SEPTEMBER 6, 1903

1903 Pelham, NH Trolley Wreck Plaque 

Pelham, NH Trolley Wreck

New York Times New York 9-7-1903

KILLED IN TROLLEY WRECK.

SIX PERSONS DEAD AND MANY BADLY HURT IN NEW HAMPSHIRE.

Pelham, N.H., Sept. 6. -- Through a head-on collision today between two electric cars, each running, it is said, at a rate of more than twenty-five miles an hour, six persons were killed and over a score seriously injured that they are under physicians' care, and some of these may die.

There were seventy persons on the two cars, and every one received cuts and minor wounds, which, however, did not prevent their reaching their homes.

The accident occurred just before noon on the line which runs through this town between Lowell and Nashua, and one of the cars which was coming from the latter city was nearly filled with people on their was to a Summer resort. The collision was due, according to the officials of the road, to a misunderstanding of the starter's orders by the motorman of the car bound for Nashua. The car starter endeavored to rectify this mistake by sending a man to shut off the power and trying to recall the Nashua-bound car but failed. The accident occurred on a curve.

The dead as reported up to 10 o'clock tonight were as follows:

The injured:

The dead and most seriously injured were all on the Nashua or east-bound car. GILBERT sat on the front seat and was instantly killed. COLLETT died four minutes after being taken from the wreck, Postmaster ANDREWS while being removed to the hospital at Lawrence, and MAYES, the motorman, died at the Haverhill Hospital this evening. As the accident took place at some distance from any large city the injured were distributed among the hospitals of Lowell.

The accident occurred on the Hudson, Pelham and Salem division of the New Hampshire Traction Company Electric Railway. The car from Nashua, carrying fifty-four passengers for Cannebic Lake, a Summer resort, approached the curve a quarter of a mile west of Pelham Centre at terrific speed, accentuated by a down grade. The cars met on the curve, neither motorman seeing the approaching car until too late to avoid a collision.

Neither was there time for the passengers to escape by jumping when the cars came together with a force that threw the west bound car directly upon the forward part of the other, crushing the top of the car down upon the passengers, and pinioning those occupying the first three seats in the wreckage.

Persons who witnessed the collision said afterward that it came so unexpectedly that it seemed some minutes before the passengers realized what had happened. All were silent and the passengers made no outcry, appearing to be completely dazed by the shock.

Near the accident were a number of campers who at once rushed to the scene. With crowbars and other instruments the wrecked roofs of the cars were pried up and the imprisoned passengers released.

As the work of rescue proceeded the passengers gave way under the strain and both men and women became hysterical. The injured passengers were carefully taken from the wreck, while their groans and cries added to the general confusion. Not one of the passengers on the two cars escaped injury of some character.

New Hampshire's Worst Trolley Wreck

Yankee Magazine - September 1967
By O.R. Cummings

THE DAY WAS SEPTEMBER 6, 1903, and in the little town of Pelham, New Hampshire, where the Nashua and Lowell trolley lines of the Hudson, Pelham & Salem Electric Railway diverged, a busy day was in prospect. The summer season was nearing an end and it being a warm, sunny Sunday, heavy riding on the electric cars running between the two cities and popular Canobie Lake Park in nearby Salem was anticipated. Half hourly service was scheduled on both lines but traffic was greater than expected, the company had extra cars and crews ready at the Pelham car barn, where there also was a power substation.

At Pelham Center, just a stone's throw from the car house, Starter Oral A. Stevens was on duty. If he felt a bit groggy, there was good reason for it for, due to illness in his family, he had slept little the night before, after having worked all day on Saturday. Stevens had an assistant, Everett E. Evans, who was to relieve him at noon and again at night, but the latter was occupied putting advertising flyers in cars and wasn't paying much attention to other happenings. To complicate matters, the railway's block signal system had been kayoed by a thunderstorm the day before, and while repairs had been started, the repair crew had not yet reached Pelham. As a result, motormen and conductors were relying almost entirely on verbal orders. Thus the scene was set for tragedy.

All went well for a while. The big, l4-bench open Car, built in Laconia only the year before, passed though Pelham Center "on the advertised" and all those bound for Canobie Lake Park were filled with pleasure-seekers eagerly anticipating a long day Of fun at the inland resort. Starter Stevens was looking forward to his hour's respite when, possibly, he planned to grab little shut-eye before returning to duty for the afternoon.

At 10:45, Car 125, with 54 adult passengers and five children aboard, left Tremont square, Nashua, for Pelham and Canobie Lake Park. Samuel Mayes was the motorman and Joseph J. Veno was collecting fares. Because of the delays getting into the city the trolley was about five minutes behind schedule, and after meeting a Nashua-bound car at Hudson Center, Mayes applied full power in an effort to make up lost time. As the tracks ran over private right of way through the woods, there were no stops for passengers, and up and down hills, across clearings and over small streams the car flew, moving as fast as its wheels would turn.

Meanwhile, back at Pelham Center, two cars from Canobie Lake Park, one bound for Nashua and the other for Lowell, arrived 11:15. The Lowell car continued on, crossing one form Lowell for Canobie at a turnout a short distance below Pelham. The Nashua-bound car, No. 137, remained at Pelham center to await the arrival of the one coming from the Gate City, Motorman Pliny H, Knapp and conductor Howard E. Fox relieving the crew which had brought the trolley from Canobie.

A cracked window in Car 137 drew the attention of starter Stevens, who climbed into the trolley and arranged a newspaper to prevent the glass from jarrying out. But just what happened next is not clear, as conflicting testimony was given by several witnesses. After stepping from the car, Stevens made some remark and then, turning his back on Knapp and Fox, walked over to another track to await the arrival of the car due from Lowell.

What ever Stevens said-and there is some dispute about that-Conductor Fox understood it as an order to go ahead. He gave the motorman a quick two bells, the starting signal; Knapp released the brakes and applied the power and the car moved out of the square, gradually picking up speed. Suddenly coming to life, Stevens yelled to his assistant to run to the substation to open the circuit breaker, which would kill the power, and then he took off in pursuit of the Nashua-bound car, shouting in a vain attempt to attract the attention of the crew. But it was too late!

With a crash that could be heard for more than a mile away, Cars 125 and 137 collided head-on on a heavily-wooded curve some 2,800 feet west of Pelham, Center. Neither motorman saw the other car until it was to late to stop and while Knapp "joined the birds" seconds before the impact, Mayes remained at his post and suffered injuries which proved to be fatal a few hours later.

Describing the collision, the Manchester Union on the following day said in part:

"The cars telescoped until their wheels met, the heavily-laden eastbound car (No. 125) crashing into and under the other and lighter one for a distance of 10 to 12 feet. One roof shot under the other and they both fell on the confused mass of humanity underneath. Scores of men, women and children, hurled forward by the force of the impact, were buried under each other by the great weight of the car roofs and were extracted with difficulty".

In addition to the motorman Mayes, five others were killed or fatally injured, several were maimed and all others on the cars, except for conductor Fox, suffered injuries more or less severe. Mayes it is said had both legs severed just above the knees. As he looked at the wreck, he called to conductor Fox, "am I to blame for all this? Just tell me that part of it." And fox answered , "No, you were all right; it was Stevens' orders," Mayes closed his eyes and murmured, "Well, then, I'm ready to die."

There was an investigation, of course, and in their findings, the New Hampshire railroad Commissioners reported that while several circumstances, including the tardiness of Car 125 and the disabling of the block signal system contributed to the tragedy, the blame for the crash rested on starter Stevens, motorman Knapp and conductor Fox.

The damage claims from the crash, the worst in New Hampshire street railway history, were so heavy that the Hudson, Pelham & Salem electric railway was forced into receivership late in 1904, being reorganized as the Hudson, Pelham & Salem Street Railway during September 1907. Somewhat more than five years later, on April 1, 1913, the company was consolidated with the Massachusetts Northeastern Street Railway, which abandoned its track from Salem to Pelham and Nashua on March 14, 1924.

Trolley Wreck Railroad Commission Report - 10 Pages (1.55 MB)
This report lists the casualties, injured, witnesses
as well as the Railroad Commissioner's Report on the trolley wreck.

Trolley wreck anniversary passes with little notice

Salem Observer, Manchester, NH - September 11, 2003
By Darrell Halen

When former Boy Scout leader Joe Maraldo was walking in Pelham Center last Friday afternoon, he decided to look at a remembrance plaque that one of his scouts had arranged to be placed more than two years ago.

The plaque is dedicated to the victims of an historic trolley wreck. It is mounted in front of St. Patrick’s Hall, which was once a trolley car barn.

When Maraldo visited the plaque – the first time he had seen it since its dedication – he was surprised to see that he was looking at it just one day before the accident’s one-hundredth year anniversary.

The plaque, whose placement was arranged by Pelham High School graduate Dan Sawicki for his Eagle Scout project reads: “This memorial is dedicated to all of the victims of the September 6 1903 trolley accident. On this day six people died and more than forty were injured when two trolley cars collided two thousand eight hundred feet west of here.”

The accident’s one-hundredth anniversary fell, coincidentally, on Pelham’s Old Home Day last Saturday.

“It’s amazing. I was surprised by that,” said Board of Selectmen Chairman Hal Lynde, one of the Old Home Day organizers.

Whether the accident happened on Sept. 6 appears to be uncertain. Reflections, a book of Pelham’s history that was written in conjunction with the town’s 250th anniversary seven years ago, writes that the accident occurred on September 3, 1903. But an article in Yankee magazine states that the accident occurred on September 6. 

Despite the uncertainty, what is certain is that trolleys were once an important part of Pelham’s community life. 

Customers walking through the McDonald’s restaurant in Pelham will see a large photograph of the town’s old trolley car barn.

According to Reflections, trolleys once carried workers to textile mills and shoe shops in Nashua, Haverhill, Mass. and Lowell, Mass. In an effort to increase rider ship, particularly on weekends, companies built amusement parks, such as Canobie Lake Park. 

Trolleys traveled from Pelham Center to Tremont Square in Nashua around 15 miles per hour. And they delivered passengers to and from Hudson Center at 26 miles per hour, according to the book.

The 1903 crash occurred when two trolleys collided on a blind curve about a half-mile northwest of Pelham Center.

According to Reflections, possible causes include a railway signal system that had been struck by lightning and a motorman who had lost sleep the night before because of a sick child.

Claims from the crash were so great that the Hudson, Pelham & Salem electric railway was forced into receivership the next year, according to Yankee magazine. A new company emerged in 1907, which was later consolidated with a Massachusetts railway. But the railway abandoned its tracks from Salem to Pelham and Nashua in 1924. 

During World War II the car house portion of the trolley barn was razed and the office and sub-station became St. Patrick Church’s parish hall, according to Reflections.

Pelham, NH Trolley Car Barn

Click Here for more Trolley History

Much of the information found in the Historical Town Sites section of this website was taken from the Reflections, A Pictorial History Of Pelham, New Hampshire 1746 - 1996, Published by The Pelham 250th Anniversary Committee, copyright 1998 and the Pelham 250th Anniversary Souvenir/Program Book, Published by The Pelham 250th Anniversary Committee, copyright 1996.  There are still copies of these books available at our On-Line Bookstore, as well as other historical books and records.

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