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The Angola Horror

The Angola Horror: The 1867 Train Wreck That Shocked the Nation and Transformed American Railroads

Charity Vogel
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    The Angola Horror
    Book Description:

    On December 18, 1867, the Buffalo and Erie Railroad's eastbound New York Express derailed as it approached the high truss bridge over Big Sister Creek, just east of the small settlement of Angola, New York, on the shores of Lake Erie. The last two cars of the express train were pitched completely off the tracks and plummeted into the creek bed below. When they struck bottom, one of the wrecked cars was immediately engulfed in flames as the heating stoves in the coach spilled out coals and ignited its wooden timbers. The other car was badly smashed. About fifty people died at the bottom of the gorge or shortly thereafter, and dozens more were injured. Rescuers from the small rural community responded with haste, but there was almost nothing they could do but listen to the cries of the dying-and carry away the dead and injured thrown clear of the fiery wreck. The next day and in the weeks that followed, newspapers across the country carried news of the "Angola Horror," one of the deadliest railway accidents to that point in U.S. history.

    In a dramatic historical narrative, Charity Vogel tells the gripping, true-to-life story of the wreck and the characters involved in the tragic accident. Her tale weaves together the stories of the people-some unknown; others soon to be famous-caught up in the disaster, the facts of the New York Express's fateful run, the fiery scenes in the creek ravine, and the subsequent legal, legislative, and journalistic search for answers to the question: what had happened at Angola, and why? The Angola Horror is a classic story of disaster and its aftermath, in which events coincide to produce horrific consequences and people are forced to respond to experiences that test the limits of their endurance. Vogel sets the Angola Horror against a broader context of the developing technology of railroads, the culture of the nation's print media, the public policy legislation of the post-Civil War era, and, finally, the culture of death and mourning in the Victorian period. The Angola Horror sheds light on the psyche of the American nation. The fatal wreck of an express train nine years later, during a similar bridge crossing in Ashtabula, Ohio, serves as a chilling coda to the story.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6976-3
    Subjects: Transportation Studies, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Cast of Characters
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. PROLOGUE: America on the Rails
    (pp. 1-10)

    Angola shook the nation.

    The derailment of an express train on December 18, 1867, in the little upstate New York village, an event in which about fifty people died—the number would never be known for certain—was so grisly a scene that it became branded in the national imagination as “the Horror.” No other words were necessary.

    Nearly ten years later, the Angola wreck retained its powerful place in the American mind. When a train careened off a bridge in Ashtabula, Ohio, in 1876, the engineer of the Pacific Express was said to have summoned up the previous disaster...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Troubled Sleep Wednesday, December 18, 1867 • 3:10 P.M.
    (pp. 11-23)

    They were dreaming.

    The train moved along, a spot of color in the dull, snow-blanketed landscape of mid-December, a rush of sound in the silent womb of winter in western New York. As it swayed forward, rumbling at speeds approaching thirty miles an hour over the ice-crusted tracks toward the city more than twenty miles away, the heads of its two hundred passengers were likely filled with memories of what they had left behind, and visions of what they were journeying toward. Some surely dreamed of love. Some, of business. Some perhaps let their thoughts stray to the holiday season,...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Angola at Dawn Wednesday, December 18, 1867 • 6–7 A.M.
    (pp. 24-36)

    In angola, a rural settlement some twenty miles southwest of Buffalo in western New York state, people had become so accustomed to the trains by 1867 that they noticed them only when something went amiss: when a train was held up by bad weather, for instance, or running far behind schedule.

    Since the early 1850s, trains had been the backdrop to their lives. Even for those residents who didn’t work for the railroad or ship goods by train, the rail lines were of central importance. They had made the village what it was; they defined its day-to-day existence. Every Angolan...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Getting Under Way Wednesday, December 18, 1867 • 6:50 A.M.
    (pp. 37-48)

    It was early in cleveland, but already John Davison Rockefeller’s day had gotten off on the wrong foot. Bad timing, in itself unusual for Rockefeller, had been at the root of it. It wasn’t like the twenty-eight-year-old businessman to deviate from his schedule, especially where work was concerned. Most mornings, Rockefeller conducted his affairs with precision. His daily agenda moved along in as neat and orderly a fashion as the columns Rockefeller totted up in the brown-backed ledger books he used to record notations on every sum he spent, down to the 52 cents he had recently paid for repairing...

  8. CHAPTER 4 En Route Wednesday, December 18, 1867 • 10:20 A.M.
    (pp. 49-59)

    As the snowy landscape of rural Ohio slid past the ice-crusted windows of the New York Express, so did the minutes and hours. By mid-morning, nearly two hours and sixty miles out of Cleveland, the train cruised through the village of Ashtabula. Slackening slightly, the express rocked out onto an iron expanse across the Ashtabula River: an imposing truss structure, 165 feet from end to end, suspended seventy-six feet above the surface of the frozen river.¹ The bridge appeared hulking, almost ominous, in the pale morning light.

    People had said many things about Ashtabula’s bridge since it had opened two...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Delays Wednesday, December 18, 1867 • 12:44 P.M.
    (pp. 60-72)

    Conductor Benjamin F. Sherman’s voice, carrying through the crisp air, would have echoed off the brick walls of Erie’s cavernous Union Depot. “All aboard! Express to Buffalo—New York Express—all aboard!”¹

    It was a practiced voice, but today it no doubt contained a note of tension. Passengers clustered in the waiting rooms of the station would have heard it, and wondered. Some surely gazed out the windows of the depot at the weather and guessed at the reasons for Sherman’s strained tone. Th e station clock was ticking down the minutes to 1 p.m., the sullen, leaden-gray sky threatened...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Approach Wednesday, December 18, 1867 • About 2 P.M.
    (pp. 73-88)

    The wood dealer Benjamin F. Betts hastened down the platform of the Brocton station, coat flapping behind him, wooden floorboards clattering under his feet. People pushed past to his left and right, intent on hellos and goodbyes, reunions and removals, but Betts’s eyes would have remained focused straight ahead. He didn’t rattle easily; a man in his business couldn’t. But today had been a test of his patience, and he surely wouldn’t have wanted anything more to go awry.

    As the Tonawanda businessman hurried along the platform, snow slid from the folds of his overcoat, and gray slush squeaked beneath...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Breaking Wednesday, December 18, 1867 • 3:10 P.M.
    (pp. 89-91)

    Hurtling toward the Big Sister bridge, passengers in the coach cars didn’t see the plume of grit rise into the air behind the rear wheels. Nor did they see James Mahar as he pelted down the track bed, running as fast as he could in the wake of the train.

    Mahar’s experienced eyes had been the first to see; now, his mind grappled with the meaning of what he had witnessed—a sudden lifting, like a hoist or hitch, to the back of the rear car, which had risen and then dropped, as if snatched up and released by an...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Falling Wednesday, December 18, 1867 • 3:10–3:16 P.M.
    (pp. 92-103)

    As the express sped through Angola toward the Big Sister bridge, passengers were subject to a sharp sensation. The jolt coursed through the upholstered seats beneath them, into their travel-weary spines—striking them as “something like an electrical shock,” according to one who felt it.¹

    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...

  13. CHAPTER 9 Horror Wednesday, December 18, 1867 • 3:17–4:30 P.M.
    (pp. 104-118)

    Crushed into three feet of wood and metal, the Toledo car had landed nearly upright against the embankment on the northern side of the bridge. Though the wreckage was nearly flattened, small openings remained at either end—perhaps a dozen inches across.¹ Enough to allow air to circulate, and to provide windows onto the inside of the car. Within, men and women were dying, some were hanging upside down, others were pinioned by the iron frames of the seats, which had torn free and slammed into a heap in the lower end of the car. Passengers lay “over and across...

  14. CHAPTER 10 Rescue Wednesday, December 18, 1867 • 4:30–5:30 P.M.
    (pp. 119-131)

    If there was one thing Angola’s new doctor knew how to do, it was battlefield assessment: the sorting of wounded people; the judgment of who would live, with care, and who would die no matter what was done for them. The shifting decks of an army hospital ship, as well as the USS Burnside, had been Romaine J. Curtiss’s classroom in the art of managing catastrophe. There, amid battle conditions, the intense young Catholic physician had learned to parse injury; to treat shock, dress wounds, and comfort the dying. Now, squinting in the deepening gloom of the Angola evening shortly...

  15. CHAPTER 11 Recognitions December 18, 1867 • 5:30 P.M.– Midnight
    (pp. 132-146)

    Some angolans now clustered alongside the railroad tracks, waiting for the arrival of two trains. Night had fallen, bringing with it cloudy iron-gray skies and colder temperatures. Snow seemed imminent.

    On the eastern side of Big Sister Creek, villagers waited for the Buffalo and Erie’s special, a relief train that had headed out from Buffalo’s central terminal within the hour packed with people and supplies: city doctors, railroad workers, medical goods, wrecking equipment, mattresses for the injured. As the hands of their pocket watches ticked past five o’clock, residents of the village had grown impatient for the relief train’s arrival....

  16. CHAPTER 12 Reports Thursday, December 19–Friday, December 20, 1867
    (pp. 147-161)

    Early thursday morning, citizens in Buffalo and Cleveland left their homes to find sullen skies overhead, snow-dusted streets beneath their feet, and early-edition newspapers crammed with columns of dense black type: the first reports of the railroad disaster at Angola.

    Men and women snatched up copies of the morning dailies to learn the facts of the accident that had happened the previous afternoon. Newspapers trumpeted the wreck of the New York Express in block headlines studded with exclamations and adjectives: “Appalling Disaster on the Buffalo & Erie Railway!” read one example. “Two Passenger Cars Thrown Down an Embankment Th irty...

  17. CHAPTER 13 Mourning Thursday, December 19– Sunday, December 22, 1867
    (pp. 162-179)

    Once inside the Buffalo Soldiers’ Rest Home, the bodies were unboxed and shrouded. Then they were divided. Into one room went twenty-three of the corpses: the bodies of victims who were unburned enough to raise hopes that they might be identified and returned to their families and friends. Attendants placed these forms into open coffins, leaving the shrouding cloths pulled back enough so that the victims’ faces might be viewed. The bodies of the Angola dead had been cleaned the barest amount—hardly at all—though no one explained whether this was due to lack of time, an excess of...

  18. CHAPTER 14 Judging Late December 1867–Early January 1868
    (pp. 180-189)

    Two days after the wreck of the New York Express, on Friday, December 20, Coroner Richards had named six Buff alo men—citizens of good standing, prominent in the community—to an inquest jury. The jurymen were charged with investigating the circumstances of the wreck, including taking testimony from eyewitnesses to the disaster and others involved with the New York Express and Buffalo and Erie Railroad. The purpose of the inquest was to determine, to the extent it could be known, the cause of the accident.

    Such coroners’ inquests happened routinely in cases of unexplained death, and they varied in...

  19. CHAPTER 15 Debates Late winter 1868
    (pp. 190-206)

    The winter of 1867–68 was a bad one for railroad accidents. It became known especially for the number of incidents in which people, paying passengers on the railroads, were burned by fires aboard the coach cars in which they rode. Angola was one of the first of the season’s train fires, and by far the worst. At about the same time, a pair of young sisters in Ohio lost their lives in a blaze on a railroad car, and that event also garnered national attention.¹ Then, in the months after Coroner Richards’s jury concluded its investigation and released a...

  20. CHAPTER 16 Changes 1868–1893
    (pp. 207-218)

    Four weeks after the Angola Horror, the bodies of its unidentified victims were laid to rest. Graveside services that Monday, January 13, 1868, were brief. The boxes of remains were lowered, one by one, into the ground in Buffalo’s Forest Lawn cemetery. Members of the public had not been invited. No grieving crowds pressed around the grave as the coffins disappeared into the muddy earth; no minister offered prayers, no songs were sung, and no press corps of eager reporters hovered nearby. The interment of the wreck’s victims was intended to be as efficient and private as the funeral service...

  21. EPILOGUE: Lost Souls
    (pp. 219-227)

    A similar setting, a similar scene. Nine years and eleven days after Angola, the tragedy in Ohio was at once novel and familiar, the way a woodcut of a famous painting suggests the original while muddying one’s memory of its details. A high bridge over a shallow stream gone frozen with the onset of winter; the stillness of a snowy December landscape; a falling train. What made Ashtabula different was this: nine years later, people knew what to fear.

    And so, when rescuers clambering toward the smoldering debris of a wrecked express train in the Ashtabula river bed on the...

  22. POSTSCRIPT: After the Horror
    (pp. 228-232)

    John D. Rockefeller went on to become one of the richest men in the world.

    Charles Lobdell, the newspaper editor, never made it to his Christmas wedding. But his memory lived on in the imaginations of those who knew him—and, perhaps, some who didn’t. Six years after the wreck, in 1873, newspapers in the Midwest reported on a “Miss McDermot,” a woman billing herself as a spiritualist medium, who supposedly contacted the spirit of Charles Lobdell and two other dead people during her reveries. Th e so-called medium, it was claimed, brought the former newsman to life in exchanges...

  23. Author’s Note
    (pp. 233-242)
  24. Notes
    (pp. 243-272)
  25. Bibliography
    (pp. 273-282)
  26. Index
    (pp. 283-296)