But it is one that affected people around the nation.
On a cold December morning 146 years ago, people in Buffalo read bold newspaper headlines about the country’s latest railroad disaster, which had occurred in their own backyard: Some 50 people – the number would be argued about for weeks and it still is not fully known – were killed when an express train derailed just before crossing a bridge at Angola. Two passenger cars full of travelers fell from the bridge into the creek below. Most of them were not from Western New York.
Newsmen of the day called the wreck “Horror,” and the events of Dec. 18, 1867, justified that description.
But the story of the train wreck at Angola is more than just a story about logistics and machinery; it’s a story of people. People whose lives ended, one week before Christmas, in the snowy gorge at Angola. People who survived and went on with their lives. People – including many rescuers from Angola – who became heroes that day, in responding to the wreck with selflessness and empathy.
My new book, “The Angola Horror: The 1867 Train Wreck That Shocked the Nation and Transformed American Railroads,” published in September by Cornell University Press, presents the full story of this important railroad disaster for the first time.
The following are excerpts from the book.
From Chapter 8, “Falling”:
That was their first sign of trouble. Causing it had been the motion of the rear wheels on the rear truck of the last car jumping off the rails: a quick lift, then a drop, the same movement that James Mahar had witnessed from the rail yard. Running after the train, Mahar hadn’t paused to look at what had occurred at the site of the derailment. What had happened had been simple but deadly: As the car had run over the frog in the track, 606 feet east of the east end of the depot, the frog’s curved iron pieces had struck a wheel on the left-hand side of the back truck – a wheel that had been slightly damaged, or that was attached to an irregular axle – in a way that threw the truck off kilter. The wheel had jarred slightly, and began to shuttle back and forth. With every forward turn of the wheel, the truck was now also moving horizontally.
Even so, the express’s wheels might have held the track, except for the fact that on one of its revolutions, some 17 feet past the frog, the back wheel mounted the rail on the north side of the track. While rising into or falling from this position, or balanced in it, observers later said, the wheel appeared to clip the top of a metal spike that was in the railbed some 21 feet to the east of the frog. The New York Express had jumped the track.
The express’s back wheels were now dragging along beside the rails, not on them. Covering likely at least 44 feet each second, the derailed truck chewed up the wooden ties as the wheels bounced along, sending up the burst of dust witnesses had spied. The last car of the train, the Cleveland and Toledo’s No. 21 coach, left deep “ridges cut in the wood” as it moved along.
Passengers on the train could see nothing of what was happening on the rails. How strongly they felt the concussion of the derailment depended on where they sat. For those in the forward cars, the shock was not violent. Brakeman Gilbert W. Smith, at his post on one of these coaches, felt a “jerking motion” beneath his boots but did not immediately worry. In the rear cars, however, the shock came as a “fearful jerk,” pitching passengers from their seats and causing them to jostle against one another. Isadore Mayer, a New York City man who worked as a traveling agent of the dramatic actress Adelaide Ristori, had what must have seemed like the worst luck, getting caught in one of the train’s washrooms during the shock. Mayer was just emerging from the doorway when the jerking of the last car shook him where he stood. The theatrical agent would have gazed around, uncertain as to what was happening. At that moment, Conductor Sherman, standing at the front platform of the rear car, near John Vanderburg’s position at the brake on the back end of the second-last car, felt the same jolt and knew at once what must have gone wrong. Sherman turned to the brakeman and clipped out a few quick words: “The hind car is off the track.”
Perhaps no passengers on board the express felt more unsettled by the jolt than the mothers traveling with children. Emma Fisher, Christiana Lang and Mary Chadeayne no doubt reacted much like young Frances Gale, who clutched her child tightly at the first hint of danger. Riding in the second-last car of the train, the Cleveland & Erie’s No. 21 coach, the 20-year-old Buffalo widow felt frightened by the jar and crouched low, holding her baby “as closely as possible” across the front of her black dress. Nearby, her mother, Lydia M. Strong, leapt to her feet and stood in the aisle.
Benjamin F. Betts, meanwhile, who was sitting at least 100 feet – the length of two coach cars – ahead of the women in the first of the four passenger carriages, knew something was not right, despite his forward position on the train. Betts had been smoking with Dr. Hoyer, his neighbor from Tonawanda. Betts, a railroad-riding veteran, knew what was to be expected on the express run – and what was not. “At the time I felt the jar,” he said, “the car I was on was nearly on the creek bridge.” Yet Betts couldn’t contain his curiosity. He jumped to his feet and began to pick his way through the car toward the forward door. He hoped to see what had happened – or find a crewman he could ask for details. “I was convinced,” Betts said, “something was wrong.”
Passengers had been bruised and shaken. What came next was even more unsettling. The cars of the express began to shudder as they rolled along the track, shaking strongly from their floors to their rooftops.
The rear truck hung off the track to the left side of the train – the northern side, on which lay Lake Erie, Bundy’s mill, and Southwick’s house. As the rear coach bumped from tie to tie, still traveling at good speed, it jarred the frame of the coach. This movement sent a “trembling motion” forward through the rest of the cars. The noise of rattling boards would have filled passengers’ ears; their feet would have slid back and forth as the floors shifted beneath them. Feeling the change in motion, passengers would have started to murmur and exclaim. Some rose to their feet and began gathering their family members and belongings.
The train was steaming forward toward Big Sister bridge, hauling its dead-limbed last coach. Behind engineer Carscadin’s back, Charles Newton, the fireman, sweated as he piled wood from the tender into position to be used. In the front of the cab, the engineer’s window revealed a striking view: the buildings of Angola, flowing by in a twinkling stream of kerosene lamps and glass shop windows, and then the outline of a Buffalo and Erie railroad sign marked with the single painted word, “Slow.” Dusk hadn’t yet descended, but one could feel it approaching.
The signpost was all that stood between the onrushing train and the long, gray-brown span. In Buffalo and Erie terms, the sign’s message was another term for “danger”: crews were supposed to exercise special caution, according to company officials, at such posted places along the track. Carscadin had driven through Angola for 15 years; he knew the sign referred to the bridge just ahead, which required careful handling. He felt prepared to cross the bridge, as he had hundreds of times before.
Yet as he gazed at the sign – and beyond it, the bridge – Carscadin, who had been insulated from the jolt of the derailment because of his position at the front of the train, had his first signal that something might be wrong with the express. The bell in the cab began to clang and clatter.
That was out of the ordinary. Somewhere in back of him, Carscadin knew, someone in one of the coaches – or a few people – must be pulling on the bell rope, telling him to slow down or stop. Something was amiss; he had no idea what it might be, but his duty was to see to making it right.
The bell continued to jangle. Carscadin looked out in front of him, toward the bridge and the chasm below. Experience had made him a judge of distance; now he could see that it was too late to stop the train before it would begin the Big Sister crossing. They were about to rush out onto the first yards of the span. Carscadin put out his hand and sounded a blast on the train’s whistle. He’d give the signal anyway, even though the time in which to stop before the bridge had vanished like so much of the smoke that blew behind his engine, blocking out his rearward field of vision.
Shreeeeeeeeeeeeet. Down with brakes. The bell in his cab clanged ceaselessly, and Carscadin sounded the whistle a second time. Brakes down.
The sounds of working steam, of metal on metal, of crackling fire and the cry of the whistle, echoed off the cab that enclosed Carscadin and Newton. The whistle’s shriek bounced off the walls of the ravine ahead of them. The sound sent 33-year-old Cyrus Wilcox running out of the front door of his shop, fearful that the train had somehow driven over his brother walking along the tracks. On the other side of the Big Sister Creek, in the foyer of Josiah Southwick’s home, Alanson Wilcox, 38, heard the whistle and stared in puzzlement at Southwick, who was just bidding him goodbye beneath the half-moon transom of the justice’s front door. At the noise, both men froze.
The express wasn’t supposed to stop in Angola. But it was stopping.
From Chapter 11, “Recognitions”:
Bodies that were removed were borne by Angola men through the creek bed, up the inclines on either side of the creek, then loaded onto sleds and sleighs and dragged or driven down the streets of the village – Main Street, then right onto Commercial Street – to the freight house. This was a standard wood-frame building, simple in style like the station house it stood near, with wide doors for the loading and unloading of boxes and crates of agricultural products, timber, and other rural goods. The Angola freight building was no different than other freight houses of the period, as plain and utilitarian as most Buffalo and Erie structures of the time, lacking the gingerbread flair of the depots built by the New York West Shore & Buffalo line, or the “pagoda-style” depots that would be built by the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad in small towns across New York State before the century was out.
In the freight house, the men laid the bodies of the dead on the floor. They placed them in rows as neat as they could manage, trying to keep families together: husbands with wives, parents with children. “Husband, wife and children were laid side by side,” one newspaper would report of their efforts. The bodies these Angola rescuers placed in this way included – though as yet these names had not been attached to the victims – the forms of Spartansburg spouses Jasper and Eunice Fuller; Randall Butler Graves; Lizzie’s brother Simeon E. Thompson; Buffalo lawyer Eliakim B. Forbush; and station agent Josiah P. Hayward. Frances Gale’s mother Lydia M. Strong was also laid in the ranks of bodies, though she had been one of the few already recognized and named.
For victims other than family groups, villagers arranging the bodies did their best to keep the corpses of men and women separate, but that proved an even more difficult task. In more than a few cases, they had to go on guesswork – hazarding judgments about the sexes of the forms they were handling, some of which were so burnt that villagers realized only “surgical examination” would yield knowledge of whether the remains were male or female. Some citizens worried about the remains of babies that may have been in the car that burned – fearing there may have been tiny corpses in the wreckage that were so consumed rescuers were unable to find them. “It is my impression that there were some infants that were so completely burned that we could not gather their remains,” said Henry Bundy.
Novelist Thornton Wilder would write, decades later, in a work about the act of sorting out victims in the aftermath of sudden disaster, that the process of making these salvaged forms into recognizable human beings was as much a matter of conjecture as science. “The bodies of the victims were approximately collected and approximately separated from one another,” Wilder wrote, “and there was a great searching of hearts.” The word approximately caught at the truth of the matter; the job of Angolans in the freight house in these hours was a grim, confusing, numbing task. “The sight of those ghastly, bruised and burned bodies,” said one observer, “will be recollected for a lifetime.”
Buffalo has a recent comparison for the disaster at Angola. When Flight 3407 crashed in Clarence on Feb. 12, 2009, it was a similarly horrific event.
Both tragedies claimed about 50 victims. Both subjected passengers on modes of transportation – the most modern technology of their time – to deaths that were not unlike in their effects.
Both left grieving families searching for tokens from the wreckage – and demanding answers about what had happened, and why. Both tragedies led to changes in law and technology on a national scale.
Angola still holds meaning for each of us here in Western New York. But unlike for Flight 3407 – and unlike for other major train crashes in the country – there still exists no monument to the victims.
I’ve lived nearly all my life in the Southtowns. Some years ago, I remembered about – and then heard references to – this moment in our history, all but forgotten.
It’s been 146 years.