Local History and Genealogy

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Southbound Passenger Train Hurled In The Gravel Pit On Christmas Eve --- Many Injured

     Probably the most disastrous passenger train wreck in the history of the Fort Wayne branch of the Lake Shore Railroad, occurred in the old gravel pit , between Angola and Pleasant Lake, about a mile and a half north of the latter station, last Thursday evening.  Train No. 414, the fastest on the road due here at 7:32 p.m.was thirty-five minutes late, and was in charge of conductor O. Cleckner, with Engineer Maurice Hickey, Fireman Wesley Stevens and Brakeman Bill Baker and was running at a very high speed at the time of the accident.  It is a usual thing for this train to make fast time at this point, as it is slightly down grade and considered a very good stretch of track.  The speed at this time has been variously estimated even as high as sixty miles per hour and it is probable that at least fifty miles and hour was the rate.  The trainmen themselves admit the speed was very high, and it was further evidenced by the swaying motion of the cars prior to the accident, it being noticed that the conductor and brakeman were using especial effort to maintain their balance while standing in the car.  A. W. Long, living on a farm near the accident says he was impressed that evening with the unusual speed of the train and Irve Knight, also living near and who heard the crash of the wreck says it is a common thing for this train to make extra speed at this point.

While running at this high speed the train jumped the track at the switch leading to the siding into the old gravel pit, and went bounding along the ties and rails and landed in a confused heap several hundred feet from where it left the track. The engine and baggage car were embedded in the gravel over two feet.  The smoker was raised in air, and tilted until the floor assumed an angle of forty-five degrees, and the first day coach was thrown over on its side and the second one was thrown crosswise of the side track and plunged headfirst into the grade of the right of way of the main track and the last two coaches, which were empty were thrown from the track and took a zigzag position over the siding.

     Passengers were hurled about in the cars in a helpless manner, and in the overturned coach there there were many severe injuries, some of them critical, but as yet there have been no fatalities resulting , although it is considered miraculous by all who witnessed the accident and by the trainmen themselves that there were not many killed outright.

     The cause of the wreck will perhaps never be satisfactorily solved, and many opinions are expresses with almost as many different theories.An investigation of the switch immediately following the accident disclosed the fact that it had been turned about one-fourth the way open, and opinion differs as to whether this was done maliciously, accidentally or was thrown by the train. Engineer Hickey says he was running at high speed and the switch light showed clear until he was fairly upon it, when it instantly flashed red and he reversed his engine and threw on the emergency brake.  HE stayed by his engine until it reeled over in the sand, throwing him through the cab window, but leaving him uninjured, other than some severe bruises.  He cannot tell whether the switch was thrown immediately in front of him or whether it was partly open so that the red light showed only as he was right upon it.  He seems of the impression that it was thrown by some person just before the engine struck the switch, but in the darkness could see no one about.  Fireman Stevens was thrown to the floor of the engine and the coal from the tender was thrown upon him, bruising him considerably and injuring his hip.  It was his first accident,  Brakesman Bill Baker had just taken the tickets in the third passenger coach, to assist the conductor owing to the heavy traffic, and had just met the conductor in the front end of the car when the accident occurred.  He managed to hold on to the seats but was thrown about and considerably bruised,  Conductor Cleckner was hurled over the seats into the corner of the car and was severely bruised.

     The scenes immediately following the wreck were heart rending and frightful.  In the overturned car the injured were screaming and groaning.  The car was in utter darkness and the work of rescue was slow owing to the extreme darkness.  When the injured were finally rescued they were carried into the rear coaches which remained upright, and they were covered with blood and bruises, many unconscious and apparently more dead than alive.

     The experience of some of the passengers were exciting in the extreme.  J.D. Gale, whose wife and daughter were in the list of injured says they were sitting in a double seat, on the left  side of the car.  Mrs Gale and he were in the rear seat and his daughter was lying down in the front seat,  He managed to hold to the seat but his wife was hurled over his head as the car went over, and she was hurled beneath seats and baggage.  Mr Gale says when he recovered himself the car was in utter darkness, excepting on light, and these being gas he feared fire and extinguished it.  He finally found his wife in the debris and supposed she was dead, but in a little while found she was still alive.  She did not regain consciousness until on the way to the hospital in Angola and for some time since that time was in a semi-conscious condition.  He said the daughter begged piteously  in the wreck, not to leave her, that her shoulder was hurt; he described the scene as most heart rending.
      Albert Forche says he had just gone to the smoker, leaving his wife and little girl in the coach which overturned.  He had not yet closed the door of the smoker and was thrown about frightfully while holding on the door, and landed outside between the cars.  He could not enter the car which had overturned and realized the danger of a gas explosion, he being a car inspector.  Hefound a seat cushion and broke in the windows to prevent the gas collecting in the car, and finally located his wife and child.  He said the sight was sickening and he could hardly bear to think of it.

     Miss Leafy Kohl, of Waterloo, says she was caught between the two seats and was suspended on the upper side of the car as it went over.  Some man assisted her and she thinks she got out through the door.  She was entirely prostrated the next day from shock.   

     Mrs Albert Forshe, of Adrian says her husband just left the car a few minutes previous for the smoker and she laid down in her seat for a nap, her little child being asleep in the turned seat ahead.  The first sensation she had was of bounding over the ties when the emergancy brake was thrown on and she arose in her seat, fearing she would be caught in the seat and thinking a collision was coming.  Her last recollection was in reaching for her sleeping child, and then found herself waliking along a narrow railing in the car, and again became unconscious until she heard her little girl crying as she was having her dislocated shoulder set in the car in the rear.  Mrs C.S. Campbell, of Ellsworth Michigan, was on teh upper side of the overturned car.  She stood up in her seat thinking she could brace herself better.  She was thrwon and found herself in the bottom of the car.  Mrs Campbell says she remembers of hearing some man who heloed her say immediately after the accident that a flange was broken on the engine driver.
     Mrs Stout says she saw Mrs Forche thrown and she followed her husband who was pinned down by wreckage.  Mrs Stout felt a heated iron and crawled away from it, and was not unconscious at the time.
     Mr Studebaker says he realized nothing of the accident.  Thinks he was thrown when the emergency brake was put on. He did not regain consciousness until he was placed in the rear car.
     Ben Timme, who had been working in Chas Slade's barber shop in Angola was enroute to his home in New Haven and was in the car that overturned.  He was pitched headlong through a window and the fact that his overcoat was hanging over the glass probably prevented him receiving severe cuts.  As it was he was badly bruised and scarcely able to walk.
     E. R. Sommerlott, formerly of this place but now of Fremont, was on the train with his bride for a honeymoon trip.  He was somewhat injured, and his wife's condition is considered serious.  She was removed to the home of his parents in the Cambridge addition to this city, in a semi-conscious condition and part of the time her condition has been considered critical.
    As has been stated, opinions as to the cause of the wreck are at a variance.  The railroad company claim no liability in the matter, declaring they have proof of the switch being thrown, and that the battered lock was found, with the stone with which it was broken.  Many are of the opinion that the switch was partly open, but few can be found who have any knowledge of the lock being broken.  The report that a hammer and chisel were found on the scene of the wreck, near the switch is without foundation.  Robert Patterson, of this city says he found a section of flange from a right driver of the engine, embedded in the ground near the switch the morning following the accident.  This may or may not have any bearing in the case.  Had the switch been partly open this flange may have been broken as the engine was thrown from the track.  Or had there been a defective switch the flange may have struck with sufficient force to break it, allowing the engine to jump the track.
     The robbery theory has also been presented.  The plans would be nearly ideal for such a purpose, as the pit forms a pocket in the bank, which, if the train could be successfully directed in, would obscure all view both from the surrounding country and also from the main track of the railway.  It is also an unfrequented spot.  E. A. Carve. express agent at the Angola office says he shipped $5000 in currency that evening, but that it went on the north bound train, a little over one hour previous.  It was generally supposed also that there were heavy shipments of currency and valuable packages all along the line for the few days prior to Christmas.  It was also only a few days previous that the Hillsdale, Michigan robberies occurred, and this was between the two points.  It was also rumored that three foreigners making threats were seen in an intoxicated condition in Angola, but there seems no grounds for the rumor.  if there was a plan for robbery, no doubt the plan foiled when the wreck resulted instead of the train taking the siding.  Lake Shore detectives have been thoroughly covering this territory, working on the theory that the switch was opened by some person, and thoroughly threshing out every vestige of a clue.  
     Frank M Powers, attorney for the railroad company at this place, says he arrived at the scene of the wreck on the second hand car that went out from Angola.  The switch had been closed before he arrived, but he was shown the lock and investigated the switch stand which showed unmistakable signs of being battered with some heavy instrument, he could not tell what.  A coal pick was found in a nearby field but was not thought to have any connection.  The main track was considerably damaged and required some time from the section crew to put it in shape for traffic.  The sidings were badly demolished, and it was necessary to relay one to allow the wreckers to approach the cars and engine. It was nearly twenty-four hours until the wreckage could all be cleared away.
     The injured are directly in charge of Dr. H. D. Wood, the company's physician, and all are recovering satisfactorily.  Those in the hospital in care of Dr. Wood and his son Dr. W. W. Wood are comfortably located and speak highly of their treatment.  They also are hearty in their thanks to the citizens of Angola who have shown them many kindnesses, and feel that in their misfortune they have fallen among friends.
     Among the passengers from Angola on the train were Mrs. J. W. Martin, Mrs. Luella Camp, Mr and Mrs E. D. Willis and daughter Eloise, and Frank Parnell.
     Claim agents for the railroad have been adjusting matters with the unfortunates here since the wreck.  H. H. Downs, of Buffalo, says the railroad has positive evidence that will clear them from liability.  He says he has seen many wrecks, but he considers it almost miraculous that there were no deaths resulting here.

Steuben Republican December 30, 1908