Crawford Notch, NH Steam Locomotive Explosion, July 1927
July 3, 1927: Maine Central #505 was in Bartlett having come in on the "Local" Portland,Me to Bartlett, NH job the night before. The Roundhouse was short on power so the 505 was to be a "helper" locomotive. It was rare for her to be used as a helper as this was the case for all the Class W's. These were used almost exclusively east of Bartlett, where they really shine.
505 was due to go back to Portland on the afternoon local later that day. She was pressed into service to help with a very "heavy" extra. She would be put in Mid train, and cut off at Crawfords. Bob Morse and Oscar Clemons, planned an afternoon fishing trip for when they returned. There would be 2 locomotives on the head pin.
As the Engineer, Bob Morse worked the engine, to help make up the train, the throttle felt "Soggy". He reported it to the mechanics at the Bartlett Roundhouse, they checked the loco over, but could not find the problem. Bob and his fireman, Oscar Clemons, went back to work. Again, Bob reported the sluggish response of the 505, the shop crews brought her in to the Roundhouse and did everything but dump the fire and pull the boiler jacket off, which Bartlett was not equipped for anyway.
So at about 8:00 the 505, took her place, on a WESTBOUND extra freight, about mid train. The train departed at about 8:30 a.m.
Bob Morse was a popular man, but pushed his loco's to their operational limits, he got every bit of operational power out of the engine he was running, he was very good.
One trick almost all engineers had in those days was to run the loco water low. This gave you the maximum amount of steam pressure and the maximum performance from the loco, but the engineer had to have a fireman that could handle the task, it was a dangerous dance, but Oscar Clemons had worked with Bob Morse for years and knew exactly what he was doing.
At about 10:00 the train passed Willey House Station, Mile post 81 about 1/4 mile up the track it becomes straight and levels off. The 505 was traveling at 40 MPH under past maximum pressure, when the loco reached this point Oscar opened the petcock for water and the engine exploded.
The boiler failed just in front of the drive wheel 2nd from the firebox (3rd driver from the front). The explosion blew Engineer Morse out of the cab and 500 feet back. The Locomotive lifted clean out of the train, fracturing the connecting bar between the engine and tender, flew up in the air 60 feet, turned end for end and dropped upside down and over the bank, crushing the cab with Oscar Clemons still inside, before rolling back on her side and coming to rest.
Investigators found that the sight glass used to measure the water in the boiler was faulty, the boiler plates failed due to metal fatigue and the soggy feeling Mr. Morse was feeling while working in the yard, were the plates flexing. It blew the face plate of the locomotive off and split the boiler from Stack to bell. The explosion was so loud that it created an "Aucostic echo". The explosion was not heard at the Willey Station, but at the Mount Willard Dwelling it was like a clap of thunder.
The trees in the area were all blistered, Mr. Morse's watch was found in a tree, 20 feet off the ground. the water can that held water and a drinking cup was blown over a mile away.
However, Mr. Morse's wooden lunch pail was found beside the engine, on a rock. This was a round pail with plates in it, not ONE plate was broken. Mr. Morse survived the explosion and being thrown 500 feet, he was found crawling towards a brook, all he said was, I know I'm done for, go check on Oscar. Oscar Clemons was trapped in the wreck, still alive. Both men made it to the hospital, both died at about the same time, 6:oo that evening.
Maine Central, not in it's finest hour tried to sue Mrs. Morse for the loss of the equipment and damage. However in the court search it was found that 505 had received damage to it's boiler, while in service in Baldwin Maine. Although not catastrophic, it did do some damage. It was also found that the 505 had been reported at least 5 times the previous month as having a leaky boiler, nothing was done. MeCRR dropped the suit, Mrs. Morse counter sued and won.
The youngest surviving son of Oscar Clemons, now in his 80's commissioned a granite memorial to be placed near the site. It was put there several years ago.
From a story penned by Bartlett, NH native Scotty Mallett based on first hand accounts from families of those involved.