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Death Rode the Rails

American Railroad Accidents and Safety, 1828–1965

Mark Aldrich

Publication Year: 2006

For most of the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, railroads dominated American transportation. They transformed life and captured the imagination. Yet by 1907 railroads had also become the largest cause of violent death in the country, that year claiming the lives of nearly twelve thousand passengers, workers, and others. In Death Rode the Rails Mark Aldrich explores the evolution of railroad safety in the United States by examining a variety of incidents: spectacular train wrecks, smaller accidents in shops and yards that devastated the lives of workers and their families, and the deaths of thousands of women and children killed while walking on or crossing the street-grade tracks. The evolution of railroad safety, Aldrich argues, involved the interplay of market forces, science and technology, and legal and public pressures. He considers the railroad as a system in its entirety: operational realities, technical constraints, economic history, internal politics, and labor management. Aldrich shows that economics initially encouraged American carriers to build and operate cheap and dangerous lines. Only over time did the trade-off between safety and output—shaped by labor markets and public policy—motivate carriers to develop technological improvements that enhanced both productivity and safety. A fascinating account of one of America's most important industries and its dangers, Death Rode the Rails will appeal to scholars of economics and the history of transportation, technology, labor, regulation, safety, and business, as well as to railroad enthusiasts.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. vii

List of Figures

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pp. ix-x

List of Tables

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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xvi

My interest in railroads and their safety began when I was about fi ve years old, in 1946. My mother would take my sister and me down to the Amherst, Massachusetts, Central Vermont Railroad station to meet the train on Saturday mornings. We got to know the engineman, Jim Thurston—Engineer Jim to us—and he would let us get into the cab as he took on water...

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pp. 1-9

For nearly a century—from roughly 1830 to 1920—railroads dominated American transportation. They transformed life as perhaps only the automobile and the computer have done since, and they captured the imagination. For if Americans were often critical of the railroads, they loved their trains too. Railroad stories were a staple of popular fiction...

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1. In the Beginning: American Railroad Dangers and Safety, 1828–1873

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pp. 10-6041

July 4, 1828, marked the beginnings of American railroading. On that date old Charles Carroll of Carrollton, last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, turned over the first shovel of earth to begin construction of the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O)—the first commercial railroad on the continent. Forty-five years later...

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2. Off the Tracks: The Changing Pattern of Derailments, 1873–1900

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pp. 42-69

At 1:00 p.m. on January 10, 1888, a Boston & Maine (B&M) fast express pulling seven cars left Boston with about 150 passengers onboard. At 2:00 p.m., it rounded a curve on a downhill grade near Bradford station running about 30 miles per hour. The front truck of a smoking car derailed at a facing point switch, as did three coaches...

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3. Collisions and the Rise of Regulation, 1873–1900

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pp. 70-96

Few years during the nineteenth century brought a more dreadful crop of train accidents than 1887. The Railroad Gazette recorded 207 passenger fatalities and as usual collisions took a goodly toll. The year began badly. On January 3, B&O freight train No. 26, under command of Conductor L. F. Fletcher, left Garrett, Indiana...

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4. The Major Risks from Minor Accidents, 1873–1900

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pp. 97-129

The great majority of casualties on railroads were not the result of spectacular collisions or derailments. While such disasters might injure or kill dozens of people all at once, most of the carnage resulted from “minor” accidents that picked them off one or two at a time. These were passengers who fell while running for the train...

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5. Engineering Success and Disaster: Bridge Design and Failure, 1840–1900

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pp. 130-154

Sometime after 8:00 p.m. on December 29, 1876, the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Pacific Express, traveling west out of Erie, Pennsylvania, approached the Ashtabula, Ohio, bridge, just east of the station. The train consisted of three express and one baggage cars, three passenger coaches, and three sleepers hauled by two locomotives...

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6. Coping with the Casualties: Companies, Workers, and Injuries, 1850–1900

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pp. 155-180

Early on the morning of May 12, 1871, a westbound Erie freight headed for Buffalo, New York, broke in two. The rear of the train, to which was attached an immigrant car, came to a stop just outside the Griswald station, near Attica. It was struck almost immediately by a following freight, demolishing the immigrant car. Six of the passengers...

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7. Safety Crisis and Safety First, 1900–1920

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pp. 181-215

The first two decades of the twentieth century were a time of transition for the railroads. The expansion that had begun in 1828 continued up to about World War I. While track miles grew slowly, the period witnessed a massive reconstruction and upgrading of both roadbed and equipment, increase in traffic density, and rapid expansion of freight...

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8. Lobbying for Regulation: Transporting Hazardous Substances, 1903–1930

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pp. 216-236

Pressure from the public and the brotherhoods was the driving force behind the wave of proposed safety regulations that swept over the railroads in the two decades before World War I. The carriers’ response usually ranged from indifference to implacable hostility. But in the transportation of explosives and other hazards...

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9. Private Enterprise and Public Regulation: Safety between the Wars, 1922–1939

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pp. 237-270

Normalcy for the railroads did not arrive immediately with the end of World War I. The year 1919 brought an inflationary bubble, while the U.S. Railroad Administration returned the carriers to private hands in March 1920. Comparative stability finally returned in 1922, but the good times lasted only about eight years until 1929 ushered in a decade...

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10. Safety in War and Decline, 1940–1965

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pp. 271-302

When war began in Europe in September 1939, American railroads were still recovering from a decade of depression. Passenger and freight traffic remained far below their 1929 levels, as did employment and manhours. Military demands soon put an end to excess capacity, however, and by 1943 the carriers were straining to meet the colossal increase in traffic...

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Conclusion. The Political Economy of Railroad Safety, 1830–1965

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pp. 303-308

In 1935 Joseph Eastman delivered a speech claiming that the carriers’ safety improvements had nearly always been forced down their throats by government pressures. “Practically every safety device required by government . . . and bitterly resisted [by the carriers] . . . has ultimately [benefited them],” Eastman pronounced. This was too much for the editor...

Appendix One. Nineteenth-Century Railroad Accident and Casualty Statistics

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pp. 309-320

Appendix Two. Casualties and Accidents from Interstate Commerce Commission Statistics, 1888–1965

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pp. 321-340

List of Abbreviations

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pp. 341-342


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pp. 343-420

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Essay on Sources

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pp. 421-437

In writing this book I have relied mostly on primary printed and archival materials, especially the many railroad and engineering journals and proceedings. There is little secondary literature that focuses directly on railroad safety but much that dis-cusses railroad technology...


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pp. 439-446

Photo gallery

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E-ISBN-13: 9780801889073
E-ISBN-10: 0801889073
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801894022
Print-ISBN-10: 0801894026

Page Count: 480
Illustrations: 40 halftones, 29 line drawings
Publication Year: 2006