“Standing Manfully to Your Engine”
In command of an afternoon train to Cape May in July 1883, locomotive engineer Joseph Wheaton was shocked to see an oncoming train on the same track.
The North’s large network of railroads played a critical role in the Civil War and gave the Union forces a major advantage over their Confederate counterparts. The rapid movement of men and material to the battlefront enabled General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac to gradually grind down General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and force its surrender in April 1865.
In the years after that conflict, passengers, not weapons of war, were soon riding the rails, not to battle but to increasingly popular sunny seashore locations on the New Jersey shore, including a charming little town at the southern tip of the state known as Cape May. In 1863 a group of investors were granted a charter by the State to construct the Cape May & Millville Railroad (CM&MRR), and the 41-mile line was completed in 1867.
On May 4, 1879, however, the larger Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) consolidated all its rail lines and added the CM&MRR and a number of other smaller railroads in southern New Jersey. The revised network was christened the West Jersey & Seashore Railroad (WJ&SSRR).
Among the engineers employed by that railroad was Joseph Morgan Wheaton. Born in Cape May on August 14, 1858, to parents Willets Wheaton, Jr., and Louise Corson Wheaton, Joseph grew up to be a scrappy youth who enjoyed the outdoor life, being an avid hunter and fisherman. But he also harbored a passion for all things mechanical, particularly steam engines and passenger trains.
His physical prowess and sharp mind soon found him in training as a fireman and later as an engineer for the West Jersey Railroad. During his years at the throttle of a steam engine he earned a solid reputation as a competent engineer who refused to take any risks at the expense of his passengers. He was promoted to engineer in the early 1880s and often commanded his powerful locomotive on the popular route between Camden and Cape May carrying passengers anxious to reach “Cool Cape May.”
Among those frequent travelers from the cities of Baltimore and Philadelphia were wealthy men who had made their millions in the coal and department store industries. They used the fruits of their empires to build the grand Victorian “cottages” that dotted the expanse of beaches at Cape May.
On Saturday July 13, 1883, as the 4pm Cape May Express train from Camden sped south along the track and rounded a curve above the Sea Isle junction, engineer Wheaton was stunned to see another train on the same track directly ahead. His reactions were instantaneous. He immediately reversed the engine and applied “the full force” of the Westinghouse air brakes on every Pullman passenger coach. Baggage master Charles Corson and his assistant, believing that a head-on collision was unavoidable, jumped from the train into a ditch. Joe Wheaton, however, “stood manfully to his post.”
The train was heavily loaded, so stopping a few hundred tons of speeding steam engine and coaches appeared to be impossible. As the air brakes screeched and sparks of steel flew from the skidding wheels of every Pullman coach, horrified passengers screamed as they were thrown violently forward from their seats.
Meanwhile, up front in the locomotive’s cab, engineer Wheaton held a death grip on the engine’s throttle and reversing levers as the huge drive wheels spun madly in reverse, bellowing their own cry of strain as Wheaton struggled to slow the hurling masses of iron and wood.
Fortunately, Wheaton’s immediate application of the air brakes, coupled with reversing the engine and the weight of the heavily laden train combined to bring the Cape May Express to a screeching halt less than three feet from the opposing steam engine’s cowcatcher! The next day one local newspaper lauded the engineer’s bravery: “Had a less nervy man had hold of the throttle, a serious loss of life must have been the result.”
The incident received little attention in the mainstream newspapers of nearby Philadelphia and Baltimore, but among the passengers that day were elites who were quick to recognize and praise the engineer’s actions. There were eight distinguished men, including department store magnate John Wanamaker and coal king E.C. Knight, both frequent visitors to Cape Island. Together the eight men authored a testimonial that is quoted here in full, and was written later in the trip while the train was again in motion:
“Dear Sir: The passengers on the 4 P.M. train from Camden to Cape May, this day, July 13, 1883, sensible of the great value of your services in standing manfully to your engine at the risk of your own life and your prompt conduct in applying the air brakes at the critical moment of what might have been a very serious calamity but for your intelligent action and devotion to your duty, feel it to be their duty to make this grateful acknowledgement, and at the same time present you with this purse contributed spontaneously. They are sensible also to the conduct, which holds duty foremost at great peril to the engineers who drive our railway trains, the safety of the passengers is due on many occasions. We thank you very gratefully for our own safe deliverance on this occasion.”
Joseph Wheaton continued his career as an engineer before retiring after more than 45 years of service. His first wife, Clara Pearl Stevens, died in October 1888, and he later married Artie Bacon. As of 2022, the Joseph Morgan Wheaton house still stands on Mechanic Street in West Cape May.
At age 72 “engineman” Wheaton died on February 10, 1930, from carbon monoxide poisoning while sleeping aboard his fishing boat near Cape May Harbor. Although his name is unknown to residents of the city today, his heroic actions on that afternoon in July 1883 are worthy of remembrance if only as a little-known footnote in the rich history of Cape May, Queen of the Seashore Resorts.