The day at the beach ends in tragedy
On July 4, 1854, the Camden and Atlantic Railroad ran its first train to Absecon Island, where local developers were planning a resort and building a hotel. A month later, on August 7, the Philadelphia Register published an article showing that the investors’ bet was paying off.
“One of the most popular excursions of the present season is by the Camden and Atlantic Railroad to Atlantic City. At this place there are now comfortable lodgings for two hundred and fifty persons, and before the end of the bathing season, the accommodations for the permanent borders will be increased to four hundred. On Saturday morning a company of more than a hundred people visited the Sea Shore and returned in the evening greatly impressed by the pleasures of a bath in the waves, of t a walk on the beach. The train journey is delicious. The travel time is 2h30 between Philadelphia and the Sea Shore.
In January 1855, the New York Herald boasted of the progress made.
“The new and spacious house, known as the Hotel of the United States, in Atlantic City, (is) on Absecon Beach, State of New Jersey, about halfway up the Atlantic coast. … The beach is covered with a fine growth of shade trees, through which there are attractive promenades, providing a pleasant retreat from the sun, without the loss of the sea breeze.… The building measures 66 feet by 40 feet deep, with a wing 40 feet by 240 feet, all on four stories, containing 140 large, spacious apartments (and) a dining room.
Alan A. Siegel, in his book Disaster, explained the growth taking place in Atlantic City, saying it was “presented as a place of ‘rest and relaxation’ for the Philadelphia masses. And the masses responded, slowly at first, then after the Civil War in unimaginable numbers. In 1870, more than three hundred thousand day trippers traveled the Camden and the Atlantic to Atlantic City, mostly on day trips. Two additional lines, the Philadelphia and Atlantic City Railroad, opened in 1877, and the West Jersey and Atlantic, opened in June 1880, competed for Philadelphia’s trade. In the summer of 1880, when time stood, three routes brought an astonishing twenty thousand passengers to the station every weekend. The journey from the docks at Camden to the Atlantic City station took less than ninety minutes.
Summer excursion trains became the cornerstone of the railroad. On August 7, 1880, the Philadelphia Times “The Camden and Atlantic Railroad exceeds all previous seasons in train numbers and on-time arrivals at Atlantic City and Camden. The increased competition shows more than ever the popularity of the old reliable route, and its many trains are heavy and well filled, and by the accommodations it provides and the liberality of its policy in improvements and reliance on trains before one knows they will pay holds back his friends.
Historian Mari M. Dattolo wrote about one of the excursions that took place four days later.
“During a private excursion, up to 1,300 men, women and children chartered this first event of the inaugural season. … The passengers were Irish Catholic parishioners from St. Anne’s Literary Society and nearby churches in Philadelphia. They left town early, taking the ferry to Camden and then setting off for the shore with twenty-four passenger cars provided. However, rather than making a single train to Atlantic City, the group was split into two trains consisting of sixteen and eight passenger cars. … After a day of fond memories at the beach, they boarded the cars for the return trip. The first train left for a 6 p.m. departure, followed by the second at 6:05 p.m. Seventeen miles from Atlantic City, they reached the town of Mays Landing during an evening thunderstorm.
In an economy decision, a single lane had been laid for the majority of the route. At Mays Landing, the two trains returning to Camden had to stop at a siding to make way for an express train bound for Atlantic City. John Moore of Philadelphia was aboard the first train as it pulled up to the siding.
He recalls: “I and some companions were seated in the last carriage of the first train, which was rushed to amuse ourselves like the rest of the day-trippers, for the idea never occurred to us that all fear must be talked about the second train following us so closely. We must have been halfway through the siding when I stuck my head out the window and saw that the second train was coming at high speed on us.
He then made a life or death decision.
“I ran to the back of the car, as our seat was only a few meters from the door, and there I saw a number of passengers jumping out of the first carriage of the oncoming train. I knew they couldn’t slow down in time to escape a collision, so I jumped off the right side of the embankment into a slimy swamp. reversed.
Once safe, Moore was then an eyewitness to the horror that unfolded.
“I turned my head for a moment, and in that moment I saw enough to blind me. The engine never seemed to let up at all, but it came and rushed headlong into the last car. He must have crashed into a third of the car. Then a terrible shock was felt on the ground. The engine and the car held the track. It would not have taken many seconds before the last car, from which I had jumped, was completely enveloped in steam and flooded with boiling water, which must have flooded almost everything in the car. Shortly after, the steam cleared and I could see men and women struggle and fight to get out of the windows.
Moore watched helplessly as “two little girls were physically kicked out, while a young man poked his head through a window. Afterwards, I found that being blinded by the hot water in his eyes and not knowing where to turn to escape the danger, he threw his head through the glass, thinking that the window was up. He intended to get out on the ground doing this, and after a while he managed to achieve his goal, but not before cutting his face in a terrible way. A stream of blood ran down his shirt from a severe cut on his neck. What happened to him after that, I don’t know. The moans and cries of the unfortunate people imprisoned in this car were terrible to hear and I pray to God that I never hear such awful cries again.
Reverend Father Quinn of St. Anne’s Church was on board the second train.
“I never thought we were so close on the first train until we were too forcefully called back to it by a shock which, although not strong enough to knock us out of our seats, was enough to throw me off my feet. say that an accident had happened to us I hurried I went to the front of the train and there some of my parishioners brought me to the side of James Sweeney, who had just been extracted from his fatal position. I believe he must have been standing on the rear platform, as he was found crushed by the second train engine cowcatcher and the rear car truck, which he is believed to have stood on a few minutes prior. When I reached him he was still conscious, and I was able to be fully with him twenty minutes before he expired in my arms. I saw that no earthly power could save him, so I devoted my time to preparing him to meet his Creator.
The priest told the press what many thought.
“It was a terrible end to a day of fun and I don’t know who is responsible for the accident, but it is certain that if it was caused by criminal negligence, those connected with it will have a terrible sin to to respond.”
The charges had begun even as the victims were still dying.
Next week: Blame.