1883: Train Wreck Near Salem

Christmas Eve, 1883. Louisville, New Albany & Chicago (LNA&C) train 4, a passenger train running from Chicago to Louisville, near Salem. The locomotive and the tender crossed a bridge over the Blue River. Two cars in the middle of the train didn’t make it. In the end, nine people died in the resulting wreck.

Brief history of the railroad. The LNA&C was one of the core parts of what would eventually become known as the Monon. The founding company was the New Albany & Salem Rail Road, chartered on 8 July 1847. The company would buy the Crawfordville & Wabash on 17 June 1852, having been chartered on 19 January 1846. By 1854, the two sections of the company would be connected when the line was built between Salem and Crawfordsville. The company that existed at the time of the wreck was the Louisville, New Albany & Chicago Railway, created from the merging of the previous LNA&C and the Chicago & Indianapolis Air Line Railway. (More detailed history can be found at The Chicago, Indianapolis and Louisville Railway and The Chicago, Indianapolis and Louisville Railway, Part II.)

The wreck of the number 4 occurred near daybreak. The area had been blanketed by over 30 hours of “continuous and heavy rains.” (Indianapolis News, 25 December 1883) The train was travelling at 40 miles per hour when it started across the rain compromised bridge. The abutments of the bridge had been undermined by the flooding. This caused the structure itself to be greatly compromised.

As stated before, the locomotive and tender made it across the bridge. The combination baggage, mail and express car, along with the Gentlemen’s car, fell through the bridge and into the stream below. The other two cars, the ladie’s and buffet cars, stayed on the track. Unfortunately, the horror would not end there.

The cars that fell into the water were not completely submerged. The part that wasn’t under water caught fire due to upsetting the stoves used for heating. Within 15 minutes, the entire train had been burned to the ground. The result was six people reported killed at the time, with three people missing. The engineer of the train, John Vaughan of New Albany, was reported to have “received injuries that will prove fatal.” Baggageman Charles Sanford, again of New Albany, was carried into the flood.

Four people were burned beyond recognition. They were believed to have been a passenger from Quincy, Indiana, one of Salem, and two from Chicago. A farmer from Washington County, Indiana, Boone Thompson, and a German Methodist Minister, John Heifrich, were also among the first reported dead.

The next day, the body of what was reported to be that of J. M. Whaling was found one mile below the wreck in the Blue River. His body was identified by a pass in his pocket purchased on 22 December for travel from Chicago to New Albany and back. No one on hte train recognized or even knew much about the man. (Indianapolis News, 26 December 1883)

The Indiana State Sentinel of 26 December 1883 reported that “the details received here are of the most meager description, but all reports agree that six, perhaps seven persons killed, and seven or eight injured.” The resulting information from the Associated Press at the time was as follows: “Chicago, Dec. 24. – Information has been received that the Louisville passenger train over the Louisville, New Albany and Chicago Road, which left here last evening, was ditched near Salem, Ind., but further particulars are not yet obtainable.”

The report in the Columbus Republic of 26 December 1883 simply stated “a horribe (sic) railway accident occurred near Salem, Ind., on Monday morning. A bridge was so washed by the floods that it went down with a passenger train killing nine persons and seriously wounding as many more. The wreck immediately took fire and made the scene additionally horrible.”

Further details about the train and the accident location come from the Waterloo (Indiana) Press of 3 January 1884. That paper reported that the death toll was actually seven, not nine as reported the week earlier. “The place where the accident happened is the bridge over Blue river. The stream is a narrow one, and in the summer time is an insignificant brook. The speedy melting of snow and heavy rain following had swollen it to undue proportions.” The bridge, it was stated in this report, was over a chasm of forty feet in height. The shortness of the bridge, only being about 1.5 passenger cars long, is what caused the last two cars on the train to stay on the track. “The train consisted of a baggage car, smoking car, ladie’s car, and the Pullman buffet car Escaria.”

While the route was out of commission, trains were being rerouted along the Ohio & Mississippi (became part of the Baltimore & Ohio Southwestern in 1893) from Louisville to North Vernon, then west to Mitchell, where it met up with the tracks of the LNA&C.

2 thoughts on “1883: Train Wreck Near Salem

  1. The Monon went past my grandparents house (now the front third of Bub’s Burgers and Ice Cream Restaurant) in Carmel. My grandfather, Fred Graves, told his family that he was there when the first Monon passenger train went through Carmel and again when the last one went through.


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