Editor’s Note: This is the final article in a series of three articles about the great Ransom train wreck in 1905.
The first report of the deadly Western Maryland Railroad train wreck to reach Thurmont was on Saturday, June 17. It said that 40 to 60 people had been killed. The numbers slowly dropped as more became known and passengers and crew were accounted for. In all, 26 people died and 11 were injured. It was, and remains, the worst accident in the history of the Western Maryland Railway.
“The scenes of agony and distress at the homes of dead victims of the accident cannot be described. They were harrowing in the extreme, and those who witnessed them will never forget the wails of widowed women, orphaned children and relatives of the dead,” the American Sentine reported.
It could have been worse, though. Reports credit the Engineer George Covell of the No. 5 with reducing the casualties, though he didn’t survive himself. He applied the emergency air brakes as soon as he recognized the problem. The track was curving at the collision point so that “the force of the impact was much less upon the coaches than it would have been in a direct line. Railroad men say it is extremely probable that if the collision had occurred on a straight track the coaches would have been telescoped and the passengers subjected to frightful loss of life,” according to the American Sentinel.
The towns affected the most by the wreck were Thurmont and Catoctin Furnace, having 17 of their men killed and seven injured. It also left 13 women widowed and 38 children fatherless according to The New York Times.
“Close family ties and friendships existed among these people. No one was untouched by the tragedy which left a number of widows and fatherless children and dominated thinking in the village for Catoctin Furnace for years,” Elizabeth Anderson wrote in Faith in the Furnace.
With such a large number of the dead coming from a small community, many of the dead were related. McClellan Sweeney was the father of Frank and William Sweeney and brother of Harry. Charles Miller and Charles Kelly were brothers-in-law and E. M. Miller was Charles Miller’s son.
E.M Miller, who escaped injury, helped the reporters identify many of the dead and would not take any payment for the service. When he had finished helping the reporters, he turned to them and said, “My father, Charles T. Miller, and my uncle, Charles Kelly, are both in the wreck and I am sure they are both dead.” He said it with dry eyes, but the newspaper report noted that it was apparent he was “stunned and dazed by the magnitude of the calamity,” American Sentinel reported.
Residents poured out to the local train station in a macabre replay of the townspeople’s regular Wednesday ritual.
“Many of the locals would go to the Thurmont station every Wednesday and take baskets with good things to eat,” George Wireman wrote about the wreck. “They sent them down the line to their family who were working on the railroad.”
On this June night, food was far from their thoughts as residents gathered to await word of whether their sons, fathers and brothers were among the casualties.
Some survivors arrived after midnight, bringing more accurate and horrifying accounts.
On Sunday, June 18, word spread that a train would arrive with the dead at 7 p.m. The train didn’t arrive until about 12:30 a.m. Monday, but the people were still waiting, as was a hearse driven by undertakers Clarence Creager and Elmer Black.
“During that whole of Sunday great throngs of people were at the station waiting for the train that should bring home the silent disfigured forms of those who had gone forth strong and well. It was about 12:30 a.m. when the first shipment of bodies arrived and then came the long procession of hearses and wagons through the town and in the peaceful moon light wended their way to the Catoctin grief stricken homes where the majority of the dead men lived in life,” reported The Catoctin Clarion.
Seventeen funerals were held in Thurmont over the next two days. Out of respect for the town’s loss, all the local businesses in Thurmont closed Monday during the funerals.
Because the dead were all employees of the Western Maryland Rail Road, it quickly became apparent there was no relief plan to help the families with their loss.
“If there had been, these unfortunate men would have under that system, provided for their families in case of death,” a newspaper editorial in The Catoctin Clarion noted.
The Western Maryland Rail Road was running its normal schedule two days after the accident; the same day the dead in Thurmont and Catoctin Furnace were being buried. The accident didn’t tear up any track so the only impediment was the wreckage that needed to be removed. For them, business would go on as usual.
The legal authorities in Carroll County where the wreck happened decided not to hold an inquest about the accident for which they received a lot of criticism, according to the American Sentinel. The State’s Attorney decided that the inquest was not needed because not only was the cause of the accident known but those responsible for the accident had been killed in the collision. Just a week earlier the Carroll County Commissioners had passed an order that the county wouldn’t pay for inquests that weren’t required. “Under the provisions of these articles inquests are only necessary in the cases of persons who die in jail or when the cause of death is unknown and there is a reason to suspect a felony. Neither of these contingencies are applicable to the wreck case and Mr. Steele considers that it would be an unnecessary expenditure of the people’s money to hold an inquest in the case,” the American Sentinel reported.
Even if the state’s attorney had been able to prosecute those responsible for the accident, it wouldn’t have brought back the fathers, brothers, husbands and son who died on the tracks at Ransom.