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Thursday, November 14, 2013

A horrifying end and a hero's farewell, November 1892

He was only fifty-eight years old, but some would argue that he had already led a full life. Born on April 29, 1834 to Irish immigrant parents Patrick and Ann Cowhey in New York City, William Cowhey had spent the latter part of his childhood in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. He worked on the canals until the Civil War broke out, then served along with his younger brother Thomas as one of the initial three-month volunteers for the Union in Schuylkill County's Company I, 16th Regiment. Following this short term, he re-enlisted in Battery L, Fifth U.S. Artillery and served for most of the duration of the war, seeing action in the 2nd Battle of Winchester. After his discharge, William became a prominent member of the G.A.R. veterans' organization (Grand Army of the Republic) for the duration of his life.

After the war, William married Catherine Regan. The couple had five children before Catherine's untimely death from consumption in the lungs in October 1876. As a 44-year-old widower with five young children, William was quick to marry again. He and 22-year-old Margaret Foley wed in St. Patrick's Church of Pottsville on February 28, 1878. They went on to have ten children of their own. William supported his family by working for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad.

By the year 1892, William Cowhey had worked his way up from fireman to engineer. In the dark just after 2 a.m. on November 14, 1892, he had just hopped aboard another engineer's engine no. 563 in Cressona to get home to Mount Carbon after his shift had finished when two minutes into the ride the train's boiler exploded as they passed through Conner's Crossing just north of Schuylkill Haven. The horrifying blast sent William and four other railroad men to their deaths (with one more later dying from his injuries). William was killed instantly as his body was thrown onto rocks and according to the newspaper report, all of his bones were broken.

The accident was written up in local newspapers and city papers throughout the nation, including the November 15, 1892 New York Times (which I've transcribed here).

For details on the possible cause of the accident, see The Pottsville train explosion: How & why?. Though its passengers did not, Philadelphia and Reading engine no. 563 survived the blast. Here is its photograph circa 1930s (it's wooden cab was replaced by a metal cab):

Thanks to Ronald Bailey for this photograph from the collection
of the archives of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.

The accident occurred at Conner's Crossing, where a huge viaduct (trestle bridge) built in 1890 allowed Lehigh Valley Railroad train tracks to cross over the valley below where two other rail lines passed: the Pennsylvania Railroad on the west, and the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad on the east (on which engine no. 563 was travelling northward to Pottsville).

Conner's viaduct showing rail line passing below. Photographer William Rau.
Photo thanks to Jim Bohrman's Lehigh Valley Railroad, Pottsville Division website

Conner's viaduct looking westward, 1953. Photographer Lew Hoy.
Photo thanks to Jim Bohrman's Lehigh Valley Railroad, Pottsville Division website

The huge viaduct was dismantled in 1953. The remains of one of the brick piers that formed the base of the structure still stands, perhaps a fitting monument to William Cowhey's life on the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, and his death at its hand.

This surviving brick pier of the Conner's Crossing viaduct was part of the east side
of the great structure. It is located in what is now the parking lot of the Cressona Mall
on Route 61. Photo thanks to Jim Bohrman's Lehigh Valley Railroad, Pottsville Division website.

The day after the explosion, November 15, 1892, the Pottsville Daily Republican ran the following announcement of William Cowhey's upcoming funeral. I have transcribed it below.

"The funeral of William Cowhey, who was killed by the explosion at Connor's on Monday morning, will take place from his late residence, East Mt. Carbon, on Thursday morning at 9 o'clock, to proceed to St. Patrick's Church, where a Requiem High Mass will be celebrated at 10 o'clock. The deceased leaves a wife and twelve children to survive him. William Cowhey, the dead engineer, enlisted in the first three months' service in Co. I, 16th Regt., Capt. Joseph Anthony, and when his term of service expired re-enlisted in Battery L, Fifth U.S. Artillery, serving three years. He was a member of Gowen Post No. 23, G.A.R., who will attend his funeral."

Two days later, November 17, 1892, the Pottsville Daily Republican detailed William's farewell: a funeral deserving of a hero complete with distinguished guests from several states and members of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) as pall bearers.

"The funeral of William Cowhey, of East Mt. Carbon, one of the engineers killed on Monday morning by the explosion of locomotive 563 at Connors, took place this morning at 9 o'clock. A large delegation of Gowen Post and Guards was present as an escort to the remains. The funeral cortege proceeded to St. Patrick's church, where a Requiem High Mass was celebrated by Rev. W.A. Duffy, the rector of the church. The attendance was very large, including friends from New Haven, Conn.; New York and Washington, D.C. The pall bearers were: N.W. Buck, James Madison, Abraham Kuhn, Abraham Nagle, members of Gowen Post; James Vail and Matthew Kerber. The cortege was under the supervision of Commander Samuel Holmes of Gowen Post. The floral offerings consisted of an anchor, wreath and two sheaves of wheat. The interment was made in No. 3 cemetery."

It is hard for me to imagine the suffering endured by William's wife Margaret, his children, family and friends caused by such a horrific tragedy. It is heartening to see how the town came together to mourn his loss.

The report of the funeral that was published in the newspaper described the three floral offerings that decorated William's funeral: an anchor, a wreath and two sheaves of wheat representing the hope of eternal life. May God's peace be with the soul of my great-great-grandfather. Requiescat in pace, William Cowhey.


This article has been posted in honor of the 121st anniversary of William Cowhey's death on November 14, 1892. I have also shared it as part of Thriller Thursday, a Geneabloggers Daily Prompt dedicated to thrilling stories of our ancestors including accidents such as the one that took William Cowhey's life.

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