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The explosion of Engine 955

"His body was almost cut in half and the entrails protruded... The legs were held to the body by strips of flesh. His remains were gathered up in a piece of canvas."

St. Clair Coal Company, circa 1946

In the fall of 1891, one of the most horrific railroading tragedies in Schuylkill County history occurred at Crow Hollow Switch, near St. Clair, when a  Reading Railroad locomotive exploded, seemingly without explanation. While the explosion claimed only four lives, it rained wreckage in a thirty yard radius and easily could've resulted in more casualties had the explosion taken place in a more populated area.

Miraculously, one of the crewmen managed to escape with only minor bumps and bruises, while the bodies of his colleagues were literally blown apart by the blast; the mangled body of the engineer was found one hundred yards away.

Here is one account of the explosion which appeared in the Shenandoah Evening Herald on October 20, 1891.

FATAL ACCIDENT- A Locomotive Explodes and Kills Four Men

Engine 955, of the Reading road, exploded last evening about 7 o'clock at Crow Hollow Switch, near St. Clair, killing four of the crew. The cause of the explosion cannot be accounted for. The engine was standing still at the time of the accident, and when the explosion occurred seemed to leap into the air, and jumped forward about twenty feet and landed on the sills. The cab and two-thirds of the long boiler were blown into pieces, and nothing remained but the forward section. The head was also blown out. The tank remained attached and suffered very little damage. The wood lining slowly burned away, and its flames threw out a fitful light, showing the battered and torn remnants of the engine. 

Most of the debris was found on the east of the engine, about thirty yards away, while the unfortunate victims were carried in the opposite direction. Turner owes his life to this fact. Had he been standing on the east side he would have been blown to pieces. It seems strange and miraculous that his life was spared to him as it was. He was standing within three feet of the cab, addressing the engineer, when it all occurred. His escape from instant death may be regarded as an interposition of Providence.

The fire pan was hurled against a train of cars and was battered into a confused mass. Heavy bars were twisted and broken and lay in indiscriminated confusion around the tracks. It was a scene of havoc and ruin that met the gaze of those who hurried to the spot.

Wreck Master William Sebold, of Palo Alto, had his crew on the grounds and removed the debris to allow trains to pass up and down one track. The men worked like trojans, although the night was dark and a strong wind drove the rain in gusts, drenching them to the skin.

The names of the unfortunate men who met their death by the explosion are:

Engineer Henry Wagner, married, aged 45 years, home at Palo Alto.
Mahlon Keith, brakeman, married, 30 years old, lived at Palo Alto.
Charles Bauers, brakeman, married, aged 35 years, home St. Clair.
Charles Honnicker, 28 years, single, home St. Clair.

Bauers lived for several hours after the accident and died before he could be removed to his gome.
Crow Hollow Switch is almost opposite Mill Creek. Long strings of loaded and empty coal cars are assorted at this point and started on their destination. It is about a half-mile south of St. Clair and a little over a mile north of Port Carbon.

Work was immediately commenced by a rescuing party in search of the bodies. Turner was found about 30 feet east of the engine, lying in a hole. He was not injured, but remained in a dazed condition for several minutes. His lantern was torn from his hand and could not be found.

The body of Keith was found to the west of the engine lying on top of a loaded coal car. His body was badly disfigured and blackened. His legs were almost torn off and he was the only one was found on the west side of the engine. The others were all found on the east side.

Honnicker's lifeless body was about fifty yards from the tracks lying among the bushes. He was badly cut around the body, but did not lose a limb.

Bauers was groaning in a clump of bushes about forty yards away until the rescuers found him. He was unconscious and remained in that condition when death came to his relief. His body was disfigured, but did not bear many marks.

Wagner, the engineer, was found about a hundred yards away. His body was almost cut in half and the entrails protruded. Almost every bone in his body was broken. He was picked up in a doubled-up position, lying near a stream of water. His left foot was almost off. The legs were held to the body by strips of flesh. His remains were gathered up in a piece of canvas.

All the bodies were removed to the basement in the weighmaster's office, a distance below St. Clair. The bodies fo Wagner and Keith were removed to their home in a box car at a late hour. Bauers and Honnicker were taken to their homes in St. Clair.

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