Family Genealogists Help Document Story of Brakeman Edwin Roach Killed in Railroad Explosion

Edwin and Martha Roach. source: Jane Roach Butler and Harry Roach, III, family historians

Edwin and Martha Roach. source: Jane Roach Butler and Harry Roach, III, family historians

I have been investigating a deadly Delaware tragedy, an explosion that occurred over one hundred years ago in Greenwood. In the midst of a blinding snowstorm two trains collided in the center of the town of 367 people, and one pulling a lethal cargo of dynamite and naphtha exploded.

While opening up the doors to the past, I’ve spent several days in the Sussex County community searching for clues at an array of places. Fieldwork took me to the town hall, public library, cemeteries, the local nursing home, and elsewhere. There has also been manuscript research at the Delaware Public Archives, which was coupled with digital data.

One added perspective to aid in piecing this puzzle together involved finding the tradition-bearers, the community and family members who carry the stories down through time. These priceless links to the past (whether firsthand accounts or family stories), help present events in a different context.

This information arrived via an unexpected email from Jane Roach Butler and Harry Edwin Roach III, family genealogists.  These recorders of family history have been doing their own inquiry, digging up those traces of earlier times. Their extensive work included death certificates, newspapers, probate records, family lore, and other typical sources for genealogy, including personal photos.

The railroad man killed in the accident, Edwin Roach, was their great-grandfather, the son of Daniel & Eliza “Sally” Jones Roach. This was a great personal tragedy “which resounded through the lives of his parents, widow, children and grandchildren. He was a purposeful man of promise, owning various properties in Sussex Co. His death at such a young age would, as it were, dampen the future of his children, forever changing the course of their lives,” Jane wrote earlier this week.

Edwin (1874 – 1903) was born and raised in Georgetown. He resided in Wilmington with his wife Martha “Mattie” Jones Roach (1872 – 1964), and their children at the time of his death. Mattie was not related to either of the two Delaware Jones family lines, as she was born in Ambler, PA. She never remarried and Edwin is buried at Union Cemetery in Georgetown.

Edwin’s name is given as Edward in newspaper accounts and that was picked up by wire services, spreading that information far and wide.  The State of Delaware’s Certificate of Death notes that Edwin Roach, 30 of Wilmington, Delaware, a railroad brakeman, died from an explosion on a train on Dec. 4, 1903. The certificate was issued by Pepper & Mc Glorhean, Undertaker of Georgetown, DE. The headstone at the cemetery marks his death as taking place on the 2nd. “We believe his death was instantaneous and the confusing surrounding the accident may have led to this death certificate error” she observes.

“It would be lovely to set the record straight on his name these so many years later,” Jane concluded. First, thanks Jane and Harry for generously sharing your research, including photos.

Hopefully this blog post helps with that, too.   The Greenwood tragedy clearly illustrates the need for multiple perspectives as newspapers and the death certificate sometimes misstated information.

greenwood death certificate edwin roach

Delaware Death Certificate for Edwin Roach. Source: Jane Roach Butler and Harry Edwin Roach III

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