Pennsylvania Research Case Study:
Slaughter on the North Penn Railroad
© Stephanie Hoover - All Rights Reserved

One of my most interesting genealogical assignments started with very little background information. I was contacted by a client who needed to prove - or disprove - a family legend telling of the death of a young ancestor in a railroad accident. All the client knew was the date of death: July 17, 1856.
Wreckage of the North Penn Railroad
Several challenges presented themselves, not the least of which being that the client had no idea where in Pennsylvania the accident occurred. She had no idea of the circumstances of the accident, nor did she know why this child was traveling without his parents - a fact that seemed odd considering the time period. Perhaps the most critical challenge was my own lack of knowledge in this arena. I'd never conducted in-depth research on Pennsylvania railway accidents before.

Since the only piece of data of which I was certain was the date of death, I did a Google search for "July 17, 1856." With remarkable speed, I found what I was looking for in a place I would have never thought of looking. Oddly, an account of the accident was included in an article about data technology. The author compared the lack of communication leading up to the railroad wreck to the problems that might be created by a lack of communication in the field of information technology. It may have been lucky, but it was effective. As a result I had the basic details I needed: the accident had occurred just outside Fort Washington, Pennsylvania. It was a special excursion train from Philadelphia. The railroad was the North Penn and the accident was a head-on collision with another train.

My next step was to Google "North Penn Railroad." This was less successful. In fact, this search turned up little more than the first article provided. It was time to go local.

I knew that the train originated from Philadelphia and that the accident occurred in Montgomery County. By searching county histories I was able to stitch together several more pieces of the accident.

Early on the morning of July 17th, around 6 A.M., an excursion train known as the "picnic special" left Cohocksink Depot. It carried 600 children and youth from St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church of Kensington. About 13 miles outside of Philadelphia the train collided with an east-bound locomotive. It was going about 30 miles per hour. Reports vary on the number of dead and wounded, but there were at least 50 killed and 60 wounded, mostly children. Father David Sheridan, St. Michael's priest, was killed instantly. A coroner's inquest determined that the accident was caused by the gross negligence of the excursion train's conductor.

I now had the story of the accident fleshed out. Unfortunately, however, this didn't confirm that the subject of my research was one of the victims. A few hours studying "yesterday's news" finally provided the proof we needed.

The "Slaughter on the North Penn Railroad" as newspapers dubbed it, had an unfortunate historic significance. It represented the largest loss of life ever suffered in a railway accident up to that date. Because of this, news of the crash found its way into a variety of newspapers including the Philadelphia Bulletin and the New York Daily Tribune. Another New York paper, the Daily Times, reprinted the Bulletin's coverage verbatim. Stories of the accident, the funerals and the subsequent investigation were fairly numerous. And unlike modern news reports which have restrictions on the publication of names of minors, the papers of 1856 had no such reservations. Among the lists of victims of the crash was indeed the name for which my client searched.

While the subject of the research was a sad and heartbreaking event, the fact that I had been successful offered a sense of accomplishment. From that simple July date, with a little luck and creative problem-solving, I was able to give my client the answers sought. Perhaps this case study will aid you in your attempts to research Pennsylvania railroad accidents - or other genealogical mysteries. ~SH

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