The Unsolved Mystery Of The 20th Century Limited's Deadly Derailment

The 20th Century Limited high-speed train, which made its inaugural run on June 17, 1902, became one of the most recognized and popular passenger trains for a period of 65 years. As reported by Caso Station, the train's design alone made it unique. The streamlined locomotive, which was commissioned by American industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, had a number of Art Deco features that were also evident throughout the passenger cars. In addition to the exposed running gear and the prominent "bullet" on the front of the locomotive, the train was designed using various shades of blue and gray, which gave it an even more unique appearance.

In addition to the architectural features, Caso Station reports 20th Century Limited offered numerous amenities, including a barber shop, a beauty shop, and a nightclub, which was called Café Century. According to CTPost, the train also boasted a bar, two dining cars, and an observation lounge. Passengers also had access to a secretary and a valet.

The 20th Century Limited had a deadly accident three years after it debuted

The 20th Century Limited traveled exclusively between New York's Grand Central Station and Chicago's LaSalle Street Station. In 1902, CTPost reports the journey took 20 hours, which was four hours faster than the previous train. By 1905, the journey was shortened to only 18 hours, and the line was known for their reliable service. Although 20th Century Limited was ultimately in operation for 65 years, and would become one of the most profitable trains in the world, a deadly disaster threatened to shut it down only three years after its inaugural run.

Trains had been running through the town of Mentor, Ohio, on the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway line, since the mid 19th century. However, The City of Mentor reports the 20th Century Limited was the first high-speed train to pass through the Northeast Ohio town. Nevertheless, the increasingly popular train traveled through Mentor for three years without incident. On the evening of June 21, 1905, however, the train derailed and 21 people were killed in the disaster.

20th Century Limited derailed in Mentor, Ohio

As reported by The City of Mentor, the 20th Century Limited approached Mentor from the west at approximately 9:20 p.m., traveling at approximately 70 miles per hour. Although the train was scheduled to continue along the main line, without making a stop, the track had been switched to divert the train toward the depot on Station Street.

As soon as the engineer realized the train was headed in the wrong direction, he activated the emergency brakes. Unfortunately it was simply too late. The locomotive and several other cars ultimately derailed and fell on their side. The City of Mentor reports the engine's boiler exploded on impact and the train burst into flames. 

As much of the much of the train was constructed with wood, the fire rapidly spread, and efforts to extinguish the blaze were eventually halted due to safety concerns. The devastating fire raged for nearly five hours before it could be safely extinguished.

21 people were killed in the 20th Century Limited derailment

Although many of the passengers and crew escaped the train uninjured, The City of Mentor reports five people were seriously injured and 21 others, including the engineer, were either killed during the derailment or the resulting blaze. Once the fire was out, and the passengers were accounted for, the railroad began an extensive investigation into how and why the incident occurred.

An estimated 45 minutes before the accident, another high-speed train approached from the west and passed through Mentor without incident. However, something clearly changed before 20th Century Limited approached the town.

One of the 20th Century Limited crew members said he recalled seeing the light signal, which indicated the track was clear and fully functional. However, the station's conductor, who examined the track immediately after the incident occurred, said the switch was set and locked to divert the train toward the station. As reported by The City of Mentor, the conductor confirmed the switch was fully operational and he did not find any signs of damage or mechanical malfunction. However, he did note that the light was out.

Investigators were certain the switch was in the correct position when the first train passed and had been manipulated before 20th Century Limited arrived. They also determined it was unlikely to have been an accident.

Authorities believe someone sabotaged the switch

The City of Mentor reports D. C. Noon, who was the railroad's assistant general superintendent, said, "So far as can be learned, the switch was opened and locked open by some party unknown, probably a crank, and evidently with malicious purposes." Although the investigators said they were making "every possible effort" to determine who tampered with the switch, and ultimately caused the deadly derailment, no suspects were identified and the case remains unsolved.

The incident also raised questions about how fast 20th Century Limited was traveling through the Ohio town. As the train was traveling at a higher than suggested rate of speed, and there were rumors that the train was running behind schedule, the investigators questioned whether the train's speed may have contributed to the extent of the damage sustained in the derailment.

Although Mentor's freight station was destroyed in the derailment and resulting fire, The City of Mentor reports it was eventually rebuilt at the same site and is currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The passenger depot, which was not damaged, was later converted into a bar and restaurant.

20th Century Limited was active until 1967

Following the incident, the 20th Century Limited underwent several changes. In addition to changes in the design of the locomotive and cars, American Experience reports the locomotives began running on steam in 1938. By 1945, Caso Station reports the steam locomotives were replaced with diesel.

The height of 20th Century Limited's profitability was in 1928, when the railroad reported $10 million in earnings. The train was so iconic that it was featured in a Broadway musical production titled, "On the Twentieth Century," and an Alfred Hitchcock film titled, "North by Northwest." However, as flights between New York and Chicago eventually offered passengers a faster and more affordable travel option, passenger trains began to fall out of favor.

As reported by Caso Station, 20th Century Limited ended their service On December 2, 1967. However, the United Railroad Historical Society of New Jersey recently offered passengers a chance to ride on the original 1948 Century Limited train. According to Untapped Cities, the rides, which were offered on four different days, left Penn Station in New York City and traveled to Albany before returning to Penn Station.