HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — On the evening of Aug. 11, 1880, two trains from the Camden-to-Atlantic City route of the two-month-old West Jersey and Atlantic Railroad collided near the railroad bridge in Mays Landing. The trains that carried 1,800 passengers, mostly parishioners from St. Anne’s Literary Society in Philadelphia, had left Atlantic City five minutes apart during extremely stormy weather.
On Saturday, 138 years to the day, representatives from the St. Anne’s Historical Society joined members of the Township of Hamilton Historical Society for a luncheon at the Inn at Sugar Hill to commemorate the event and hold a memorial for the deceased.
The number of those who died remains a mystery. Published accounts at the time claimed only a few people perished. However, due to research by Hamilton historical society member Mari Dattolo and Curator Carl Farrell, that number has climbed.
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“We have now confirmed 50 fatalities,” Farrell told the gathered. “That number may continue to grow.”
Dattolo provided a list with 45 names of those who had been injured and who also possibly died after the incident.
“The first train left Atlantic City at 6 p.m. followed by the second five minutes later,” Farrell said. “It would never be done that way today.”
“When the first train reached Mays Landing, it pulled over on the siding to clear the single track for a passing train from Camden. While the first train was still clearing the track of the last two cars, the second locomotive hit the first in the rear, causing an explosion of the boiler or of pipes coming from it. Passengers in the last car were scalded by the steam cylinder at temperatures upwards of 200 degrees.”
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The accident scene overwhelmed the small community as the passengers outnumbered the township’s population of 1,464. The citizens responded quickly, and the town’s two hotels were transformed into makeshift hospitals.
“Dozens of newspapers across the country carried the story, acknowledging the kindness extended by the citizens of Mays Landing,” Dattolo said.
Despite that coverage, society President Joan Cradock called the event “the least recorded train accident in history.” She referred to Farrell and Dattolo as the “Dynamic Duo” for the research they have done.
“I have lived here for 35 years and just learned about the crash,” said Deputy Mayor Roger Silva. “We need to keep the event alive in people’s minds.”
Farrell pointed out that the old cotton mill in Mays Landing was owned by the Wood family, who were also instrumental in bringing the railroad into Mays Landing to bring cotton from the South.
“This was a company town where people bought items at the company store and many of the workers also lived in housing owned by the company,” he said. “No one wanted to give bad press and hold the railroad responsible.”
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St. Anne’s Historical Society President Russ Wylie invited Farrell and Dattolo to attend the Philadelphia church’s 175th anniversary in 2020.
“The research you have done has impacted our parish so much,” he said. “We would like you to share the story with our parishioners.”
Also in attendance was Steve Besserman of AriJoe Productions in Trenton. He is collaborating with Farrell and Dattolo on a documentary of the train wreck suitable for airing on public television or outlets such as the History Channel. John Piggot of White Raven Investigations and Paranormal Society filmed the event.
Following the indoor presentation, the group gathered on the dock to toss a memorial bouquet into the Great Egg Harbor River. Symbolically, just as the flowers were tossed, the storm clouds opened to duplicate the conditions of the fateful evening 138 years ago.
A short documentary about the incident can be viewed at hamiltonhistorical.org.