Exeter Train Wreck
On Friday evening, May 12, 1899 two trains were traveling southbound towards Norristown, Pennsylvania. The first train had 3 baggage cars and 5 passenger cars. The second train had six-coach cars carrying Civil War veterans, many from Norristown, home from the unveiling of the General Hartranft equestrian statue at the state capitol in Harrisburg.
A north bound coal train had broken down at Birdsboro. During repairs, some of the cars occupied the southbound tracks, which forced all southbound trains to stop at Exeter station. The stop signal was briefly missed by the first train’s engineer, Daniel Wildermuth. He backed up the train until it was just beyond Exeter Station.
The tower operator south of Reading was instructed to signal the second train being operated by Harry Orrell to reduce speed. The tower operator said he sent out the signal, but the engineer, brakeman, fireman and conductor on the second train never saw a signal from the tower. The signalmen at the other towers had no communication equipment and thus did not know the first train at Exeter station. Thus, they signaled the second train to proceed forward.
Orrell saw Exeter’s red signal just before he saw the first train. He immediately turned off the steam, applied the brakes and dumped the sand. The brakeman from the first train, Charles Miller, saw Orrell’s train. Miller jumped from his train, which was moving backward, and ran toward the oncoming train while waving his red lantern signaling the trains to stop. The second train’s engine went through the rear car of the first train, causing the next car to telescope halfway into the following car. The first two cars of the second train were destroyed.
29 people were killed and 44 were injured, making this one of the worst railroad accidents in southeastern Pennsylvania history. Berks County charged 5 men with causing the crash and the Reading Railroad separately placed the blame on the two train engineers. The town of Exeter eventually changed its name to Lorane a few years after the accident. Montgomery Cemetery is the final resting place for may of the Exeter train wreck’s victims.
This video was made by the Historical Society of Montgomery County, PA. We are a private non-profit library and museum located in Norristown, PA. HSMC maintains Historic Montgomery Cemetery.
Funding for this video is provided by PHC and NEH as part of the CARES Act of 2020.