Engineer Edward Binger survived a head-on train crash in Fenton on Sunday, June 29, 1952. The two engines were destroyed in the crash.
Train wrecks were once common before technology improved communication and safety devices.
Durand’s Union Station and Michigan Railroad History Museum preserves the history of many of those horrific accidents.
One tragedy was before dawn on Sunday, June 29, 1952, in Fenton. The daughter of the engineer, Wilma Binger Turner, tells the story.
It was 2:42 a.m., thunderstorms were raging, with a driving rain. Edward Binger, 54, was on westbound Grand Trunk freight train No. 3723. It was headed from Detroit to Durand.
Binger, a railroad veteran of 35 years, suddenly saw lights coming at him where the track curves between Silver Lake Road and Lake Ponemah. He believed it was car headlights as he’d seen many times before.
To his horror, he realized it was another train, barreling head-on along the same track. With 103 cars and traveling at more than 50 mph, it would have taken more than a mile for Binger to slow his train, said Connie Peabody Cobley, of the Durand Union Station.
Binger ordered his brakeman, Harold Dolehanty, and firefighter, Robert Kanaar, both 25, to jump. Because of his age and weight (250 pounds), the engineer knew jumping was not an option for himself. He stayed in the engine and “soaked her,” which means he applied the brakes at full force, Cobley said.
The westbound train, with Binger on board, collided head-on with eastbound Grand Trunk freight train No. 512. There was a deafening roar and a shower of smoke, steam and flames high into the sky. The impact telescoped the boilers of the two engines, sending two freight cars high into the air, eventually descending upon both engineers.
“Miraculously escaping death, the crash left my dad seriously injured and buried for more than an hour under the wreckage of the two freight engines,” said Turner. “He was pinned beneath the drive wheels, scalding steam searing his flesh. His fireman managed to jump from the train just before the horrible crash, but his brakeman didn’t make the jump in time.”
The firefighter on the eastbound train, Howard Strickland, 50, saw the lights of the westbound train, informing the engineer, Sylvester Maginity, 45, who had 24 years’ railroad experience. He managed to slow the train, carrying 62 cars, to 20 mph. Maginity and Strickland, as well as brakeman, J.D. Weigel, 34, were barely able to jump before the collision.
“The wreckage created an unusual sculpture of twisted metal and splintered wood from box cars that smashed like toothpicks, festooned with wires from a broken utility pole,” Turner said. “In fact, onlookers reported that the two locomotives appeared to be ‘welded together.’”
Cobley said people flocked to see the aftermath. Some visitors to Union Station have said they remember the story, and family members visited the site. Originally, damage was estimated at more than $100,000, but in the end it was more than $500,000, Turner said.
The crash occurred on the John Foley Farm, a mile west of Fenton. The Foleys summoned the police and the Rev. John Madden from St. John Catholic Church, Fenton. First on the scene were State Trooper Lawrence J. Hoffmann, Madden, Fenton Police Chief Robert Dode, Dr. W.F. Buchanan of Fenton and Martin Foley, son of the farm owner. “Rev. Madden spent a considerable amount of time talking to my dad, reassuring him,” Turner said.
Men had to dig a tunnel through the mud and rail to pull Binger to safety. Buchanan crawled under the train to give him a sedative. Sheriff’s deputies, Beecher and Fenton firefighters, members of the 125th Infantry and the Flint National Guard arrived to help.
Binger and his brakeman, Dolehanty, suffered the worst injuries. Binger was badly burned from the engine’s steam. He also had broken bones, bruises and chest injuries. He never regained his good health, Turner said.
The cause of the crash was said to be a failure to carry out orders. V.C. Palmer, Grand Trunk’s Detroit Division superintendent, said the eastbound train failed to obey orders to stop at Linden to let the westbound freight train pass. Palmer said Engineer Maginity told him that in the dark, he passed Linden without realizing it. Further, Palmer said the crash occurred where an automatic signal was being installed, and that the trains were to go on automatic signals, eliminating written orders effective July 7, 1952. Had it been in operation at the time of the crash on June 30, this would have eliminated the need for written orders and the crash might have been prevented.
“Despite the horrors of the crash, my father often reflected on his days on the railroad,” she said. “To me, my dad was as invincible as the locomotives that he commanded. Surviving a high speed, head-on train collision was even more proof of his indestructibility! He, of flesh and bone, survived. But his engine, the Iron Horse, did not!”