Dec. 2, 1903 was an unpleasant day to be riding a train on the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore rail line. As Engine 5160, pulling 50 freight cars, rolled into Greenwood that day around 12:15 p.m., engineer William Shepherd was likely looking forward to a chance to take a break as he tried to peer ahead through the driving snow.
In the cab of the southbound train with Shepherd were conductor C.J. Hall, filling in for another conductor who was sick that day; John Barker, a fireman; and Edward J. Roach, the brakeman. Roach, trying to ward off the chill, climbed onto the train’s tender, which carried fuel.
Shepherd, who had a reputation as a careful engineer, had worked in that job since 1885. On this day, visibility in the storm was terrible and he could only see a few feet ahead as the train rolled into town at 20 miles per hour.
Suddenly, the train plunged into a cloud of steam. Then amid the swirl of steam and snow a red train car loomed up directly in front of Shepherd. He reacted instinctively, immediately sounding the train whistle and putting on the brakes, shouting for the other members of the crew to jump for it. He was far, far too late. With terrific force the engine slammed into the other train, driven from behind by its tons of cargo. Cars piled up on top of each other like toys and the train’s crew was trapped in a chaos of scalding steam and crunching metal.
A stove in the rammed train car was smashed into the wreckage and the crumpled cars quickly caught fire.
Shepherd, Hall and Barker were able to struggle free of the wreckage, but Roach, the brakeman, was trapped in the flames.
Not long earlier, Horace Lynch, the operator in the train tower at the intersection with the east-west Queen Anne’s Railroad line, had watched as an engine on a siding, brakes failing, slid onto the north-south track. Multiple trains passed through Greenwood every day from both directions, and as Lynch watched the struggling engine throwing out clouds of steam at the intersection, it occurred to him that he should set out a lamp to warn any oncoming trains.
Lynch got a lamp ready, but he, too, was too late. A huge concussion sounded below him on the tracks as the scene turned into a mass of crunching steel and flying sparks.
The residents of Greenwood were sitting at lunch when they heard the commotion, and many of them came outside to see what was going on.
A Dr. Palmer, who worked in the area, was standing nearby when he noticed a freight train sitting on the tracks giving off a “great amount of steam.” Then came a crashing sound and the engine jolted forward. Palmer went over to see what had happened and was confronted with a scene of train cars piled on each other three or four high, flames licking out. He was about to go closer when a lot of things happened at once.
For miles around, as far away as Greensboro, Maryland to the west and Seaford to the south, people felt the earth shake, and window panes were shattered in Bridgeville. Trying to figure out what it could possibly be, many of them settled on an earthquake as the explanation.
Palmer had a front row seat and knew it was no earthquake. “There came an explosion,” he recounted, “the like of which I have never heard and hope never to hear again,” and he was thrown back against the wall of a nearby hotel.
A shower of wood and steel debris was blasted skyward and came raining back down. Horace Lynch, up in his signal tower, found the structure coming down around him and ended up amid and under the wreckage.
A man named James Hamilton had a very close call indeed, if the stories can be believed. He was reportedly standing at the scene of the crash, about 25 feet from the explosion, which threw him to the ground and knocked him unconscious — considering other possible alternatives, a pretty low-key result. He was standing, it turned out, on the right side of the tracks as the force of the explosion went the other direction.
A number of other people had a series of eerily close shaves. One man, George Saulsbury of Denton, was also headed to the scene of the crash when the explosion happened. He felt the earth shake under his feet, then found himself 20 feet away, shaking badly but unscratched. The railroad station agent, William Carter Jr., was grazed by a piece of timber that blew through the station window. While signalman Horace Lynch was getting shaken up in the falling train tower, his wife, at dinner, was likely very startled when an ax flew by her head, piece of the train's cargo turned into a missile. L.M. Houseman, the postmaster, was in his office looking at some mail when the blast pinned him to the floor under a wall of letter boxes (he was reportedly seriously hurt). A farmer named Owens, out cutting wood three quarters of a mile away, was thrown to the ground and his ax cut a gash in his head. William H. Morris, 81, one of the oldest people in town, was heading to the wreck scene when he, like George Saulsbury, was thrown 30 feet by the blast. He had no serious injuries.
His wife was not so lucky. Standing by a large window, she was struck by broken glass that lacerated her head, almost cutting off her nose and ears. One witness said her mouth was ripped nearly up to the ear.
A teenage girl named Blema Jones was standing at a bay window in her home a few hundred yards away, looking out at the wreck, when the window exploded inward in a shower of glass, hitting both her and her mother in the face. Her mother lost an eye; Blema would eventually lose one as well.
“Many who were at dinner when the explosions occurred were hurled headlong from their chairs,” the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal reported. (In the confusion of the aftermath, the paper reported multiple explosions, but there was only one).
According to one account, in the minutes between the crash and the explosion, the crew of the train who were able to escape had been taken to a nearby house to have their severe burns tended to. They presumably thought their day could not get any worse at this point, but suddenly the house seemed to be lifted in the air, then shaken, then dropped and torn apart. Miraculously, the train crew got out alive (again).
Chaos ensued as debris from the blast rained down into the 6 inches of snow. People ran out into the streets, screaming. A house owned by a Dr. Johnson next to the crash site was soon in flames, and residents, still dazed and bleeding and unaware of how bad the damage was or how many casualties there might be, formed bucket brigades to fight the fire.
“Men with blood streaming from wounds on the faces and hands worked until exhausted,” the Wilmington Evening Journal reported.
They were able to keep the fire from destroying the town, which at the time had about 500 or so residents, but several houses burned to the ground, as well as a stable with a horse inside.
The town was a bizarre mess. One of the train cars had been loaded with axes — one of which presumably was the one that nearly took Mrs. Lynch’s head off — and they littered the scene. Another had a cargo of stockings, which ended up strewn around the area and hanging from nearby trees.
The explosion cracked rafters, toppled chimneys, tore off shutters, ripped holes in walls, knocked over household items, and broke windows. Some homes — seven, a dozen, reports conflicted — were destroyed, but many more sustained serious damage and almost every house in town had some kind of damage.
One resident, Thomas Todd, later recounted that his house was in good repair when he left it at 8 a.m. that morning, and he returned to find it a "wreck" and his wife "in a very nervous condition."
The schoolhouse was partly destroyed and pushed off kilter on its foundation, and other houses were reportedly knocked slightly askew as well. The new Methodist Protestant Church, dedicated only the week before, was seriously damaged. The unfortunate congregation's old church building, at Beaver and Minor streets, was in even worse shape.
The explosion cut off the town’s telegraph wires, but railroad staff used a phone line to call for help from other nearby stations, and people managed to also patch up a telegraph line. Soon, trains were headed to the scene from around the peninsula, carrying doctors, nurses and gawkers.
It wasn't long before horses and carriages from surrounding towns started to clog the streets as people from nearby towns drove in to see the disaster. People from as far away as Seaford, Laurel, Delmar and across the border in Maryland began showing up too. It was, the Morning News reported, “the one absorbing topic throughout Sussex County.”
A 1976 history of the town reported that one resident met the newcomers with the warning, “Go back, go back, Greenwood’s blown to hell.”
William M. Lofland of Rehoboth, who was at Seaford at the time of the disaster, recounted that “nearly everyone carried an axe as a souvenir of the wreck,” and picked up the stockings, too. Lofland reported seeing one enterprising man carrying away a whole armload of stockings.
Some people were remarkably uncurious, as well. George Hollis, a magistrate from Wilmington, told the Morning News that he was having dinner with a relative about 5 miles away when the shock of the explosion hit the house, making it tremble on its foundation and rattling the windows. Neither of them made much fuss about it. When they drove in to Greenwood later in the afternoon so Hollis could catch a train, they were surprised to find the town in shambles.
It was a different time and the priorities at the scene seem a little odd now. Faced with a devastated town and a crater big enough to bury a train car in, the railroad companies went into overdrive to get trains to the scene to take away passengers who needed to get on with their day, and spent the night desperately cleaning up and repairing the tracks so that they could get the trains moving again. One story, in a bit of understatement, noted that with train cars piled on top of each other and jammed together, "the task of pulling them apart was hard."
Shepherd, the engineer, was taken to Wilmington where he lived. Unaccountably, there was no ambulance at the station to meet him, so the badly burned man had to walk to catch a trolley to go to his house. (The rest of the surviving crew got more solicitous treatment at Delaware Hospital.)
In Greenwood, doctors from the surrounding towns cared for the wounded in makeshift hospitals set up in partially destroyed buildings.
At first, reports on what caused the explosion were confused, with some claiming it was train cars filled with naphtha, a volatile and flammable liquid refined from petroleum. But a later newspaper report had it that while cars of naphtha were at the scene, they survived — a good thing for the town, too — and were eventually hauled away to Delmar.
The railroad staff quickly became cagey about just what had been on the train, given that they were facing a mountain of damages and potential lawsuits, but it emerged that one of the cars had been carrying 100 pounds of dynamite. It appears another car of oil may have spilled on the wreckage, which caught fire and then set off the dynamite, blowing a crater in the ground described by one newspaper as 30 feet long, 10 feet wide and 10 feet deep.
Almost unbelievably, there were only two confirmed deaths from the disaster. One was the brakeman, Edward Roach, who was burned to death, and the other was reportedly a baby who died of “shock.”
One theory was that people had rushed out of their houses when the crash happened, and so were not in them to be injured by falling pieces, but many accounts mention people indoors.
Houses nearest the explosion were "shattered from attic to basement and that their occupants were not killed outright seems remarkable," the Morning News wrote.
The head wounds of William H. Morris’ wife reportedly left her in very bad condition, especially considering her advanced age, and it was feared she would die. But later newspaper reports make no mention of this happening, even though Morris testified later for a lawsuit. Names of those hurt vary in newspaper reports so it’s not easy to count them, but about 10-20 people were seriously hurt and one doctor estimated that about 100 people in all were injured.
A mysterious story also circulated about three tramps who were spotted on the train when it went through Harrington, but who never turned up afterward. They were supposedly killed, the somewhat flimsy evidence being a belt buckle and bits of shoes. The Baltimore Sun boldly declared, “Three Tramps Blown to Bits.” Another report dismissed this story, but then the Wilmington Morning News reported on Saturday, Dec. 5 that railroad workmen had collected a “little pile of crushed and charred bones” possibly belonging to the men, and buried the bones in a nearby field. Again, these were different times.
So it’s possible that a few fragments of unfortunate drifters are buried somewhere near Greenwood, but it’s also possible that there never were any hobos on the train, or that they got off in Farmington, or simply melted into the crowd at the scene or hightailed it to less explosive environs.
Faced with a cold winter day and houses with holes punched in them, the citizens of Greenwood did the best they could. The ones with homes in better shape took in the newly homeless, and some people were able to tack carpets or boards over the holes in their windows and set up a stove in one room to keep themselves reasonably comfortable.
It’s difficult to know exactly how residents responded, since newspaper accounts varied and tended to border on the dramatic. The Baltimore Sun reported people wringing their hands and crying, “We are ruined!” which sounds a little like a nineteenth century novel and exactly like the kind of detail a reporter in a faraway newsroom might have stuck in to make the report seem a little more firsthand, in those days of more casual newspaper ethics. But in general, reports agreed that people were frightened, dazed, bleeding and crying about the loss of their worldly goods.
By the next morning, town leaders were proclaiming that they would be able to get by without public aid, a perhaps admirable but puzzling can-do sentiment for a community as devastated as Greenwood was.
At any rate, they didn’t have to get by on their own. Help poured in from the surrounding communities, and the railroad company put a crew of men to work making repairs. The company had a lot of settling up to do — property losses were significant, and people didn’t waste much time in filing lawsuits or otherwise pressing for damages. A number of people were resettled in new homes, and it took years to wrap up all the cases.
The 1976 town history says people were still finding axes years later when they cleaned out ditches, and one man supposedly found a freight car brake wheel a mile west of town.
Aside from the old newspaper reports and an occasional mention in town histories, there’s little evidence today of the disaster.
The north-south rail line still runs through Greenwood, but the east-west Queen Anne’s Railroad has long since vanished.
The track intersection at Minor Street would have been bustling and loud in 1903, but the scene is quiet and sleepy now. Newspaper accounts put the explosion about 200 yards north of the train station and about 60 yards north of the intersection of the two railroads, which means the spot the train car blew up would lie somewhere beyond the outfield fence of the Little League field in town.
On a recent sunny day, the grassy area with tall weeds lining the train tracks was peaceful. The signs of chaos and destruction were gone, melted away like the dirty snow from that winter day 120 years ago.
Note: This narrative was pieced together mostly from a variety of newspaper accounts. Standards of reporting could be looser back then and there are slightly different name spellings, dubious stories and conflicting facts, sometimes in the same story. Did the southbound train slam into an engine or into a red train car? Did some of the personal accounts get garbled? What happened to the engineer driving the other train? We can’t confirm all the details, but the general outlines agree and we’ve used those to try to stitch together a reliable, cohesive story.
“Greenwood, a Delaware Town,” a short history by the town’s bicentennial committee in 1976
Wilmington Every Evening
Wilmington Evening Journal
Wilmington Morning News
Lancaster Intelligencer Journal
Postscript from the reporter:
When I was a teenager, I helped my dad restore an old house on Beaver Street in Greenwood, not very far from the site of the explosion. In the roof, we found cracked rafters that had been patched together, and I was told at the time that these had been damaged by the train explosion.