Trolley car wrecks common in York County
Early 1900s York Railways trolley
I received an email with an image of a photo postcard of a trolley wreck in York Township between Spry and Dallastown in 1907. I started doing some research on it and was surprised at how many trolley accidents there were during the nearly 50 years (1893-1939) that York Railways ran the electric streetcars over a good portion of the county.
I found there had been another wreck near the site in 1906 and an even worse head-on accident, this one with four fatalities, in the same place in 1905. The 1905 catastrophe was front page news, with long lurid articles, for the next week.
A future post will have more on the 1907 accident, as well as some of the many others. The 1905 tragedy had some interesting twists, so I used that story for my recent York Sunday News column, which you can read below.
Trolley Tragedy near Dallastown
It was a Saturday afternoon. York Railways car 101, packed with 105 men, women and children, left York at 4:30 on its way through Spry to Dallastown, Red Lion and Windsor. Many of the passengers lived in those little towns and were returning home from shopping or visiting friends.
There was only a single track for the two-way electric trolley system. Cars could pass each other at switches. A signal system had recently been installed and it was the responsibility of each motorman to set the signal switch as he entered a new section, or block, so that a light at the other end of the block indicated that an oncoming car must wait.
Something went wrong that Saturday, September 9, 1905. As Motorman Tempest Meisenhelder rounded a curve obscured by high corn about a mile from Dallastown he saw a freight car rushing toward him. He cut off electric power and threw the air brakes, but his car continued to slide on the tracks. Meisenhelder yelled “Jump for your lives!” and jumped along with two other men riding up front with him, saving their lives. Conductor Calvin Snyder, riding on the back platform, had no inkling of danger until he flew halfway through the car.
Chaos reigned as the impact threw the front of the passenger car into the air, mixing terrified passengers with broken seats and debris with parcels and shopping baskets that had packed the baggage area behind the motorman. Blood was said to be everywhere, and less injured passengers helped or carried the badly injured out to lay on the ground by the track as they waited for help.
Help was slow in coming. Word was sent to York to send Drs. King and Bacon, the York Railway doctors, but that relief car didn’t reach the scene until an hour and a half later, incensing the gathering crowd. By that time many of the injured were taken to their home or homes of friends that had hurried to the scene. Drs. Mann, Minnich and Bigler from Dallastown came as soon as they heard. York Railways General Manager Hayward came too, promising to pay all medical and funeral expenses.
The relief car and doctors finally arrived, taking some of the worst injured to York Hospital. Four passengers died that day: cigar packer and barber Elmer E. Shindler, 40, of Windsorville; baker Ralph Milligan, 17, of York; bricklayer Henry Sprenkle, 36, Yoe and P. L. Senft, 63, Dallastown. Between 40 and 50 were reported injured, most with broken bones and cuts, some more critically.
What had happened? Rumors, including that the freight car crew had been drinking at a Red Lion barroom, began to quickly spread. Coroner H.D. Smyser called for an inquest to be convened.
Motorman Meisenhelder contended that he had set the light correctly at Burger’s switch, south of Spry, so the inbound car should not have entered the block from the next switch, just west of Dallastown cemetery. The freight car crew: Motorman Robert Bose, Conductor Salem Spies and Freight Handler Aaron Lehman, said the signal was not set against them. Bose said he stood on the brakes as soon as he saw the passenger car.
The drama played out in the York newspapers the next few days. Dr. Smyser went to Dallastown, Red Lion and Windsor and came back upset that he got only hearsay and not many facts. The inquest jury started to hear testimony, and District Attorney James Glessner promised to prosecute whoever was found to be responsible.
Five days after the wreck Gazette headlines announced the findings of inquest: “Motorman Billet Responsible for Trolley Disaster; He Admits That He Neglected to Close the Block.”
Wilton Billet, the motorman on an inbound passenger car that had passed outbound Meisenhelder’s car at Burger’s switch, hadn’t been mentioned before. The story came out in testimony: The twice-a-day freight run from York to Windsor and back didn’t have a set schedule. At Windsor, freight car crew member Lehman told Billet not to change the switches back because they would follow. He emphasized that he said “will follow,” not “try to follow.” The freight car then would reset the switches they passed through. He told Billet three times and Billet responded that he heard him. Motorman Bose confirmed this.
The freight car got slightly behind because of two small deliveries in Red Lion and Dallastown. When Billet got to Dallastown he thought the freight car was no longer following, so he set the switch when he left the block, making it look like it was safe for Meisenhelder to enter the block. When he passed Meisenhelder at Burger’s switch, he did not tell him that a freight car might be following. The rules specifically stated that the motorman was responsible for any car following him–he must see that the block is left clear for a following car, and he must verbally tell any oncoming motorman that another car is following.
The coroner’s jury found Billet guilty of criminal negligence in the death of the four passengers. The charge could result in a maximum penalty of $5,000 fine and five years in county jail or state prison. A distraught Billet turned himself in a few days later, before authorities had completed paperwork for his arrest. After several delays, Billet came to trial nearly a year after the accident. He was found guilty and sentenced to county jail for one year and fined $1 plus prosecution costs. A few years later, Billet returned to the York police force, where he had served before his York Railway employment.
This article is a short summary of ten days of rather sensational newspaper coverage of the 1905 wreck. For more information see manuscript files and microfilm at the York County Heritage Trust Library/Archives.
Click the links below for more on York County trolley lines.
Part of Hanover line to be used as rail trail.
Progessive dinner on Hanover line.
See a restored York Railways car at York County Heritage Trust’s Agricultural and Industrial Museum