‘Gamble with death’ cost nine lives on Bangor and Aroostook Railroad

Posted July 24, 2011, at 3:50 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 19, 2011, at 11:33 a.m.

Two passenger trains steamed toward each other during a violent wind and rainstorm along a remote stretch of track north of Millinocket on the evening of July 28, 1911, a century ago this week. In the head-on crash that followed between an excursion train heading to Caribou from Searsport and the regular passenger train from Van Buren to Bangor, nine people died and two dozen more were injured. It was the worst wreck in the history of the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad and one of the worst in Maine history.

The 21-member Presque Isle Community Band was the sponsor of the annual excursion train to Penobscot Park, the B&A’s amusement center at the end of its seaport route. Just before the crash, most of the band members were sitting in a car at the head of the train just behind the locomotive’s coal tender.

Band members were preparing to serenade a member of a local baseball team, who had been injured that day during a game at the park. Band leader Charles Palmer lifted his baton, and the musicians raised their instruments. The horrific crash occurred within seconds just south of the little station at Grindstone, nearly nine miles north of Millinocket.

The tender “telescoped” the front end of the car, leaving five members of the band crushed to death and many injured. The dead were Frank Seely, Dr. Hugh Pipes, Harry Clark and Vergne Harris all of Presque Isle, and Claude Loomer of Washburn. Also killed were Frank Garcelon of Houlton, the engineer, and one Gallagher, a fireman, both on the excursion train. George Estabrook of Linneus, brakeman on the excursion train, died later at Eastern Maine General Hospital in Bangor. The only death on the southbound train was H.F. Wentworth of Prospect, the fireman.

The death toll could have been worse if the trains had been going faster. Visibility was inhibited by the storm that swept eastern Maine that night, and by the fact the track curved on the remote stretch where the accident occurred. Testimony at a hearing a few days later indicated the excursion train had slowed to 10 or 12 mph, while the southbound train was moving at about 20 mph.

Grindstone, population 43, was connected to the outer world by the railroad tracks and by a single telephone wire that was barely working because of the storm. “There was not even a logging road out of the hamlet, and, of course, no physicians or medical facilities,” reported the Bangor Daily Commercial the afternoon after the wreck. The “husky lumbermen” employed there made quick work of “the shattered timbers and heavy piles of seats” trapping the dead and injured.

The only physician present, Dr. Ralph Foster of Brewer, had been a passenger on the southbound train. The only medical equipment he had was a hypodermic needle “which I afterwards used in relieving pain,” he told a reporter. The injured were placed in a baggage car on seat backs torn out of a passenger car. After a while, the gas lights went out and caregivers had to work by lantern light.

Other doctors began to arrive by train from Millinocket, Sherman and Houlton and finally Bangor. A cadre of nurses and physicians had been notified of the disaster by Wingate Cram, son of the B&A’s president, who spent much of the stormy evening riding about the Queen City in his open-top automobile summoning help.

The Railroad Commissioners of Maine and the Interstate Commerce Commission held a joint hearing on the cause of the wreck on Aug. 2 in the Millinocket municipal courtroom up over the fire station. Their reports were unsparing in their condemnation of the excursion train’s conductor, H.G. Dibblee, and its late engineman, Frank Garcelon.

An ICC report concluded that Dibblee and Garcelon had tried to beat the southbound train, which had the right of way, to the Grindstone siding in violation of B&A speed rules and without sufficient time, especially considering the stormy conditions. After realizing the danger of collision just before the crash, Dibblee could have stopped the train and taken safety precautions. Instead, he jumped off to safety.

The three members of the Maine Railroad Commission condemned the excursion train’s “mad run” between Millinocket and Grindstone. They concluded, “The acts and conduct of Dibblee and Garcelon were in violation of rules with which they were familiar, constituted a grossly reckless disregard of duty amounting to criminal carelessness, and were the sole cause of the accident.”

Dibblee admitted responsibility for the wreck at the hearing. He admitted he did not figure out how much time was needed to get to the siding at Grindstone, relying on Garcelon’s judgment instead. He admitted he had broken the rules in running by an earlier switch at Bowden’s siding instead of pulling over to wait for the southbound regular to pass. He also admitted he had disobeyed the rules by not stopping the train and sending out brakemen with lanterns and flares when he realized the danger just before meeting the southbound train.

The Bangor Daily News summed up the contents of his testimony bluntly in an Aug. 3 headline: “CONDUCTOR DIBBLEE TOOK A DESPERATE CHANCE AND LOST; Wreck Testimony Shows That Run From Millinocket Was a Gamble With Death …”

Despite all the evidence of “criminal carelessness,” a Penobscot County grand jury declined to indict Dibblee. During nine separate ballots, those favoring a criminal trial were never able to generate more than 10 votes. Twelve were needed, according to a Bangor Daily News report on Aug. 16. The wreck cost the B&A more than $75,000 in claims and repairs, according to Jerry Angier and Herb Cleaves in their book, “Bangor and Aroostook: The Maine Railroad.”

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday. Special thanks to the Mark & Emily Turner Memorial Library in Presque Isle for research material. Comments may be sent to wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

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