The 1910 Kingsland Wreck: Indiana’s Worst Interurban Disaster
By Mary Giorgio
In the early 1900s, before the days of widespread automobile ownership, residents of Indiana traveled from place to place by way of an intricately-connected system of interurban rail lines. Hundreds of interurban lines crossed the state, connecting cities and towns. While the system was an efficient way to travel quickly, occasional accidents occurred.
On September 21, 1910, Indiana experienced the worst inter-urban crash in American history. The crash occurred on the Fort Wayne and Wabash Valley Traction Line near Kingsland, Indiana. The annual Fort Wayne Fair was in full swing, and extra trips had been added to the train schedule that day. A full load of people embarked at Bluffton. John Boyd, a survivor of the impending crash, would later recount the train was so full he had to stand on its rear stairs to catch a ride.
The interurban train was traveling at a fast clip–around 40 mph. It had reached a point about six miles north of Bluffton when disaster struck. The northbound train rounded a curve and found itself directly in the path of a southbound train. Mr. Boyd later recalled the terror he felt when he realized the collision was inevitable. He jumped to safety seconds before the two trains collided.
It was not uncommon for northbound and southbound trains to share a track. A dispatcher was charged with monitoring train positions and notifying motormen of oncoming traffic. One train would then be instructed to pull into the side lane to allow the oncoming train to pass. Unfortunately, dispatchers could not communicate with trains when they were in motion. As a result, the dispatcher on duty that day was powerless to prevent the impending disaster.
Investigators would later question why in those critical moments leading up to the crash, neither motorman had attempted to switch tracks or hit the brakes. The motormen claimed to have been so overcome with fear that neither had thought to act.
When the collision occurred, the southbound train was empty save for its crew. Because of its lighter weight, the southbound train flew up over the top of the northbound train, ripping the roof off the passenger car and settling on the bodies of the northbound train’s riders. Of the approximately 50 people on board, 41 died. Over half of the passengers were from Bluffton. Mr. Boyd could never forget the eerie silence in the wake of the crash…followed by the weak cries of the wounded and dying.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, one of the conductors from the southbound train realized yet another train was speeding unaware towards the wreckage. Although injured, E. A. Spiller managed to walk ahead on the tracks, flag down the oncoming train, and prevent the unimaginable tragedy of another collision.
The residents of Bluffton buried the dead and continued with their lives. The company that owned both interurban lines, Wabash Valley Traction Company, lost many riders immediately following the crash. The company was eventually sold at auction. Despite the scale of the tragedy, the popularity of interurbans quickly rebounded and continued well into the late-1920s.