Snakeheads on antebellum railroads

While I was researching Railroads in the Old South, I would sometimes come across references to "snakeheads." This is the term given to strap iron rails which would come loose from the sleepers; in the more ghoulish tales, the rails would pierce the bottom of a car and impale some poor unsuspecting passenger. Traveling through the South, Henry Whipple wrote in 1844: "The passengers are amused on this road by running off the track, sending rails up through the bottom of the cars and other amusements of the kind calculated to make one's hair stand on end" (Bishop Whipple's Southern Diary, 1843-1844, page 76). Likewise, in Southern Railroad Man, N.J. Bell reported: "It is said that one of these snakeheads stuck up so high that it ran over the top of a wheel of a coach and through the floor, and killed a lady passenger" (page 7).

"It is said." Not the most satisfying answer. On the one hand, as a historian I was reliant on accounts like Bell's and Whipple's to round out my understanding of travel on southern railroads and balance what I was getting from the corporate reports. On the other hand, the prospect of an iron rail ripping through the bottom of a rail car is terrifying, which made me think: if the danger of such an act was truly that prevalent, why did Americans keep building railroads? And why did they keep riding them? Were they foolhardy? Or is there a better way to understand the danger posed by snakeheads? 

One of the challenges of studying safety on antebellum railroads is the lack of comprehensive statistics. There was no federal agency collecting data in a comprehensive way, and state interest was uneven (Mark Aldrich has done excellent work trying to collect what is available). Railroad companies sometimes self-reported accidents in their annual reports, but obviously they had an incentive not to make a fuss over this; and reports usually included some sort of statement that the passenger was rash to jump off a train while it was still moving, or an employee was intoxicated, etc.

Nevertheless, there may be a more satisfactory way to think about snakeheads, even if we don't have good statistics from the period. I didn't make much use of electronic newspaper collections when I was researching my first book, in part because a keyword search for "railroad" is pretty useless (it returns so much material). But to dig a bit deeper in this question—the question of how prevalent and dangerous snakeheads actually were—I decided to look at the newspaper accounts in Readex's Archive of Americana and do some proximity searching to narrow down the results. Although many of the hits were a humbling reminder that OCR isn't perfect (bringing up "called" for "rail" and "make" for "snake"), others proved to be of greater value.

The first genuine mention was a newspaper article in the Newport Rhode Island Republican of April 7, 1841, reporting an accident near Bristol, PA:
As the train of cars were going from New York towards Philadelphia, near Bristol, one of the wheels struck the end of an iron rail, which was loose, and erected in the manner generally called a snake's head.—The bar passed through the bottom of the car, and between the legs of a passenger, (Mr. Yates, of Albany) tearing his cloak in pieces, grazing his ear, and thence passed out the top of the car. An inch difference in his position on the seat, and he must have been killed.
On June 22 the same year, the Boston Daily Atlas reported a similar accident in New Jersey, but retracted the story on July 1 when the president of the railroad wrote that the injury to the passenger was injured by falling on a "fragment of the seat," not from a rail springing through the floor. In addition to poor Mr. Yates above, I located 17 additional descriptions of snakeheads in newspapers during the antebellum era. Any injuries usually stemmed from passengers being shook up from the jolt as the train left the tracks rather than being directly injured by the rail, but some of the injuries were frightening nonetheless. In 1845, John F. Wallis of the Virginia legislature was injured on the Winchester and Potomac Railroad. According to the Baltimore Sun on July 21:
It lifted Mr. W. completely off his seat, coursing up the surface of his leg and abdomen, lacerating him in several places and injuring his hand severely.
The New London, Connecticut, Morning News gave a more vivid (and different) description of the same accident to "Mr. Wall":
One of the bars of iron becoming loosened from the rails, it shot up through the car at the seat where Mr. Wall was sitting, severely lacerating the back part of the hand, cutting his breast and pinning him up to the top of the car.
The only fatality mentioned happened to a "young man named Staats" killed on a train in New Jersey on the way to New York City (as reported by the Baltimore Sun on August 22, 1843):
The bar entered under the chin of this young man, and came out at the back of his head. He was instantly killed, but no other person injured. The cars went back to Boundbrook, left the body, and then after an hour's delay, started for the city.
(Two other accidents I located involved fatalities, but none of those deaths were attributed to the rail as it was with Staats.)

With descriptions this gruesome, it is easy to see why people would have been worried about this type of accident. And clearly they did happen. But given the eagerness of newspapers to report them, one would expect far more than 17 reports over a 30-year period if they were truly that prevalent. I'm not saying that these are the only 17 occurrences; different newspaper databases may yield different results, and not every occurrence may have been particularly newsworthy, particularly if no injury resulted.

Yet the vagueness of reports at the time (such as Whipple's and Bell's, above), and the apparent difficulty of finding them in newspapers suggests that snakeheads which resulted in serious, fatal injury may not have been that common. Therefore, although the risk was present, most railroad passengers assumed (reasonably) that encountering one would be rare, and that if they did encounter one the result would more likely be jostling in the car as opposed to dangling from the top of an iron bar. We don't know how many passengers who witnessed Staats's death declined to get back on the train to New York, but the train went on nonetheless.

I think this notion of acceptable risk is interesting because we make similar judgments ourselves. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 33,808 people died in car crashes in 2009. That's certainly a large number, but I'm betting that few people who read that number will resolve to never go on the highway again. Those deaths are spread out over billions and billions of passenger miles traveled over the course of the year. As a result, each individual passenger can reasonably feel safe, even if there is risk in traveling by car.

Additionally, antebellum Americans seemed to recognize that the fault of the snakehead rested with flimsier flat rail construction (as opposed to heavier rail designs adopted as time went on). Reporting on a snakehead in 1846, the Newport (RI) Mercury called it "one of those accidents consequent on railroads furnished with the flat rail." Four years later, the Trenton (NJ) State Gazette referred to "a snake head (flat rail)." And, just a few decades after railroads were introduced in the United States, the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1861 could refer back to "the days of flat-bar railroads" which were "a terror to all travelers."

As I've suggested, the "terror" is one that passengers were willing to accept. That such accidents sounded terrifying is doubtless. But the paucity of descriptions from the time helps balance out material from commentators such as Whipple and Bell. Snakeheads surely shook up many passengers in the antebellum era, but few would meet the unfortunate end that Staats did.

Additional reading: Robert Shaw's A History of Railroad Accidents (1978) argues against the prevalence of the snakeheads. Mark Aldrich's comprehensive Death Rode the Rails (2006) also notes that the 1830s and 1840s were reasonably free of major, fatal accidents. He has also done the best job of squeezing statistical analysis out of antebellum records.