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History's Headlines: Bethlehem Train Wreck

History's Headlines: Bethlehem Train...

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Bethlehem residents had reason to be proud of their new Union railroad station. By 1926 the then 2 year old red brick Colonial Revival structure that replaced a rundown Victorian era relic had offered a handsome entrance way to those arriving at a city that called the second largest steel company in America home. Close to the recently completed Hill-to-Hill bridge, it was a community showplace.

But it was doubtful that the passengers who were inside car 898, the second car of the Lehigh Valley Railroad’s Lehigh Limited in the early morning hours of September 27, 1926 paid the station much heed. The Limited was traveling from Buffalo to Manhattan carrying a full load of passengers. The Limited had stopped in Allentown at 5:40 a.m. Busy Allentown doctor Martin Kleckner was probably more concerned about the clinics he planned to attend in New York.  The 36 year old proctologist had a thriving practice but felt he could always learn more. Also in car 898 was 20 year old Abraham Benioff, on a buying trip for his father’s fur business. Hess Brothers’ buyer George Sell was making one of his many trips to Manhattan for the store. And for 28 year old Harold J. Ott of Allentown it was simply a morning commute from his home at 2938 Chew Street to his job at the Pennsylvania Edison Company in Easton.

By 1926 train travel in the Lehigh Valley was not the risky venture it had been 50 years before. Railroads were a mature industry that moved people and freight with skill and easy every day. Perhaps the greatest improvement, along with a sophisticated system of signals, was the adoption of steel railroad cars. No longer would train travelers fear “telescoping,” the horror faced by 19th century rail passengers when their wooden rail coaches were rammed by an out of control locomotive, collapsing one into another like the folding of a telescope.

But despite the best safeguards human error was something that could not always be controlled. And that morning it was to be in full display. At 5:53 just as the sun was rising the Limited was pulling into Bethlehem Junction. Passengers hoping to board her were already lined up on the station’s platform. Henry Conlin, the Limited’s engineer, later told the Interstate Commerce Commission investigators that he had been moving at 12 miles an hour and all signals showed him that the way was clear.

Unfortunately, this was not clear to Henry Schmidt, engineer of the Jersey Central’s crack express, the Scranton Flyer. Traveling from Binghamton, New York to Philadelphia, it had just passed Allentown and was moving, according to Schmidt, between 12 and 15 miles per hour.

What happened next was the subject of much argument in the press and at the hearings of the Interstate Commerce Commission. Schmidt was to claim that the signal “was displaying a clear indication that the engine was within 30 feet of it, not going into a stop position until he had passed it.” This was denied by Terrance Reilly, the Lehigh Valley Railroad’s tower man and the janitor who was with him that claimed the signal showed stop long before. There was some suggestion that a change in the Limited’s schedule, just issued the day, before might have played a part.

There could be no doubt about what happened next. “The huge Jersey Central engine…struck three cars back of the Lehigh Valley engine, throwing one of them on its side…the coach was shoved 50 feet toward the Union Station platform, its right side grinding over the platform after it struck one of the steel girders beneath the big bridge,” noted the Allentown Chronicle and News and Evening Item.

Then the Jersey Central engine, after sideswiping several other cars, one of which tottered before righting itself, toppled over on its side, its huge wheels visible to all. Bystanders were horrified and several quickly tried to come to the aid of the passengers screaming in the wreck of car 898. Others went to the station, calling St. Luke’s Hospital and the police. It was not long before ambulances, taxis and private cars were ferrying them out to get medical attention.

All told there  8 people who died in the crash. Among them was Hugh Magee, 72, of Allentown. A brakeman for the Lehigh Valley Railroad, he was getting ready to retire.. He was just getting ready to jump from the coach to the station platform when the steel railroad car fell on him. The press noted when his body, badly crushed, was removed three hours later, he was still grasping a railroad lantern in his hand. Another railroad employee who died was Henry Miller, the African-American relief chef in the dining car.

Among those killed in car 898 was 25 year old Harold Begal of Lehighton, a recently married student at Cornell Medical School in New York, David Baum, a costumer from Wilkes-Barre and George V. McGovern, 50 of Mauch Chunk, chief clerk in the Jersey City office of the coal accountant of the L.V. Railroad. Harold Ott of Allentown was also among those who died. “Most of the killed lost their lives when the heavy plush seats on the left side of the car were torn loose and toppled on them,” the press noted.

Fortunately, largely thanks to the steel railroad car, many of those in 898 suffered only minor injuries. Abe Benioff was listed as “slightly hurt.” George Sell had what were called “moderate injuries.” The most seriously hurt among the local people was Dr. Kleckner. His injuries were described in the press as “compound fracture of the right arm and forearm and right shoulder blade…he has numerous cuts of the scalp, legs and hands.”

At first the newspapers were saying Kleckner would never be able to practice medicine again. “A serious reflex reaction has developed,” noted the Morning Call.  “There may come a permanent  stiffening of the fingers.” But St. Luke’s doctor B.K. Santee who operated on Kleckner’s arm said, “ I expect Dr. Kleckner to soon be my strongest competitor.” Still it would be three years more of operations in Allentown, New York and Philadelphia before Kleckner was able to practice again.

In the end both engineers Conlin and Schmidt were arrested on misdemeanor charges of disregarding signals, and the events around it became history. Today the Union Station is a facility of St. Luke’s Hospital.

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