On the morning of December 31, 1909, Saratoga Springs philanthropist and financier Spencer Trask was just waking up after a night in a railroad sleeping car at the rear of the Montreal Express. The night before this southbound train had picked up Trask in Saratoga as it made its way toward New York City.
At 8:03 am, only moments after the express train had stopped unexpectedly on the mainline near Croton, Westchester County, New York, a train transporting bales of raw silk crashed into its rear, killing Trask, the porter in his sleeping car, and injuring several other of the passengers. While the direct cause of this deadly wreck pointed to a failure of signal equipment and railroad personnel, events leading up to the tragedy had been put into motion six thousand miles to the west seventeen days earlier.
Silk was a commodity whose value in North America had increased dramatically in the years following the Civil War. In 1909, the year of Spencer Trask’s death, our country consumed half of the world’s production of raw silk, about twenty-four million pounds, with an estimated value of eighty million dollars.
After silk was harvested in Japan, it was packaged into three-foot bales weighing just under two hundred pounds. The bales were sealed, wrapped in heavy paper, and then marked for shipment throughout the world. In the middle of December of 1909 at the Japanese port of Yokohama, a fast steamship of the Canadian Pacific Railroad’s Empress Line was loaded with the bales of raw silk that twelve days later would be on the silk train that ended Trask’s life.
The destination of this vessel was Vancouver, British Columbia, where within minutes of docking bales of raw silk were streaming down a conveyor belt and into the hands of an army of stevedores whose sole duty was to quickly fill the waiting railroad freight cars. In less than two hours, over one million dollars of silk bales were in place and the journey across Canada began.
Special silk trains transported this valuable cargo from Pacific Ocean ports to the National Silk Exchange in New York City. The train’s freight cars were specially made for moving this valuable product with both safety and speed. Built on passenger car suspension and wheels, they were shorter than the standard freight car to allow them to take curves at higher speeds. They were also lined on the inside with varnished wood and airtight as the value of the raw silk diminished if it was allowed to absorb moisture.
From Vancouver, the train headed east to Prescott, in Ontario, Canada where the cars were taken across the St. Lawrence River to Ogdensburg on the Canadian Pacific Railroad ferry Charles Lyon. From here, the freight cars were attached to a New York Central engine and started south through upstate New York. Five days after coming off the boat from Japan, these valuable bales of raw silk were expected to arrive in New York City.
Speed was of the essence in these trips for several reasons, some practical and others clearly financial. The most important of these was the high cost of insurance and bonding that the railroad took out on each shipment which amounted to thousands of dollars a day, often calculated by the hour. There also was the practical matter of the safety of the train and the silk it carried. The railroad looked at each trip as traveling through what they called “a zone of danger” as it passed from point A to point B, with the solution being to travel as quickly as possible. For the silk train, it meant often moving at speeds more than eighty miles an hour with only periodic stops for water and to change out the hard-working steam engines and crews.
To expedite these trains, they were put through as a Special, a designation that required all other trains to move aside. These trains were on no schedule, they left Vancouver whenever a ship arrived and then moved as quickly across the continent as conditions allowed. The August 19, 1911, edition of the Plattsburgh Press gave this account of one of these runs:
“A million-dollar silk train of eight cars was rushed to Prescott Thursday night after a record-breaking run of four days from Vancouver and no time was lost in getting the cargo ferried across to Ogdensburg where a fresh engine was waiting to rush the valuable cargo down to New York in eighteen hours.”
On January 3, 1910, just days after the accident, the Ogdensburg Journal ran a story that suggested that the Canadian Pacific silk train that caused Spencer Trak’s death was in a race to New York with the Union Pacific Railway. It was said that the winner would be given preference in future shipments of raw silk. Harper’s Weekly Magazine in a story that they published on December 4, 1909, reported that winning these contests was “the one important thing to these otherwise unemotional railroad men,” and that they would do everything possible to cut even a few minutes off the time it took to move these trains along their route.
No changes concerning the racing of silk trains were ever made after this tragic accident, and the only reported penalty to the railroad was a sixty-thousand-dollar lawsuit that his widow donated to Saratoga charities. By the 1930s the silk trains had been discontinued, due to the dramatic drop in the value of raw silk, and the development of manmade fibers.
Photo of Ogdensburg Journal, January 3rd, 1910.