The Destruction of the Chestnut Street Bridge
Despite being in the middle of the Great Depression, railroad traffic along the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Main Line remained busy in 1936. Just after midnight on August 13th of that year, a train with a mix of box cars, tank cars, and gondolas roared past the station in Downingtown’s west end heading toward Philadelphia. As the train approached the Chestnut Street Bridge in the Borough’s east end, one of the crew members felt something was wrong when he heard an object dragging from the train. Before the crew could stop the train, the dragging item caused 18 cars to derail, including some that went off the tracks under the Chestnut Street Bridge.
Workers are seen here on August 13, 1936 cleaning up an 18-car train derailment in Downingtown’s east end at the Chestnut Street Bridge. Homes along the north side of Jackson Avenue can be seen in the background.
Fortunately, none of the crew were injured, and for the Pennsylvania Railroad this was a routine clean-up. Train crews and section gangs were immediately called in from throughout the Philadelphia area, and by the time the sun was up, hundreds of men were working to clear the wreckage and repair the damaged tracks. Two wreck-cranes were quickly brought to the site as well. While the clean-up was going on, trains were diverted over the Railroad’s Philadelphia and Thorndale branch (route of the Trestle Bridge). About twelve hours later, by noon of the 13th, all four Main Line tracks were repaired, and a steady stream of passenger and freight trains began to roll through. Though considerable wreckage of the derailed train remained off to the side, the worst was behind them and the emergency crews started to be sent home. But that was about to change.
The old Chestnut Street Bridge provided a great spot for local residents to observe the clean-up of the train derailment. Notice the overturned tank car underneath the bridge. This and other tank cars were transporting highly flammable naphthalene. Not long after this photograph was taken a cinder from a passing locomotive ignited the naphthalene leaking from one of the cars resulting in a fire that destroyed the bridge.
Work crews did not notice that one of the wrecked tank cars was leaking until wisps of smoke began to appear underneath, coming from a fire that most likely started from a cinder from a passing locomotive. Before the fire department could be summoned to the site, the car was fully engulfed in flames. Thick black smoke ascended hundreds of feet into the air. The smoke was so thick that drivers on nearby roads could see only a few feet in front of them.
The tank car that was aflame contained a highly flammable liquid called naphthalene. Four other wrecked cars carried the same substance, and each of them caught fire in succession. The Chestnut Street Bridge soon caught on fire too. The bridge, which was built in the late 1800s to replace a dangerous at-grade crossing, was filled with dozens of bystanders who leaned against the bridge's railing to watch the clean-up. Now it was a mass of flames. Fire burned up the bridge’s wooden planks and the intense heat caused the steel structure to crumble. For the second time that day trains were rerouted onto the Philadelphia and Thorndale Branch.
As the fire raged out of control, Palmer Raysor, a Downingtown-based detective with the Pennsylvania Railroad checked the contents of several of the train’s boxcars that had been moved to a siding and discovered one containing smokeless gun power. If this car caught fire and exploded, the lives of not only workers and bystanders nearby would be endangered, but the entire town of Downingtown was at risk, as flaming naphthalene from the tank cars would be hurled all throughout the Borough.
The large gang of railroad workers cleaning up the derailed railroad cars paused for a moment when a train passed the site. The photograph was taken facing east from the old Chestnut Street Bridge.
By now William Wiltse, an assistant trainmaster from Lancaster, was apprised of the situation and he and Raysor jumped into action. First, they moved two acetylene tanks left near the gunpowder-laden boxcar by welders earlier in the day. The tanks were so hot the men burned their hands. Next, despite the entreaties of nearby workers, Raysor and Wiltse ran to a locomotive that was used in clearing the wreckage. Wiltse jumped into the cab and Raysor swung onto the step of the engine's coal tender. While Raysor directed, Wiltse backed the locomotive into the siding, hooked onto the boxcar which was now smoldering, and the two men pulled it a half mile to the east where the fire department from a safe distance doused it with water from their hoses. A major Downingtown disaster had been averted.
Above, the photographer took an image of the clean-up from under the bridge. The image below was taken on top of the bridge facing west. Some of the derailed cars were pushed off to the side so train traffic could resume on the Main Line. The sidings on the left served the Downingtown Paper Company. The company’s smokestacks can be seen in the background.
It is not known if the men were rewarded for risking their lives that day. Palmer Raysor continued to work several more years as a railroad detective in Downingtown. In 1939, after 30 years with the Pennsylvania Railroad, Raysor was granted a four-year furlough in order to serve as the new chief detective for Chester County. On August 28, 1943, he was driving away from the Downingtown police station after attending a hearing when he suffered a heart attack and died. He was 58. William Wiltse worked in several other positions with the Pennsylvania Railroad before retiring in 1960 after 47 years. He died in 1966 in Florida at age 70.
Downingtown Borough Council urged the Pennsylvania Railroad for their help in rebuilding the Chestnut Street Bridge as soon as possible. But the Railroad objected. They were in the beginning stages of a major infrastructure project that involved the electrification of the Main Line between Paoli and Harrisburg. Electrification poles needed to be erected and wires strung before the new bridge could be built. It wasn’t until the late summer of 1939 when a contract was awarded and construction of the bridge began. On January 4, 1940, a new Chestnut Street Bridge finally opened to traffic, over three years after it was destroyed by the fire.
Above is another image taken on August 13, 1936 from the old Chestnut Street Bridge before it burned down that same day. By the time this photograph was taken, workers had cleared most of the wreckage from the 18-car derailment in order to allow regular passenger and freight service to resume. There were eleven tracks on the west side of the bridge: three siding tracks for the Downingtown paper company, four main line tracks, three tracks used as an interchange with the Reading Railroad’s Chester Valley Branch, and the single tracked Chester Valley Branch itself (on the far right). Below is how the same view looks today. This section of the Main Line was electrified in 1938.
The Downingtown Archive announced the opening of the Chestnut Street Bridge in its January 4, 1940 edition (right). Coincidentally, right above the article in a section of short snippets of the goings-ons of Downingtown residents, it mentions Palmer Raysor purchasing a car! Raysor and another railroad employee pulled a boxcar carrying gunpowder away from the derailment site in 1936.
Below, an aerial photograph taken in 1937 shows the missing Chestnut Street Bridge. The bridge caught fire and was destroyed on August 13, 1936 after the contents of several derailed train cars near the bridge ignited.
The photograph top right shows the Chestnut Street Bridge under construction in the late summer or early fall of 1939. Notice the structure was fabricated by Bethlehem Steel. The crane was on the track of the Reading Railroad’s Chester Valley Branch which paralleled the PRR’s Main Line for a short distance in the eastern end of Downingtown. The image right bottom shows the completed bridge. In both images, notice the new electric poles recently installed by the Pennsylvania Railroad. Electrified trains first ran west of Paoli in 1938.
The new Chestnut Street Bridge remained in service for almost 80 years before closing on January 28, 2019. The bridge had deteriorated considerably prior to that and several times had to close for temporary repairs. After being out of service for over two years, the third Chestnut Street Bridge in Downingtown opened on April 1, 2021.
The Chestnut Street Bridge is seen here in 1961. The bridge was not designed to handle the amount of traffic that would eventually cross it on a daily basis.
The photograph at the right was taken on the morning of January 28, 2019 a few minutes after barriers were moved into place to close the bridge for its removal and replacement.
January 4, 2020
March 20, 2020
February 1, 2020
June 13, 2020
October 17, 2020
Note: images seen here of the 1936 derailment came from the John W. Barriger National Railroad Library.