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Cows vs. railroads: the near-death experience of President Grant

A rather incredible 1869 train accident involved President Grant, his family, and the Secretary of the Treasury — and a cow.

Running at full speed, the train’s “engineer observed in the dim light ahead, about half the length of the train, a cow on the track.” A New York Times article of June 12, 1869, entitled merely “The Railroad Accidence,” explains:

The lightning speed at which the train was running at the time rendered any attempt to reverse the engine futile, and in a second the cowcatcher had seized the animal and thrown her to the right of the track.

If this was the end of the story, it would simply be one of the most common injuries involving trains in the nineteenth century: death of livestock. (In fact, the train containing passengers from the damaged train went to strike and kill another cow while taking them on to Baltimore.) But the death of the first cow was not the end of the story:

Unfortunately, a train of burden cars was stationed on the Annapolis switch … at the point where the accident occurred, and the cow struck one of them, and rebounding after the engine and tender and man and baggage car had passed, struck the baggage car, knocking the rear truck from under it. This truck, thus flying loose, struck the smoking car, which was thrown off the track and broken into fragments, all the passengers being more or less injured.

In total, some thirty people suffered harm in total, though the article notes, “It is a source of wonder to railroad men and others that an accident of such magnitude as the one described above could occur with no more serious results.”

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President Grant was unharmed: “The President is described as being very cool and collected when the disaster occurred, but Mrs. Grant was considerably alarmed, as were all the female passengers on the train.”

Kristopher Nelson, JD, MA (ABD)

I'm currently a PhD Candidate in History and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego. I provide legal assistance to the TRE Legal Practice. formerly, I was a developer/sysadmin at a biotech non-profit. For more about me and my work, see krisnelson.org or my Google Profile. Note: This is not legal advice. I am not licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.

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