Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Fatal Switch

In the summer of 1891, New Orleans architect-engineer C. Milo Williams (1867-1954) traveled to Sauvé (Jefferson Parish), five miles outside of New Orleans. He witnessed the wreckage of a head-on train collision that had occurred on the Illinois Central Railroad line near Sauvé station (top image above). The I.C.R.R.'s "Cannon Ball" mail and passenger train smashed into a Toledo, St. Louis and Kansas City freight train, resulting in four fatalities and many other serious injuries. Both engineers died immediately. Newspapers referenced the "fatal switch," alleged conductor and brakeman fault, and charged that no warning lights were in use.(1)

C. Milo Williams later photographed safety improvements along the same I.C.R.R. track (lower image). He indexed his series of  images "Bofinger switches" in reference to New Orleans businessman-inventor William H. Bofinger. Just a few days before the Sauvé collision, Bofinger had received a patent for a new switch that allowed an engineer on a moving train to "throw the point of the switch against the main track without leaving his engine."(2)  A few months after the accident, Bofinger filed a second railroad patent, his so-called "switch-stand'" -- essentially a cage-enclosed switch that prohibited tampering. It is the latter that Williams documented in Jefferson Parish.

Among Bofinger's less safety-conscious inventions, one must mention his 1894-95 Rocking Chair Fan Attachment.

(1)"The Crash of the Cannon Ball." The Daily Picayune (21 June 1891): p. 4.

(2)No. 453,690. Patented June 9,1891.

Images above: C. Milo Williams, photographer. Williams Family Records, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.

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