Detailed technical testimony dominated the coroner's inquest of June 7, 1889 :
The inquiry into the cause of the junction cut railway disaster was resumed yesterday afternoon at three o’clock before Coroner A. Woolverton.
W. A. Robinson, one of the experts retained by the jury, was the first to take the stand. He read a report prepared by himself, which, he stated, was based solely upon what had come to his personal notice. He did not permit himself to be at all influenced by the testimony which had been given to the jury at its different sittings. He presented a written report, of which the following is the text :
Such an accident as the one under consideration would, in my opinion, be produced by any of the following causes : Some obstruction on or in the track; breakage of the leading engine wheel; a defect in some portion of the track or switch apparatus; a leading wheel jumping the track. No evidence is apparent as to the first named, and although possible, it could hardly be considered in any way probable. The disturbance of the track, however, was such that in so confused and entangled a mass of wreckage, evidence of such cause would be very difficult to discover. There is a broken axle belonging to the engine truck, which I have carefully examined and find that all the usual shop marks about the different parts of the truck indicate said axle to have been the trailing or back truck axle. A close inspection of the fracture of this axle reveals the fact that it could have made no revolutions after the fracture, otherwise the face of the metal at the fracture would have shown abrasions from the two parts coming in contact with each other, or with other substances while revolving, whereas, no such abrasions are apparent. Again, the skid or surface of this broken axle shows no marks of violence except at the place where broken, while the other truck axle is bent and bruised all over. This evidence also indicates that the broken axle was in the back of the engine truck, where it was, to a great extent, shielded by the front wheels and axle from the heavy blows and concussions to which the latter were subjected. This axle was most probably broken when the engine with its heavy boiler was forced over it in the crash which followed. The left front wheel of the engine truck is badly broken into several pieces, and there is a burnished place on the “tread” as if it had been sliding at some time. The opposite wheel has its flange broken, and the right-hand back wheel is fractured on the “tread.” Could reliable knowledge be obtained of the exact spots on the track where each part of the several fragments out of the left front wheel were picked up, I would feel more positive in my conclusions; but this knowledge does not seem to be obtainable, hence I am forced at this point largely into conjecture. One of the fragments out of this wheel, marked “5,5,L,” is free from all appearance of having been either broken off earlier than other pieces. Again, the section of the fracture where this piece fits corresponds with the indentations found on the west end of the rail adjoining the north switch-rail, so that the evidence here given would go to show that the wheel had mounted the rails on the north side near the switch; also that it was broken before it reached the next rail. The track from the switch to the wreck was so twisted and warped by the strain of the wheels running off the rails and the fearful heat from the burning up of the cars afterwards that it is most difficult to determine what, if any, portion of this may have caused or contributed to the accident. A careful examination, however, of the switch apparatus and of all the rails in the vicinity afforded no evidence that any part of them was out of order before the accident. The most significant marks to be found on the rails are as follows : Elongated abrasion on the north flange near the east end of the north switch-rail; deep groove and chamfering at the west end and indentations and elongated excoriations on top of the north rail adjoining the switch-rail; bruised fish-plate and bruised bolts on the north side of the joint at the heel of the north switch-rail; broken guard on the check-rail, which is also battered down at the west end and shows an abrasion on the inside at the east end. All of these marks and injuries are more possibly consequences than causes of the accident. As a leading wheel jumping the track there is, as already stated, every evidence that the broken left front engine truck wheel got on the wrong side of the north switch rail; but whether this was caused by the flange of the left front engine truck wheel breaking off when it struck the north switch-rail and that the wheel was at the same time instantly jerked over the switch-rail, causing thereby the fearful consequences that followed. As it would be naturally asked why this should take place on the occasion of this accident any more than during the running of previous similar trains, I would reply that such an unusual occurrence at this point might be accounted for by the “fortuitous combination of forces,” which on other occasions become dissipated or dispersed. These forces in railway practice are known as that arising from the “sinuous” or lateral motions of the railway engines and the centrifugal motion due to the curve. These forces, aggravated by the tighter gauge of the wheels at the switch, and the speed at which the train was running at the time through the switch, all united at the same instant, would cause a lateral thrust or lurch, which, on the occasion of the accident may have been sufficient to fracture the flange and jerk the front truck wheel over the switch-rail, as already explained. After this happened all subsequent marks and injuries on the rails, etc. can easily be accounted for.
Coroner – Supposing the accident to have been caused by a broken flange, could the broken wheel have gone over the switch-rail without leaving a mark upon it?
Mr. Robinson – This is the only missing link in the proof. Owing to the rails being wet, and the suddenness with which the accident occurred, it might have done so. At the place where I consider the wheel jumped, the rails have attained their full width.
At the request of the jury, Mr. Robinson undertook to explain, with the aid of the model of that section of track, including the switch, where the accident occurred, how the wheel of the engine which had a piece broken out of it acted when it came to the switch-point, and showed what, in his opinion, was the course it took along the rail until it went off.
Coroner – Can you tell what caused a portion of one wheel of the engine to be burnished?
Mr. Robinson – I can only give theories as to the cause of the burnishing. One reason might be that that portion of the wheel became covered with clay or some substance, and when the fire took place this portion remained untouched by the fire and retained its brightness.
In answer to a juryman, Mr. Robinson stated that the train must have been running at a speed of not less than thirty miles an hour to produce the result which followed. In answer to the foreman, he said the gauge at the switch-point was four feet eight and three-quarter inches. There is a difference of half an inch between the switch-rails, which would be dangerous to a train running a high rate of speed. Changing speed on a curve is more dangerous than keeping up a uniform speed.
Mr. Littlehales – Have you detected anything in the course of your investigation which would lead you to suppose that there was any defective construction of the engine or track?
Mr. Robinson – I saw nothing to indicate that any part of the engine or track was defective.
To Mr. Thorne – I would recommend that, where practicable, in cases of accident like the one under consideration, the coroner in the district should engage practical men at once to examine everything at the scene before any change was made, and have those experts make a report to the jury afterward empanelled. I agree with the statements which have been made that there is no danger in going at high speed around the curve; but when a switch is placed on a curve, then the danger is very much increased. I would say that the speed in that case should be kept under twenty miles an hour.
T. D. Townsend, the other expert, then read his report, which was very lengthy, and dealt to some extent with evidence given by witnesses already published. He said :
I would submit that it is of the first importance in the interest of the public that complete observations should be recorded at the earliest possible moment after an accident. The accident may have occurred from any one of the following causes : Failure to some part of the permanent way; imperfect operation of the switch; failure of some part of the engine; derailment by what is known as jumping the track: failure partly referable to the engine and partly to the permanent way. I have confined my observations of the permanent way chiefly to that part included between the switch-point and the “frog” or crossing point. I think it will be shown that the commencement and complete destruction of the continuity of the track was within the distance; and if this is established with reasonable certainty, it will follow that the beginning of the general collapse of the rolling stock found east of the “frog” began there. The first recorded marks are found on the north flange of the switch-rail about ten feet east of the switch-point. It is a cut or groove more or less irregular, and is continued until the fish-plates and fish-plate bolts are reached. There are indentions and other slight marks on several parts of the rail. Probably every wheel that passed the “frog” delivered a blow on this rail (the south check-rail). We will now endeavor to trace up what we conjecture were the order of effects. Before the train reached the switch it is more probable that a crack had been produced in the skidded wheel, and when the point was reached a sudden jar occurred referable to the slight bulging in the general line of curvature at that point. This jar caused a section of the wheel to fall outward between the switch and V rails, which was pressed in and carried forward on the north flange of the switch-rail until the fishplate bolts were reached, when it sheared off the nuts of the first and second bolts with the threaded portion of the bolts close to the fishplate. The violence of the blow knocked inward or southward the heel of the switch-rail and laid the end of the next rail open for a blow. The triangular sectional portion of the rail, which has been partly crushed, I am of opinion was the last work done by the detached section of the wheel and it was thrown off the track at this point. The triangular groove in the south part of the section was most probably made by the advancing fractured face of the broken wheel, which struck the end of the rail and mounted it, cutting the marks on top and finally leaving the rail near the point between the second and third rails. The driving and trailing wheels of the engine in passing pushed back the heel of the switch-rail and left about one and an eighth inch of the end of the second rail exposed to the flanges of succeeding wheels.
The sections of the broken wheel were brought into the court-room, and Mr. Townsend used them in helping to make clearer to the jury some of the statements made in his report.
The coroner said a gentleman had suggested that the bolts which support the springs on the truck sometimes break, setting the weight down upon the wheels and causing them to skid. He asked Mr. Townsend if that would be the result.
Mr. Townsend replied that it would. The whole circumstance of the accident must have taken place in about a second and a half, as the engine was covering over forty-feet per second.
Continuing, he said : I quite agree with Mr. Robinson as to the rate of speed which it is safe to run around that curve, but differ a little from him as to the reason for it. I consider fifteen or twenty miles an hour the maximum speed trains should make at that point, not because the curve is dangerous, but because the switch there is most dangerous. The engineer cannot see more than 200 yards ahead at that point, and there is the possibility of running into some unseen obstruction. The weight of that train was about 340 tons, and supposing it was traveling at the rate of thirty miles an hour it had a mechanical force capable of lifting 12,000 to 14,000 tons one foot high per second. If it had struck a solid mass of rock under the same circumstances there would have been nothing left but fragments.
Next Monday afternoon at three o’clock was the time fixed for hearing the coroner’s charge and deliberating upon a verdict.