A view of Ambler from the 1871 atlas by G. M. Hopkins.
The European settlement of what would one day be Ambler began when a Quaker family named Harmer bought the land along the Wissahickon from William Penn. By the middle of the nineteenth century, a mill town, known as Wissahickon had developed. By 1855, the settlement was prominent enough that the North Penn Railroadbuilt a station in the town. The station was also called Wissahickon.
About one year later, on July 17, 1856, the north bound Shackamaxon crashed into the south bound Aramingo between Fort Washington and Camp Hill. Fifty-nine people died in what was then the deadliest train wreck in history and 86 were injured, according to Frank D. Quattrone’s book Ambler. Some bodies were never found and some were unidentified, so the exact number of dead might be higher. It was known as the “Picnic Train Tragedy” because many of the riders on the Shackamaxon were day trippers up from St. Michael’s in Kensington, and the train may have been overloaded.
A newspaper drawing imagining the wreck.
The rail line curved near Camp Hill and neither engineer could see the other. The Shackamaxon may have left Philadelphia early, further confusing things. When the locomotives hit head on, the explosion of the boilers could be heard for miles around and the fire that followed could also be seen for some distance. It was the fire, and not the collision, that seems to have claimed the most victims.
Volunteers from nearby homes and farms arrived as quickly as they could. Most prominent among them was Mary Johnson Ambler, a Quaker widow who lived two miles away in Wissahickon. She gathered medical supplies and walked the two miles to the wreck. Once there, she calmly attended the wounded.
After her death in 1868, North Penn Railroad decided to honor her work at the accident site by renaming the Wissahickon train station in her honor. When the borough incorporated in 1888, it took the name Ambler.
Postcard showing the Ambler train station