A Day of Horror in Greenwood as Train With Deadly Cargo Explodes

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A postcard of Greenwood, DE a few years after the explosion, Circa 1910. Source: Delaware Public Archives. https://www.flickr.com/photos/delawarepublicarchives/8680928364/in/photostream/

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 Edwin 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 Edwin 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.

The railroad junction and tower in Greenwood.  A postcard, circa 1908.  Source Delaware Public Archives:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/delawarepublicarchives/8679818901/in/photostream/

The railroad junction and tower in Greenwood. A postcard, circa 1908. Source Delaware Public Archives: https://www.flickr.com/photos/delawarepublicarchives/8679818901/in/photostream/

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Tri-State Marker Trail Dedication and Celebration of the 250th Anniversary of the Mason Dixon Survey

The Tri-State Marker

The Tri-State Marker

Press Release — Friends of White Clay Creek Preserve

June 6, 2015 (National Trails Day)

9am to 1 pm

Download a flyer here. It has all the hikes and details about the event!

Join the Friends of White Clay Creek Preserve and Wilmington Trail Club on National Trail Day, Saturday, June 6, 2015 as we celebrate the completion of the northern segment of the trail to the Mason-Dixon Tri-State Marker. This marker was set 250 years ago by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon to settle the border dispute between Pennsylvania (and later Delaware) and Maryland. At 11 am there will be a dedication ceremony at the Tri-State Marker as hikers arrive carrying the flags from all three states: Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware.

This is a rain or shine event, dress accordingly. Bring water and pack snacks and/or your lunch.

Limited transportation from the Carpenter Area of the White Clay Creek State Park, in Delaware, will be available for those wanting to attend the ceremony but unable to hike to it. Email friendsofwhiteclaycreek@gmail.com to reserve a space on the bus. Seating is limited– those making reservations will be guaranteed seating. It will be available to others if available

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94-Year Old Relative of Officer Killed in Line of Duty in 1915 Attends Wilmington Police Ceremony

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94-Year-Old Francis J. Tierney, the nephew of Wilmington Officer Francis X. Tierney attended the ceremony. Patrolman Tierney’s end of watch was March 1915.

May 8, 2015, the Wilmington Police Department unveiled a memorial wall honoring the ten members of the Wilmington Police Force who have been killed in the line of duty .  A member of the current police academy, the 96th class, read the roll call of WPD’s fallen officers, as the individual plaques were uncovered.

The young recruit, who will soon be patrolling city streets, solemnly read each name.   About half-way through the roll call he announced in a deep voice, Police Officer Francis X. Tierney, End of Watch, Saturday, March 6, 1915.  Died from gunfire.

Patrolman Tierney, 31, was shot and killed as he and three other lawmen attempted to arrest two suspicious men who were attempting to pawn two watches.  When the officers arrived the men fled and exchanged shots with the authorities.  The patrolmen chased the suspects into a nearby stable where Patrolman Tierney was shot and killed and the other officers were wounded.  The two suspets were taken into custody and the man who killed the patrolman was executed on May 14, 1915.  Patrolman Tierney had served with the agency for only three months.

Wilmington Patrolman Francis X. Tierney, EOD March 6, 1915  source:  Delaware Police Chief's Council  http://depolicechiefscouncil.org/in-memoriam.html

Wilmington Patrolman Francis X. Tierney, EOD March 6, 1915 source: Delaware Police Chief’s Council http://depolicechiefscouncil.org/in-memoriam.html

The recruit added that a relative of the patrolman, Mr. Francis J. Tierney, 94, was present for the ceremony. After the memorial was over I made my way to the front of the room and talked to Mr. Tierney.  He had been named for the young city policeman and we talked about that.

I also inquired so to whether he knew Dr. Helen Tierney and he said, yes that was his sister.  There were 11 children in his family. So I mentioned how much I had enjoyed working with the retired professor and scholar of women’s studies as she returned back home to Newark, DE and eventually started living in the family cottage along the Elk River.  He said, you know I built that house on the River.

At least I had a chance to let him know that in local history circles Dr. Tierney’s work hasn’t been forgotten.

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Maryland Paper Money: An Illustrated History, 1864-1935 Released

MarylandPaperMoney_NowAvailableA new regional title, Maryland Paper Money:  An Illustrated History, 1864-1935, by J Fred Maples has been released.  This 348-page hardcover book documents Maryland’s national currency era of banking from 1864 to 1935.  Among 300 photos of surviving notes are shown, including many rarities from the landmark Marc Watts Collection of National Currency.

The book is available for purchase online at





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History Happy Hour Features Talk about Steamboats on the Chester River

The Chester River.

The Chester River.

Press Release — Historical Society of Kent County

Join us for History Happy Hour from 4 to 6 on Friday, May 1 at the Bordley History Center, 301 High Street, Chestertown.

The Chester River was one of the earliest rivers on the Eastern Shore to see steamboat service and it was a nearly-daily operation that continued for slightly more than 100 years. On the steamers, passengers traveled in comfort and could even enjoy a first-rate meal while steaming down the river.

Besides passengers, wheat, tomatoes, peaches and other agricultural products of the Eastern Shore filled the freight decks and on the return trip, the steamer would bring back to the Shore needed items from the city such as tools, agricultural implements, fabrics, clothes, and medicines. . In 1923, the steamers made their final voyages between the Chester River and Baltimore.

Jack Shaum is a veteran journalist who is now a reporter for The Bay Times and Record Observer in Queen Anne’s County. He began his journalism career at The News American in Baltimore and then became press aide to the late First District Representative William O. Mills. Following that was a nearly 30-year career as news anchor and reporter for news-talk radio station WBAL in Baltimore. He retired from that position in 2002 and moved to the Eastern Shore and lives just outside of Chestertown. He has been fascinated by Chesapeake Bay steamboats and other ships from a very early age, and is co-author of Majesty at Sea, a history of the four-funneled passenger liners of the early 20th Century. He is also co-editor and co-ghost writer of Night Boat on the Potomac: A History of the Norfolk and Washington Steamboat Company. He is also past editor-in-chief of the quarterly journal of the Steamship Historical Society of America.

Join us for History Happy Hour , 4 PM Friday, May 1 at the Bordley History Center, 301 High Street in Chestertown and learn more about our history.

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Drys Walk in Dover to Stop the Flow of Booze in 1907

For the first time since 1856 prohibition became the law of the land in part of Delaware, following one of the most exciting elections the State had ever seen at that time.  A question had been put before the voters, asking them to decide whether licenses would be granted to outlets to serve alcohol.  For the license or no license (prohibition) question, the state had been divided into four districts, the three counties and Wilmington.

Each side was sure it was going to win the “local option” decision, but the dry vote carried the day in Kent and Sussex counties.  Thus the governor ordered all hotels, saloons and distilleries to stop the sale and manufacture of liquor.  Forty saloons and hotels and twelve distillers were affected.  In Wilmington and New Castle County a majority for license was cast, so the booze flowed there.

In the days leading up to the vote, Principal Cross of the Wilmington Conference Academy (WCA) “mustered up enough courage to head the procession of students,” having them parade all over Dover to oppose the saloon, hotel and distillery men, The Wilmington Sunday Star reported.  The postcard below shows the W.C.A. marching.

On Thursday the principal wanted to head for Wilmington, but a heavy rain was falling on Dover.  So he called for a hack from the Hotel Richardson to take him to the railroad station.  The Hotel Richardson sent back word that the principal should walk.  “You walked on election day.”

Enforcement in the dry, local option areas of the State was another matter, of course.

Wilmington Conference Academy marches for local option (prohibition) in Dover, Delaware.  source:  personal collection.

Wilmington Conference Academy marches for local option (prohibition) in Dover, Delaware. source: personal collection.

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Blogging Mill Creek Hundred History While Piecing Together Puzzles About the Past


The Mill Creek Hundred History Blog http://mchhistory.blogspot.com/

The Mill Creek Hundred History Blog (MCHHB) published by Scott Palmer contains interesting narratives about notable buildings, people and places in this part of Delaware.  This platform, a virtual treasure trove of wonderful stories, is the place to learn about the Hundred’s past, as it fills in an “information gap.”  It also provides a public commons as Scott invites readers to converse while sharing information, photographs, documents and good stories.

I have read the weblog for a couple of years, learning lots about the past in the Mill Creek area. And I particularly enjoy following his approach to local mysteries, as he puzzles together hard to uncover fragments of evidence.  Scott takes a very precise methods approach to these investigations, summarizing what he knows and outlining whatever fragments of evidence he has unearthed.  From that framework, he suggests possible answers, contemplates the gaps and inconsistencies, and considers additional ways to find fresh clues to validate the hypothesis.  He also crowdsources his inquires, inviting others to contribute to the process.

Most bloggers sharing stories about the past in our communities produce concise, informative narratives.  It’s almost as if in the style of that voice of unfolding history,  Walter Cronkite, we say “that’s the way it is.”  That is fine and adds great value for all of us interested in the past, especially as a new generation turns to the web to share memories and do research.  It is so important that we broadly share our heritage stories and there are many excellent regional weblogs I follow using exactly this approach.  Each of us working “in the past lane” comes at the work we enjoy so much in our own unique way, and I value this broad sharing of accounts.

But Scott frequently adds to these valuable narratives by sharing the unfolding, investigative process.  Anyone who does analytical interpretations knows that matters aren’t always tidy.  They are complicated and can be problematic, especially if we are critically assessing something or examining untouched subjects (there are many), as we struggle to puzzle together a fresh source based narrative.  It isn’t always perfectly clear, nor is some of the evidence we want available or accessible.

MCHHB is currently mulling over a question about how Stoney Batter Road was named, which is what got me to thinking about the way Scott approaches his skilled passion for heritage studies.  On this one he writes:  “Due to the nature of the history in Mill Creek Hundred, and of the information available about it, almost never in these posts do we get all the facts or the whole story about any given topic. However, I’m usually able to cobble together a good framework of facts, even if some of the details are still a bit fuzzy.   The one story that seems to consistently buck this trend though is the origin of some local place and road name” as they often elude attempt to pin things down.

Additional information frequently surfaces as people read the item and share the knowledge they have.  Or Scott’s cold case work yields additional clues, after the original posts goes up. But for this particularly problematic question he writes:  “I wish I had a good, definitive answer for you, but as of now I don’t.”

Moving on from the knowns and unknowns related to this inquiry, he uses a professional approach to the investigation, saying that he has at “least three separate, inclusive theories.”  He outlined those and worked on cobbling together a framework of facts to support each hypothesis, even if some of the details were a bit fuzzy.

It didn’t take long before the power of the crowd yielded some more good pieces of evidence, and MCHHB had a second post on the matter.  But there’s still more work to be done.

Thanks Scott for sharing your knowledge of Mill Creek Hundred with all your readers and for the professional way you approach questions, as you post thorough and thoughtful columns that explore the events, people and place in Mill Creek, and the process of interpreting the story.

At the Wilmington & Western Railroad at Greenbank Mill.

At the Wilmington & Western Railroad at Greenbank Mill.

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