How millions of potato bugs conspired to cause the worst trolley accident in Lancaster County history

August 9, 1896, began like any other Sunday. Townspeople attended worship services. Families gathered at noon for a meal together. As the day slipped into the afternoon, children swam in local creeks as adults sat on their front porches sipping lemonade.

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Chickies Rock Vista is at the top of a 200-foot tall cliff on the west end of Chickies Ridge.

That evening at Chickies Park (spelled Chiques at the time) overlooking the Susquehanna River there was a sacred band concert of spiritual music. Then, like today, Chickies Rock was a popular summer destination. In fact, at the turn of the 19th century, there was even an amusement park near the overlook.

People could ride the hub and spoke network of trolley lines from almost anywhere in Lancaster County to visit. Sadly, no remnants of this amusement park remain today.

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Chickies Park highlighted in blue, yellow, and red on the left side of the map.

Towards the end of the concert, there was a severe storm which delayed the arrival of the trolley from Marietta. It was common practice not to operate the trolleys during a thunderstorm.

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Pennsylvania Traction Company car no. 2 photographed circa 1894 just east of Columbia at Stoner’s Quarry. The destination sign reads, “Lancaster and Columbia” and “Chickies Park – Marietta.”

When the four-wheel car No. 61 of the Pennsylvania Traction Company arrived after the storm, with Adam Foehlinger as a motorman and Harry Hershey as a conductor, the car was engulfed by passengers eager to get home. The trolley’s capacity was 28, but possibly 80 adults and children climbed aboard. Every seat was quickly filled then the aisles as was every bit of space on the front and back platforms.

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Area of the accident highlighted in red.

About 10 pm, the overloaded car started its downhill ride towards Columbia. At Klinesville, about a mile from Columbia, two women signaled to get off. However, due to the weight of the car and the wet rails, the trolley was unable to stop at the crossing going an extra 150 feet before coming to a full stop. The car was then backed up so the women could disembark.

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Klinesville located southeast of Chickies Rock.

Underway again the trolley began to move forward on the steep slope increasing in speed. Problems for the overloaded trolley worsened as millions of potatoes bugs swarmed over the rails making the overworked brakes ineffective.

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Potato bug

The increase in speed caused the trolley pole to leave the overhead wire, cutting the electricity and plunging the interior into darkness. With no brakes and in complete darkness, the passengers broke out into screams. The trolley car eventually hit 60 miles per hour.

On a curve, the wheels left the rails. The car careened wildly across a road, snapping off a gatepost, then sliding on its side for 75 feet, striking a tree, then a trolley pole, and dropping over a 30-foot embankment. It ended on its top, with wheels and motor high in the air.

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The worst trolley accident in Lancaster County history killed six and injured 68 people on August 9, 1896.

The accident killed six people including the mayor of Columbia H. H. Heise, motorman Foehlinger, William Pinkerton, Henry Smith, W. J. Ludlow, and William Metzger. In addition, another 68 people were injured.

After the accident, a safety switch was installed at Klinesville with all trolley cars required to stop there. Damage claims from the tragic disaster aided by company mismanagement forced the Pennsylvania Traction Company which had operated the line out of business. The Marietta to Columbia route was later folded into the Conestoga Traction Company.

Uncharted Lancaster: Trolley Trail Adventure

But that’s enough history of the ill-fated trip for No. 61 of the Pennsylvania Traction Company trolley car. When you are ready to start Pequea Trolley Adventureclick here.

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