Columns, Weeks Gone By

Two St. J. & L.C. R.R. Trains Collide

Share article


from Joe Barcomb collection
The head-on collision destroyed the boilers of both engines.

HARDWICK – One of the most serious and fatal accidents in the history of the St. Johnsbury and Lake Champlain Railroad occurred at 4:45 p.m. on Friday, May 5, 1944. About a mile west of the Greensboro Bend station and six miles east of the Hardwick station a west-bound train and an east-bound train collided head-on.

The regular west-bound train, No. 75, scheduled to arrive in Hardwick at 5:15, collided with an extra train, called the “milk train,” heading east. The milk train had orders to pass No. 75 at Greensboro Bend. However, a mix-up in orders meant that the Greensboro Bend Stationmaster did not hold No. 75 on a sidetrack until the milk train passed by, making the crash inevitable.

Joe Barcomb, HA ’59, sent the Hardwick Historical Society a collection of pictures and artifacts from his boyhood in Hardwick. He included a half dozen pictures of a train wreck. Since they had no identifying information, we had to find the story ourselves, using only clues in the pictures: St. J & L. C. engine, head-on collision, men and boys in short sleeves, no leaves on the trees, and mid-century hair cuts. With a couple of us on the hunt in Newspapers.com, we found it.

The crew on each train had only a very brief warning of the impending crash and prepared to jump, but the force of the collision literally knocked them out of the cab. Three St. Johnsbury men, Warren E. Carter, engineer on No. 75, Ralph C. Kelsey, engineer on the milk train, and Ernest J. Leavitt, conductor on the milk train, received injuries. The tender pinned Roy Collins, 42, of St. Johnsbury, the fireman on No. 75, against the engine boiler. He was killed by the escaping steam and boiling water.

The collision severely shook up everyone else. It knocked one passenger completely over a seat. The engines, tenders, and a car next to the engines on both trains received severe damage. The wreck also caused severe damage to the tracks.


from Joe Barcomb collection

St. Johnsbury & Lamoille County westbound mixed train no. 75 collides with eastbound extra milk train between Greensboro Bend and Hardwick on May 5, 1944.

No. 75, a 12 car “mixed train” had freight, mail, and passenger cars attached. It had stopped at Greensboro Bend, off loaded merchandise, taken on a few passengers, and went on its way. The milk train traveling from Swanton to St. Johnsbury had about the same number of cars.   

Carter said that only when he saw the milk train’s smokestacks coming around the curve about 75 feet ahead of him did he realize what would happen. He threw his levers, yelled at his fireman, and prepared to jump.

Kelsey had begun to throttle down the milk train to about 20 miles per hour, and he got “the surprise of my life” when the head end of No. 75 suddenly appeared. He rose up to jump, but the crash threw him out of the cab. Escaping steam and boiling water forced him to leap down an embankment, causing his injuries.

The noise of the impact drew scores to the scene of the accident within minutes, and the injured promptly received first aid. Ambulances racing to the scene alerted residents in Hardwick village.

Both trains ran at about 30 miles per hour, and because of the low speed, none of the cars left the track. A number of freight cars split open in the crash, spilling their contents, including grain, lumber, general merchandise, and barrels of condensed milk.


from Joe Barcomb collection

Word traveled fast, bringing spectators to watch St.J and L.C. tracks being cleared of the wreckage by a Canadian Pacific derrick and crew brought in from Newport.

A large Canadian Pacific Railroad derrick and crew from Newport cleared and repaired the tracks by the afternoon of the next day.

In 1944, head-on collisions almost never happened — the most recent had occurred about the turn of the twentieth century. Instead, most accidents involved sideswiping of trains and collisions with automobiles and trucks.

(The Hardwick Historical Society plans to pull from their archives and share items from town history for Gazette readers every month. For more information, see hardwickvthistory.org.)

Comments are closed.

Advertising