A Local Tragedy on the Cleveland & Pittsburgh Railroad

An early 20th century steam locomotive following a boiler explosion.

Five local railroad workers boarded their train in New Philadelphia early on a Saturday morning in October 1910 for a routine trip to Cleveland and back. Only two of the men would return home alive.

The Cleveland & Pittsburgh train crew gathered in the early morning hours of Saturday, October 8, 1910 for a freight run from New Philadelphia to the Cleveland Yards. The crew was composed of men from New Philadelphia and Dover and included conductor George W. Whitlach, engineer Edgar Ehrhart, fireman Ross G. Benedum, brakeman Clarence E. Pierce, and flagman Larkin A. Thompson. The men expected to be home by late that Saturday night after a routine trip to pick up, and bring back, empty freight cars.

Conductor George W. Whitlach was born in 1878 in West Virginia, though his family lived Monroe County, Ohio during his childhood. His father worked as a Boatman on the Ohio River and did some limited farming on their property. George enlisted in the United States Army in 1899 and served in the 17th Coastal Artillery Regiment during the Spanish-American War, seeing service in Cuba. Following his discharge in 1902, George made his way back to Ohio, married, and began his career with the Cleveland & Pittsburgh Railroad. George, his wife, and their two sons lived on the three hundred block of North Eighth Street (modern 5th Street NW) in New Philadelphia in 1910.

The Conductor is the lead employee assigned to a freight train and is responsible for reviewing schedules and maintaining communication with the train’s crew members. (Source: wikipedia)

The locomotive’s Engineer, Edgar Ehrhart, was born in 1876 in Columbiana County, Ohio. His father was a plasterer in the Columbiana County village of Hanover and at an early age Edgar began working as a Fireman for the Cleveland & Pittsburgh Railroad. When he was single he lived in a variety of places along the railroad’s line until, in 1903, he married a Canal Dover woman and made the decision to reside in New Philadelphia. The couple, with their infant son, had just purchased a home on Tuscarawas Avenue near the railroad yards weeks before the crew’s run to Cleveland.

The Engineer is responsible for controlling the locomotive’s starting, stopping, and speed. (Source: wikipedia)

Ross G. Benedum was born in 1880 and grew up in Mill Township, Tuscarawas County. His father was a coal miner and, after attending school, Ross started working as a carpenter at the Royal Sewer and Pipe Works in Midvale. Ross married in the fall of 1905 and shortly after was hired to work as a Fireman with the Cleveland & Pittsburgh Railroad. Ross, his wife, and their young daughter rented a house just up the street from the train depot on North Broadway in New Philadelphia in 1910; a home later owned by the Albert Hoobler family.

A Fireman was responsible for tending the fire for the running of a boiler powering a steam locomotive. (Source: wikpedia)

The Brakeman assigned to the early morning run to Cleveland was also the youngest member of the crew. Clarence E. Pierce was born in 1885 in Newport, Tuscarawas County. Clarence’s father worked in a local brickyard for years, but he and Clarence both worked at the Riley Restaurant opposite the Union Opera House on the alley north of the Courthouse until 1910. That year Clarence began working for the Cleveland & Pittsburgh Railroad, met a young lady from Kansas, and the couple planned to marry in December 1910.

A Brakeman had job to assist the braking of a train by applying brakes on individual railroad cars. (Source: wikipedia)

The final member of the crew was New Philadelphia-born Larkin D. Thompson, the crew’s Flagman. Larkin, born in 1882, was the son of a Goshen Township salt works employee. After his basic schooling, he went to live with a relative in Kent, Ohio where he worked in a shop building railroad cars. Larkin moved to Dover around his 18th birthday, found work at the Dover Manufacturing Company and, shortly after, married. He was eventually hired by the Cleveland & Pittsburgh Railroad before 1907 and worked at times as a Brakeman as well. Larkin, his wife, and two children lived on Union Avenue in Dover in 1910.

The Cleveland & Pittsburgh Depot in New Philadelphia, Ohio, c. 1910. (Source: ohiomemory.org)
The Cleveland & Pittsburgh Depot in New Philadelphia, Ohio, c. 1910. (Source: ohiomemory.org)

The men began their northbound trip to the Cleveland Yards at 1:45 am, Saturday, October 8, 1910 and, by all accounts, it was an uneventful trip. After arriving, the engine sat for most of the day while the yard crew assembled a train of fifty-two empty boxcars and a caboose for the return trip to New Philadelphia. The New Philadelphia crew busied themselves keeping the locomotive boiler up to temperature and supervising the work of the yard crew. It was not until nearly 8:30 pm that the locomotive was coupled to the train and started on its return home.

There was a cold wind blowing from the west that night, so Conductor Whitlach and Flagman Thompson took a seat in the train’s caboose while the other three men stayed in the cab of the locomotive, warmed by the heat of the boiler. The train travelled about 10 miles when it approach the steep grade just north of Bedford, Ohio. It was then that the men in the cab noticed a faint “wheezing” sound coming from the boiler and Fireman Benedum noted “I believe there’s a broken flue somewhere.” Engineer Erhart immediately shut off the steam but, mere seconds later, the locomotive’s boiler exploded and flipped over.

The force of the explosion hurled Ehrhart, Benedum, and Pierce out of the cab and onto the ground as boiling hot water escaped from the locomotive. Meanwhile, the explosion having caused the emergency brakes to engage, Whitlach and Thompson were thrown from their seats in the caboose. The boiling water from the locomotive surrounded and scalded the cab’s crew as they tried to claw their way out to safety. The unmistakable noise of the explosion was heard in the Bedford railroad yards and help was immediately sent to the location.

  • Location of the accident near Bedford, Ohio from the 1914 Atlas of Cuyahoga County. (Source: ancestry.com)
  • Headline for the article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, 9 October 1910, detailing the accident. (Source: genealogybank.com)
  • Modern view (looking south) of the approximate location of the accident near Bedford, Ohio. (Source: google.com)

When the ambulances arrived at the scene, they found the three men from the cab all severely burned and with numerous broken bones. Engineer Whitlach had received a severe cut over his eye but refused any kind of treatment and Flagman Thompson was even less injured than Whitlach. The same could not be said of the three burned men. It was noted at the time that, as they lifted the men or removed articles of their clothing, that their flesh pulled away from the bone. The men were all taken immediately via a northbound train to Cleveland hospitals for whatever treatment that could be provided. Meanwhile, their families in New Philadelphia were notified of the accident and many family members were put on a special northbound train to be with the men.

The three horribly burned men were treated as best as possible, but their injuries and burns were so severe that there was little hope of recovery. Engineer Ehrhart was the first to die, the Sunday after and was followed soon after by Brakeman Pierce. Fireman Benedum lived, likely in constant agony, until the Monday after the accident. It was noted in the press that the youngest of the crew, Brakeman Pierce, after briefly regaining consciousness at one point called out for his mother. Conductor Whitlach returned to New Philadelphia on Sunday and provided a report of the accident, as best he understood it at the time, to the local press.

George Whitlach continued to work as a Conductor for the rest of his life, dying in March 1938 after being struck by a car in Dennison. Larkin Thompson stopped working for the railroad sometime after the accident and worked in a variety of jobs until his death in November 1955. Whether witnessing the horrors of the accident on that chilly Saturday night in October influenced his decision is impossible to know. A few days after the accident the bodies of the three victims of the explosion were returned to New Philadelphia. All three are buried in New Philadelphia’s East Avenue Cemetery.

  • Ross G. Benedum's headstone in East Avenue Cemetery, New Philadelphia, Ohio, 2012. (Source: findagrave.com)
  • Edgar Ehrhart's headstone in East Avenue Cemetery, New Philadelphia, Ohio, 2012. (Source: findagrave.com)
  • Clarence E. Pierce's headstone in East Avenue Cemetery, New Philadelphia, Ohio, 2012. (Source: findagrave.com)

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© Noel B. Poirier, 2022.

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