The 1927 Locomotive Explosion

July 3, 1927: Maine Central locomotive #505 was in Bartlett, having come in on the “local” Portland, ME, to Bartlett, NH, the night before. The Roundhouse was short on power so the 505 was to be a “helper” locomotive. It was rare for her to be used as a helper, because the Class Ws were used almost exclusively East of Bartlett, where they worked well.

505 was due to go back to Portland on the afternoon local later than day. She was pressed into service to help with a very heavy extra. She would be put in mid-train and cut off at Crawford Depot. There would be two locomotives on the head pin. Bob Morse and Oscar Clemons, the locomotive’s Engineer and Fireman, respectively, planned an afternoon fishing trip for when they returned to Bartlett.

As the Engineer, Bob Morse worked the engine to help make up the train, and the throttle felt “soggy.” He reported it to the mechanics at the Bartlett Roundhouse. They checked the loco over, but could not find the problem. Bob and Oscar went back to work. Again Bob reported the sluggish response of the 505. The shop crew brought her into the Roundhouse and did everything but dump the fire and pull the boiler jacket off, which Bartlett wasn’t equipped to do anyway.

At about 8:00 a.m., the 505 took her place on a West bound extra freight, about mid-train. The train departed at about 8:30 a.m.

Bob Morse was a popular man, but he pushed his locomotives to their operational limits. He was very good, and he got every bit of operational power out of the engine he was running.

One trick almost all engineers had in those days was to run the loco water low. This gave the maximum amount of steam pressure and the maximum performance from the loco, but the engineer had to have a fireman who could handle the task. It was a dangerous dance, but Oscar Clemons had worked with Bob Morse for years and knew exactly what he was doing.

At about 10:00 a.m., the train passed Willey Station House. At Mile Post 81, about 1/4 mile up the track, the track becomes straight and levels off. The 505 was traveling at 40 MPH under maximum pressure. When the loco reached this point, Oscar turned on the injector for water, and that is when the engine exploded.

The boiler failed in front of the drive wheel second in from the firebox (3rd driver from the front). The explosion blew Engineer Morse out of the cab and 500 feet back. The locomotive lifted clean out of the train, fracturing the connecting bar between the engine and tender. It flew up in the air 60 feet, turned end-for-end and dropped inside and down over the bank, crushing the cab with Oscar Clemons still inside, before rolling back on her side and coming to rest.

Investigators later found that the sight glass used to measure water in the boiler was faulty. The boiler plates failed due to metal fatigue, and the soggy feeling Mr. Morse experienced while working in the yard was the boiler plates flexing. The explosion blew the smoke box cover off the locomotive off and split the boiler from stack to bell. It was so loud that it created an “acoustic echo:” the explosion was not heard at the Willey Station, but at the Mt. Willard dwelling and sounded liked a clap of thunder.

The trees in the area were all blistered. Mr. Morse’s watch was found in a tree, 20 feet off the ground. The water can and a drinking cup were blown over a mile away. His wooden lunch pail, however, was found beside the engine, on a rock. This was a round pail with plates in it, and not ONE was broken.

Mr. Morse survived the explosion and was thrown 500 feet. He was found crawling towards a brook, and all he said was, “I know I’m done for – go check on Oscar.” Oscar Clemons was trapped in the wreck, still alive. Both men made it to the hospital, but both died at the about the same time: 6:00 that evening.

Maine Central, not in its finest hour, tried to sue Mrs. Morse for the loss of equipment and damage. However, as found in the court search, the 505 had received damage to its boiler while in service in Baldwin, ME. Although not catastrophic, it did do some damage. Also discovered was that the 505 had been reported at least five times the previous month for having a leaky boiler, and nothing was done. MEC dropped the suit. Mrs. Morse counter-sued and won.

The youngest surviving son of Oscar Clemons, George Croston, had a brass plaque made with which he cut and fabricated a memorial from granite that came from his property in Brunswick, ME.  He placed the memorial near the explosion site some years ago.

– Written by Nathan Pitts from a story penned by Bartlett native, Scotty Mallett, based on first-hand accounts from families of those involved.  Information in the last paragraph was provided by Jane Croston, George’s daughter.