Deadly 1906 Washington DC Train Wreck Near Fort Totten

Map of village of Terra Cotta in modern day Fort Totten

1890 Map of Terra Cotta

The Metro subway crash that killed nine on Monday was not the only serious accident on that stretch of track. On December 30, 1906, one of the country’s worst railroad disasters occurred about a half mile away — on what was then the Metropolitan Branch of the B&O Railroad. On that day, at 6:30 in the evening, 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 was a deadhead train, #2120, with a big locomotive pulling six empty passenger cars.

It was a foggy night, and track signals were not easy for the train crews to see. Just as train #66 was beginning to pull out of the station, train 2120 slammed into it, apparently going full speed, about 65 miles per hour. The heavy locomotive tore through the passenger cars, sending debris and bodies flying on both sides of the track for a quarter mile.

Although Terra Cotta was called a village, it wasn’t much more than a few houses, with the large Potomac Terra Cotta Company occupying most of the land around the tracks. Brookland was really the nearest community, about a mile away. Here is the way the Washington Post described it the next day:

“The scene after the accident was terrible. Bodies were hurled on every side. A heavy fog hung over the scene, making it difficult to see far. The many acts of heroism and self-sacrifice that were performed will never be known. Mothers were robbed of their children, husbands lost wives, and wives husbands. Parents died before the eyes of their children, and saw little ones mangled beyond recognition.

There was little of the wrecked train left. The monster engine had done its work of death and destruction thoroughly. On either side of the track were great piles of debris, and buried in it were men, women, and children. A quarter of a mile from where the collision took place the last vestige of the wreckage was found. It was a high pile of debris, and buried far under it were the bodies of two women and a child. A neatly gloved arm protruded from the debris.”

Many Brooklanders did what they could to help.  Rev. Edward Southgate of St. Anthony’s was one of them.  He spoke to the New York Times the next day:

“We have now in Brookland,” said Father Southgate of St. Anthony’s Church, in Brookland, the first priest to reach the wreck, “a little baby, not much more than a year old, whose mother was evidently killed, and who was picked up alongside the track and brought into Brookland.  The little thing is not hurt bodily, but no one knows her name or where her relatives may be.  A kind woman is taking care of the child.”

Frank Kuntz was a Catholic University student. Though he was home for the holidays the day of the crash, his friend and fellow student, Brawner Hetfield, lived in Brookland and was near the tracks that night.  In his book, Undergraduate Days 1904-1908, Kuntz relates what Hetfield told him of the disaster:

“Then came a terrible noise which he described as 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. 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…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…

Soon telegraph and telephone lines all over the country were humming with the news, and people were jamming the Brookland-bound trolleys. A locomotive with a searchlight and wrecker came out from Washington carrying many newspaper reporters.

Brawner kept busy helping priests and doctors move the dead and injured from the tracks. All told, there were fifty-three killed and nearly a hundred injured, and it was daylight before all the injured and dead were removed…

The priests from Caldwell, Holy Cross, the Marists’ and the Paulists’ did heroic work under appalling conditions and deserve to be remembered for the inspired work they did.”

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 Interstate Commerce Commission laid the blame on those men and the signal operator at Takoma Park, claiming all were negligent and not following proper procedure. As a result of the Terra Cotta wreck, the ICC banned wooden body passenger car construction. What changes might WMATA make to prevent future accidents of the kind that killed nine people on Monday?

This post was written by Bob Malesky, a 40 year Brookland resident and CUA alum. Bob and his wife lived in several parts of Brookland before settling on Newton St. Bob spent over 30 years working as a producer at National Public Radio and is currently working as freelance writer/producer.

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14 thoughts on “Deadly 1906 Washington DC Train Wreck Near Fort Totten

  1. Good writeup about the Terra Cotta incident. Sadly though, the remains that were never identified were buried in one casket in what was then Forest Lake cemetery. B&O railroad promised a nice marker but that never happened. There were many problems with the operations at the cemetery and by 1910 the name changed to Capital cemetery and again in 1913 it was sold, this time the name became Cedar Hill cemetery. Forest Lake had been caught up in some scheme where it is alledged that the intent was never to remain a cemetery but later on become a housing project. This is well documented in the pages of the Washington Post archives and the old Times and Herald digital copies at the Library of Congress. Ironically, the then supt and part owner George Starkweather is buried there and since he died after 1913, his data should be in the office. No burial information from before 1913 apparently made the shift. Ben Gilbert, founder of Takoma Park, Md is buried there, location unknown since he died before 1913. Same can be said for Hinton R. Helper who died in 1909. His writings are said to have a major cause of the Civil War,
    even more so than the better known ‘Uncle Toms Cabin’. Mr Hinton was a former U.S Ambassador and had a lifelong dream of creating a railroad from Canada to the southern tip of South America. An article in 1908 and again in 1912 on Memorial Day had cemetery visitors stopping by both Mr Hintons grave and that of the Terra Cotta train wreck vicitms. I have placed some data on, using ‘wreck’ as the last name for the train vicitims

  2. @Bill
    Thanks for the great comment. I had no idea about the Forest Lake/Capital/ Cedar Hill cemetery. I am interesting in learning more. I will check out FindAGrave for information about the wreck victims. Thanks again.

  3. I researched and wrote a full histroy of this wreck. A shorter version of my story as written for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Historical Society is available at MLK Library, as well As TP Historical Societyand B&O RR Museum and Montgomery County Historical Society. For the record, the statements regarding a siding and an excursion train are very odd to me. There ws a siding, but no excursion train nor was the siding being used by the passenger train. The cause of the wreck, like METRO, took place because of several factors, including complacency and human error. There was no mechanical error. The fast extra train missed orders in Boyds Md. warning of the passenger train doing local work ahead. The entire cause is rather complicated and was reason for many changes, including automatic signals and double tracking and smoke reduction from locomotives. Wooden cars were of age; wood was very expensive and the industry began the change to steel, Terra Cotta was a mere catalyst… The entire story as opposed to the condensed version is available at TP Historical Society.

    • Rich, thanks for that informative post. I’d love to read your whole story. As for the “excursion train” and the siding, remember that that story came second hand. Frank Kuntz was relating the story he heard from Brawner Hetfield, the Brookland resident who was the one on the scene. I’m not surprised if a few facts got jumbled when Kuntz was writing about it some 40 years after the fact.

  4. Thank you for any other informative website. Where else could I get that type of info written in such an ideal method? I have a project that I’m just now running on, and I have been at the glance out for such information.

  5. A very interesting article. My grandfather’s brother had just placed his sister and her daughter on the ill fated train just before the crash. He was on his way home and heard the crash and returned to find both people dying.My mother first told me about this back in the 1950′s. I’m looking forward to reading Rich Schaffer’s article.

    • It’s fascinating to have a personal connection to this bit of history, but what a sad story. A real family tragedy.