PITTSBURGH — A Pennsylvania Railroad passenger train inbound from Akron, Ohio jumped a frozen switch as the tracks turned over Merchant Street on the North Side on Feb. 26, 1934. The train plummeted down the high culvert, obliterated an electrical substation and demolished part of the D. L. Clark candy factory’s wall as the train’s coaches piled onto the street.
The train was running fast and 20 minutes late in poor weather conditions when it jumped the tracks at 9:32 p.m. The time was noted by a damaged time clock in the candy factory. The locomotive, tender and five coaches tumbled 20 feet down onto Merchant Street, strewing debris as they impacted several buildings and collapsed part of the bridge and retaining walls.
The sound of the impact was heard for more than a mile, followed by the shriek of escaping steam from the ruined locomotive. The train was just three minutes from the North Side’s Fort Wayne station when it crashed. Many of the passengers were booked through to later stops in Philadelphia and New York City. The train was carrying 57 passengers at the time of the crash.
Survivors and rescuers struggled in the sudden darkness to escape the wreckage and help the injured, some of whom found refuge from the bitter cold in homes along the western side of Merchant Street.
Vehicles of every description were commandeered from the surrounding area to rush passengers to nearby Allegheny General Hospital and Presbyterian Hospital. Another train coach was quickly positioned near the wreck to serve as a field hospital.
The train’s engineer and fireman were killed, as were seven passengers, most of whom were in the first coach or in the last sleeper car where they were crushed by swinging upper berths when the car overturned.
Among the dead was Helen Wardrop, the wife of a railroad official and daughter of the First National Bank of Pittsburgh’s chairman of the board. She had just boarded the train in Sewickley with Frank Dravo, a friend of her husband. Dravo, the co-founder and president of the prominent shipbuilding company Dravo Contracting Company (which went public in 1936 as Dravo Corporation and closed in 1983), was also killed in the crash.
Several of those killed were so entangled in the wreckage that they could not be freed until hours after the crash when railroad crews arrived with acetylene torches.
The switch that caused the derailment was located on the sweeping turn the mainline tracks make as they exit the Allegheny Commons Park West portion of West Park. The locomotive of the train split the frozen switch, which was last used at 5 p.m., and was directed right into the bridge buttress of the Clark Company’s spur-line. The switch controlled access to the Clark Company’s factory where several freight cars had been shunted to earlier. The remnants of the spur-line and bridge can still be seen in the skeletal form of a trestle over Martindale Street leading to the D. L. Clark Building.
The Clark Company factory was closed due to extensive damage until repairs could be completed. Power generators were shattered, electric lines ripped out and the tracks to the shipping department were destroyed. The entire corner of the building was also peeled off.