Ligonier Valley museum researches deadly encounter 100 years later
Bessie Hoon stepped aboard the Ligonier Valley Rail Road passenger train in Ligonier on July 5, 1912, headed to Wilpen to visit her aunt.
A few hours later, 16-year-old Hoon would be left in a pile of bodies outside Latrobe Hospital — thought to be among those who perished in the deadliest accident in the railroad's 75-year history.
But Hoon was very much alive. And thanks to an alert attendant who noticed she had a pulse as she was being taken to the morgue, Hoon fully recovered from the injuries she suffered when a coal train plowed into the passenger train on a blind curve.
“It's amazing to me that she lived and had two girls and was a teacher and taught at Ligonier Valley School District for 40 years. It was amazing what she had gone through,” her daughter, Mary Lou Mitchell, 89, of Ligonier, said. “She was very lucky, but so was I. I wouldn't be here.”
Thursday marks the 100th anniversary of the horrific accident along the Mill Creek Branch of the railroad that claimed 24 lives and injured at least 38 people.
The Ligonier Valley Rail Road Association has been working on putting together an accurate record of the crash — verifying the identities of those killed and injured, collecting family stories of the tragedy and tracking down belongings of those involved — to produce a book about the accident.
A few twists of fate put the two trains on a collision course.
“The stars were definitely not aligned,” said Bill Potthoff, executive director of the Ligonier Valley Rail Road Museum.
When the Ligonier Valley Rail Road opened in 1877, it was a 10-mile line that connected Ligonier to Latrobe. About the turn of the century, a 6-mile branch to Fort Palmer was built as a link to the coal mines and coke ovens north of Ligonier.
At the end of that branch line, there was no way for trains to turn around.
So trains would back up from Ligonier to Fort Palmer and then travel forward on the way back.
On July 5, 1912, a coal train had derailed along the line. The crew called ahead to Ligonier to ask that the 3:20 p.m. passenger train remain in the station to allow the freight train time to get back, and they were told to come through.
“Somewhere in Ligonier, they missed the signal or had a miscommunication,” Potthoff said.
On the passenger train was a mix of workers heading to the mines or coke ovens, people returning home from July Fourth vacations, picnickers still enjoying their holiday and children heading to pick wildflowers.
As Hoon boarded the train, she came upon her uncle, George Tosh, a Civil War veteran, who offered her his window seat, Mitchell said.
She declined, knowing Tosh enjoyed sitting by the window.
Also aboard the train were Alice Ritenour, a 14-year-old nanny who was taking her charges on a picnic, and Matthew Nieport, who was returning home from Greensburg after being hospitalized for a broken leg, records show.
Nobody knew as they left the station that they were headed straight for an oncoming coal train.
The trains met about 1 1⁄2 miles outside of Ligonier on the only blind curve on the entire branch. There was no time to avoid the crash. A few minutes earlier or later, and the engineers most likely could have averted the crash, Potthoff said.
“Everybody who was sitting (in the passenger car) could see it coming,” he added.
The two engines of the coal train split the passenger car in half and hit the engine of the passenger train.
“The passenger car was made out of wood, so it was like crushing an eggshell with a hammer,” Potthoff said.
A magistrate riding his horse nearby saw the accident and rode back to Ligonier to alert people to the tragedy. People began showing up with blankets and bandages to render first aid.
The dead were taken to Lowry's Funeral Home, which was set up as a temporary morgue. Newspaper accounts described a brutal scene with victims cut in half, scalded or crushed to death.
Those who survived were taken to hospitals in Latrobe, Greensburg and Pittsburgh.
Hoon fell through the split passenger car onto the tracks below as the freight train rumbled above. Her uncle died instantly.
“If she had switched places with him, she would have been the one who died,” Potthoff said.
Instead, she would have one of her kneecaps replaced with one made from silver, though she never limped.
Still, there were physical signs of the accident.
“I'd always look at mother's face, the dark places on her face. She said that was coke from the wreck; it never came away from her complexion,” Mitchell said.
Ritenour was not as lucky. Though she would survive the initial crash, she lingered for nearly two years before dying from her injuries in March 1914 — the final victim of the disaster.
Ritenour's niece, Louise Ashbaugh, said her mother — Alice's sister, Elizabeth — said young Alice was bedridden after the crash.
Family stories, which were few, told of glass embedded under her skin.
“The glass would just work its way out of her body,” Ashbaugh, 85, of Ligonier, said. “I guess she would cry when it did, it was so painful.”
Ashbaugh said her mother rarely talked about the accident or the rest of her youth. She nursed her mother, who died in 1918 of meningitis, then went to live with the doctor who cared for both her sister and mother. Dr. Clarence Hamill, who eventually adopted Elizabeth Ritenour, had survived the 1912 train accident.
“For the community of Ligonier, (the accident) just reached into almost every home,” Ashbaugh said.
It certainly impacted the family of Nieport, who died in the crash, said his great-granddaughter, Lynn Hale, 70, of Murrysville.
Hale's grandmother, Hazel, was one of two daughters born to Nieport's first marriage. He remarried and started a second family with five children after his first wife died, she said.
Hale said George Paul Nieport, the youngest of the family, died a few months after his father passed.
“When Matthew would come home from work, his little boy would jump out from behind the door as kids do,” Hale said. “When his dad was killed and he was no longer coming home, (George Paul) got sick. He just wasted away. The little boy, I think he was only 18 months old. I remember my grandmother telling me that on the death certificate the doctor said he had died of a broken heart.”
Jennifer Reeger is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review. She can be reached at 724-836-6155 or firstname.lastname@example.org