Friday, July 11, 2014

July 11, 1911: The Cardinals Survive a Deadly Train Accident in Connecticut

     On July 11, 1911, a little after 3:30 a.m., just outside of Bridgeport, Connecticut, the entire St. Louis Cardinals baseball team survived a deadly train accident that claimed 14 lives, and injured 47 more. The cars that were occupied by Cardinals were the only ones left on the tracks. Realizing that the ballplayers had only suffered minor injuries the Cardinals skipper Roger Bresnahan coordinated a rescue effort, as the players and coaches went from accident victims to rescue workers in a matter of minutes.

     The accident was caused by a fatal error by the engineer who was running late, and was trying to make up time with the throttle wide open. The engineer blew through a crossover that had a speed limit of 15 MPH at 60 MPH. The newly installed crossover was designed to slow the train down for a stop at the station in Bridgeport. Just moments before hitting the crossover the train flew past a towerman that said the steam had been turned off, as the engineer realized his error, and was trying to slow it down. It was too late.

     The Day out of New London, Connecticut described what happened next in grave detail as they wrote "When the heavy vestibuled train of nine cars struck the switch at full speed the locomotive leaped into the air like a rearing horse, rocked and swayed over the ties for nearly 150 yards and finally leaped to the street below, dragging six cars down the bank." The bank that was spoken of was an embankment of nearly 20 feet.  
     It has been said that Bresnahan had complained about the club being put in the front of the train before they left Philadelphia, which got them transferred to the back. However, there were several accounts of the story, with some contradicting the claim. The one that was widely reported was the railroad mixed up the order of the cars which put them in a fateful position. Either way it goes the club was very lucky to be shifted to the back, as the cars in front were crushed like matchsticks, and held no survivors. The players suffered cuts on their feet and hands as they dug through the wreckage. Some of the things that they seen and heard were unspeakable as everyone could not be saved. However, the team came together and helped the many injured while emergency workers arrived on the scene.  If not for their quick response the death toll would have been higher.

      The club was in the midst of a great stretch of baseball, when they hopped on that train called the "Federal Express" in Philadelphia that was set them to take them to Boston for a matchup against the Rustlers (who would later become known as the Braves). The train had taken its nickname as a frequent rider just happened to be the President of the United States William Howard Taft. The accident caught the attention of the White House because of this, and the scrutiny of the company who had an inexperienced engineer followed. Lawsuits followed, and were settled, while the Cardinals players each received $25 apiece for their lost luggage. In the end there was nothing that could be done to fix his fatal mistake that made him one of the 14 lives lost. Besides try to learn from the mistakes that were made of course.

     Just hours after the accident the Cardinals were put on a special train to get them to Boston. The team was presented with an opportunity to forfeit against the Boston club on the 12th, but chose to play and took the first game of a doubleheader 13-6, then tied the second game 6-6 that came to a close with the sun setting in the Boston sky. They were very lucky to see that sunset. The amazing story of tragedy and survival would end up taking a toll on the team, as many players did not want to step on a train after the incident, and were haunted by the accident. While they won six of their next eight, they put together a 27-40 record in the last two months, and finished just a game over .500 with a 75-74 record. With that said they lived to tell the tale, and they lived to play on another day in Cardinal Nation.

This link is to a picture gallery from the accident. I was a bit surprised to find it. I had seen the battered images in the old newspapers beforehand, but these really hammer it home on how bad of an accident this was:

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