Historical Research into a Railroad Disaster: Greenwood, Delaware

A house damaged in the explosion.  Source:  Greenwood A Delaware Town from the Collection of the Greenwood Library

A house damaged in the explosion. Source: Greenwood A Delaware Town from the Collection of the Greenwood Library

Recently I have been researching a deadly Delaware tragedy that spurred a vice-president of the Pennsylvania Railroad to push for national safety transportation regulations.  Following a number of accidents involving powerful explosives, including a catastrophic one in Greenwood, DE, the Bureau of Explosives was created under the American Railway Association.

The Sussex County disaster occurred over a hundred years ago, December 2, 1903.  In the midst of a blinding snow storm two trains collided in the center of the town of 367 people.  One pulling a lethal cargo of dynamite and naphtha exploded, the blast and fire severely damaging the Sussex County community of 367 people.

Because of the growing number of catastrophes, James McCrea, who would become the eighth president of the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1907, urged carriers to adopt regulations to promote the safe transportation of explosives.  The Bureau of Explosives (BOE) was created under the American Railway Association in 1907.  With a chemical laboratory and 16 inspectors, the BOE immediately took the lead in inspecting shipments, encouraging improvements in shipping techniques, and developing rules that formed the basis of modern regulations of hazardous shipments.

Throughout the remainder of McCrea’s life, he had vivid recollections of the deadly detonations at Greenwood and elsewhere, which “had caused the death of many people, injury to many others, and had cost the Pennsylvania railroad many thousands of dollars.”  Twenty-seven years later at the annual congress of the National Safety Council in Chicago in 1930, the tragedy was still being discussed in the official proceedings.

Having incidentally heard of this occurrence in a few widely scattered secondary sources over the years, I wanted to better establish the broad framework and narrative of what appeared to be a major catastrophe in rural Delaware at the top of the 20th century.  But there was little material conveniently available and a Google search turned up only one hit. a genealogy website that had abstracted some information from newspapers.

So with my interest sparked and my research question framed, it was time to launch an investigation.  Naturally being a curious type, this is the kind of work I enjoy doing as I start a fresh study and begin my search for evidentiary fragments from the largely forgotten past.

My first step is always a review of the historical literature.  This enables me to see what has already been done and often that yields powerful results.  But in the case of Greenwood, there wasn’t much secondary or primary material easily available.

My second step is to visit the community for a field observation as I look at the intersection of the present with the past.  Surviving traces of earlier times exist and exploration of the built and natural environment facilitates understanding.

As I delve deeper into the past from that point, I move into archival research and interviews.  Depending on the purpose of study, this may include a wide range of materials — written, printed or digital.  The search for physical records includes letters, newspapers, diaries, photographs, maps and much more   One almost never knows where the information is going to be discovered as you start on the trail to find clues to the past.

While much of the material will be found in libraries, archives, special collections repositories and local government offices, it usually is far from obvious where your data will come from.  There are private papers in homes ranging from notes and letters to entries scribbled in diaries.  Sometimes there are typed manuscripts containing memories of the community’s elders, but tracking these down  means poking around to make contacts in the place you are visiting as that material is often in basements, vaults, closets, and attics.

It also means leveraging unconventional techniques as I make my interest widely known in the community.  For me that process usually begins with the reference librarian or the local community historian, but it also means a visit to the barber shop, town hall, police station, tavern and church.  And it often calls for a visit to the nursing or retirement home.

Along the way you collect your evidence, and the time will eventually arrive to try to fit the puzzle together by placing material into a pattern, which allows for the creation of a coherent narrative.

For Greenwood, this is still a work in progress, but as I continue I will share thoughts on additional resources I come up with along the way.

Click here to read an initial post on the disaster

Materials in the collection of the Greenwood Public Library.

Materials in the collection of the Greenwood Public Library.

Greenwood was a railroad junction.  A photo without caption in Greenwood A Delaware Town from the Greenwood Public Library.

Greenwood was a railroad junction. A photo without caption in Greenwood A Delaware Town from the Greenwood Public Library.

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