During the early years of the railroad accidents were frequent and trains could be a hazard to both passengers and passers by. My gr-great grandfather William Nisbet Olmsted recorded one such tragedy in a schoolboy letter dated 1849.
"There was a dreadful accident happened yesterday on the Camden and Amboy railroad it occurred at the place where the railroad crosses the road which turns off to the river-road. There was a man and a boy in the wagon with all their curtains down. The horse reared up and ran on the track at the sight of the cars, which struck the horse and the wagon and through (sic) the man and boy under the cars. The horse and boy were instantly killed the boy’s head was cut and some of his brains dashed out, the man was nearly 80 years of age & he had his ribs and one arm broken and his scull (sic) broken and part of his brains dashed out. Please give my love to all
Your affectionate son
Another ancestor, my Gr-gr-gr-great grandfather, John Stearns, was actually killed by a locomotive in Woburn, Massachusetts on November 5th, 1836 in the 71st year of his age. Two of his sons, John Owen and Onslow Stearns, were at that time embarked on successful railroad building careers. The stock certificate at left was issued in 1841 and is one of three examples preserved in our family archives from the Elizabeth Town & Somerville (NJ) Rail Road Company, a venture in which my direct ancestor John Owen Stearns was associated.
John Owen Stearns was a remarkable engineer involved in turnpike and canal building - notably the Blackstone and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal - before embarking on railroad construction. At one time he was active on the bridging, grading, masonry and general management of no less than seven different railroads. He met his future wife, Margaret Currie Walker, when he took lodging with her Quaker family when he was superintendent of the Chester Valley (PA) Railroad in the late 1830's. The couple soon moved to New Jersey, where he ultimately became superintendent and board member of the Central New Jersey Railroad which grew from the tiny Elizabeth & Somerville short line. His son also held positions with the Central Railroad, and some of the silver tea service that was awarded to him on his retirement is still retained by the family.
John Owen Stearns, Sr. died suddenly in November, 1862 of natural causes. At the time of his death he was responsible for railroad crews of nearly 1,000 men. His lengthy obituary records that:"Saturday evening, he was apparently in his usual good health, and about ten o'clock took a bath, shortly after which he complained of a difficulty in his breathing, and before medical assistance could be procured was a corpse." The New Jersey Central remains in operation today having absorbed many smaller lines, several of which were laid down by my ancestor.