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Ligonier train wreck killed 23 in 1912

| Sunday, June 25, 2006

A passenger train with 50 people on board the single coach slowly left the Ligonier Station at about 3:45 p.m. Friday, July 5, 1912.

Among those on the train was Esther Matthews, who was taking Mary Elizabeth Rhody, 12, Louise Rhody, 6, Mary Helen Peters, 3, Bernadetta Andrews, 8, and Billie Brownfield, 5, to the woods in Wilpen to pick flowers. Matthews was a private-duty nurse working for George Senft, general manager of the Ligonier Valley Railroad.

"A freight train loaded with coal from Wilpen was late. A telephone call was made to the Ligonier Station to get permission to bring the coal train into Ligonier. They were told that the passenger train would be held," said Bill McCullough, co-founder and president of the Ligonier Valley Rail Road Association. "There was a miscommunication somewhere."

The passenger train, which was being pushed by an engine, was running at 12 miles per hour. The freight train, traveling downhill, was full steam at 40 miles per hour. As the passenger train started around a sharp curve at Denny's Flats, a trainman yelled a warning and the engineer tried to put his train into reverse to avoid the freight locomotive.

"The freight train plowed into the coach and blew it apart. The engine from the freight train hit the passenger engine and pushed it 200 feet," McCullough said.

A local newspaper account described the wreck as "literally rending the coach apart, the engines tore their way thru, one side of the wooden car being hurled to the right, and the other side being tossed to the left, mid a crashing of glass and the rending of wood, while the seats and the floor were converted into splinters and patches of velvet which seemed no redder, as they dotted the ground, than did the pools of blood, formed wherever a dead or injured human lay."

The Rhody sisters were killed along with 21 others, including two engineers and two firemen from the freight train.

"Mrs. Rhody collapsed after hearing about her daughters' deaths," McCullough said.

"We used to live across the street from Mrs. Rhody," said Bob Stutzman, co-founder and treasurer of the LVRRA. "We called her Aunt Sarah. The Rhody family had moved into Ligonier so their son, William, who had tuberculosis, could have his own room. William eventually died from his illness and Aunt Sarah couldn't understand why all this misfortune fell upon her."

Sarah Rhody also survived her husband, Henry. She was in her mid-90s when she died. The Rhody family is buried in Ligonier Cemetery.

On July 11, John P. Dohoney, marshal of the State Railroad Commission, filed a report stating the accident was "reckless and inexcusable."

A July 18, 1912, story in the Greensburg Daily Tribune quoted an Interstate Commerce investigator as saying that the responsibility for the accident "rests with Ligonier Valley Railroad. No recommendations are made but more accidents are predicted unless changes is (sic) made in the mode of operation."

"Prior to the wreck, all the communications between the freight and passenger trains on the Wilpen line were verbal," McCullough said. "Afterward, the railroad started doing written orders."

The coroner's inquest in September also ruled that the railroad was at fault.

"We further find that the said wreck occurred through the negligence of the Ligonier Valley Railroad company in operating its road without using written orders; without the certainty and verification of verbal orders; without employing a signal code or having a system of signals along its lines; without using track signals; without proper instruction in rules or signals to the employes (sic); and lastly, without any recognized up-to-date methods of operating the railroad," the coroner's verdict said.

On March 11, 1914, an unnamed 15-year-old girl succumbed to her injuries. She was the 24th and last victim of the Ligonier Valley Railroad accident.

"All the victims' families filed lawsuits," said Stutzman. "The railroad company fought the suits but not too hard because they knew that their practice of using verbal orders was wrong."

For 30 years one of the wrecked engines was parked outside of the engine house in Ligonier so maintenance crews could pirate parts from it. In 1952, the Ligonier Valley Railroad went out of business.

The Ligonier Valley Rail Road Association has 300 newspaper articles, photos and other memorabilia of the railroad's long history.

"It is my personal goal to have a state historic marker placed along Route 711 noting the site of one of the worst train wrecks in American history," Stutzman said.

For further reading on the July 5, 1912, Ligonier Valley Rail Road train wreck, check out the association's Web site at www.lvrra.org.

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