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 three-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.
The engineer didn’t know that earlier that day, a three-ton boulder had broken free from the sheer cliffs along the Susquehanna and landed squarely on 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 needed at least 100 yards to stop.
Seeing a collision imminent, the four-person crew ran for the cab’s rear 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.
In a Facebook messenger conversation with retired Conrail employee Jack Neiss, he provided some additional information concerning the accident. He said: There were only two men in the locomotive cab when they struck the boulder, not four (as reported by the newspaper). Bill and the head brakeman were in the cab of the lead locomotive, the conductor and engineer were 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.
The impact folded the two engines and the following 13 cars like an accordion made of paper.
Neway, still inside the locomotive, reported bouncing 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 following day.
Concerning Neway, Neiss added these details. Bill Neway was a good friend of mine, and I remember seeing 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.
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. Shockingly, 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.”
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. Three area fire companies, including Conestoga, New Danville, and Willow Street, were dispatched in response.
Luckily, a national chemical identification service identified 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.
During my trips to the wreckage, I found a large pile of white plastic beads that might have been destined for use in an injection molder. But weren’t hacky sacks popular in the early 1980s? Maybe it was a supply shipment.
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 following day, 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.
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 Amtrak passenger rails through Lancaster. Clean-up efforts took several days to complete.
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 were either pushed down the eastern bank of the Enola Low-Grade or landed there after becoming uncoupled during the accident.
More than 40 years later, the wreckage is still visible if you know where to look between Shenks Ferry and Safe Harbor. If you want to see the train wreckage, here are the GPS coordinates: 39.915556, -76.375139.
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? Here are the GPS coordinates: 39.907861, -76.366056.
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 area (39.916028, -76.375778).
Purchase a beautiful reproduction map from 1864 through 1899 of Conestoga Township, the site of the December 23, 1981 train accident, or a 1919 road map of Lancaster County that denotes the path of the Enola Low Grade.
1875 map of Conestoga Township, Lancaster County, PA$27.99 – $29.99
1864 Map of Conestoga Township, Lancaster County, PA$24.99 – $25.99
1899 Map of Conestoga Township, Lancaster County, PA$29.99 – $34.99
1919 Road Map of Lancaster County Poster$24.99 – $25.99
Brief History of the Atglen & Susquehanna Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad
Cutting through the southern end like a demarcation line is one of the most remarkable feats of engineering marvels in Lancaster County—the Atglen & Susquehanna (A&S) Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) commonly referred to today as the Enola Low Grade. The goal of this ambitious project? Create a low grade railroad line with no slope steeper than one percent and no curve sharper than two degrees. Easy on paper. Difficult in reality. Click here for a brief history of the Enola Low Grade.
Side Quest: How to Access the Safe Harbor Bridge Trestle
I’ve received many questions asking how to best access the Safe Harbor Bridge Trestle. As I see it, you have four options. They are from shortest to longest Safe Harbor, Shenks Ferry, Colemanville Church Road, and Turkey Hill Overlook Trail. Happy adventuring! Click here for their exact locations.
The Lower Susquehanna Before the Dams
My friend and contributing writer here at Uncharted Lancaster, Ben Webber, has been interested in accessing the Safe Harbor Water Power Corp archives. One of his passions is the Conestoga River history, and he’s been searching for an ancient map of the winding river that is rumored to exist in their archives.
As it turned out, I have a contact there, and after a few months of discussions, we were granted access. In addition to helping Ben look for these old river maps, I had the goal of scanning as many of their images, maps, and blueprints that might be of interest and eventually making them available to the public. During our initial visit, we spent four hours going through several boxes containing hundreds of photos. Here are two that caught my attention. Click the link to read more.
- Special thanks to James Leed for providing me with the details to identify this wreck.
- Lancaster New Era December 24, 1981
- Lancaster New Era December 25, 1981
- Wrecked SD40 6267 at Enola, PA. Photo by John Decker
- Wrecked Conrail SD40 6253 was at Enola, PA in April 1982