“Killed While Coupling Cars”

There’s no doubt that railroads played a pivotal role in the industrialization of the nation, allowing for unprecedented growth and prosperity. With it, however, came countless train accidents and the eventual call for safety on the rails and the protection of passengers and workers.

“An Act to Promote the Safety of Employees and Travelers upon Railroads by Compelling Common Carriers Engaged in Interstate Commerce to Equip Their Cars with Automatic Couplers and Continuous Brakes and Their Locomotives with Driving-wheel Brakes, and for Other Purposes,” which came to be termed the “Railroad Safety Appliance Act,” was enacted by Congress on March 2, 1893. Key provisions of the act making air brakes and automatic couplers mandatory on all trains were slated to take effect on January 1, 1898, after a five-year grace period.

The link-and-pin coupler then in use required a worker to stand between the cars and guide a link into a coupler pocket as the cars came together. A pin was then inserted to hold the link in place. The process of coupling cars was fraught with danger. Many brakemen lost fingers and entire hands, and still more were crushed to death when the cars came together too quickly.

Jenkintown Station, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, 1892
Library of Congress

On May 15, 1893, while working on the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad at a suburban Philadelphia station, Benjamin D. Simmins (1868-1893), just one month shy of his 25th birthday, was “Killed while coupling cars at Jenkintown, Pa.” as the inscription on his black granite gravemarker records.