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Staff Blog

Washed out Bridge Causes Train Wreck along the Monon Route North of Otis, Indiana, Killing Three—May 2, 1892

Karen Wood

While conducting historical research for a project in La Porte County, Indiana, I stumbled upon this piece of Indiana railroad history. Enjoy!

~Your Friendly Neighborhood Historian

During the evening and overnight hours of May 2, 1892, a torrential thunderstorm tore through northwestern Indiana.  The heavy rain raised the waters of the East Arm of the Little Calumet River, causing a dam about 330 ft. above the bridge to give way. The swollen creek surged toward the wooden trestle, rebuilt in 1886, washing it away. The large hole fractured the railway line and since the path was shrouded in darkness, it meant certain death.

Fig. 1: Newspaper Coverage of the May 2, 1892 Wreck along the Monon Route

Source: “Went Down in the Wreck,” The Indiana State Sentinel (Indianapolis, IN), May 4, 1892, p. 8.

The 11-car freight train traveling northbound toward Michigan City Louisville, New Albany, and Chicago Railway (also known as the Monon Route) approached the washed out bridge near midnight. Although John Murray, the engineer, slowed down as he came upon the bridge, he was not cautious enough, catapulting Engine No. 27 and the eight cars behind it loaded with pig iron into the dark void below, burying its massive frame into the mud. Three men, including John Murray, James Bowen, the fireman, and Elmer Brown, the brakeman, fell to their deaths. Luckily, the caboose and the penultimate car stayed on the tracks, and the conductor, John Litkey, and two other train workmen escaped without injury. These men ran to the railroad station in Otis, La Porte County to call for help.

Nothing could be done to help recover the wreck or bodies—assuming that the three men who were stationed in the front cars had not survived—in the dark until the morning daylight when the cleanup crew would be able to see and assess the damage. Except for the rushing water, silence echoed through the pile of freight cars. The main source of media, newspapers, covered this story, appearing in several newspapers around the region, including the Indiana State Sentinel, (see Figure 1 above).

On Friday morning, 5 days later, the plan to remove the fallen cars was in full swing: the engineers had built a temporary side track leading up to the main track to pull up the cars and place them upon the tracks. Once completed, a new bridge would be built. This time, though, the bridge—or to use a more accurate term, a “culvert”—would be made of Indiana limestone.

Fig. 2: Standard Double Stone Culvert (3’ x 4’). Norfolk and Western Railroad (1890)

Source: Webb, Railroad Construction: Theory and Practice, (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1903), 208.

Culverts were generally embedded into the earth. By 1850, railroad culverts in Indiana were constructed of wood or stone, in the pipe, arch, or box design. Since limestone was a common resource in Indiana, it had a direct effect on the building of infrastructure in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Before concrete was used universally for culverts in the 1910s, limestone was the preferred choice. The stone box railroad culverts built during the 1880s and 1890s typically featured cement-mortared cut stone walls that stair-stepped down to the ground, supporting cut stone lintels or reinforced concrete slabs, topping these walls. An embankment of earth covered structure, providing additional support by equally distributing the weight of the trains carried over the rails. These design features of a stone box culvert provided benefits including an inexpensive resource lasting longer than any other known resource and could be a single box or a double box depending on the size of the structure required (see Figure 2 above for the design).  

Fig. 3: Facing northeast abandoned railroad stone double box culvert

Source: Taken by Karen Wood at September 28, 2015 site visit

This wreck and rebuilding of the railroad bridge demonstrates the technological evolution of innovative engineering techniques on strengthening bridges in efforts to avoid wrecks like this particular one (see Figure 3 above). Engineers continually worked on how to improve these structures, and in 1892, not only was stone a more permanent resource than wood and iron, proving it to be more cost-efficient, but also it was ultimately a safer one.