Twisted iron Exhibit: "When the Whistle Broke Into a Scream" looks at train disasters and the road to solutions.


July 11, 1996|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

Train travel. Seems like people either love it or hate it with few feeling so-so about it. No matter where you are on that spectrum, if you have to travel on a train, at least it's the 20th century. Traveling by train long ago was, shall we say, a risky proposition.

The trains were powerful, speeding symbols of progress but hardly safe. Every time there was a train wreck, pressure was put on the government to regulate safety procedures.

The speed and power of trains outstripped their safety features, says Shawn Cunningham, assistant director of the B&O Railroad Museum. After five years of research and planning, the B&O Museum will finally unveil its new exhibit, "When the Whistle Broke Into a Scream: Train Wrecks and the Rail Safety Revolutions 1828-1918."

"There's been nothing like this before at the B&O," says Cunningham, who thought of the exhibit.

Visitors can get a sense of the tragedies of another age, such as the deadly Dec. 29, 1876, train wreck on the Lakeshore Railroad. A Howe truss collapsed, killing 82 people in Ashtabula, Ohio. Afterward, two railroad men committed suicide, apparently out of guilt over the accident. The Howe truss was never constructed again for use on a railroad.

Cunningham became fascinated with trains at a young age.

"When my father was a young man, there was a train wreck in upstate New York where he lived. I remember his telling me about it," he says.

When Cunningham got older, he did his own research on train wrecks. It was a different era. People would come out to look at train wrecks -- much like today. But unlike today, there was no police tape, or anything else, securing the area.

"People would come out with parasols to look. People would climb up on the wrecks and have their picture taken," he says.

Whenever Cunningham began talking about train wrecks with the museum's curator, he noticed people around took notice. "Everyone who overheard us was very curious," he says. So, he thought, why not an exhibit on train wrecks? He began researching the project.

There is still something about train wrecks that draws curious crowds -- and the folks at the B&O Railroad Museum, which is an independent, educational institution, hope their exhibit of train catastrophes will lure an audience, too.

"It also has to do with the way we look at safety," Cunningham says of people's curiosity about wrecks. "The way we look at risks . . . thinking, how did this happen? We do tend to be fascinated with wrecks."

The exhibit will include made-to-order exhibit panels resembling a 19th-century wreck scene, including a wrecked baggage car and an overturned box car.

"It gives a sense of walking through a wreck," Cunningham says.

There will be three pieces of full-sized rolling stock from the 1860s and 1870s on display. These will be supplemented by photos, artifacts, models, animation and historic videos.

It's a hands-on exhibit that continues the rest of the year, the assistant director says. "It took dozens of people to help pull this together, from my exhibit fabricator to people at the Library of Congress," Cunningham says.

People can also check out a 19th-century passenger coach to get a feel for train travel in those days. Ever wonder how it felt to operate a brake wheel almost like the one a 19th-century "brakeman" used? No? Well, there will still be an opportunity to try your hand at dangerous "link and pin" car coupling by using soft foam-rubber couplers.

You will be experiencing the job of a 19th-century brakeman -- a dangerous occupation, not for the faint of heart.

(To put everyone's minds at ease, the exhibit also will detail all of the many changes and safety precautions of trains today, including air-braking systems and updated coupler designs.)

The display will highlight some of the heavy-duty players in the railroad industry during the 19th century.

Charles Francis Adams, the grandson of John Quincy Adams, was one of them. Adams was an advocate for railroad safety and headed the Massachusetts Railroad Commission. He wrote in favor of criminal penalties for negligence in rail accidents.

Lorenzo S. Coffin was a Midwest farmer and an Iowa railroad commissioner who campaigned for the use of air-braking systems. He believed that climbing on top of freight cars for braking and uncoupling was killing railroad workers.

Charles Collins was chief engineer on the Lakeshore Railroad when the truss collapse killed 82 people. He committed suicide a few days after the train wreck.

Steamship and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt was injured in a train wreck. History has it that, at the time of his accident, he swore never to have anything to do with trains again. However, he later ran several railroads that were involved in huge wrecks, including the deadly wreck in Ashtabula.

George Westinghouse invented the air brake but was labeled a "fool" by Vanderbilt for proposing to stop a train with wind. The system worked, but only after 18 years of major design modifications.

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