I was recently told about an auto train derailment in Takoma, D.C., sometime in the 1970s. At least one car of the train, and the automobiles it was transporting, ended up on Blair Road NW, or at least dangling above it. I'd never heard of this incident even though I've lived nearby for more than 30 years. Is this an accurate summation of the story?
— Ralph Blessing, Washington
John and Essie Gary were in the back yard of their house at 6514 Blair Rd. NW on the afternoon of July 18, 1976, when they heard what sounded like a tornado.
Actually, Answer Man doesn't know whether it really sounded like a tornado. He just knows that the roar of a tornado is often likened to the sound of a freight train — and a freight train was what was bearing down on the Garys' house. An 81-car train carrying automobiles and electrical appliances from Cumberland to Baltimore via Washington was about to make an unscheduled stop.
John Gary later told a Washington Post reporter that he "heard the train coming. It was running real fast . . . the wheels were just jumping."
In the previous months, there had been construction along the track bed, which parallels Blair Road, up an embankment. The Chessie System railroad tracks had been moved to the edges of the right of way to allow tracks for Metrorail's Red Line to be laid in the center. (That portion of the Red Line was not yet in service.)
Did this weaken the track bed? Who knows. The National Transportation Safety Board apparently didn't investigate the accident, and Answer Man found no follow-up stories.
In any event, the freight train was not speeding — traveling about 35 mph in a zone with a limit of 50 — but about 5:40 p.m., engineer Charles Cook noticed the train accelerating, even though he had not adjusted the throttle. And then the train suddenly ground to a halt. Unbeknown to Cook, nearly two dozen cars in the middle of the train had come off the rails.
Most cars toppled to the side, but four or five flew off the embankment, dropping 20 feet to the streets below. One of them — a triple-decker car that was transporting new automobiles — landed in the Garys' front yard, setting their porch and their next door neighbor's porch alight. Sparks thrown up as the rail cars and autos skidded along the pavement had ignited the tires and undercoating of the cars.
John Gary grabbed a hose to direct water on the smoldering wreckage.
Fortunately, there were no injuries, but the great violence of a 6,000-ton train jumping the tracks was apparent. Railroad ties were splintered. Railroad spikes were scattered. Mangled cars lay in front yards.
As the Evening Star's Allan Frank put it: "The big pileup, in the middle of the train, presented an unbelievable tableau. It was the kind of crash that a young child engineering his toy trains tries to recreate."
That area has seemed particularly prone to train crashes. On Feb. 26, 1941, a B&O Railroad train crashed into the back of a work train that was stopped. The fireman and brakeman on the moving train leaped from the engine's cab before the collision. The engineer waited too late and was killed. The engine of the moving train and the caboose of the stationary train rolled down the embankment and onto Blair Road.
In 1906, an even deadlier incident occurred a little down from the 1976 and 1941 accidents. A passenger train from Frederick to Washington was just pulling out of the Terra Cotta station — what we today call Fort Totten — when it was struck by a speeding freight train. Fifty-three people were killed.
And in 2009, nine people aboard a Red Line Metro train, including the train operator, were killed when their train collided with a stationary train in front of it.
In the 1976 derailment, one of the flying rail cars smashed into the rear of the Rev. Harold C. Hunter's house at 209 Underwood St. NW, snapping an oak tree in the process. Hunter and his family weren't at home at the time. They were at church.
"It's the best place to be if a train runs into your house," he said later.
Good to know.
Do you have a question about something that happened in the Washington area, or something you've seen in your travels? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.