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The Pittsburgh Steam Engine Accident of 1863

As a genealogist, Kelley stumbled upon this event as it touched the live of her ancestor, John Fielding Sr.

Philadelphia fire and life insurance co. Perpetual, engraved by J. McGoffin at 84 Chestnut St.  While not the steam engine that was the cause of the accident, this likeness shows the kind of engine that was around in the time period.

Philadelphia fire and life insurance co. Perpetual, engraved by J. McGoffin at 84 Chestnut St. While not the steam engine that was the cause of the accident, this likeness shows the kind of engine that was around in the time period.


One Friday night in April of 1863, a fire broke out in a shed near the Duquesne Depot in Pittsburgh's First Ward. The local volunteer fire company was alerted, and since the fire wasn't that far away, and downhill from the company, they decided to not hitch the horses up to the engine, instead pulling it with ropes along the street in haste.

While heading down the steep grade of Third Street at the crossing of Wood Street near the St. Charles Hotel, tragedy befell the fire company—two young men who were helping fell into a hole, and suddenly lives were changed.

The Victims: Frederick Ream and John Fielding Jr.

Frederick Ream (or Reams) was a 25-year-old tinsmith by trade, working for a man by the name of Fleming. He was also a volunteer fireman and a member of the Eagle Fire Company and was considered well-liked. He lived with his parents, Samuel and Christina Ream at 18 Stanwix Street in Pittsburgh. He had a great deal going for him on 10 April 1863, but that was soon to change.

John Fielding Jr. was a younger son of an English immigrant shoemaker who lived in Allegheny City, just across the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh. He was employed at Mackey's Steam Cracker Bakery at 44 Smithfield Street, and because he was a minor at age sixteen, his wages were collected by his father and used to support the family. John often liked to help the nearby fire company out, even though it put him at odds with his father because of the danger, and the day of 10 April 1863 was no different.

The Accident

While holding onto one of the ropes used to pull the engine, young John Fielding was running alongside down the grade when suddenly he fell into a hole about three feet long, two and a half feet wide, and between six and eight inches deep that ran along the tracks of the Pittsburgh and East Liberty Passenger Railway on Third Street. The hole was the result of the street having been torn up to place pipes for the nearby hotel. Frederick Ream stumbled behind Fielding, either falling as a result of the hole itself or because Fielding was suddenly in his way. Whichever was the case, both young men suddenly found themselves in the path of an iron machine that was rolling down the hill. Both cried out warnings.

Either one or both wheels on the side of the engine where the two lay struck them. Ream was struck in the head and chest, fracturing his skull so that brain matter lay on his clothes and his chest was caved in. Fielding's leg was crushed, the bone protruding from the skin.

Onlookers rushed to assist the injured. Ream's body was taken to Woodson's barbershop, which was situated under the St. Charles Hotel. A doctor pronounced him dead. Fielding was taken to William Ruffley's shoemaker shop, where doctors tried to set the leg. His father had been summoned and was so angry with him that the proprietor of the hotel gave the boy lodging for the night for fear of what John Fielding Sr. would do to him if he were conveyed home. While the teenager managed to be brave during the setting of the leg, the splinting was in vain, for ultimately the leg had to be amputated.

The Aftermath

Frederick Ream was buried in Allegheny Cemetery after the coroner's inquest was through on Saturday 12 April 1863. His father and mother brought a suit of negligence against the railway company that was in charge of maintaining Third Street, the Oakland Railway Company. In December of 1864, they won $2000.

John Fielding Sr. also brought a suit against the railway company in charge of maintaining Third Street to recover the loss of his son's wages and for the cost of the expenses due to the accident. He was actually the first to bring a suit against the company.

Even though the hole was caused by the St. Charles Hotel putting water pipes into the street, the Oakland Railway Company knew the gaping hole was there, and by contract was supposed to fix it since it was improperly done months before the accident took place.

The company moved the court to enter a judgment of nonsuit, citing they were not at fault. The District Court overruled this motion.

The company then requested that the court charge to the jury that the alleged negligence of the defendant was not the cause of the injury, but that the plaintiff's own son was actually negligent himself due to his age and his lack of care for himself and his own misconduct caused the injury, instead of the hole in the ground. They also asked that the jury find that the City of Pittsburgh should be liable for the hole in the street.

On 23 December 1863, the Allegheny District Court found in favor of the plaintiff (Fielding sr.) and ruled that under the Acts of Assembly and city ordinances, the company was bound to keep the streets over which their tracks were lain in good working order and that if any injuries happened, they were liable for damages. John Fielding Sr. was awarded $1800 for the loss of his son's wages and for the bills incurred as a result of his son's accident.

The Oakland Railway Company took the matter to the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, calling for errors in the court's ruling. However, the Supreme Court affirmed the district court decision on 27 October 1864, stating that they would not renew the discussions since the reasons were already upon record, and they found no errors in the judgement.

John Fielding Jr. was awarded $3600 for the loss of his leg in a separate civil suit, upon which a verdict was reached on 8 April 1864. He later became a councilman and school superintendent in Pittsburgh and went on to live a very full life.

By 17 May 1865, the Oakland Railway Company had removed the track along Third Street, citing reasons only known to them.