Saturday, February 2, 2013

Six People Killed and Scores Hurt in Bowie Train Derailment

Railroad ties along the former Bowie Race Track Spur, November 23, 2012
 February 2, 1961 (52 years ago today): Six people died and scores were injured when a train carrying more than 300 passengers bound for the Bowie Race Track derailed near the Bowie State Teachers College (now Bowie State University).  The engine and multiple cars careened down an embankment, ripping up some of the track. The accident resulted in a massive emergency response that included approximately 45 ambulances, 50 police officers and numerous firefighters.  Several area hospitals including Glenn Dale Hospital and Prince George's General Hospital implemented disaster plans in anticipation of the arrival of the injured.  Some of the injured were taken by train to Baltimore area hospitals.

The train, known as the Bowie Special, crashed as it entered a two-mile spur that connected the main rail line between D.C. and Baltimore to the Bowie Race Track.  During race days, the railroad spur was used four times, twice for incoming trains before the races, and twice for outgoing trains after the races.  This "special" had picked up horse racing fans in Philadelphia, Aberdeen, Baltimore and a handful of other stations before the crash.

Some passengers continued on foot to the race track after the accident, including a man with a broken collarbone.  Another "special" train was dispatched from the race track to the accident scene to pick up some of the racing fans.

A subsequent investigation revealed that the train was traveling 55 miles per hour on a sharp curve with a speed limit of 15 mph.  The engineer claimed that the train lost all braking power miles before the accident, but the train was equipped with a monitoring device that told a different story.  Despite having 18 years of experience, it was the engineer's first time on the Bowie Race Track route.

The races went on as scheduled despite the train wreck, but a four-alarm fire later in the day in a building at the race track caused the last horse race of the day to be canceled.  Firefighters had to be dispatched from the site of the train accident to the race track to fight the fire.  According to the Baltimore Sun, 80 pieces of firefighting equipment were sent to the fire.  No horses or people were injured in the fire, but a building containing betting machines was destroyed.

The two mile railroad spur connecting the Bowie Race Track  to the D.C./Baltimore line no longer exists, although a rough path lies in its place.  Old rails, railroad ties and utility poles can be found along the route of the old spur, including the railroad ties pictured here.  Plans are currently being considered to pave a portion of this path as part of a project that would link the WB&A trail in Prince George's County with the WB&A trail in Anne Arundel County.

The following photographs of the accident were taken by the Baltimore Sun.

Fire at the Bowie Race Track on February 2, 1961

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