Class 12 Reading Comprehension Chapter 1 Almost a Disaster

Almost a Disaster

In a wild part of West Virginia in the United States of America, lived a poor old widow and her daughter. Their home was a tumble-down old shack, built near a great chasm, and miles away from any neighbors. The railway, which ran between Baltimore and Ohio, had its track close by, and it spanned the yawning ravine by means of a high wooden bridge.

The winter had been bitterly cold and by far the most severe experienced in that particular district for many years. Early in the month of March, the snow on the mountain heights melted and formed roaring torrents, which rushed into the valleys below. The surging water rose higher in the gorge, and the two women became alarmed when they saw that the bridge was in danger of being swept away.

One evening, the ceaseless roar seemed to be even louder than usual, and the old woman and her daughter went to bed feeling very uneasy in their minds, and wondering how long the bridge would resist the terrible swirling water. About midnight, the harsh noise of rending timber awakened them, and the startled frightened women quickly rose and dressed. Out into the howling wind they hurried to see what actual damage had been done, and to their horror they found that the bridge had been practically destroyed and that a few hanging beams, and some broken twisted rails were all that remained.

The old woman was quick to realize the awful danger – the night train from Baltimore to Ohio was due to cross the bridge in about half an hour. What could she do? There was no signal box, no telegraph station to which she could run in order to warn the fast approaching train of the danger ahead. In that howling wind, a shout would only be heard as a whisper. There was but one way of stopping the train, and that was to show a bright danger light. Clinging to each other for support, the two women stumbled back to the little shack in order to find some means of giving a warning signal.

The question of a light was a difficult one as the glass globe of her only lamp had been accidentally broken a few days before, and the pile of wood which she had gathered for the winter fires was almost exhausted. True she had a few candles in the cupboard but they were of no use as the force of the wind would extinguish them the moment that they were exposed to the outside air. There must be some way of saving the train, was the thought which flashed through her mind.

Her eyes roved anxiously round the little hut and finally rested on the old bedstead and the well-worn chairs. No-there was nothing else in the cabin which could provide sufficient light for a warning beacon. The younger woman seemed to read her mother’s mind, for with eager and trembling hands she seized an ax which lay in the corner and chopped the old bedstead until it was broken in pieces on the floor. The older woman gathered the bits of wood and with a struggle, carried her load to the middle of the railway track. When she thought that the pile was large enough for her purpose, she tried to set it alight but this was easier said than done, for match after match failed owing to the strong, blustery wind. The daughter then went back and returning with the lamp, poured the remaining paraffin oil on the broken splinters. Nestling close to each other and shielding the flame, they at last succeeded in setting fire to the furniture.

No sooner had the fire begun to crackle and blaze than the distant rumble of the train was heard. Mother and daughter hoped and prayed that the engine driver would see the warning light and stop the locomotive in time. Suddenly another idea struck the old woman – she remembered that she possessed a large red cloth. Quickly she made her way to the hut, seized the cloth, and tied it to a piece of stick. Back to the track she hurried, and began waving her hastily-made flag in the light of the fire. Her daughter, not to be outdone, took hold of a burning ember and flourished it vigorously above her head.

Nearer and nearer came the train and when it rounded the curve a short distance in front of them, they could see the light of the engine become brighter and brighter. Both women now waved frantically, and to their great joy and relief, they heard the harsh grinding noise of the brakes. The train pulled up with a jolt and came to a standstill a few yards from the blazing pile.

A sudden sound of confusion and then all was hustle and bustle aboard the train. The driver and several railway attendants alighted to discover the reason for the abrupt stop and immediately questioned the old woman and her daughter. By lantern light, some of the party went to examine the extent of the damage to the bridge and were appalled by the sight of the wreckage and the raging torrent in the chasm. On their return, one of the passengers drew the party’s attention to the now smoldering furniture and in answer to further questions, the two women related the whole story. The listeners were deeply moved as they recognized that this was an act of courageous self-sacrifice, and all decided that such bravery should not go unrewarded.

A few weeks later, the old woman and her daughter received the surprising and very welcome news that the Railway Company had decided to build them a little cottage, and that the passengers who had been aboard the train on that fateful night had subscribed a goodly sum of money, which would keep them in comfort for many a long day.

Questions on the Story

  1. Where did the story take place?
  2. Who are the principal characters?
  3. In what kind of house did the women stay? 
  4. Name the towns between which the railway ran.
  5. In what month did the floods rush into the valleys? 
  6. About what time did the mother and daughter hear a terrific din?
  7. What did they do on hearing the noise?
  8. Why were the women worried when they saw the wrecked bridge? 
  9. Why was it difficult to warn the train?
  10. Name the articles of furniture mentioned in the story.
  11. What did they decide to do in the circumstances?
  12. Why did their plan almost fail?
  13. What did the older woman do to attract the driver’s attention?
  14. Not to be outdone, what did the daughter do?
  15. What happened when the train reached the spot? 
  16. Who questioned the women as to why they had stopped the train?
  17. What appalled the search party?
  18. How was the self-sacrifice of the women discovered?
  19. What reward did the Railway Company give to the old woman and her daughter?
  20. How did the passengers show appreciation of their bravery?


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