side of the tunnel, worked as follows. The first train striking the signal block lit up a red signal on the other side of the tunnel, indicating that train needed to stop and wait for the other to pass by.
On this night, something went wrong. Just as the northbound passenger train “got nearly through the tunnel,” the two trains collided.
Similar to the accident on the Red Line, The Washington Post report noted a telescope effect.
The two locomotives rose almost upward in the air in the form of an inverted V. Cars pile up on each other in indescribable wreck, and it was hardly a moment before the trains were ablaze.
The New York Times gave the following account:
When the collision occurred the engines reared up and fell over, one on each side of the track, completely smashed up. None of the freight cars were derailed. The postal car was telescoped on the tender of the engine, and the express car, which was next to it, was smashed into splinters under the baggage car which came behind it and which ran up over it. The smoker was badly wrecked.
Another report said:
200 yards along either side of tracks are scattered car-wheels, axles, bars of iron, and bolts of every description. Oil tanks were thrown in the river. The stone tunnel was blackened.
The collision set off a massive fire which could be seen in Washington. Whipping winds and the combustable materials fed the flames.
Eye Witness Accounts
There was one eye witness account in the newspapers.
E.J. McCorson of Lynchburg:
I had just looked at my watch and saw it was 10 o’clock, when there was a great crash and every one was jolted out of their seats. A stream of water poured down the aisle of the car and we all thought we were in the Potomac. Men and women rushed to the window — we were in the passenger coach, the third from the engine — and when these were opened steam and smoke rushed in, but all was inky darkness outside. If the windows had not been shut quickly we might all have been smothered where we were. The car was part way under the canal, and in front to it was the smoker, with about fifteen people in it — negroes and white men.
The Rescue Effort and Aftermath
Some of the uninjured or slightly injured passengers scrambled up to the top of the viaduct. Others, and those of the crew that were not badly injured, became rescuers. They first found the lifeless body of Andrew Augur, the conductor of the freight train who was killed instantly. Augur was 38 and lived in Southwest Washington. He was married and had previously lived in Alexandria.
The men then pulled out the body of Thomas Darley, who was the fireman of the passenger train. Only the upper part of his body was recovered and it was burned beyond recognition. Darley lived in Alexandria.
The February 20th edition of the Washington Post indicated George Freer (later reported as “Frere"), the engineer of the freight train, and Thomas Maloney, fireman of same, were reported as missing. Their deaths were reported the next day. Freer and Maloney also lived in southwest DC in the same neighborhood as Augur (demolished during Urban Renewal).
The Post also reported Stewart, brakeman on the freight train, as dead. This turned out to be not true. Stewart, was however, seriously injured.
George Miller, a brakeman for the freight train and J.T. Franey, a postal clerk for the passenger train, were the most seriously wounded. Miller passed away on Friday at Providence Hospital in Washington. He, too, lived in southwest DC.
Franey, listed as “colored” in the newspaper accounts, succumbed from his wounds at the Braddock House in Alexandria. His was the sixth and final fatality.
The press fully covered the event, but there were a few errors, notably the Stewart one. There were also conflicting reports on the injured. Nevertheless, the coverage was thorough and excellent. This was especially true since both Washington and Alexandria reporters were on the scene.
The fire quickly spread and reached the tanks of oil on one of the freight cars. They exploded and spread the oil over the other burning cars. 25 cars were damaged or destroyed.
The passenger cars were in the rear and none were seriously injured. The passengers included men and women, blacks and whites.
The dead and injured were initially taken to the house of Thomas Taylor who served as the watchman and lived a short distance from the tunnel. The injured were wrapped in blankets.
After finding their help no longer needed, some of the male passengers began to walk towards Washington. The Washington Post reported they did so “in the heavily falling snow.” Among them were Mr. I. McCrossman and W.R. Mercer of Lynchburg and James R. Short of Baltimore. Some of them said they had been thrown out of their seats.
Around 1 o'clock in the morning, three hours after the collision, a special engine from Alexandria reached the scene. Doctors Snowden and Kilpstein began to aid the inured. A Dr. Powell, who lived in Alexandria and worked in Washington, came on the scene on his commute home.
The following morning, dozens of curious onlookers arrived at the grisly scene. About 300 men helped clear the tracks. The Washington Post reporter observed:
The axles and car-wheels were warped and twisted out of shape by the intense heat, while many smaller pieces of iron were melted into pieces. The oil tanks, which were the principal causes of the conflagration, are piled together in the river where they were thrown, and are so nearly demolished as to make them unrecognizable. The rails of the tracks were also so twisted and battered as to render them utterly useless, while the ties were entirely consumed. The stone tunnel was blackened by the flames and many of the stones crumbled from the effect of the heat.
Thomas J. Darley
Andrew J. Augur
Around 5 am, the injured were taken to the Braddock House in Alexandria. Shoehorned in front of the Carlyle House on N. Fairfax Street, the commodious structure was built as a hotel by James Green. The hotel was the scene of the PBS show, Mercy Street.
The Saturday morning newspapers gave an update on the injured. Doctors Smith, Brown, Snowden and Klipstein attended.
J.T. Bruce, the engineer of the passenger train, was reported as doing much better than had been originally reported. He returned to his home in Alexandria.
O.T. Stewart, postal clerk for the passenger train, suffered from a concussion and was badly burned on his chest and was severely injured on left side.
W.B. McNeil (reported in the papers as W.B. McNeal), was badly injured.
J.T. Jones (initially reported as T.W. Jones), chief postal clerk, had burns on his face and a smashed hand. Doctors amputated his forefinger. He went home on Saturday.
A week after the accident, the Washington Evening Star of February 27 reported:
“All the persons wounded at the Four Mile Run catastrophe who now remain here are improving. Engineer Bruce more slowly than others. George Gaylor, one of the injured postal clerks left last evening for his home in Washington. McNeal and Stewart still remain at the Braddock House. The former is very much improved.”
Destruction of Property and Contents
The newspaper gave coverage of the lost mail and cash.
Eleven registered pouches and one hundred and seventy-five registered packages were destroyed. Their value was $30,000. The fire destroyed $100,000 cash bound for New York and $200,000 total.
The newspaper reports also noted officials with the Post Office department in Washington said: “… the heaviest loss of United States mail that has ever occurred at an accident of this kind.”
Twenty-seven of the thirty-one freight train cars and their contents destroyed. The two engine cars were destroyed.
The passenger train baggage car, express car, postal car and smoking car were destroyed.
Assessing the Cause
The Alexandria Gazette reported Engineer Bruce’s statement.
…when he struck the switch Thursday night, the signal was that the line was open. He says that as his train passed on the single track he saw the head-light of the freight, and that train appeared to him to be at a stand still.
He naturally supposed the freight train was waiting for his to pass, and did not discover the terrible mistake until too late to check up.
He was thrown clear of the wreck down the embankment and was picked up in an insensible condition by the train hands several feet away from the track. He says he does not know how he got out of the cab.
The court later ruled the passenger train had the right of way.
In 1890, Jones and Stewart brought a case against the railroad companies that used the track. A verdict of $15,000 was given to Stewart and $10,000 for Jones. Jones had suffered a burned face and injured hand. Stewart had “serious injuries.”
In 1894, the U.S. Supreme Court of the District of Columbia heard an appeal of the case in Pennsylvania Railroad Co. v. Jones. The case had been brought against the Pennsylvania Railroad Co., the Alexandria and Washington Railroad Co, and the Alexandria and Fredericksburg Railway Co.
Note: I have read the case papers several times. Not understanding the particular language, I was not able to understand the ruling of the court.
In Later Years
The Four Mile Run accident popped up from time to time in the local newspapers and then faded away.
In 1898, the Washington Times wrote this obituary for Bruce.
Mr. John H. Bruce died at his home 312 South Fairfax Street this morning after a short illness. Mr Bruce was 48 years of age and was highly esteemed by the citizens of Alexandria. He was a member of Alexandria Council, National Union, United American Mechanics, father of Miss Orion M. Bruce, teacher in the public schools.
Mr. Bruce was engineer of north bound train on the Southern Railway which in Feb 1884 (sic), collided at 4MR with a Pennsylvania train. Mr. Thomas Darley, Mr Bruce, and several other members of the crew were burned.
Bruce never fully recovered from his injuries and in recent years had occupied a clerical position in the Southern Railway offices in this city.
In 1905, Potomac Yard opened up. A marker in the neighborhood there points out:
Potomac Yard, a freight classification yard that revolutionized the railroad industry, opened in 1906. At its peak during World War II, the yard spanned 700 acres and employed more than 1,200 workers.
The entire scene of the accident was eventually covered by about a half dozen tracks that crossed over Four Mile Run where the accident had occurred. These tracks stayed in place until the 1990s when all but one were removed.
In 1927, The Washington Post published a 25-year anniversary that gave a year by year list of significant stories. The 1885 accident was listed.
In 1972, Hurricane Agnes flooded Four Mile Run. The Army Corps of Engineers repaired and improved the washed out creek, giving it the straight shoreline as seen today. Previously the creek had a dog leg shape where the accident occurred.
No historical marker for the accident has been erected and this story has never been told (Foley touches on it).
There are several possibilities for a historical marker.
One would on the path that parallels the Route One bridge.
A second would be at the new South Park at Potomac Yards.
A third would be on the former railroad bridge (the sole one left in the 1990s) still in place (fenced off). The City has plans for the space as part of North Potomac Yard CDD #19.
We close with a virtual wreath and a wish that perhaps one day a memorial will remember and honor the six men who died while performing their duties. The story is forgotten. They are not.