Great Train Wreck of 1856
At the Wissahickon station another train, the Aramingo, engineered by William Vanstavoren, waited for the excursion to pass on the single track line that had opened one year and 15 days earlier.
Shakamaxon was late, but the conductor did not use the telegraph to communicate with Cohocksink and had no idea when the excursion had left. There was a customary 15-minute waiting period for regularly scheduled trains, but the picnic special was an excursion train, which confused matters. At 6:15, the Aramingo, carrying 20 passengers from Gwynedd, pulled out of the station.
The engineer of Shakamaxon was confident he could make up for the time he had lost. He knew the Aramingo was due in the opposite direction on the same single track, but calculated they could use the siding at Edge Hill to safely pass each other. As he neared a blind curve just past Camp Hill Station, the train was travelling slightly downhill. Aramingo was rounding the same curve with the same blind spot. Although Harris blew the whistle almost continuously, the doppler effect was not widely understood at the time and, as a result, neither engineer knew exactly where the other was.
As they rounded the curve, they finally caught sight of one another. But it was too late. The trains collided at 6:18 a.m., between the Camp Hill station and the present-day crossing of the Pennsylvania Railroad's Trenton cut-off over the Bethlehem branch of the Reading Railroad.
The boilers made direct contact and the impact caused an explosion heard up to five miles away. The sounds of crashing woodwork, hissing steam, and the victims' screams and moans succeeded the first deafening noise of the explosion. The three forward cars of the picnic train were decimated and the subsequent derailed caused a fire to spread among the wooden cars. The initial impact did not kill most of the victims; rather most were caught in derailed cars that were on their sides, burning. The women and children who occupied the rear coaches, thereby escaping serious injury, jumped out, screaming in a frenzy of fear and grief.
A crowd gathered quickly from neighboring towns. The blaze could be seen for several miles and a man reportedly rode on horseback through the Montgomery County countryside and shouted to the residents: "Bring your camphor bottles, balsam and lint; there has been a horrible accident." But the heat of the burning wreckage was so intense that, even though protruding arms and legs and other parts of bodies could be glimpsed through the flame and smoke, it was impossible to get close enough to attempt a rescue.
The passenger train engineer also knew of the excursion train due to be coming towards him, but also calculated a safe passing at the Edge Hill siding. He carefully continued on his way.
As he neared a blind curve near Camp Hill, he slowed the passenger train to about 10 mph, and blew the whistle almost continuously. Due to the primitive communications of the era, neither engineer knew exactly where the other was.
It was about 6 am. The passenger train was slowed to 10 mph. The excursion train was on a long downhill run and still trying to make time travelling at 35 mph. They caught sight of each other at the blind curve, but it was too late.
The trains collided.
The boiler of one exploded, being heard up to 5 miles away. The Sunday School train derailed. Being made of wood, the cars were perfect fuel for the ensuing fire.
Some reports say 59 people died in the crash, others say 67. The reports agree, though, that most of them were children.