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History's Headlines: Train Wreck Mystery

On December 13, 1899, the Lehigh Valley was getting ready for the dawn of the 20th century. True, the newspapers were pointing out that the new century would not really begin until 1901. But one editor admitted that just by writing 1900 he would feel that “something momentous had happened to the calendar.” Not that the old century was not going to be leaving without a bang. The British were all tangled up fighting the Boer War in South Africa. The newspapers were reporting the Boers had blown up a railroad bridge the day before. American troops who were hoping to come home from the Philippines following the Spanish-American War instead found themselves fighting an insurgence. The Morning Call quoted an Associated Press story from Washington that said Republican Party chairman Mark Hanna had “practically decided that President McKinley shall be re-nominated by acclamation.” This caused the newspaper to quip, “If Mr. Hanna has decided on all this what’s the use of going to the expense of having a convention!” Two years later however McKinley would be dead from an assassin’s bullet and his vice president Theodore Roosevelt, whom Hanna did not like at all, was in the White House “Now look, that damn cowboy is president of the United States,” he exploded.

But all that was far in the future. Locally people that week were talking about the immigrant Italian road crew that was fired after going on strike and the assault on a local school house in Heidelberg Township that scared teacher Eugene Handwerk and his pupils. One of the rowdies was armed with a gun, pointing  it at the students and Handwerk, forcing them to leave the room. They left without saying what they wanted. Perhaps Handwerk had flunked them in English.

Many people were already getting ready for Christmas. At least some would be headed to the then two-year-old Hess Brothers store. Dolls could be had for 10 cents to $10. Toy fire engines and other wheeled objects made of sturdy iron were on sale from 25 cents to $3.25. And drums were a bargain at 35 cents. Koch Brother’s was offering men’s overcoats for $2.75 cents and C.A. Dorney had comfortable Morris chairs from $3.50 to $25.

It would not be until the next morning when they opened their newspapers that the Lehigh Valley’s residents got word of a horrible event that happened the evening before, one whose cause remains a mystery over 100 years later.

"THREE KILLED AND THREE BADLY INJURED, A BIG WRECK ON THE CENTRAL ROAD” read the big black headlines that dominated the left hand side of the front page of the Morning Call. Referring to it as “one of the most serious railroad wrecks that has for many years startled the inhabitants of this vicinity” the newspaper presented the details.

At 8:20 that evening, New Jersey Central Railroad coal train No. 426 was making its lumbering way toward Allentown from Mauch Chunk. It was at the lower end of a double curve between Siegfried- now Northampton-  and Treichlers when suddenly a coal car at the rear of the train derailed. Quickly flagman John Hann was dispatched to Treichlers  by conductor Edward Smith, who had ordered the train stopped. He had also ordered the engine detached and moved to the rear of the train.

It was Hann’s task to warn other trains of the derailment. Official railroad documents were later to show that he did this, guiding both a passenger train and fast freight that followed “with but little delay.”   Following behind them was passenger train No. 18 from Mauch Chunk to Philipsburg. According to newspaper accounts it consisted of a baggage car, a smoking car, a day coach, and an emigrant car. The engineer was Frederick S. Yeomans, a 55 year old, 31 year railroad veteran from Easton. Over the years, according to the press, he had developed a reputation for being ill-tempered but not reckless. How the reporter for the newspaper knew this about Yeomans is unknown. Perhaps it came from his fellow employees. One apparently did recall hearing him say that he would die in the cab of a locomotive. Also on the train crew were fireman William Smith and baggage master Thomas Heath. The only occupants of the passenger car were the Rev. Nevin W. Helffrich of Allentown, Rev. H.T. Spangler, president of Ursinus College and Henry Hersh, a travelling salesman from Allentown. All the other passengers had gotten off at Walnutport.

What happened next is still the subject of conjecture. When No. 18 pulled in at Treichlers it slowed to a stop. Flagman Hann got into the locomotive’s cab with Yeomans and Smith. Suddenly the passengers noticed the engine picked up speed. They estimated it later at about 60 miles an hour, right into the coal train’s locomotive. The impact was later described as shaking the earth.

The passengers were sent crashing into the seats in front of them, and salesman Hersh’s sample case went hurtling to the ceiling. Although only lightly injured, they were horrified to see a fire had broken out. Seeing baggage master Heath pinned to the flaming baggage car, they tried to get to him but were forced back by the flames that burned him to death as he hung by his feet. A reporter for the Allentown Chronicle and News said his remains could have fit into a shovel.

Jumping off the car the two ministers looked forward to see if there was anything left of the engine. But they could see nothing that looked like No. 18’s locomotive. “It had simply disappeared,” Rev. Helfrich later recalled.

Yeomans and Smith were dead. Hann was pulled from the cab and the newspapers gave him no chance for survival. But as weeks went by he grew stronger. In the mind of people across the Lehigh Valley the press and public were wondering what would John Hann say?  Rumors were circulating that Yeomans had confronted Hann, saying he would go as fast as he liked and to hell with the others. It was January 4, 1900 before the coroner got to question John Hann in his St Luke’s hospital bed. But Hann was not cooperative. He claimed to remember nothing about the crash. Eventually, under threat of being sent to prison, he issued an official statement, that only reinforced his previous testimony.

Then Jersey Central officials and their attorneys whisked him away. Eventually the coroner’s jury called both Hann and Yeomans guilty and “exonerated the New Jersey Central Railroad of all blame in the matter.” And there the matter rests to this day.                                          


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