Mary Ambler and the
Great Train Accident
Mary Johnson Ambler
Heroic Community Member
Mary Johnson Ambler was a community-minded woman who led the rescue and nursing of the survivors of a train wreck in 1856. Ambler, Pa. is named for her.
Married: Andrew Ambler
Children: 7 sons, 1 daughter
Stroll down Main Street today, towards Reiff's Mill Road, and you will come to one of the oldest houses in Ambler Borough, the home of Mary Ambler.
The former Mary Johnson of Bucks County married Andrew Ambler, a weaver, in 1829. Three years later, Andrew purchased the Fulling Mill and 82 acres of land in the bucolic town of Wissahickon. They raised a family and enjoyed success in their business endeavors. When Andrew died in 1850, Mary took over the mill operations with her married son, Lewis, one of her large family of seven sons and one daughter.
That the borough has Mary Ambler's name is no accident; rather it is on account of an accident, a Great Train Accident that it does.
On July 2, 1855, the Wissahickon Railroad station formally opened. The railroad served as a great spur to local commerce, transporting both produce and people, and led to increased prosperity for the area. Local farmers could now ship their produce to markets further from home at low cost.
City folks from Philadelphia enjoyed taking the northbound train, dubbed the "picnic special," into the country.
On July 17, 1856, the "picnic special" collided with the southbound train head on, between Fort Washington station and Camp Hill station (the now defunct Fellwick flag stop). In one of the worst tragedies of the Industrial Age thus far, 59 people were killed.
Mary Ambler, known for her generous ministrations to ill townspeople, reportedly walked two miles to the site of the accident and directed the relief efforts.
Thirteen years later, in July 1869, town officials remembered her valiant actions that terrible day, and they renamed the local railroad station Ambler, in her honor. Later, the village and post office adopted the name.
Mary Johnson was born in 1805. We do not know much about her early life. Her parents were Quakers. Mary followed Quaker ways. She was a very small woman. She never weighed over 100 pounds.
Mary met a man named Andrew Ambler. Andrew was a fuller. He worked with woolen cloth. Andrew had a factory for his cloth. It was called a fulling mill.
Mary and Andrew were married. They moved to live near the fulling mill. Soon they had children. They had seven boys and one girl.
Mary cared about other people. She tried to help them. The Amblers had the only well in the area. Sometimes their neighbors needed water. Mary always let them take water from her well. Mary wanted local children to learn about God. She started a Sunday school.
Andrew Ambler died in 1850. Mary and her sons took care of the mill.
The Train Wreck
On July 17, 1856 there was a terrible train wreck. This is how it happened. A train left Philadelphia. It was carrying about 1000 people. About 600 of them were from a Catholic Church. There were many children. They were all going on a picnic. They were headed for the Fort Washington area. The train was on the North Penn Railroad line. Another train came the other way. Neither train could stop. The trains hit each other. 59 people died. Over 100 people were injured.
Mary Ambler heard about the accident. She gathered medical supplies. She started to walk to the accident. She walked a few miles to get there. When Mary arrived, there were no doctors there. No one was in charge.
Mary told people what to do. She asked them to carry the hurt people to her house. People needed stretchers. They tore shutters off of buildings. They carried people on the shutters. Mary went back to her house. She took sheets and petticoats. She tore them into strips. These were used as bandages. Mary worked hard. She worked for a long time. She helped many hurt people. She let the people stay at her house until they could go home.
After a while things were normal again. Mary lived as she had before. She worked with her sons. She followed her faith. She helped other people.
During the Civil War the Ambler mill was making blankets. They sold them to the Union Army.
Mary Ambler died in 1868. People remembered her as a small Quaker woman who helped other people. Later that same year the town wanted to give the railroad station a new name. They decided to name the station Ambler, after brave Mary Ambler. In 1888 the town also was given the name Ambler.
The Picnic Special
An excursion train operated by the North Pennsylvania Railroad, known as the "Picnic Special," had been contracted by St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia's Kensington section to send their Sunday School children on a picnic in Shaeff's Woods, a sprawling grove near the railroad's Wissahickon station. July 17 was one of the hottest days of the year and the children looked forward to a full day at the park. The train, reported by The New York Times on July 18, 1856, as carrying 1,100 people (although there may have been as many as 1,500), was due to arrive in Wissahickon at 6:00 am. It left Cohocksink depot at Master Street and Germantown Avenue at 5:10 a.m., 23 minutes late, partly due to the large number of passengers aboard.
The Great Train Wreck of 1856 occurred between Camp Hill and Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, on July 17, 1856. Two trains, traveling on the same track in opposite directions, collided, killing 59, and injuring over 100. The incident was referred to as The Camp Hill Disaster in Montgomery County, and The Picnic Train Tragedy in the city of Philadelphia. It was the deadliest railroad catastrophe in the world up to that time and became one of the signature events of its era.
The train's locomotive was called Shakamaxon (in honor of Kensington's Native American name) and was operated by engineer Henry Harris. The engine, known for having low steam pressure, was under a sizable strain as it pulled between 10 and 12 cars overloaded with passengers. A priest, Daniel Sheridan, was in the lead car with the older children. The rear cars carried women and the younger children. The train had to make periodic stops to regain enough pressure to continue.
At the Wissahickon station another train, the Aramingo, engineered by William Vanstavoren, waited for the excursion to pass on the single track line that had opened one year and 15 days earlier. Shakamaxon was late, but the conductor did not use the telegraph to communicate with Cohocksink and had no idea when the excursion had left. There was a customary 15-minute waiting period for regularly scheduled trains, but the picnic special was an excursion train, which confused matters. At 6:15, the Aramingo, carrying 20 passengers from Gwynedd, pulled out of the station.
The engineer of Shakamaxon was confident he could make up for the time he had lost. He knew the Aramingo was due in the opposite direction on the same single track, but calculated they could use the siding at Edge Hill to safely pass each other. As he neared a blind curve just past Camp Hill Station, the train was travelling slightly downhill. Aramingo was rounding the same curve with the same blind spot. Although Harris blew the whistle almost continuously, the doppler effect was not widely understood at the time and, as a result, neither engineer knew exactly where the other was.
As they rounded the curve, they finally caught sight of one another. But it was too late. The trains collided at 6:18 a.m., between the Camp Hill station and the present-day crossing of the Pennsylvania Railroad's Trenton cut-off over the Bethlehem branch of the Reading Railroad.
The boilers made direct contact and the impact caused an explosion heard up to five miles away. The sounds of crashing woodwork, hissing steam, and the victims' screams and moans succeeded the first deafening noise of the explosion. The three forward cars of the picnic train were decimated and the subsequent derailed caused a fire to spread among the wooden cars. The initial impact did not kill most of the victims; rather most were caught in derailed cars that were on their sides, burning. The women and children who occupied the rear coaches, thereby escaping serious injury, jumped out, screaming in a frenzy of fear and grief.
A crowd gathered quickly from neighboring towns. The blaze could be seen for several miles and a man reportedly rode on horseback through the Montgomery County countryside and shouted to the residents: "Bring your camphor bottles, balsam and lint; there has been a horrible accident." But the heat of the burning wreckage was so intense that, even though protruding arms and legs and other parts of bodies could be glimpsed through the flame and smoke, it was impossible to get close enough to attempt a rescue.
The Sandy Run creek, a small brook, ran about 25 feet below the level of the tracks, meandering along the length of the train. A bucket brigade, equipped with tubs, buckets, pails, kettles, and other utensils, was formed down to the edge of the stream by the onlookers. But this effort availed little. The Congress Engine and Hose Company of Chestnut Hill finally reached the scene and, in fairly rapid order, subdued the flames and began to extricate the victims.
John Spencer of Camp Hill, an eyewitness who lived within sight of the collision, gave the following account at a coroner's investigation: "I was looking out of my shop window and saw the train approaching. I saw the down train first, just coming through the cut above Camp Hill station. It was slacking off as much as it could when it came through there. I had just time enough to turn around and saw the up train coming under the bridge at Camp Hill station. It was pretty smart. They were running about as they cleverly could. I heard the whistle on the train coming up before it reached the bridge... I could not see that the speed of the up train diminished between the time I first saw it and the time of the collision....eleven of the bodies of the dead were carried to my shop."
Mary Johnson Ambler, a Quaker woman who resided near the Wissahickon station, quickly gathered first-aid materials and covered the two-mile distance between her home and the disaster site on foot. The service she rendered in caring for the injured was so conspicuous that after her death in 1868, the North Pennsylvania Railroad changed the name of the station from Wissahickon to Ambler. Eventually, the town itself was named for Mrs. Ambler.
Meanwhile, the tragic news reached the city and spread through the parish. Men rushed from the factories, women ran sobbing through the streets. At Cohocksink station, they had to be restrained by police when they attempted to use the hand-cars. Coaches were attached to an idle locomotive at the station, but they were given over almost entirely to Sisters of Charity, nurses, and physicians.
The Daily Evening Bulletin reported: "the most horrible sight of all was that of the burning cars; in a few minutes after the collision, the fire spread rapidly through the broken remnants, burning and roasting to death many men, women and children. The groans and shouts of wounded and those held by the rescuers were of a character to appall the bravest heart."
Henry Harris, engineer of the picnic special, died in the accident as did Rev. Sheridan. The devastation was so extreme that many bodies were never found, and those that were so burned that they could not be identified.
The conductor of the Aramingo, William Vanstavoren, who escaped uninjured, apparently felt he was to blame for the accident. He returned to Philadelphia, officially reported the accident, and then went to his residence at 169 Buttonwood St. (near 10th St.) and committed suicide by taking arsenic. However, he was later absolved of any blame. A jury convicted the engineer of the Shackamaxon picnic special for his "gross carelessness".
Two days after the accident, the Pennsylvania Inquirer said, "The most eager interest is still shown in all that relates to the awful tragedy of Thursday."
The North Pennsylvania Railroad took steps after the accident to provide financial benefits for the injured and for survivors of the victims. They issued shares of stock to those who would accept it and gave money to those who would not. As it turned out, the shares eventually paid worthwhile dividends. The railroad closed down operations on the following Sunday to honor the victims.