To many people, the introduction of trains in Montgomery County was a welcomed change in transportation. However, while trains were a faster way to travel, it was not uncommon for them to derail during the earliest days of their use. At HSMC, we have a piece of metal believed to be from one of these train wrecks.
Piece of Metal from Gwynedd Train Wreck
On Saturday November 21, 1903, a train derailed shortly after leaving Gwynedd Station. The engine and one passenger car jumped off the track and slid down an embankment when trying to cross the Wissahickon. Sadly, one passenger, Clement Custer, and one fireman, Harry Roderick, were killed. Several other passengers were injured.
Although this train wreck may not appear to be unusual when compared to similar accidents, the cause of this wreck was quite unusual. According to the Times Herald, the authorities believed the rail road tracks were sabotaged! There were two theories as to why someone would sabotage the tracks.
First, the previous week, a group of intoxicated African American men were forced off the same train when they reached Landsdale. Some people claimed the men said they would take revenge for being forced off the train.
The second theory, some people believed the sabotage could have been part of a robbery plan. According to Great Train Wrecks of Eastern Pennsylvania, the Black Diamond Express, which carried large sums of money, was scheduled to pass the sabotaged tracks before this passenger train. The tracks were bent without cutting the bond wire, which would have triggered the signal system and alerted oncoming trains. This could only have been accomplished by a person who knew the train schedule and understood the construction of the tracks.
In spite of these two theories, no arrests were ever made and the exact reason for the sabotage remains a mystery. The Times Herald mentions the wreck four times over the next few weeks, but investigators were unable to find the person responsible for the sabotage. Was it the result of a disgruntled passenger or railroad worker? Was the saboteur just looking to get rich? This is one mystery we may never solve.
Among the many school records housed in our lower stacks, are many large ledgers called “Teacher’s Monthly Reports.” Issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Common Schools, the books were used by teachers to record attendance, textbooks used, and other events that might have happened at the school.
Several teachers often appear in the same book suggesting that teaching was a temporary position, held for a few years only. Whatever the teacher, he or she filled out the two page spread for each month. Boys are one side and girls on the other, but otherwise the method of taking attendance is not unlike the way my teachers marked attendance.
The absence rate seems high for some students. It’s possible that some were working on family farms or in family businesses, though in an age before mandatory vaccinations and antibiotics, its possible many students were experiencing what were common childhood diseases. School at this time let out for lunch, and the teachers recorded if the children missed the morning (a horizontal line) or didn’t return after lunch (a vertical line).
The second teacher to use this book from Gwynedd Lower School, James Creighton, recorded the students’ ages, giving us a snapshot of a one room school house with students as young as 7 and as old as 18.
This book is from a series of Teacher’s Monthly Reports books from Gwynedd Township (Gwynedd was split into Upper and Lower in 1891). The books were originally printed in 1868. The one we’ve looked at here began use in 1871 and is filled throughout, ending in 1876. We have books from other school districts as well.
The inside of the front cover is printed with instructions on what symbols to use and how to calculate the average attendance. It also suggests that teachers keep their attendance on a separate sheet and copy the records in neatly at the end of the month. It notes, “A teacher’s character is in no small degree indicated by the manner in which the monthly report is kept.”
At the end of the month, the book was examined by the secretary of the school district, who signed it and gave the teacher his or her monthly pay. The receipt of the payment was also noted in the report.