By jim zbick
Railroad detectives and local law enforcement officials had their hands full with some very volatile cases in the first quarter of 1911.
A railroad incident in mid-February claimed the life of a popular engineer on the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroad. The wreck was blamed on a "switch fiend" who spiked the track, causing the train's engine to plunge down an embankment near Lofty.
The engineer, Samuel Giltner, a 33-year veteran of the P & R, who resided in the 200 block of Penn Street in Tamaqua, was the victim. One Tamaqua Courier reporter called 50-year-old Giltner "one of the most efficient and trusted engineers in the employ of the company."
"He was selected to run special trains over the Shamokin and Catawissa division, the officials placing the utmost confidence in his ability to make schedule time and ever alert for any danger," the writer stated.
Unfortunately, even his keen alertness couldn't save him from the twisted criminal mind that wrecked his train that Saturday morning. Giltner pulled passenger train No. 25 out of the Tamaqua station at 7 a.m. in what was his last passenger run on the Catawissa Division.
After passing through the tunnel at Lofty, Giltner throttled it down to about 15 miles an hour as the train rounded a sharp curve. Spotting an open switch ahead, Giltner blew his cabin whistle to sound the warning while applying the brakes.
The engineer then located another hazard – a piece of iron on the tracks – but this time it was too late to stop the train in time. The obstacle sent the spiked engine hurtling over a 50-foot embankment. It turned "turtle," as one reporter described it, meaning it landed upside down. Rescue crews found Giltner's lifeless body pinned under the wreck.
Fortunately, the passenger cars were spared. When the air hose broke on the cars, they simply ran off onto the siding where they rolled to a stop.
Fireman William Eddinger miraculously survived the tragedy. He was in the tank when he heard Giltner signal with the sharp whistle blast, indicating trouble.
Eddinger had just about reached the top of the tank to escape when the engine left the track and hurtled over the bank. He was tossed in the opposite direction, however, and escaped with only minor bruises.
"There is no question it was a most deliberate case of murder," said railroad superintendent J.E. Turk. "The switch at the south end of Atlas siding was thrown the wrong way and locked. To make sure that the engine would be derailed a heavy piece of iron was placed in the cross over."
Investigators quickly received a lead in the case. About 15 minutes before the crash, a man was seen in the vicinity of the Atlas siding "acting peculiar." After the accident the stranger reportedly visited several farmhouses in the Lofty area and then disappeared. One person identified the man as a former employee of the Reading line who had been recently discharged.
Two weeks later, track walker Peter Miller found another open switch on the Reading line that passed through Lofty. It was wedged open "with a stout piece of iron," in the same manner as the spiking that killed Giltner. Railroad officials boosted the number of track walkers along the entire branch.
A second bold news event – this one a jail break-out – occurred about a month after the train wreck but in this case Tamaqua police knew the identity of one of the culprits.
The story began when robbers hit James Williams' cigar and tobacco store on Centre Street and the Greek fruit stand on West Broad Street across from the Elks Club House. The thieves got away with large quantities of cigars, tobacco, pipes and candy from both places and also stole three heavy nickel slot machines from the cigar store.
One of the three suspects, Fred Dillick of Harrisburg, was soon found mingling in a gang of hoboes. A large number of nickels and several pool checks were found on his person and he was placed in the lockup.
His two accomplices quickly hatched a plan to break out their buddy. After casing the jail they found the best time to execute a break-out was 3 a.m. when it was left unattended by officers.
Stealth was not a tactic practiced by the men in entering the jail. After breaking into a railroad tool house, they stole a large pick which would be used to pry open the lock on the jailhouse door.
Like a scene out of the wild west, the two masked men boldly entered the station with drawn revolvers and broke down two doors with their pick in order to release their friend. They forced the others to the rear of the lockup, threatening them with death if they sounded an alarm.
After the breakout, the other inmates did sound an alarm but by the time the police arrived the culprits were long gone. The police spent the balance of the night trying to track them down, but had no success finding the culprits.