Alfont Crash Kills 21 in 1924
Ninety years ago one of the most single tragic accidents in Madison County occurred at Alfont. The accident occurred February 2, 1924, at the southwest edge of Alfont, a small village a short distance west of Ingalls, Indiana.
Two interurban trains collided head-on with such force that the two motor cars, or front cars, telescoped in to each other clear through to their smoking compartments. Nobody will ever know for certain how many people perished in the wreck and the fire which followed; however, the death toll was tentatively set at 21.
The wreck took place sometime between 4:15 and 4:30 p.m. The track between Fortville and Ingalls was straight as an arrow except for the slight curve right at the southern edge of Alfont. It was this curve that kept the motormen on the approaching trains from seeing each other until it was too late to do anything.
Passenger traffic in those days was especially heavy on the Union Traction stretch between Indianapolis and Anderson. Some trains running between the two cities were in the "hot shot" classification, meaning they were express trains that did not stop at all the stations along the route. On this particular Saturday afternoon, the traffic was heavy enough that trailers were added; therefore, each train consisted of two cars, the motor car followed by the trailer.
The eastbound train was classified as a "hot shot" that day and left Indianapolis at 3:18 p.m., 18 minutes late. The Union Traction Company prided itself upon running on time and meeting its schedule making speed a factor. Normal running speed was in the range of 65 mph but speeds of 75-85 mph could be attained if track conditions allowed. The fact that the unit from Indianapolis was late may have caused a mix-up in the orders for the two trains to meet at "passing" sidings in the Alfont area.
There was a siding called Goul, between Ingalls and Alfont, and another two mile further on in the direction of Fortville, called Dent. It is possible that in the hurried writing of an order, one name might have resembled the other. Thus, the two motormen could have been operating under a different set of orders as to which siding to use. Instead both trains were on the main track traveling in opposite directions.
Also, there was another factor to consider that fateful day. In the investigation of the accident by company and government officials, it was revealed that the block signal system originally used between Ingalls and Fortville had been out of commission since December 28, 1923, for the purpose of making repairs. A statement read at the inquiry noted: "The work of rebuilding would have been completed in a day or two."
A Crash, Then Fire
Walter W. Riggs of Anderson was en route from Indianapolis to Middletown and seated in the front car of the eastbound train. He recalled seeing the motorman of that train pull open the door of the baggage compartment and jump to safety. The baggage compartment was located in the front of the car next to where the motorman sat. Please note that all the Union Traction cars were constructed of wood at this time. Steel cars did not appear until much later.
Francis H. Gardner, a passenger on the westbound train, also recalled the impact and added that the motorman of that train apparently saw the impending crash and slowed down his train. Upon impact many passengers in the two lead cars were trapped in their seats, unable to extricate themselves, and beyond the help of survivors. Fire broke out consuming the cars and the trapped passengers.
Only one body of those burned was removed intact. The bodies of the other victims were burned beyond recognition in the fire that destroyed both cars of the westbound train and the motor car of the eastbound train. Despite the pandemonium, the surviving passengers were able to disconnect the trailer of the eastbound train and push it free of the fire, thus saving it and the passengers that remained on board.
When the fire had died down, the burned bodies were taken to the Elmer S. Albright funeral parlors in Anderson, where the tedious task of identification was begun by the coroner, Jesse Helbert. Initially, identifications were absolute on only two of the persons, one of whom died trying to jump free through a baggage compartment door an instant before the crash. Eventually identification was made for 17 bodies, leaving four unidentified.
In the later part of February, 1924, the remains of the four unidentified were placed in a single casket and taken to Maplewood Cemetery for burial. In Section 27 of the cemetery, there is a marker bearing this inscription: "Four Unknown Persons Killed In Alfont Traction Wreck, Feb. 2, 1924."
A story exists, though unsubstantiated, that a traffic controller located in the Union Traction headquarters building in downtown Anderson was observing the recently installed electric traffic monitoring system and realized the crash was about to happen. With no means to communicate directly with the two ill-fated trains, all he could do was dispatch the "wreck" train from the North Anderson traction facility. The story goes on to say that the "wreck" train was already en route when the crash occurred.
Who was to blame and what was the cause will be subjects for debate as long as people remember the tragic event. The train dispatcher said the eastbound train was ordered to pass the westbound train at the Dent siding. However, the trainmen on that train said they were ordered to pass at the Goul siding. To that, the dispatcher countered by saying the train it was supposed to pass at the Goul siding was another and not the westbound train with which it collided.
The crash site today looks completely different than it did that fateful day. No visible reminder of the tragedy remains. One would have to be pretty familiar with the area to find indications that a traction line ever existed at the spot. The line was abandoned after cessation of service in January, 1941.
If you are interested in locating the crash site, follow Indiana 67 south through Ingalls. After crossing Lick Creek, turn north(right) on County Road 750 West and cross the railroad tracks. Immediately after crossing the tracks on your left is the crash site. There, in an area now occupied by a self-storage business, is where the worst accident in Madison County history occurred.
By Stephen T. Jackson, Madison County Historian
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