Whitemarsh Township’s 1856 ‘Camp Hill Disaster’ Was Once the Deadliest Train Accident in the World


Camp Hill Disaster
Image via Frank Leslie at Accessible Archives.
Frank Leslie, an illustrator for his eponymous period newspaper (Frank Leslie’s Weekly), recreated the Camp Hill Disaster for publication.

Deep in Montgomery County lore is the July 17, 1856, Camp Hill Disaster, a tragic train collision that took 59 to 67 passengers, many of them children, and injured more than 100 others. The Accessible Archives, a history-themed blog, contained the details.

The wreck resulted from a head-on collision of two trains on a single track. They hit somewhere between Camp Hill and Fort Washington.

One locomotive had left a Catholic school in Kensington, loaded with 1,000–1,100 riders. Many of the passengers, including vast numbers of youngsters, were headed to a picnic.

An eastbound train’s conductor knew an oncoming transport was headed his way. But when it didn’t arrive at its scheduled time, he forewent the opportunity to take a side rail and continued ahead.

That decision proved fatal.

Rounding a blind curve, the two trains hit head-on.

The sound of the resulting explosion was reportedly heard five miles away.

If there was a hero to this tragedy, it was Mary Ambler, a local Quaker woman. In response to the accident, she gathered first aid material and brought them onsite, speedily traveling the considerable distance on foot.

A nearby train station was renamed for her. And eventually, her notoriety was permanently retained with when Ambler Borough honored her by changing its geographic tag.

More on the Camp Hill Disaster is at Accessible Archives.


This 2019 mini-documentary on the Camp Hill Disaster provides additional detail on its cause and aftermath.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on MONTCO Today in February 2023.

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