One gloomy Monday night in February 1909, the Norfolk Express, eleven cars loaded with passengers, baggage and mail for Norfolk, rolled out of Wilmington at midnight. As the train rushed down the Peninsula, past Middletown, Dover, Harrington and Seaford, a thick fog cloaked Delaware, greatly reducing visibility. Moments before 3 o’clock in the morning, No. 49 slowed for Delmar Station.
But two engines were blocking the main track running through the Delmar Yard. As the heavy train filled with sleeping excursionists rammed those locomotives the mail and baggage cars behind the tender crumpled, taking the brunt of the wreck as heavy Pullman passenger coaches crashed into them. Hot coals showered the smashed units setting fire to baggage and mail. Within minutes the roar of exploding gas takes was heard. The fire and the explosions made the rescue of seven men pinned in the wreckage impossible. The U.S. Mail Clerks, Adams Express Messengers, and a deadheading engineer didn’t have a chance to escape when the sudden crash came, Wilmington newspapers reported. They were caught in the deluge of baggage and debris as flames ate rapidly through the cars.
In the baggage unit was a performing horse, Princess Trixie, a favorite with vaudeville audiences. The animal, which also perished, was on its way to Norfolk for a show. Charles H. Smith, a company employee at Delmar, learned that the Trixie and her trainer, Lewis Brockway, were penned so he hacked his way through the rear door, finding the horse lying against the man, crushing him. He dragged the trainer out of the car just as the tank exploed and that part of the compartment burst into flames. Unconscious, Brockway was rushed to Peninsula General Hospital in Salisbury.
Railroad workers, hearing cries rising above the crackling flames and hissing steam, had dashed to try to rescue the men. But by the time they cut their way into the wreckage, “death had claimed the seven men in those two cars. The bodies of the imprisoned men, charred and still in death, were found near the door and not a human sound was heard by the rescuers.” Firemen from Delmar and Salisbury rushed to the scene to extinguish the flames, which burned into the morning hours. While the rescue attempt was underway, an engine was coupled to the rear of the Pullmans, which stayed on the rails because of their weight and they were pulled away from the danger.
Because of the thick fog Engineer Benjamin B. Ewing of Wilmington and Fireman T. Henry Esham couldn’t see far ahead. He’d slowed for the yard, when suddenly the lights of the idling engines directly ahead on the main track came into view. It was too late to stop but he stayed at his post until the crash came, applying the emergency brakes to slacken the speed of No. 49. The collision occurred about 300 yards north of the station at Delmar on the boundary line between Delaware and Maryland.
It was the most serious disaster on the Delaware Road. Trainmen and mailclerks were pinned in the wreckage and all of the bodies were burned in the fire that consumed the two cars. The dead were: John D. McCready, baggage-master, Wilmington; John W. Wood, mail clerk, Wilmington; Harvey L. Wilhelm, mail weigher, New Castle; W. Oliver Perry, Adams Express Messenger, Cambridge; William B. Cochran, mail clerk, Philadelphia; George Davis, a deadheading Engineer, Seaford; and R. M. Davis, Mail Clerk, Marydel.
No. 49 consisted of the heavy locomotive, an express car, a combined mail and baggage car, three day coaches and six Pullman sleepers.