1903 Trolley Wreck
Magazine - September 1967
By O.R. Cummings
New Hampshire's Worst Trolley Wreck
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
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.
Salem Observer, Manchester, NH - September 11, 2003
By Darrell Halen
Trolley wreck anniversary passes with little notice
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. Patricks Hall, which was once a trolley car
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 accidents 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 accidents one-hundredth anniversary fell,
coincidentally, on Pelhams Old Home Day last Saturday.
Its 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 Pelhams history that was written in conjunction with the
towns 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
Despite the uncertainty, what is certain is that trolleys were
once an important part of Pelhams community life.
Customers walking through the McDonalds restaurant in
Pelham will see a large photograph of the towns 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 Churchs parish hall,
according to Reflections.
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