The Wreck of the Duquesne Limited

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If you live in Fayette County, you likely heard about the railroad cars that derailed behind the courthouse last week. Happily, no one was injured and no hazardous materials were spilled. There were no disruptions at the library, though we did listen to the steady thrumming of an engine for a few days while part of the train idled nearby.

I often come across railroad and trolley accidents while working with the PA Room’s obituary index. Still, the deaths I see were usually caused by passenger error — a person attempted to hop onto a moving train and lost their grip, for instance, or they got hit while walking the tracks.

There is one local railroad catastrophe that has clung to my memory, however: the wreck of the Duquesne Limited.

PA Special Smoking Car

The smoking car on the Pennsylvania Special, a train belonging to a rival of the B&O: the Pennsylvania Railroad. (Wikimedia Commons)

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The Rand Powder Mill Disaster, 1905

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Next month marks the 109th anniversary of the Rand Powder Mill Explosion, a series of blasts at a Fayette County black powder factory that killed 18 people, shattered windows in Uniontown, and shook buildings as far away as Greensburg. The Pennsylvania Room maintains photos of the September 9, 1905 disaster that were taken by E.W. Hague, a Uniontown druggist who rushed to offer his aid and document the disaster in Fairchance.

Upon arriving at the mill, this was the scene that awaited Mr. Hague:

Rand Powder Mill - Devestation

Credit: Uniontown Public Library.

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This Week In History: The McClelland House Fire, 1914

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This segment features a news item from Fayette County’s past. This week we examine a story from the March 23, 1914 edition of the Daily News Standard.

This weekend marked one hundred years since the burning of McClelland House, a hotel that once stood on West Main Street in Uniontown. If you’re local, you may have noticed coverage of the anniversary in the Herald-Standard and even on area news stations — particularly with regard to a volunteer firefighter named Voight LaClair.

McClelland House - Uniontown Directory

McClelland House’s listing as it appears in the 1913-1914 Uniontown and Connellsville directory.

It was around 9:20 A.M. when the fire was first noticed by two clerks in a store adjacent to the McClelland House.  The front room of the shop filled with smoke so quickly that they didn’t dare to retrieve their coats or pocketbooks; instead, Myra Lewellen and Edna Bowlen rushed outside to call for help. They assumed that the fire had started in the hotel’s kitchen, which shared a wall with the five and dime store where they worked. The blaze quickly grew out of control:

“With a fierceness and intensity that defied all efforts toward checking them, the flames . . . spread with alarming rapidity, great volumes of smoke poured out the doors, windows and crevices of the buildings and the onward march of the grim destroyer struck terror in the hearts of everyone.”

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This Week in History: The Braznell Mine Disaster of 1899

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This segment features a news item from Fayette County’s past. This week we examine a story from the January 6, 1900 edition of the Daily News Standard called “Coroner’s Jury Verdict.” 

An hour before sunrise on December 23, 1899, engineer Solomon Meese stood near the mouth of the Braznell Mine. As the operator of the cage that transported workers up and down the mine shaft, he’d already sent a few groups down that morning. Others had gone in before he’d arrived and were busy preparing for their shift more than a hundred feet below the surface.

When a signal came to raise the elevator, Meese laid his hand on the lever that controlled it. He then heard a strange sound come up out of the earth — a rumble, a groan — and suddenly the lever was jerked from his grasp. The door to the engine room slammed shut. Then a torrent of air carrying twisted chunks of metal, smoke, and human limbs shot up through the shaft and knocked Meese to the ground. The Daily News Standard described the moment vividly:

“There was a loud roar, like the bursting of a hundred cannon, a ripping sound of timber torn from the buildings, a pattering of debris as it settled back to the earth in a confused mass from its flight in the air; then silence . . . A gray vapor, pungent to the taste, began to pour out of the mouth of the pit, and the trained and experienced miner known what this meant.”

By the time the dust settled, blanketing the immediate area in blackness, the mine’s tipple was destroyed and the engine room’s roof was torn away. One of the cage elevators, large enough to carry eight men, had been propelled out of the shaft by the force of the explosion. Even the shed over the mine’s ventilation shaft had been blown off.

Braznell had been in operation for under a year and had no major accidents on its record. So, what had gone wrong?

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