Indiana’s deadliest rail crash happened in Wells County 110 years ago

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KINGSLAND, Ind. (WANE) — Back before widespread ownership of automobiles, many people traveled from town to town using interurban cars. The interurban electric railway system grew in popularity for its speed and convenience after 1900. Hundreds of railroad lines connected cities and towns across Indiana.

With the popularity, though, accidents and crashes were common on the tracks across the state.

Crash in Kingsland Sept. 21, 1910. The picture was featured in the Indy Star in 1910. Courtesy of the Allen County Public Library.

The deadliest interurban crash happened in Wells County on Sept. 21, 1910, killing more than 40 people.

On that day, a northbound interurban car was headed to the fair in Fort Wayne from Bluffton. According to newspaper articles at the time, the car was jammed with riders. The car was about 6 miles north of Bluffton, just past the community of Kingsland, located on U.S. 224 and Highway 1 in Wells County, when another interurban car headed southbound on the same track struck it head-on. That car was empty except for its crew.

When the cars collided, the southbound train went over the northbound train reportedly ripping the top off and landing on passengers. Thirty-nine people were killed in the impact. Two more died later. A majority of the passengers were from Bluffton.

The carnage could have been greater.

Soon after the two trains collided, a third train – Indianapolis Limited – was coming up the same tracks. E.A. Spiller, the injured conductor of the northbound car, ran back down the tracks to stop the third car. A month later he was awarded a metal of bravery, and two years later, left Bluffton and moved to California.

Crash in Kingsland Sept. 21, 1910. Picture was featured in the Indy Star in 1910. Courtesy of the Allen County Public Library.

An investigation attributed the cause of the crash to be human error and miscommunication. On the day of the crash, there were extra cars sharing the track and the dispatcher couldn’t communicate with the cars while they were in motion.

A month after the crash, a special grand jury handed down two indictments of involuntary manslaughter against two members of the southbound car’s crew.

The Wabash Valley Traction Company, which owned both cars involved in the crash, paid out insurance claims and suffered a loss of ridership as a result of the crash. The company was put on the auction block.

The Kingsland wreck led to strengthened safety protocol such as automated signaling, which caused accidents to decrease. Over the next decade, the interurban railroad started to decline with the rise of automobiles.

In 2019, the Wells County Historical Society placed a marker next to the railroad tracks in Kingsland.

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