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Rail fire 150 years ago burned U.S. Army horses near Hanover Junction

One of the dangers of rail travel in the mid-19th century was the worry about sparks from the locomotives’ smokestacks. While most funnels were high enough to throw any burning embers or sparks into the sky without serious danger, occasionally embers did fly back onto trailing rail cars. There are accounts of passengers being burned when their clothing caught on fire, but these were relatively rare by the time of the Civil War. Famed author Charles Dickens in 1842 wrote about a night trip in which he saw through the car windows “a whirlwind of bright sparks, which showered about us like a fiery snow.”

Wooden covered bridges were a concern (for example engined under power were banned on the mile-and-a-quarter-long wooden covered bridge between Wrightsville and Columbia, Pennsylvania, for fear of a fire). James Radley and John Hunter in 1850 had patented a “spark arrestor,” a spiral-shaped cone which separated embers from the exhaust flow by centrifugal force. Nearly 1,000 other inventors tackled the problem over various years with diverse solutions, including smokestack design and other forms of spark arrestors.

They did not always work.

Track-side grass fires occurred at times in the summer when sparks from passing engines inflamed dry foliage.

The Philadelphia Inquirer on August 27, 1861, during the first year of the Civil War, noted a life-threatening incident that happened in southern York County:

“On Saturday whilst a train of cars filled with horses for the Government, was passing on its way to Baltimore, at a point near Hanover [Junction], on the Northern Central Railroad, caught fire from the sparks of the locomotive, and as there was a considerable quantity of straw, the men in charge had some difficulty in rescuing the animals. A number in each were badly burned, and presented a pitiful sight.”