LOCAL LORE: The Great 1906 Train Wreck

December 30, 1906. Brawner Hetfield, a young CUA student, was just hanging out. Most of his fellow students had gone home for the holidays, but Hetfield was a local, his family lived on Lawrence Street in Brookland, so he stayed here. Brookland's business district at the time revolved around the intersection of the B&O tracks and Bunker Hill Road, and that's where Hetfield was that evening. It was about 6:30, the sun had set and fog had rolled in. 

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About a mile up the tracks train 66, a local coming from Frederick, Maryland, was stopped at the Terra Cotta station. Terra Cotta station no longer exists, but was about where the Fort Totten station of the Metro sits today. Train 66 had three passenger cars, all made of wood as most were a century ago, and it was pretty full. Behind it, coming from Takoma Park, was a deadhead train, 2120, with a big locomotive pulling six empty passenger cars. For safety, the railroad used what was a called a block system, which divided up a rail line into predefined "blocks" marked by signal towers. A dispatcher controlled the signals for each block, ensuring that two trains were not within the same block on the same track at the same time. But something went wrong. The engineer of train 2120 was in a hurry and had the throttle wide open, even though it was dark and the fog was making it hard to see the signals. About 6:30, train 66 had just pulled out of Terra Cotta station, its wheels slipping as it worked up speed.    

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                           Editorial cartoon from the Evening Star, January 6, 1907

"Then came a terrible noise," Brawner Hetfield later related to a friend. "A combination of an explosion, escaping steam, breaking wood, groaning brakes and human screams. It was so loud that it could be heard on the campus and all over Brookland, as well as any place within a mile or more of the crash."

Train 2120, apparently going full speed, about 65 miles per hour, slammed into the back of train 66. The heavy locomotive tore through the passenger cars, sending debris and bodies flying on both sides of the track for a quarter mile. It was a disaster of historic proportions. Although Terra Cotta was called a village, there were only a few employee houses for the large Potomac Terra Cotta Company, which  occupied most of the land around the tracks. Brookland was really the nearest community, about a mile away.

The friend Hetfield told the story to was Frank Kuntz, a fellow student. Years later Kuntz set it down as part of his book Undergraduate Days 1904-1908. Here is his vivid account of that night:

According to Brawner, the gateman yelled "My God!  She's wrecked!"  That was all Brawner needed to start him up the railroad tracks at a pace calculated to cover one mile at the best steady speed.

In a few minutes he came to a huge locomotive, hissing leaking steam. In the darkness he could vaguely make out its engineer running around in circles, wringing his hands and crying, "I swear, I thought it was on the siding where it belonged."

A conductor in the little ramshackle station was yelling into a telephone, "The excursion train was not on the siding where it should've been, and we rammed clear through it!  Send ambulances, doctors, and nurses as quickly as you can!  And wreckers to clear the tracks!"

"And priests!" Brawner shouted to him, and the conductor repeated Brawner's words into the phone.

Brawner saw the watchman of the terra cotta plant near his shanty and asked him if he could use his telephone to get help.  Brawner dialed the University's number, which he knew, and soon had a divinity student at Caldwell Hall on the line.  Brawner told him that the tracks at Terra Cotta were strewn with dead and badly injured and asked him to get as many priests from Caldwell, the Marists', the Paulists', and Holy Cross as he could to come over to the wreck...

Soon a few priests left Caldwell and were joined at the Marists' by two more carrying lanterns.  As they shuffled along a very uncertain path, they noticed a twinkling light leave the Paulists' and move eastward toward the railroad.  Meanwhile, Brawner called his pastor at St. Anthony's Church in Brookland and, knowing he had no rig, asked him to bring a doctor with him since doctors did have rigs.


The pastor at St. Anthony's was Fr. Edward Southgate. He dashed out quickly after Hetfield's call and was appalled at the level of death and destruction. He is quoted in the next day's Washington Times:  "The scene was awful, the most horrible that anyone can imagine. Bodies on every side. the dying groaning and begging for help and a corps of valiant men doing everything in their power to relieve the suffering…. We made no distinction in ministering to the dying. No one stopped to learn a person's creed, but everything that we could do we did for those poor unfortunates who met such a horrible fate."

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Page from Washington Evening Times, December 31, 1906. Prepared on behalf of Library of Congress.

Newspaper coverage of the tragedy was massive, with immediate blame falling on the engineer. The Library of Congress has prepared a wonderful page dealing with the Terra Cotta wreck, with links to stories in all the big papers. It is clear that Brookland residents along with the young priests from Catholic University saved many lives and offered much solace that long, dark night.

Four men were charged with manslaughter - the engineer, conductor, brakeman and fireman of train 2120.  After a lengthy trial, the jury found them not guilty, saying there was not enough evidence to convict.  Still, the International Commerce Commission laid the blame on those men and the signal operator at Takoma Park, claiming all were negligent and not following proper procedure. With 53 dead, the Terra Cotta wreck remains the deadliest rail disaster in Washington DC history. Chillingly, the 2009 Metro accident that killed nine people occurred only a few hundred yards further north on the Metropolitan Branch.

© Robert Malesky 2017