On April 18, 1942, two Berwyn Heights youths were killed when their truck was struck by an express train at the B&O crossing where today a pedestrian bridge connects Berwyn Heights and College Park. William Forrester, 16 and David Snydeman, 12 were returning from Keefauer’s grocery store and are believed to have stopped for a passing train. They resumed their trip after the train had passed but were hit by a B&O Capitol Limited going in the opposite direction.1
Ten year’s earlier, on July 21, 1931, a Miss Ethel Thomas of St. Ann’s Orphanage barely escaped with her life when her car stalled in the Berwyn crossing in the path of an oncoming express train. She was helped to safety by Edwin Yost and Andrew Mothershead of Berwyn Heights, who happened to be nearby. Two engineers on the train were not so lucky. Their clothes caught fire when the train rammed the car, and its exploding gas tank tossed a sheet of flames across the locomotive. The engineers jumped from the cab but did not survive. The fireman, also badly burnt, managed to bring the train to a stop.2
Grade crossings had become the scene of many accidents involving motorists in the first half of the 20th century, as the automobile was conquering America and highways started to crisscross the country. By 1930, there were over 220,000 unprotected grade crossings nationwide. Accidents at grade crossings peaked in the mid 1920s, killing nearly 2,100 persons and injuring another 6,200.3 Almost daily, newspapers reported deaths resulting from motorists colliding with trains.
In the D.C. area, collisions occurred with regularity at dozens of grade crossings. Congress passed a bill calling for the elimination of grade crossings in the City in 1927, but it took another 12 years to complete the task.4 Following one particularly deadly accident, in which 14 students returning from a science meet at the University of Maryland were killed when their school bus crashed into an express train at a Rockville grade crossing, public pressure mounted to eliminate them.5 The Evening Star, Washington’s newspaper of record had made it its mission to push for the elimination of grade crossings, and renewed its call to get rid of these ‘death traps’.6 But progress was slow because it required securing financing in the legislatures and from railways, and then relocating highways or building bridges and tunnels.
By 1939, the Berwyn crossing was one of only 12 unsecured grade crossings remaining in the greater Washington area and slated to be closed within a year. The State of Maryland had appropriated $150,000 for the State Roads Commission to build an overpass over the B&O tracks at Branchville Road.7 The reconstruction of Branchville Road (now Greenbelt Road) with the overpass was completed in the fall of 1942, a few months after the deadly accident.
The new safe route over the B&O tracks did not quite end the drama over the Berwyn crossing. The residents of Berwyn Heights and Berwyn chafed under the separation of their communities and resented having to detour over the Branchville Road to get their mail, go shopping and visit their church. Several of Berwyn’s shopkeepers 8 had homes in Berwyn Heights and would no doubt have preferred to keep the direct road open. Town Commissioners brought up the reopening of the crossing at monthly meetings but County Commissioner Edward ‘Ned’ Waters, residing at 8507 60th Avenue in Berwyn Heights, took the matter to new level.
After being elected to the County Council in 1950, Waters organized public hearings and conferences with the B&O Railroad and the State Roads Commission to press for the crossing’s reopening. He claimed its closure was illegal because no prior public hearing had been held; and that the barricades themselves posed a risk to life and limb as cars crashed into them. He insisted a reopening was supported by the Town’s Commissioners, Volunteer Fire Departments, the College Park Businessman’s Association and “every man, woman and child in Berwyn and Berwyn Heights.”9
The B&O Railroad and the State Roads Commission were unmoved, noting that the Branchville Road overpass was funded in conformance with a larger national policy to eliminate grade crossings.10 Waters did not give up and prepared to take the matter to court. However, the County’s attorney refused to “file a spurious and improper court suit… when we [the County Commissioners] do not have a leg to stand on.”11 He resigned shortly after the disagreement and the effort to reopen the Berwyn crossing died. Eventually, the communities on either side of the tracks adjusted to the separation.
Nobody would seriously consider crossing those tracks today. There is a pedestrian bridge now with accessible ramps that spans 5 actively used tracks: 2 Metro Green Line tracks, a Metro test track all powered by electrified third rails, and 2 CSX tracks. Tall fences run along the tracks to keep people away. But the spot has not been without incident. On April 14, 2015, the pedestrian bridge was accidentally knocked down by a construction crane brought in by rail for building the test track. By a stroke of luck, no one was hurt. The bridge reopened a year later and has been open for business since.12 Go on up and have a look. A train might pass below you.
2 “Train-Auto Crash Inquest to Probe Two Men’s Deaths,” The Evening Star, 22 July 1931, page 1.
3 Accident bulletin, Interstate Commerce Commission, Bureau of Statistics. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 1942 , Page 12.
4 “Elimination of 3 Major Crossings in D.C. Area Planned,” The Sunday Star, 24 September 1939, page B-6.
5 “Fourteen Deaths in School Bus Probed,” The Evening Star, 12 April 1935, pages A-1, A-4, A-5, A-6, A-7, A-10; and “Acclaim President’s Project to End Crossing Death Traps,” The Evening Star, 26 April 1935, page A-10.
7 “Elimination of Three Major Crossings in D.C. Area Planned,” The Sunday Star, 24 September 1939, page B-6.
8 Charles Mayo & Lillian Attick – Barbershop; Charles, Jr. & Bessie Attick – Barbershop; John & Josephine Burch – Realty Agency.
10 “County Heads to Ask Order to Open Berwyn Rail Crossing,” The Evening Star, 2 August, 1951, page A-18.
11 “County Attorney Offers to Resign Following Verbal Tilt,” The Evening Star, 5 December 1951, page C-1
12 “A Year After its Collapse, Contractors will Replace Pedestrian Bridge,” The Diamondback, 14 April 2016