Train Wreck at Dunreith

01 January 1968. A collision of two Pennsylvania Railroad trains causes an entire town to be evacuated, an environmental catastrophe, and a fire that required several days to extinguish. The wreck would happen a month before the formal end of the Pennsylvania Railroad as an entity. It would also be an example of what happens when choices are made as to where to spend money.

The wreck had occurred when two trains, each heading different directions on the Pennsylvania St. Louis mainline, collided at Dunreith, a town east of Indianapolis in Henry County. One of the trains was carrying 12,000 gallons of ammonia, and another with the chemical acetone cyanhydrin. The crash ended up catching fire, burning half the town and forcing the evacuation of all 236 residents of the town. Since the tracks were right next to US 40, the road was closed as well. A brakeman on the westbound train believed, at the time, the rail had broken beneath the 75th car of the 98 car train, forcing a derailment. The cargo of gasoline, crude oil and ammonia caught fire almost immediately. When the west bound train derailed, it sideswiped the east bound freight train.

Indianapolis News, 02 January 1968.

The explosions caused by the fire knocked a fire truck driver out of the cab of his truck two blocks away. It also knocked out street lights in Knightstown five miles away. Flames shot into the air some 300 feet.

News reports the next day reported that the damage had been less than expected. As of the reports on 2 January 1968, two homes and the town’s only industry, the Butterfield Canning Company, were destroyed. Also, the acetone cyanhydrin, when it was burning, created a large quantity of cyanide gas and spilled that chemical into the Buck Creek, a tributary of the Big Blue River.

In the aftermath of the wreck, the State Board of Health planned to dump some five tons of chlorine into the Big Blue River from the SR 44 bridge west of Shelbyville. The initial concentration of the cyanide was 20 parts per million at Knightstown. On 19 April 1968, it was announced that the State Department of Natural Resources was to begin an effort to kill, over five days, the last remaining species of fish in the Big Blue River from the mouth of Buck Creek at Knightstown to the dam at Edinburgh. The fish kill was designed to kill off the carp, since all of the bass in the river were killed by the cyanide in the river. The 56 mile stretch of the Big Blue River would be restocked with smallmouth bass, rock bass, suckers and some perch. All traces of the cyanide in the river were negligible within two weeks. The rivers were checked all the way downstream to Seymour.

What ultimately caused the crash was decades in the making. The Pennsylvania Railroad, the most extensive railroad network in Indiana at the time, had been stumbling like a teetering giant for years. The PRR was, at the time, the largest industrial employer in the United States. Railroad rates were not controlled by the railroads themselves at the time, but by the federal Interstate Commerce Commission. The company had made the choice to maintain employee wages over maintenance. The mainline between Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio, had been on slow orders for years with a speed limit of ten miles per hour. The company had also been investigating a merger with a stronger railroad since the mid 1950s. All merger talks had failed until the ICC approved the merger between the PRR and the New York Central, which was to take place on 01 February 1968.

In the end, the location of the wreck would be abandoned in the early 1980s by a successor company of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail), as was the entire line from Richmond to Terre Haute, with the exception of a small section on the westside of Indianapolis that connects the city to the former Indianapolis & Frankfort. Ultimately, most of the old PRR properties in the state were dropped, mainly due to the cost of getting the long neglected rails into usable shape.

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