The 1885 Railroad Disaster at Four Mile Run
By Jay Roberts
In the summer of 2009, two trains collided on Metro’s Red Line in Washington, D.C. The train operator and eight passengers were killed. Dozens were injured. A city and region were stunned and saddened. Friends and family mourned. In honor of the victims, nine stone pillars stand at Legacy Memorial Park. Anniversaries remind us of the tragedy.
A similar rail tragedy, long, long forgotten, shook Washington and Alexandria in the winter of 1885. On a cold and snowy night, six people were killed in a fiery collision of two trains where the tracks crossed over Four Mile Run. Train crew and employees were badly injured, including burns from the fire that erupted when flames hit drums filled with oil.
The Alexandria Gazette wrote the crash was “without a doubt the most terrible railroad accident which ever occurred in this section of the State.”
What Happened in 1885
On the evening of Thursday, February 19, winter held its grip on Alexandria. As residents of the city tried to keep warm in their homes, snow was falling on the seaport city.
Headed for Washington, a northbound passenger train of the Virginia Midland Railroad left the station located at the southwest corner of Duke and S. Henry Streets. The express train was the last to leave Alexandria that night. The time was a little before 10:00 p.m.
Around 9:45 p.m., a southbound freight train of the Alexandria and Washington Railroad departed from its station in Washington. Headed for Quantico and 35 cars long, the train’s cargo consisted of a baggage, mail and express car, a passenger coach, two Pullman sleepers, and a smoking car, as well as freight that included oil, paper, and machinery.
Travel on the iron horses between the two cities was mostly a routine affair. On this winter night, however, that routine was shattered by a violent collision of the two trains.
The next morning, readers of the Alexandria Gazette were startled by the headline, “Terrible Railroad Disaster.” Washington newspapers published similar reports, and other papers across the country spilled ink on the story.
The collision took place at the Four Mile Run Station in what was then Alexandria County, located about two miles north of King Street, roughly halfway between Alexandria and Washington. Four Mile Run, whose waters empty into the Potomac River a short distance from where the collision took place, had been a familiar name through the years, seen on maps, and used as a place reference in newspapers. Eventually, Four Mile Run would provide a natural border between Alexandria and Arlington.
In what amounted to a unique and dangerous situation, the railroad crossing over Four Mile Run was shaped like an X. The tracks ran through a narrow tunnel under the arches of the Alexandria Canal’s viaduct.
To prevent accidents, an automated signal system with a light on each side of the tunnel had been in use and worked as follows: The first train striking the signal block lit up a red signal on the other side of the tunnel, indicating that a train on the other track needed to stop and wait for the first train to pass by. (Note: There are no remnants of the canal, the viaduct, the tunnel or the railroad tracks. The site is the bridge where Route One traffic crosses over Four Mile Run.)
On this night, something went terribly wrong. Just as the northbound passenger train got nearly through the tunnel, the two trains collided.
With a crew that included postal employees, the Virginia Midland express train carried passengers, money, and mail. The crew included Charles F. Bennett (conductor), John T. Bruce, (engineer), Thomas J. Darbey (fireman), J.T. Franey (postal clerk), J.W. Jones (postal clerk), O.T. Stewart (postal clerk), W.B. McNeil (postal clerk), and J. Taylor (postal clerk).
The Alexandria and Washington crew consisted of Andrew Augur (conductor), George Freer (engineer), Thomas Maloney (fireman), and George Miller (brakeman). All four lived in southwest D.C.
The Washington Post report noted a telescope effect. The two locomotives rose upward in the air in the form of an inverted V. Cars piled up on each other in indescribable wreckage, and it was hardly a moment before the trains were ablaze.
The collision set off a massive fire which could be seen as far away as Washington. Whipping winds and combustible materials fed the flames. Strewn on both sides of the tracks were car wheels, axles, and bars of iron. Oil tanks were thrown into the small river. The stone tunnel was blackened.
Some uninjured or slightly injured passengers scrambled to the top of the viaduct. Others, and those of the crew who were not badly injured, became rescuers. They first found the lifeless body of Andrew Augur, conductor of the freight train, who had been killed instantly. Augur was 38 and had previously lived in Alexandria.
The rescuers then pulled out the body of Thomas Darbey, fireman of the passenger train. Only the upper part of his body was recovered and it was burned beyond recognition. Darbey lived in Alexandria.
The February 20 edition of The Washington Post indicated George Freer, engineer of the freight train, and Thomas Maloney, fireman of same, were missing. Their deaths were reported the next day.
George Miller, a brakeman for the freight train, and J.T. Franey, a postal clerk for the passenger train, were the most seriously wounded. Miller passed away on Friday, February 20, at Providence Hospital in Washington.
Franey, listed as “colored” in the newspaper accounts, succumbed to his wounds at the Braddock House hotel in Alexandria. His was the sixth and final fatality.
Around 1:00 a.m., three hours after the collision, a special engine from Alexandria reached the scene of the crash. Doctors Snowden and Klipstein began to aid the injured. A Dr. Powell, who lived in Alexandria and worked in Washington, arrived on the scene.
Around 5:00 a.m., the injured were taken to Braddock House hotel. Shoehorned in front of the Carlyle House on N. Fairfax Street, the commodious structure was built by James Green. Doctors Smith, Brown, Snowden, and Klipstein provided care.
John T. Bruce, engineer of the passenger train, was reported to be doing much better than originally reported. He returned to his home in Alexandria.
O.T. Stewart, postal clerk for the passenger train, suffered from a concussion, was badly burned on his chest and severely injured on left side. W.B. McNeil, postal clerk, was badly injured. J.W. Jones, postal clerk, had burns on his face and a smashed hand. Doctors amputated his forefinger.
A week after the accident, the February 27 Washington Evening Star reported all the injured were improving.
The fire destroyed 11 registered mail pouches and 175 registered packages. Their value was $30,000. The fire also destroyed $100,000 cash bound for New York, out of $200,000 total. Officials with the Post Office department in Washington said the money losses were the worst that had ever occurred in an accident of this kind.
The crash and fire destroyed or damaged 27 of the 31 freight cars and their contents, the two engine cars, the passenger train baggage car, express car, postal car, and smoking car.
Engineer Bruce made a written statement that when his train struck the switch, the signal indicated the line was open. The court later ruled the passenger train had the right of way.
We close with a virtual wreath and a wish that perhaps one day a memorial will remember and honor the six men who died while performing their duties. Their story is forgotten. They are not.