Historys Headlines

History's Headlines: Disaster on the Liberty Bell line

By the early 1940s, it was clear to transportation experts in many American cities, if not always to the general public, that the electric streetcar, the workhorse of American municipal transit for over 50 years, was on its way out.

Although the Lehigh Valley Transit company had added a whole new series of handsome streetcars in the late 1930s, there was distant lighting on the horizon for the trolley car.

Coupled with the rise of automobile traffic and the efforts of major bus and rubber tire makers to replace them, the change was happening. Rural routes in the Lehigh Valley had begun to be phased out in the late 1920s.

And in the 1930s, the older streetcars were being reduced to scrap metal by Bethlehem Steel. Much of it was sent to Japan as the Morning Call noted in 1937, “probably to be used for some battleship.” But all this came to a halt on the morning of December 7, 1941.

Following America’s entry into World War II, rubber and gas were rationed by the U.S. government. Suddenly, the electric streetcar became vital to keeping the workforce that powered the steel mills and munitions plants at work and on time. This was the background of where the Lehigh Valley stood on July 8, 1942, when a horrible accident on the Liberty Bell streetcar line between Allentown and Philadelphia - the pride of the Lehigh Valley Transit Company -  focused attention on the trolley system in a way that gave it more negative publicity it did not need.

The details behind the accident are still a subject of dispute among trolley fans. The most recent detailed study is contained in “Riding The Bell,” a detailed history of the line by rail fan and scholar, Ron Ruddell.

The Liberty Bell had gone into service on Dec. 12, 1912, with much fanfare. The Morning Call featured a cartoon showing two characters in colonial dress, one labeled Father Allen and another Father Penn, shaking hands above a depiction of Philadelphia’s City Hall.

Over the years that followed, the Liberty Bell prided itself on its excellent record. “In the previous 30 years (to 1942) of Liberty Bell operations there had never been a passenger fatality,” Ruddell wrote. That still held on July 8, 1942, when 27-year-old LVT trolley operator Henry Strunk boarded Liberty Bell car 1003 in Norristown for its late afternoon/early evening trip to Allentown.

Aboard her were 40 passengers, most heading home to Allentown. Ruddell notes that dispatcher Harvey Weikel, a veteran of more than 20 years of service, had given Strunk directions.

“They were clear and precise,” Ruddell wrote. “He was to run as Train No. 323 from Norristown to the Bush Run Siding. There, Strunk was to wait for the for southbound Train No. 320 and an extra freight running as X-C 14."

Following directions, Strunk got to the Bush Siding and waited as the 320 passed. This is where the real mystery of what happened next begins. Apparently instead of waiting until the X-C 14 passed, as Weikel had ordered, Strunk went through the restrictive signal and accelerated to 35 mph.

It was not long before Strunk and car 1003 reached the DeKalb Pike, a curve whose view was blocked by summer foliage. Heading southbound was X-C 14 toward Strunk at the same speed. It was at 5:32 p.m. that he and motorman Grover Meckley on the X-C 14 spotted each other.

Both trolley operators applied the emergency brakes but it was too late.

The head-on crash injured Strunk fatally; he died at a hospital later. The heavier X-C 14 charged into the first five rows of seats, killing 12 passengers and seriously injuring 27.

“Fortunately, a five truck motorcade from the 114th Medical Battalion was moving along the pike," Ruddell wrote. "The 30 men under Capt. Herbert Hartwell immediately helped remove the injured and rendered first aid. Their actions were credited with saving several lives."

LVT officials arrived but there was little they could do but order the remains of 1003 removed. Cutting torches were used to remove parts of both trolleys. Two Bell Telephone heavy utility trucks pulled the cars apart, and the wreckage was cleared by 11:30 p.m. and  taken to the Fairview Carbarn in Allentown.

Now, it was up to the lawyers and public officials to settle out the responsibility for the wreck. At first, the Montgomery County district attorney preferred charges against motorman Meckley, who was sent to jail. But LVT’s attorney got him released and also was able to keep dispatcher Weikel out of jail.

The Norristown Times Herald newspaper was quick to cast blame on the LVT. They claimed unsafe conditions due to one-man crews, poor signals, speeds, dangerous hidden curves, improper dispatching and a single track line were all things that led to the tragedy.

“The company operated from Allentown has been getting away, up to now, with murder in its service,” the newspaper concluded.

Allentown’s Call-Chronicle had a different take on it.

“The obvious attempt of some Norristown and Philadelphia newspapers to discredit the management of the Lehigh Valley Transit Company, as a result of last week’s tragic accident near Norristown, is as absurd as it is intemperate,” the newspaper’s editorial stated.

A trial was held in Montgomery County, after a move by the LVT to have it changed was denied. The case was heard before Judge George J. Corson and a jury. After much argument, Corson ruled the defendants not guilty. Strunk had been speeding and was alone responsible. By early 1943, the investigations had been completed and compensation paid.

Ruddell points out that a number of questions about that tragic day remained. Most are only questions that Henry Strunk could have answered. One suggests that he may have thought he had cleared the track ahead of him by changing a switch to block the track ahead of him.

These questions remain unanswerable, which does mean that they will not be argued over. But two facts are clear: the Liberty Bell made its last run nine years later, and the Lehigh Valley Transit Company ceased to exist as a streetcar line 11 years after that tragic day.

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