In the little town of Greenwood a day and night of horror arrived abruptly while a blinding snowstorm pummeled Delaware on Dec. 2, 1903. In those treacherous conditions, the brakes of a shifting engine failed, causing it to slide out on the main line as a southbound train approached town. The extra, Engine 5160, nearing the junction of the Delaware and Queen Anne’s Railroads at 12:15 p.m., was creeping cautiously down the tracks at about 20 miles-per-hour while pulling some 30 to 40 freight cars.
Piloting 5160 and its deadly cargo down the road, Engineer William Shepherd reported that blinding snow prevented him from seeing more than a few feet ahead, the Baltimore Sun reported. In those near whiteout conditions, the shifter suddenly loomed into view. His whistle cried out with an urgent shriek and he applied the brakes while shouting to Conductor Hall and Brakeman George J. Roach to jump. But they did not have time.
In Greenwood, the people heard the shrill warning and the noise of heavy metal bending and twisting. Moments later, there was a deafening roar when a boxcar of dynamite exploded, instantly filling the air with flying debris, fire and smoke. That first powerful blast was followed quickly by another eruption as naphtha tank cars took fire, shooting burning liquid out over the landscape. The combination of the explosion and the highly flammable liquid scattered a rain of liquid fire that shock the countryside, newspapers reported.
Instantly nine houses, and three wrecked tanks cars were wrapped in flames. Dazed, terror stricken residents rushed from their homes into the howling storm, trying to ascertain what rocked the Sussex County village. The flames were shooting up in the air so the uninjured headed toward the accident to render whatever aid they could. They faced three urgent tasks, trying to save lives from the wreck, save their own homes, and the need to care for the injured.
To make matters worse, the storm continued intensifying and communications with outside communities was impossible as the blast brought down all telephone and telegraph wires. As soon as possible a locomotive was sent to Seaford and it returned with a special train carrying five physicians. The doctors began looking after the injured while citizens directed their efforts to save burning buildings and people.
In time people from neighboring areas started arriving in sleighs, offering to provide shelter to those whose homes were uninhabitable. As darkness came to Greenwood on a day of unimaginable horror, the driving snowstorm in all its fury, was raging more intensely.
Throughout the dark, unsettled Wednesday night it was difficult to assess the full extent of the damage. But upon the arrival of the gray dawn of Thursday, the people of the snow covered town were better able to see the wreckage and desolation. The explosion came with such a force that it plowed a hole in the ground large enough to bury the engine.
There was hardly a sound house in town, some having been torn to pieces, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. A number were half overturned, many had great holes in their walls, doors were torn from their hinges, and practically every window in town was smashed. And there was the great pile of freight, one on top of another, the newspaper noted.
Killed in the explosion were Brakeman Edward J. Roach of Georgetown and an infant child. There were also reports that three hoboes hitching a ride in a car had perished. About eight families were homeless, at least twenty people suffered injuries, and practically every structure had suffered damage to some extent.
The shock from the blast was felt in communities across three counties. Everyone in Caroline felt the terrific explosion, the Denton Journal reported.
Ten days later the Washington Times reported that “a secret explosive wrecked Greenwood.” A glance over the stricken town furnished proof positive that something more deadly than 100 pounds of dynamite exploded in the wreck of the two freight trains on the Pennsylvania Railroad, the paper remarked. This, if a dynamite explosion, was a thousand-pound job.” The car which blew up was loaded in New York and was consigned to the government, its destination being Newport News. “It contained a quantity of new explosive, a terrible instrument of death,” the reporter added.