Advertisements

Side Quest: Explore the wreckage of the Safe Harbor Christmas train accident

What happens when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force?

Conrail engineer, William Neway, found out first-hand in 1981 when his freight train collided with a 3-ton boulder below Safe Habor?

In case you were wondering, the answer is nothing good.

It was December 23, 1981, and despite being only a few minutes past 5 o’clock, the sun had already been below the horizon for 15 minutes.

The 82-car laden Conrail owned train was en route to Morrisville in Bucks County, carrying a heavy load of paper, sand, and petroleum byproducts.

What the engineer didn’t know was earlier that day, a 3-ton boulder had broken free from the sheer cliffs along the Susquehanna and landed squarely upon the tracks blocking both lanes. Neway would later estimate that the rock was “as long as the engine and three feet high.”

When the 27-year-old engineer, finally did see the giant monolith after rounding a curve, the train was only 30 yards away. Neway immediately applied the emergency brakes, but a train of this mass needs at least 100 yards to stop.

Seeing that a collision was imminent, the four-man crew ran for the rear of the cab to jump out. Only three made it out. At approximately 5:11 pm, locomotives CR 6267 and CR 6253 collided with a chunk of the mountain going 30 mph.

The impact folded the two engines and the next 13 cars like an accordion made of paper.

When the Conrail freight train hit the boulder, lower left, the cars behind the engine crumpled into a zig-zag formation.
When the Conrail freight train hit the boulder, lower left, the cars behind the engine crumpled into a zig-zag formation.

Neway, still inside the locomotive, reported being bounced around inside the cab like a pinball. He was lucky enough to survive only suffering “contusions and back injuries.” He was listed in fair condition at St. Joseph Hospital the next morning.

The accident peeled up 300 feet of track in both lanes and caused half a million dollars in damages to the two diesel engines, 13 freight cars, and train tracks.

Residents, as far away as a mile, reported hearing the impact. This wasn’t the first time the sound of dynamite filled the air here either. Donald Linton of Conestoga said, “All I heard was two booms. I thought it was dynamite.”

Photo of the train wreckage taken the following day during clean-up efforts.
Photo of the train wreckage taken the following day during clean-up efforts.

Explosive Cargo

The train’s cargo immediately became a concern for local officials. They worried that the petroleum byproduct leaking from the freight cars might catch fire and explode. In response, three area fire companies, including Conestoga, New Danville, and Willow Street, were dispatched.

Luckily, a national chemical identification service was able to identify the substance as naphid, which is not explosive. However, it can cause chemical skin burns.

First responders and clean-up crews had a second lucky break when the caustic liquid pooled up in a culvert and did not, fortunately, flow into the nearby Susquehanna River.

The culvert where the chemical, naphid, likely pooled.
The culvert where the chemical, naphid, likely pooled.

Clean-up Efforts

Clean-up efforts began almost immediately with at least two dozen Amtrak and Conrail employees working through the night. By morning, crews were untwisting the shredded metal of the derailed cars and collecting the spilled cargo of paper and sand.

By the next morning, the cars that had not derailed were removed. Those that had were placed back on the track by crane. Later that same day, the giant boulder, which caused the accident, was dynamited and cleared away.

The crumpled front end of CR 6257 in the Enola train yard months after smashing into a 3-ton boulder.
The crumpled front end of CR 6257 in the Enola train yard months after smashing into a 3-ton boulder.

Finally, with the train cars and boulder removed, work crews from Leola started relaying the tracks.

While the Enola Low-Grade was out of service, freight trains were detoured about 20 to 25 miles on Amtrack passenger rails through Lancaster. Clean-up efforts took several days to complete.

Locomotive CR 6253, the second engine pulling the 82-car load, at the scene of the accident the following morning.
Locomotive CR 6253, the second engine pulling the 82-car load, at the scene of the accident the following morning.

Remains of the Accident

However, not all the train wreckage was removed, though. It would appear that the remains of at least one unsalvagable box car was either pushed down the eastern bank of the Enola Low-Grade or landed there after becoming uncoupled during the accident.

Almost 40 years later, the wreckage is still visible if you know where to look between Shenks Ferry and Safe Harbor. If you would like to see the train wreckage for yourself, click here for its GPS location.

wreckage4

Closer to Shenks Ferry lies another possible piece from the accident. It is a locomotive knuckle coupler. Could it have rolled or flown this far in the accident? Click here for its GPS location.

B6E8B967-BD44-4F79-893A-604DE43CE29F

Site of the Accident

Unfortunately, newspaper accounts do not give the exact location of the accident. However, using photographs and site descriptions from 1981, I would place the fallen boulder in roughly this spot.

The approximate location of the December 23, 1981 train collision.
The approximate location of the December 23, 1981 train collision.

Update

Retired Conrail employee, Jack Neiss, provided some additional information concerning the accident.

Bill Neway was a good friend of mine, and I remember going to see him in the hospital a few days after the wreck.  He took disability after the accident because of his injuries and never worked again. He got a substantial settlement from Conrail contingent on his projected earning potential from the day of the accident until his potential retirement at age 65. I only saw Bill once after my hospital visit, and I believe he moved to Colorado after getting his settlement.

There are several misstatements in this article that should be clarified.

There were only two men in the locomotive cab when they struck the boulder, not four. Bill and the head brakeman were in the cab of the lead locomotive, the conductor and engineer in the cabin car. Neither man tried to jump as there was no time to do so, and it would have been a fatal mistake if they had tried. The train would have piled up on top of them.

Looking for more adventure?

If you are looking for more adventure while visiting the train wreckage, considering completing the Tunnel of Enola AdventureThis epic journey will take you through several forgotten tunnels and past the train wreckage.

Gallery

Resources

 

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “Side Quest: Explore the wreckage of the Safe Harbor Christmas train accident

    1. Thanks. I stumbled on to it by accident months ago but struggled to find out anything about it. Wrong search strings. But luckily when I posted a photo a reader was kind enough to give me some basic details and date. From there I was able to track down all the information.

    1. Wow! I’ve heard there’s a boxcar or two visible in the Susquehanna River along the Columbia and Port Deposit Railroad further south. The water has to be low to see it. Do you know anything about that? Here’s a link to Apple Maps. The water was higher in the Google Maps photo and is not visible. https://maps.apple.com/?ll=39.799829,-76.287981&q=Train%20Car%20in%20River&_ext=EiQpHmtRz2DmQ0AxQKLhRm4SU8A5HmtRz2DmQ0BBQKLhRm4SU8A%3D&t=h

  1. This is so interesting Adam! When we were at this tunnel this afternoon on our uncharted Lancaster adventure, I said to my John …whoa what’s all that debris about? Now I know, and knowing is half the battle 😉.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: