By Ron Hill
The most famous wreck on the Norfolk & Western Railroad (then called the Cincinnati & Eastern Railroad) in Clermont County occurred on Oct. 17, 1884, when the bridge across the East Fork River at Batavia collapsed, dropping the locomotive and two cars into the river.
One car remained precariously balanced on the edge of the bridge as shown in the steel engraving that appeared in the Harper’s Weekly. It is best to report of the activities in Batavia that day by reproducing the front page article that appeared in the Clermont Courier. The article also is an example of the newspaper writing style of that time.
“More than a thousand people, men, women and children, stood on the banks of the East Fork last Friday at dusk, regarding with dismay and horror the wreck of the railroad bridge, which spans the creek at the edge of the village and the ruins of the evening train, beneath whose weight the spindling, corn-cob structure, undergoing transformation to a standard-gauge, had given way at about 6 o’clock. The train consisted of the locomotive, a baggage car, smoker, and ladies car. The engineer, Mr. Ed Wilbur, was making the dangerous passage with the utmost caution, but the strain proved too much, and with a premonitory groan, like that given by a falling tree, the bridge and train went down in an appalling crash, a sheer fall of sixty feet to the water below, averaging a depth not to exceed two feet. The citizens, at their evening meal, heard the awful sound, and knew by intuition its terrible meaning. In an instant houses and stores were deserted, and the lonely river road at once became a scene of bustle and confusion, lighted by lurid fires and flashing lights; an exciting scene, where men, breathless with their exertions to reach the bridge in time to save human life, gave vent to quick exclamations and plunged into the stream to grope among the shattered cars, half hidden by masses of splintered timbers, and entangled in a network of bent iron rods, and broken rails, but two cars left on the bridge — the baggage car and smoker. The first contained, in addition to the baggage of the passengers, the safe of the Adams Express Company, the mails, the baggage-master, the express agent and four section hands on their way home to wife and babies, and supper and rest. All of these were more or less injured. In the smoking car were some twenty passengers, and the ladies car contained some eight or ten passengers, all of whom escaped without injury, the car marvelously becoming fouled on the very verge of the breach, where it now hangs in mid-air, as it were by a thread, standing at right angles with the track, two-thirds of it hanging threatingly over the wreck, down stream, the balance projecting from the up-stream side of the bridge, where it is transfixed by a heavy timber.
“The work of removing the dead and wounded proceeded rapidly. The fireman, Henry Jones of Newtown, was taken up a mass of mangled fragments. Under the engine, hissing with the escaping steam from her boilers, and the action of the water upon her fires, with his hand clasping the throttle with the tenacious grasp of duty unto death, a heavy iron bolt piercing his throat, with glistening bones protruding here and there through the flesh that but an instant before was aglow and health, now bruised and tom, bloodless, broken dead, laid poor Wilbur, the engineer.
“Carriages and wagons furnished with mattresses and bedding were in readiness to convey the wounded to quarters where they could be made comfortable, and the dead were taken charge of by Mesers Sterling & Moore. As the wounded were taken from beneath the ruins by the men they were received on the bank by the women, who revived them with cordials and cheered them with words of sympathy and encouragement, turning away their faces to weep, but turning presently again to smile incongruously through their tears as they wiped the trace of agony from the brow of some poor sufferer.
“The approaches to the bridge along the road in an hour after the disaster looked like an entrance to a battlefield: A long such portions of the fences, as had not been removed and thrown upon the fires, were fastened saddle-horses and horses attached to vehicles, while men with bandaged heads and limbs were passing to the rear of carriages and on foot, some being too much shocked and unnerved to trust themselves to the further services of wheels.
“The hotels were speedily converted into hospitals and doctors and druggists were kept busy ministering to the wants of the wounded.
“The telegraph and telephone carried the news of the tragedy to all parts of the country, and all night long a stream of carriages and horsemen poured through the village, conveying visitors to the scene of the disaster, and it is estimated that over five thousand people have visited the locality.
“Since the work of changing the bridge from narrow to standard gauge begun, necessitating the removal of comparatively substantial work, the structure has been regarded with grave fears by our people, and others acquainted with the condition. That which has proven a false economy suggested the use of the old iron rods in the new work, a step that involved the removal of the rods, carrying them to a blacksmith shop for reduction in length, etc.
“The irons thus removed were replaced to an extent by timbers and scantlings, which proved but sorry substitutes. The wiser plan would have been ferriage, until the completion of the bridge, but which possibly owing to limited rolling stock, was not adopted.
“Wrecking trains are now at work among the ruins and soon all external traces of the disaster will have been obliterated. But the hearts of mothers and wives will long be sore, and the eyes of little children will ache and grow humid watching for the sturdy bread-winners who will never come home.”
The article goes on to list the names of the two men killed, the 20 persons injured (a couple of them died later) and the 11 that were not injured.
Author Ron Hill, a Batavia Township resident, is the past president of the Clermont County Historical Society. He has been a member of the society since the 1970s, was editor of the Society’s newsletter for 17 years, and edited two of the Society’s books and wrote another. He is a member of the Cincinnati Railroad Club.