Michigan Central Railroad Derailment
The Famous 1924 Railroad Accident
Photo Gallery: 1924 Michigan Central Derailment
Stalled Vehicle Derails Train
Early in the morning on September 24, 1924 a westbound Michigan Central passenger train derailed near Kalamazoo after striking a vehicle that had become immobilized on a private crossing at the entrance to the Hawthorne Paper mill. The resulting crash claimed the life of one Michigan Central employee, and injured 25 passengers, one employee, and one Pullman porter. The accident occurred on a Wednesday at approximately 4:30 AM along a section of track known as the Middle Division, which ran between Jackson and Niles. After the collision and derailment, the train came to a stop just less than two miles east of the Michigan Central station in Kalamazoo. At the time of the collision it was still dark, and the weather had become foggy.
The train, designated Passenger train No. 1, consisted of a total of 11 cars hauled by engine 8338, and operated by conductor Birdsall and engineer Adams. By the time that the train had left the last open office in Augusta at approximately 4:18 AM, Burl Hilton, a 17 year-old employee at the Hawthorne Paper mill was already working to dislodge his Durant touring car which had become partially stalled at the railroad crossing after the rear left wheel dropped off the ends of the crossing planks. In an attempt to correct this error, Hilton continued to drive his vehicle forward until the front wheels reached the end of the planks, but were then unable to meet the road below, completely immobilizing the vehicle. Despite the assistance of a stranger passing by, Hilton was unable to dislodge his car, and soon became aware of Passenger train No. 1 which was approaching at a speed of approximately 50 to 60 miles per hour. In an attempt to alert the train of his vehicle, Hilton ran along the tracks signaling with his hands, but his efforts were in vain.
Damage Exceeds $100,000
The first crewman to notice that the train had struck the vehicle was fireman H.E. Martin, who called to the engineer, Arthur C. Adams after observing flames originating from the engine’s left side. Adams applied the air brakes in emergency, and according to the testimony of conductor Birdsall and other crewmen, it was at approximately this time that it became apparent that the train had left the rails. Birdsall, riding in the club car at the time, lost his footing as the engine rolled to its right side and was unable to regain his balance until the train came to a halt approximately 1,600 feet from the crossing. While none of the derailed cars were completely overturned, four of them were considerably damaged. The track was severely damaged for a distance of 550 feet, and was described as being bent like hairpins in some sections. Within a day of the accident, it was roughly estimated that the financial cost of the accident would exceed $100,000, approximately $45,000 of which being the cost of the engine.
One Killed, 27 Injured
Of the 27 passengers and crew injured, 13 were taken to local hospitals to receive treatment and all were released by end of the following day. The remaining injured were tended by physicians operating a relief train which was rushed out as soon as word of the accident reached Kalamazoo. Also hospitalized was 24 year-old Richard McCaslin, who witnessed the accident while driving his automobile on Lincoln Avenue. McCaslin suffered a severe, but non-fatal heart attack when one of the Pullman coach cars was suddenly thrust out into the road in front of his vehicle. The lone fatality in the accident was that of engineer, Arthur C. Adams, who was riding in the cab of the engine when the crash occurred. Adams was 53 years old at the time of the accident, and had spent 33 years as an employee of the Michigan Central Railroad. As a result, he was well known by the railroad men who worked in and around the Kalamazoo area.
Throughout the remainder of the day, thousands of people visited the site of the wreck, eventually growing to a crowd of such proportions that it became necessary to employ police, firemen, and deputy sheriffs to maintain order. From 6:00 AM until 9:30 PM, people continued to turn out to observe the cleanup effort. Employing two 100-ton railroad cranes, the cleanup crews largely worked backwards through the train, as the cars in the rear were the least damaged, and easiest to return to the tracks in order to be moved away. The highpoint of the cleanup came when the engine was righted and swung back onto the tracks by the combined efforts of the two railroad cranes. A celebratory cheer went up from the crowd as the engine was taken away, followed by the main car and baggage coach. As the remnants of the train were pulled away, the extent of damage to the engine became apparent to all assembled. The cab had been crushed, the windows shattered, and much of the the steam pipe system had to become broken and twisted.
An investigation by W. P. Borland, the Director of the Interstate Commerce Commission’s Bureau of Safety, placed no blame for the tragic accident. Borland concluded that the members of the crew of passenger train No. 1 were all experienced employees, none of whom were found to have committed any safety violations and all were said to have done their utmost duty. Additionally, Burl Hilton was well-familiar with the crossing upon which his vehicle became immobilized, having crossed the railroad tracks at least twice a day for approximately eight months.Will Thoms, a local freight agent commented on the nature of the accident saying, “This accident again demonstrated the value and efficiency of steel constructed coaches and sleeping cars. Had the train consisted of the old type wooden cars, the results would have been too horrible to contemplate.”
Service was restored to the eastbound tracks at approximately 2:20 PM of the day of the accident, and at 3:15 PM, the first passenger train traversed the temporary westbound tracks. The temporary tracks were replaced overnight, and by the morning of the following day, few traces of the accident remained.
Written by Patrick Jouppi, Kalamazoo Public Library Staff, August 2011. Special thanks to Michigan railroad historian and author Mark Worrall for valuable information and assistance.