For the Presque Isle High School band and their families July 29, 1911 started unusually early. A 5:57 a.m. excursion train was scheduled to take the group two hundred miles south to the Penobscot Amusement Park. And the weather seemed promising for their outing; cloudless skies and warm temps that would hopefully permit a dip in the chilly Atlantic.
At the station platform the travelers were pleased to see the approaching train through the northern woods. Its arrival confirmed their confidence in the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad’s precise scheduling.
When the five-car train rolled to a stop, the boisterous crowd happily shouldered one another to get aboard. Then shortly after 6:00 a.m. the #7 train pulled away from the station and headed to the Maine seashore.
For the Presque Isle travelers , the summer destination of choice was the Penobscot Amusement Park. Established in 1906 by an investment company of the railroad, the park was located at Searsport, midway between Kidder’s Point and Mack’s Point.
Later when the group arrived they sought out many of its attractions. Featured were a dance pavilion, merry-go-round, several athletic fields and the Bar Point House that offered a 50-cent dinner. In addition boating and fishing were popular activities. The ocean was to be a welcomed change from the toil of the hay and potato fields back home.
But little did anyone realize that this halcyon summer day would soon be interrupted with an accident that would forever change their lives.
After the day’s events concluded, the revelers piled back into #7. Some nursed sunburns or minor sporting injuries but no one really complained. The cool salt air that followed them into the passenger cars served as an airy tonic.
They were late leaving the park so they expected to return home well after sunset. But no matter- they found themselves in no particular hurry. The day’s activities had spawned many amusing stories, most embellished with every re-telling. And besides outside a storm was brewing. They would agree that the #7 excursion was the most safest place to be.
Later however, a more sober scene was evolving. In the locomotive cab of #7, Conductor W.H. Dibble and Engineer F.W. Garcelon discussed their options for negotiating the next expanse of rails. It was 8:58 p.m. and the train was located just north of Millinocket exchange.
Both men understood a southbound train from Van Buren was due to depart Grindstone station at 9:09 p.m., about ten miles to the north of their present location. They also begrudgingly realized the regularly scheduled southbound train had right of way over their # 7.
But Dibble and Garcelon were weary from the long day’s haul and they were seeking ways to shave off a few minutes. Their choices were simple. They could take the conservative approach, duck in at Bowden’s siding only two and a half miles up the line and wait patiently for the southbound to pass.
Or they could push their luck and the locomotive’s limits to reach Grindstone siding a minute before the southbound train left the station. They debated each of the factors. First the distance; the siding was almost 9 miles away. Next the time; they had approximately 10 plus minutes, so they would need to average over 50 mph. Then the weather; visibility was diminishing in the escalating storm. And finally there was the terrain to consider. Some long curves and a bridge that would require the train to slow as it approached.
After considering all the variables the two men agreed to attempt the Grindstone siding. They just needed to bust it.
So the decision made, locomotive number Fifty-Five accelerated and charged north into the tempest. For the next several minutes both men silently counted off the seconds while a car length behind unwitting passengers went about collecting their belongings.
Dibble and Gareclon believed their # 7 was making good progress. With seven of the nine miles now behind them, the train passed over the bridge spaning the east branch of the Penobscot. The train now proceeded to make a long turn less than a mile short of the siding. Both men checked their watches-9:09 and 36 seconds. If southbound #8 was on schedule it was now just leaving the station putting both trains on a collision course.
Just in case #8 was approaching, Dibble positioned himself outside his side door and peered ahead.
Through the rain and darkness he could barely discern a dim luminance. But was it real and if so was it moving or stationary? Hard to tell from his speeding train and with limited vision. Then the moment of realization came to him.
Engineer Garcelon also saw #8 closing and he hastily applied the emergency brakes. Dibble felt the locomotive shudder from the brakes and he instinctively jumped from the cab just seconds before he heard a deafening collision of iron and steel.
According to the official investigation that followed , the collision occurred 1,636 feet or roughly two fifths of a mile from the Grindstone station. Dibble and Garcelon’s locomotive was traveling over 60 mph and the southbound train at 20 mph when they met.
Four railroad employees were killed: Fireman Gallagher from the southbound train and Engineer Garcelon, Brakeman Estabrook and Fireman Wentworth from the excursion. Two members of the Presque Isle band as well as four others accompanied the railroad men in death; nine in total.
Sixteen were seriously injured and their suffering was compounded by the remoteness of the accident . Grindstone- a town of 48 residents in 1911- did its best to administer aid and comfort to the victims. The only good fortune was that an uninjured Dr Foster of Bangor was aboard and able to administer aid.
As for the trains, both engines were badly mangled. The tender (that’s the one that followed the engine and held the coal) of Engine Fifty-Five had been forced completely inside the combination car, where most of the passenger deaths occurred.
How could such a thing happen?
That was the question on everyone’s mind for some time after the accident. The determination would be left to a joint commission from the State of Maine Railroad Commission and the Federal Interstate Commerce Commission. The hearing was held at the Millinocket Court House just two weeks after the accident.
The Bangor Daily News captured the testimony from railroad executives, employees , passengers, and family members including P.J. Garcelon, father of deceased Engineer Garcelon:
” He exhibited the watch of his dead son, which was stopped at 9:10.05, and which was taken from his son’s body shortly after the accident. The witness was treated with great tenderness by attorneys and by the commissioners. He was evidently under great strain”.
Once it was established that the southbound train had not left Grindstone station prematurely , the focus was directed squarely on Conductor Dibble who survived the accident unscathed.
According to the Dibble’s testimony:
” .. .That night I thought I had ample time to make Grindstone against eight (Train #8 leaving Grindstone), with 26 seconds to spare before eight left Grindstone. But as surely as I live — I thought I had time to make the Grindstone switch and clear for number eight “.
” The first time I thought there might be danger was about 9:05 and I didn’t know exactly where we were until we struck the bridge this side of Grindstone. I went to the platform at 9:05 to see if I could see where we were.”
“When we went on the bridge, I jumped to the door, and it was 9:09:10 and I was afraid we would strike eight, but I hoped — the engineers could see each others headlight.”.
The investigators concluded that the first principle of railroading had been violated; “When in doubt, take the safe side. It seems to have been disregarded in this case”.
The proceedings determined that the cause of the accident “was the attempt on the part of Conductor Dibble and Engineer Garcelon — to make Grindstone siding , in violation of the speed restrictions of the Bangor and Aroostoock Railroad and without sufficient time to make the 8.9 miles”.
Penobscot Park closed in 1916, reopened briefly in 1920 and closed for good several years later.
As to Conductor Dibble, the Bangor newspapers cast him as a tragic figure.
” He told the truth. He related what he did and what he didn’t do, and what he might have done. He was honest, and he was pathetic, and he presented a very perplexing figure. People have said that he was cruel in his coldness, and he didn’t realize what the wreck meant. But perhaps they didn’t watch him as he was trying or trying to take, luncheon at the Great Northern yesterday noon. For he fooled with a little soup, took a cup of tea, and then went out of the room with his head bowed”.
No record of Conductor Dibble’s life after the accident has turned up.
Perhaps the Roman philosopher Seneca said it best — ..
“Haste trips its own heels, and fetters and stops itself”.
Unfortunately this lesson from the 1st Century was learned at a cost of nine lives, one hundred years ago in Grindstone, Maine.
Dr. Eugene Pipes, Presque Isle
Frank Seely, Presque Isle
Harry Clark, Presque Isle
Charles Loomer (or Roomer) , Washburn(e)
Frank .W. Garcelon, Houlton
Vernon Harris, Presque Isle
Fireman H.F. Wentworth, Brewer
Fireman L. Gallagher, unknown
George W. Estabrook, Linneus