Plaque at Ambler Station to honor train-disaster heroine

Posted: July 16, 2011

Mary Johnson Ambler, a Quaker widow who rushed to the scene of a train wreck that killed 59 people 155 years ago and was credited with saving countless lives, is being honored Sunday in the Montgomery County borough that bears her name.

The event at 24 W. Butler Pike also is being held to dedicate the newly refurbished Ambler station on the Lansdale/Doylestown Regional Rail Line. It will be the first time a plaque has been erected to link the borough's name with its namesake.

"It is a very interesting story, and I'll admit, I didn't know anything about her until this event came up," Andrew Busch, press officer for SEPTA, said in an e-mail.

The train crash July 17, 1856, is known as the Camp Hill wreck. Many of the fatalities were children.

Earlier that day, 1,500 children and adults from St. Michael's Catholic Church in Philadelphia boarded two trains for an outing at a picnic grove in Fort Washington. One of those trains rammed an inbound passenger train between the Camp Hill and Fort Washington stations on what was then the North Penn Railroad.

The collision of the coal-burning locomotives caused one's boiler to explode with a boom that was heard five miles away. The first three cars of the excursion train were blown to splinters.

Within minutes, Ambler appeared with bandages and other medical supplies to tend to the victims, according to Great Train Wrecks of Eastern Pennsylvania by Charles J. Adams III and David J. Seibold.

"From that early morning, well into the night, she worked tirelessly to comfort the injured," the two wrote in the book, published in 1992. "She opened her home as a makeshift hospital" and worked in sweltering heat. Using litters made of shutters, neighbors carried the critical cases to her home.

Afterward, railroad officials offered to pay her, but she declined. She spent the rest of her life raising nine children, running a woolen mill, and teaching Sunday school. She died in 1868 at 63.

But on July 20, 1869, when it came time to rededicate the Wissahickon station near her house - because another station already had the Wissahickon name - officials decided to call it the Ambler station. And in 1888, when a borough was established, the town fathers called it Ambler, after her.

"The plaque," Busch said, "ensures her legacy lives on as SEPTA continues to serve riders at the Ambler station."


Contact staff writer Bonnie L. Cook at 610-313-8232 or bcook@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "MontCo Memo," at www.philly.com/montcomemo.

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