One of the challenges of assessing antebellum travel is the lack of comprehensive accident statistics. In a previous post, I suggested that while stories of "snakeheads” (rails snapping loose and flying up through the bottom of carriages) were perhaps not as widespread as their prominence in some memoirs of the period suggests. (In the comments section of that post, a reader helpfully provided a few more examples.) While researching a series of railroad advertisements from the antebellum era, I recently came across another data point on the subject which I found of interest.
In an 1844 advertisement for its new line of cars, the Phoenix Line in Pennsylvania boasted that its cars were "all new and of a very superior quality, both for safety and comfort.” One aspect of this safety was the fact that "the bottoms of all the Cars are lined with heavy boiler iron, so that in case of a break or loose rail on the road, it will be impossible for any thing to penetrate or break through the bottom of the Cars." Clearly, this company felt that it had an important safety measure worthy of the public's attention. In all my reading on antebellum railroads, this is the first time that I've seen a specific reference to this type of safety measure in an advertisement: usually, advertisements boasted about the speed of travel or the convenience of connections. Nevertheless, it seems that the management of the Phoenix Line felt that this was worthy of the public's notice, and might help assuage any fears they had about travel.
So: while we many never know exactly how many rails posed a danger to travelers by snakeheads, this advertisement offers another way in which they were part of the contemporary conversation about travel, not just in the memories of travelers after the antebellum era.
The quotation is courtesy the American Antiquarian Society, which holds a copy of the broadside.