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The Angola HorrorThe 1867 Train Wreck That Shocked the Nation and Transformed American Railroads$

Charity Vogel

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780801449086

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: August 2016

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9780801449086.001.0001

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Horror

Horror

Chapter:
(p.104) Chapter 9 Horror
Source:
The Angola Horror
Author(s):

Charity Vogel

Publisher:
Cornell University Press
DOI:10.7591/cornell/9780801449086.003.0010

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter recounts how the New York Express's derailment, which caused its last two cars to fall into the icy gorge below the Big Sister Creek bridge, turned into a horrific disaster. The Toledo car, crushed into three feet of wood and metal, landed nearly upright against the embankment on the bridge's northern side. The live coals dumped around the car's interior turned some parts of the wreckage into flames, which began to spread, moving over bodies, bags, and debris. As the victims' bodies contorted in the fiery car, they also charred. As the fire crackled, sounds of human suffering emanated from the car. It was a scene of “horrors…piled upon horrors.” This chapter describes the rescue efforts initiated by residents of Angola, including Henry Bundy and Josiah Southwick, to help the injured passengers of the train wreck.

Keywords:   derailment, Big Sister Creek bridge, embankment, victims, rescue efforts, Angola, Henry Bundy, Josiah Southwick, passengers, New York Express

Wednesday, December 18, 1867 · 3:17–4:30 p.m.

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 each other two deep,” some holding out their hands, a few crying and pleading for help.2 Perhaps they felt the slight stirring of wind, these trapped men and women—the ones who were conscious and whose senses were not blotted out with pain.

The live coals dumped around the car’s interior had turned some parts of the wreckage into nursery beds of flame. Clothing, upholstery, wood: here and there, flames licked at the car’s contents, and spread. The coach’s upright position now made it a chimney in reality as well as appearance. Already a draft of cold air had worked its way through the car from bottom to top, pulling flames in its wake, as it “drew the fire from the rear toward the forward end of the car.”3 Within seconds, flames enveloped the coach. The fire quickly grew fierce, fed by the varnish used to coat most of the car’s surface. Isadore Mayer, the theater agent, who was trying to climb out of the wreckage, noted with shock how rapidly the fire spread. “The wreck was all in flames in a moment,” Mayer (p.105)

Horror

This illustration of the Angola wreck scene, which appeared in a popular periodical shortly after the catastrophe, branded the site a “slaughter.” Though some details of the geography of the scene are inaccurate, the picture gives an idea of the difficulties inherent in reaching the wounded and dead.

From Kelley’s Weekly magazine, January 11, 1868.

said. “Exactly how I crawled out—I do not know. I was one of only three who escaped. I saw an old gentlemen and his wife get out of the wreck. I am sure that not another person escaped. The car was full—not less than fifty persons, I should think, within it.”4 He was right: only two other people, Utica coal dealer Amos H. Thomas and his wife Mary, seemed to have managed to crawl out of the car in these moments.

Row by row, seat by seat, up the flue of the car’s interior, flames moved over bodies, bags, and debris. Fumes and smoke filled the space. Men and women who were still conscious felt their throats burn as they drew poisonous breaths that burned the lining of their airways, causing the tissues of their windpipes (p.106) to swell into what nineteenth-century doctors knew as oedema: the body’s protective swelling in an attempt to ward off danger.5 Victims struggled for breath, some suffocating where they hung suspended in the tangle of torsos. The heat was so extreme it exploded guns carried by male passengers in their pockets; one of the bullets ricocheted out through a window.6

As passengers in the car struggled to breathe, the heat affected their bodies, inside and out. Temperatures reddened victims’ skin and drew moisture out of them; beads of liquid bubbled to the surface of their skin, popped out as blisters, and dripped away. Trapped heat tightened the victims’ skin, causing it to split into long tears as trapped liquid and steam forced its way out. Carpenter Zachariah Hubbard, among others, suffered this skin-splitting on the lower half of his body; his legs were “flayed” open from exposure to the heat, while his chest and stomach were “fairly roasted.”7 On top of this, Hubbard’s right arm, torn from his body, hung loose from a flap of skin, and he bled profusely from the wound.8 Hubbard was alive, despite his injuries, as the car burned around him.

The intense heat also fractured passengers’ bones and contracted their muscles, particularly in their limbs. This drew forearms and legs into a posture widely recognized by doctors in the era as the “pugilistic” position.9 This posture, common in people exposed to high temperatures, occurs when the body curls in upon itself; the victim’s head is thrown back, the forearms are cocked up and bent in toward the upper body, and the legs are pulled upward into a fetal-like crouch.10 The position is extravagant pain made tangible; indeed, many members of the public—seeing images of the wreck’s victims, or reading about their condition in newspaper listings—would interpret this pose as an expression of unusually grave suffering on the part of the victims in the aftermath of the Angola wreck. Boston attorney and groom-to-be John W. Chapman, when pulled from the remnants of the burned car, would be contorted in this manner, missing the lower half of his face, his forearms burned off up to the elbow joints, his legs incinerated to the knees. It would take some of Chapman’s closest friends to try to identify the attorney’s remains among the other bodies in the aftermath of the derailment. Benjamin C. Aikin, the fifty-year-old Pennsylvanian from Hydetown, was curled so tightly into the pugilistic pose that it served as protection for his silver spectacles; one of his arms was bent against his body in such a way that it kept the metal frames from melting. Aikin’s eyeglasses would be discovered on his body by his wife Zuleann, who would claim his corpse because of them—that, and the scraps of underwear that clung to the lower half of Aikin’s torso, which Zuleann would recognize because she had sewn them herself.11

As the victims’ bodies contorted in the fiery car, they also charred. After their clothing burned away, the surfaces of victims’ bodies did: redness turned (p.107) to blackening, which brought an end to the feeling of pain in their skin, as nerves were destroyed. Arms, legs, and heads—with more insubstantial bones and tissue—burned off entirely. Illustrations of the Angola corpses that appeared in national magazines in the weeks after the wreck would show ranks of twisted, pugilistically posed lumps of charred matter, most without lower legs, arms, or heads. These illustrations of appendage-less torsos were not exaggerations or attempts to shock the public; they were forensically accurate depictions of what the conditions inside the Toledo car had done to its passengers. In some cases, the charring of the victims was so complete that gender was erased. One woman was identified as female only because part of her hoop skirt frame had melted to what remained of her body.12

It was a scene of “horrors … piled upon horrors.”13 And it was far from silent. As the fire crackled, sounds of human suffering came from the car. Men and women wept and pleaded to God to be released from their agonies by death; shrieks came from women who saw their husbands consumed by flames before their eyes. Above it all, the “wailing of children … the most soul-piercing and agonizing sound which ever reached mortal ear” flowed from the car—or perhaps not from children. The sound may have been that of grown men and women made incoherent in misery.14 “The hideous, remorseless flames crackled on; the shrieks died into moans, and moans into silence more terrible,” newspapers reported, “as the pall of death drew over the scene.”15

The audible suffering went on, filling the skies above the Big Sister, for more than five minutes—possibly as long as twenty—before silence descended once more over the snow.16

THE CARS that had fallen from the bridge lay, one on either side of the span, around the terrain of the Big Sister Creek ravine. One, the Erie car, was recognizable as a wrecked railway coach lying on its side, with its windows jagged holes, its wooden framework staved in, its roof a gaping hole. The other coach was now a column of fire and smoke; nothing would remain of the car but its iron trucks and wheels, some of the metal frames of the upholstered seats, and “one little fragment” of the car’s side.17 As for the passengers: “Those who were not killed outright,” said Isadore Mayer, “were burned to death.”18

The Toledo coach had fallen close enough to the side of the embankment and eastern abutment of the bridge that one needed to be near the bottom of the bridge work to see it.19 The Erie car had fallen only partway down the incline, and so lay some twenty feet higher than the other car, a couple of hundred feet away. In the area, the downed cars were not readily visible to each other. Injured passengers in the Erie car had no way of knowing what had happened (p.108)

Horror

This image of the Angola wreck, by J. P. Hoffman, appeared in Harper’s Weekly shortly after the crash, with the title “The Angola Disaster.” It showed the immolation of the end car of the train. Note the bodies on the snow in the foreground.

From Harper’s Weekly, January 1868.

to those people—including some of their friends and relatives—in the coach that had fallen first. From the Erie car, there was no easy way of reaching the other car. Moving from one wrecked coach to the other would have required climbing up and over the bridge deck and then down again on the other side or clambering under the structure around the eastern abutment and piers of (p.109) the span, over ice-crusted boulders, treacherous snowdrifts, and piles of driftwood. “The nature of the embankment, together with the ice upon the steep declivity,” was dangerous, according to one account of the scene. It “would not admit of immediate assistance even though hundreds of people had been at hand, for no one could go down the bank hurriedly without fear of death.”20

But circumstances in the Erie car were such that not many of the passengers were in any condition to help others, or even themselves. All over the remains of the coach lay injured passengers. One woman traveler had been completely scalped in the battering she had taken during the fall; the skin of her head and her hair hung behind her, drenched in blood, attached to the back of her skull by a slight web of tissue.21 Lydia and Ira Babcock, a married couple from Syracuse, had been so bruised by the drop that their bodies were turning black with contusions; Lydia vomited a pool of blood.22 A male passenger had been struck in the face by wreckage with such violence that his “head was almost cut in two,” while not far away another man was bleeding out from the arteries in his leg, which had been shorn off in the crash.23

Christiana Lang suffered moderate injuries in the fall of the Erie car; her children James and Mary were shaken up. Other victims lay scattered around in unconscious states, the extent of their injuries unknown. One of these people was Emma Fisher, whose body lay in the shattered car; she had been rendered “insensible” by the fall, and had lost Minnie in the confusion.24 Pain and panic gripped passengers who were alert enough to realize what had just happened to them. Some men and women swatted at coals from the overturned stoves, in an effort to prevent fire; a few tried to extricate themselves from the Erie’s wreck, crying out for aid.25 “Mother, get well quick! Mother, get well!” wept a little boy to a blood-covered woman so “mangled” he had not recognized her at first as his own relative. “Will my mother get well?”26 Others cast about them for the bodies of their loved ones, looking for familiar faces amid the debris. “Where is she? Shall I never see her again?” cried a man who had been “stupefied” from shock and was unable to find his wife.27 Not even those who sat next to their loved ones were guaranteed similar fates. Lizzie Thompson was injured in the fall, but lived. Her brother Simeon had been killed by her side.

Still, in the first moments after the accident, in the fading light of late afternoon that made navigating the scene difficult, some people from the less-damaged Erie car tried to help their fellow travelers. Robert J. Dickson rose to his feet in the snowdrifts at the top of the incline, wiped the blood from his face where the gravel had scoured it, and tried to make his way over the bridge deck to locate Joseph Stocking Lewis, who had been riding in the rear coach (p.110) at the time of the accident. Brakeman John Vanderburg, who had edged his way down off the bridge work where he had fallen between the rails as the car tipped, followed the Buffalo engineer. At the same time, Conductor Sherman managed to climb out of the end of the Erie car, and limped up the slope to the track bed. Sherman tried to find people to flag down for help.28 He was in pain, his shoulder bloody and bruised.

Alexander Fisher also tried to help others in the Erie car, especially his sister-in-law. Fisher had been hurt internally, but managed to keep from losing consciousness.29 After the tumult of the fall stilled, he looked around and could not see baby Minnie in the dimness of the car; he also could see that Emma had been injured badly. Fisher dragged himself through an opening in the car and onto the snow. He crawled up the incline, unsure of his direction, and then pulled himself to his feet. Fisher began to walk through the snow, pushing back the weeds and limbs of bushes that sprang at him from the icy terrain, slowing his progress. He hoped to come to a house where he could raise an alarm.30 Dazed, Fisher did not head toward the Southwick home on the sparsely populated eastern side of the ravine. He tramped through the snow in the other, more populated direction, where the lights in the windows of a few homes twinkled ahead of him.

By now, the first Angolans were beginning to arrive on the scene. These initial rescuers had followed the spirals of smoke rising from the ravine, the smell of wood burning and the cries that echoed faintly over the snow, to the top of the gorge. They arrived on both sides of the gully, clad in hastily donned winter coats and hats, and tried to glimpse the crash site. Two of the first to arrive were Josiah Southwick and Alanson Wilcox, who had started toward the creek from Southwick’s porch immediately after watching the cars fall. “We both ran,” said Southwick, simply.31 Cyrus Wilcox and a few others also ran up, panting for breath, having sprinted from Commercial Street and the railroad tracks to the bridge. Wilcox, a master boot maker and the second of what would become four generations in his family to make shoes for a living, brought along twenty-two-year-old Lucius Blackney, son of grocer Sely Blackney, whose shop abutted Wilcox’s, and whom the boot maker had roused with an exclamation—“Some of the coaches are off the bridge! Let us run and see”—as he sped toward the ravine.32

As the Angolans gathered at the top of the embankment, some spied Dickson and Sherman and a few other passengers who had been the first to scramble away from the wreckage.

“Are you much hurt?” cried John S. Taggert, an Angola resident and secondary telegraph operator for the Buffalo and Erie Railroad, who found himself face to face with Sherman at the top of the embankment.33

(p.111) “No, not much,” replied the conductor.

Sherman ordered Taggert to wire the railroad’s main office in Buffalo, to let company officials know what had happened to the New York Express. Train traffic over the Lake Shore route would have to be halted or rerouted for the next few hours, at least, until the damage could be assessed and repairs made. Sherman had no idea what had caused the train to jolt off the track as it passed the depot; there would need to be a thorough investigation of both the rails and the train in the hours ahead. Sherman told Taggert he wanted the superintendent of the Buffalo and Erie company, Robert N. Brown, to personally handle rescue efforts from Buffalo—including rounding up as many city doctors as he could find, to treat what would certainly be a large number of wounded.

“Go back to the station,” Sherman rasped out, “and telegraph to Mr. Brown to send up some physicians.”34

Taggert ran off to do as Sherman had commanded. At the same time, other Angola residents gathered at the top of the ravine. Switchman James Mahar would likely have been arriving on the scene around this time, having spent the first ten or fifteen minutes after the wreck examining the rail along the track where the derailment had occurred, including at the frog juncture.35 These newly arrived citizens now turned their attention to figuring out ways to get down to the bottom of the gorge.

It was a trickier task than it looked. The degree of the descent was too steep for comfort along much of the bank. No permanent pathways existed between the top of the ravine and the creek bed; whatever animal trails or fishermen’s footpaths there might have been were covered over with blankets of snow. Scrub brush and saplings covered the incline, some partially obscured by drifts. Underfoot, rocks shifted precipitously when stepped on, some rolling down into the creek bottom, and showers of loose shale and icy gravel slid away without warning.

On the eastern side of the ravine, some Angola men were able to clamber down the embankment on the southern side of the bridge work, to where the Erie coach lay, by bracing themselves against the ice and holding on to scrub growth for support as they inched along. That coach could be reached, with difficulty. But after several attempts to scale down the incline on the northern side of the bridge to reach the Toledo coach, residents gave up—it was just too slippery and steep, and to climb down unaided would be risking a tumble into the ravine. Frustrated, these villagers stood back and watched thick smoke bellow from the cleft below. The vapors smelled of wood, hot metal, and something else: human flesh. Some rescuers would have turned their faces away, or buried their noses and mouths in their sleeves or scarves so they didn’t (p.112) have to breathe the foul odor. “The smoke from the burning car and inmates arose as high as the bridge, from sixty feet below,” one witness described, “and the effluvia from the fire consuming flesh was—unendurable.”36

Finally, as more residents trudged up to the scene, a few carrying pickaxes and shovels over their shoulders, the rescuers devised a solution. Dozens of Angola men linked arms and formed a human chain, stretching from the top of the gorge to the creek bed below. Holding tightly to one another, hand to hand, the chain of men lowered rescuers, one by one, down into the creek bottom.37 There, rescuers found themselves faced with the inferno that was consuming what remained of the Toledo car; it glowed orange and white inside the frame of timbers and ironwork that had not yet been burned to ash. Some villagers rushed to the side of this carriage but were unable to approach closer than a dozen feet—the heat radiating from the car pushed them back forcefully. One Angola man heroically tried to edge closer to some of the victims, advancing so near the flames that his own “whiskers and eye-brows [were] burned off,” but was finally forced back when overcome with fumes and scorched by the flames.38 Others who approached close to the Toledo coach in these moments made out what they took to be the outlined shapes of men and women as they were consumed by the fire. Henry Bundy, arriving on the gorge floor after being lowered down by the chain of rescuers, thought he saw the figures of two small children being burned up in the coach as he watched. “I saw them in the flames,” the mill owner said. “I am quite positive.”39

He may have been right; perhaps there were two children in this car, traveling with relatives, and they may have been burned while Bundy looked on. But what Bundy saw may well have been the torsos of men and women who had already been burned into the pugilistic position that would have made them appear small, even child-like, from a distance. “The heart sickens,” an account based on eyewitness testimony stated of this scene, “[at] a smouldering mass of half-consumed human beings, of skulls blackened and ghastly, of hands and arms, in one blackened mass of stench, of car wheels and iron work—of death in its most repulsive form.”40

A few of the local men suggested a bucket brigade to try to put the fires out. No one had thought to bring buckets in any quantity, though, and the creek water was frozen. A few residents began to fling shovelfuls, even fistfuls, of snow onto the wreckage, hoping to tamp down the flames. Cyrus Wilcox, throwing snow onto the burning car, noted with a sickening feeling that the human bodies in the wreckage “seemed to burn much longer than the woodwork of the car.”41 Wilcox counted eight lumps that he recognized as portions of human torsos or limbs in the Toledo car, and twenty skulls.42 Like others who responded valiantly to the scene—a “goodly” percentage of the citizenry (p.113)

Horror

Henry Bundy, a mill owner in Angola, was among the first residents of the community to respond to the disaster at the bottom of the Big Sister gorge. He later took on the somber job of making coffins for the dead.

Courtesy of Chet and Ann Riker.

of Angola at the time—Wilcox and his brother would be unable to blot these images from their memories.43 “The fearful scenes from which spectators have recoiled in mingled terror and disgust,” one newspaper stated of these villagers’ diligent efforts at the site, “have all been so painfully real, so simply horrible, that the most sober and accurate statements unrelieved by a single bit of imagination have proved the best and most effective way of telling the story. No magic touch of pencil, though it had been guided by the sombre [sic] genius of Dore, could have added horror to the dread reality of the scene.”44

At this point, some Angolans—accurately judging that the situation with the enflamed car would not permit any more helping of its victims—picked their way under the bridge and climbed upward to the Erie car, to offer aid (p.114) to men and women who might yet have a chance at survival. Among these rescuers was Alanson Wilcox, who upon arriving at the Erie car spotted a battered body lying partly out of the wreckage. Wilcox pried the figure loose and pulled it onto the snow, to discover that the individual—a middle-aged woman clad in mourning clothes—was still alive. It was a face he recognized: Lydia M. Strong, who had grown up as Lydia Bartholomew in the nearby hamlet of Derby. Mrs. Strong, who was bleeding from her crushed skull, barely registered Wilcox’s presence.45 As Wilcox watched, she died on the snow.

Josiah Southwick also made his way to the Erie car to see if he could help any of its injured passengers. The first person he came upon in the debris was Charles P. Wood, the railroad check agent, whose body lay prone in the smashed car, trapped under one of the car’s overturned stoves. Wood, who recognized the Angola justice of the peace as someone he knew, pleaded with Southwick to free him. Southwick was starting to do that, when he saw that the stove was also pinioning a baby—an infant, with no parent by its side.46 Southwick weighed his choice for a fraction of a second. One of his Quaker ancestors in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Provided Southwick, had been persecuted for her family’s refusal to abandon their religion; the moment had been memorialized by John Greenleaf Whittier in a poem called “Cassandra Southwick,” memorized by generations of New England schoolchildren. “Oh, at that hour the very earth seemed changed beneath my eye,” the poem ran.47 Standing beneath the darkening skies of Angola, Josiah Southwick would have felt tested in a similar way. Someone’s suffering must be increased in order for both victims, or either of them, to live; it was up to him to decide whose. And time was running short. “I saw the coals of fire from the stove scattered all over the car,” Southwick later said, of what he noticed in these brief moments of reflection.48 There was no assurance that the Erie coach would not turn into the inferno the Toledo car had become.

Southwick grabbed the hot stove. He heaved it up, and shoved it onto the body of Wood. As the railroad agent groaned in pain, Southwick scrambled to the form of the baby, and pulled its soot-covered body free of the wreckage. He jumped clear of the car, found a snowbank, and laid the infant down on it. Then Southwick climbed back to Wood’s side.49 He began to wrestle with the stove to get it off the railroad man—when he suddenly saw another set of hands grasp the stove, and felt its burden lift. John Vanderburg stood beside him, his feet planted in the ruins, helping free Wood from the stove.50 The twenty-nine-year-old brakeman said nothing, just strained with all his might until the iron weight began to lift. Once Wood was uncovered, Vanderburg ran off without a word, to another part of the car, to pull at another trapped victim. (p.115)

Horror

This emotion-laden image of the scene at Big Sister Creek appeared on the front page of a national periodical, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, shortly after the wreck. It was labeled “Frightful Railroad Disaster, Two Passenger Cars on the Lake Shore Railroad Thrown Down an Embankment of Fifty Feet, Near Angola, N.Y., Forty-Eight Persons Burned to Death.”

From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, January 4, 1868.

(p.116) Not far away, Henry Bundy and Cyrus Wilcox were pulling the body of a young woman from the Erie car. The men dragged the form of Lizzie Thompson to a clear spot on the ice, and laid her flat, propping her head on a grimy seat cushion. Bundy would have looked at her doubtfully; he thought she surely must be dead. He had seen the bloody body of her brother, Simeon, in the seat next to her, and guessed correctly that the young Worcester man was no longer alive. Returning to the car to make sure, Bundy found instead the body of J. Frank Walker, Dickson’s friend, who had been killed where he stood in the aisle of the train. The Angolan carried Walker’s slight form over to Lizzie’s side, and laid the nineteen-year-old man down next to the Massachusetts woman on the ice.51

In the same vicinity, Angola tinsmith John Martin was hacking away at the ruins of the destroyed car. Martin had come across the form of R. M. Russell, a Tennessean, hanging partway out of the rubble. Russell’s body had been compressed into an awkwardly bent position; he was tangled up in some timbers and could not get loose.52 The Tennessean was not dead, but was hurt about the chest and back. Martin grasped the beams lying across Russell’s body and heaved them off. He grabbed Russell and “straightened him out,” then helped the man to a place on the snow.53

In doing so, Martin thought he spotted something shiny in the wreckage near Russell’s body. Going back, Martin saw it again: a faint glimmer in the car’s interior. He pulled it out, and saw that it was Russell’s gold pocket watch.54 Martin wiped off the watch, no doubt examining its face to be sure it wasn’t cracked. Then he turned and trudged back through the snow to the wounded man. He gently tucked the watch into Russell’s pocket.

Nearby, Minnesotan Alexander Fisher had managed to make his way to the top of the landscape, hobbling from the pain of his internal injuries. He limped another four hundred feet or so through the snowy underbrush until he came to a house, not of Southwick but of another village resident. Collapsing from his bleeding, Fisher gasped out news of Emma’s injury—and the disappearance of Minnie in the wreckage.55

After sending villagers down to the gorge with a description of his sister-in-law and the baby, Fisher had little strength to fight for life. He sank into a low state, murmured a few final words—“With me, all is well,” he was heard to say—and died.56

MINUTES EARLIER, at the front of the train, Charles Carscadin had throttled down the engine, while Gilbert W. Smith scrambled to cover the remaining sets of brakes. The crew managed to slow the New York Express (p.117) to a crawl, then a stop. The locomotive traveled 726 feet from the east abutment of the bridge before it could be halted.57 Carscadin threw the train into reverse, as soon as he could, and began backing slowly down the track in the direction of the bridge.58

Some passengers climbed down from the express as it inched back down the line, and stood clustered in the snow alongside the tracks. A few, among them Benjamin F. Betts and Dr. Frederick Hoyer, jogged back along the track toward Big Sister Creek to see what had happened.59

Reaching the ravine, at about the same time as the first villagers began to arrive on the scene, Dr. Hoyer took a moment to assess the situation. As the first doctor on the scene of the disaster, he knew he would have to take charge of the treatment of wounded and dying victims until more medical personnel could arrive—from the village, to start with, and then from the nearest city, likely Buffalo. “I thought it was my duty,” Hoyer later said.60 The doctor made his way to the place where the splintered Erie car lay, and examined the victims that had been laid around the car on the snowy hillside. Some were clearly dead; others were hurting, and crying out for help. Hoyer barely had time to tend one victim before he was called away to help another.61

Betts, meantime, had walked the terrain at the edge of the ravine. He came across two passengers, a man and a woman, who were trying to make their way up the embankment and away from the fallen cars. The passengers had been in the Erie car and were badly shaken. Betts scrambled to the pair, and helped them away from the gorge. Spotting Southwick’s house not far away, Betts took the victims there and left them with the women of the house. One of the women was Huldah Southwick, Josiah’s wife, whose face would have been gray and grim as she waited for word of the wreck. Betts told her, as he deposited this first pair of wounded victims on Huldah’s wooden floor, to make room for more.62

Hiking away from Southwick’s, Betts gazed toward the creek and saw the smoke bellowing over the top of the gulf.63 Seeing some metal milking pails in the farmer’s front yard—five of them, from Josiah’s dairy operation—Betts grabbed them and ran through the yard and down to the ravine. He sent the pails down the human chain of Angolans to the bottom of the creek bed, then lowered himself down. At the bottom of the gorge, Betts found that the pails were of no use because of the thick cap of ice on the creek water.64 He threw them aside and ran to see if he could free any trapped people.

Approaching the Toledo car, which by this point was beginning to burn fiercely in the gathering dusk, Betts saw a cluster of men trying to pry loose the body of one passenger, a man who had landed in a hole under the coach with wreckage on his leg, which was crushed, his thighbone shattered.65 The useless limb was trapping W. C. Patterson in the framework of the burning (p.118) car. “His foot was caught between timbers,” Betts said, “and they could not draw him out—I slipped down and turned his foot so that he could be drawn out. We then linked hands and drew him out.”66 Betts helped place Patterson on the ice near the car. The Oil Creek man’s body was, observers later said, the last to be pulled from the coach before it collapsed upon itself, in a shower of sparks and ash.

Rescuers then moved back, wiping their faces with their sleeves, blinking their eyes in the gritty, soot-filled air. Some moved away from the Toledo car and headed toward the bodies of passengers that had been laid on the ice beneath the bridge, to see if anything could be done for them.

Betts, however, was not the type to give up. Bending over, in the final moments of the inferno in the Toledo car, the wood dealer crawled partway into the lower end of the car, even as it burned above him. He inched past the point at which Patterson had been pinned. In front of him, Betts saw a “heap of human bodies burning.”67 The pile of victims’ bodies consisted of four people that Betts could count, three clearly dead, one clinging to life. This one living victim called out to Betts for help, but Betts couldn’t reach him or her—he wasn’t sure if it was a man or a woman—in time. “I tried to extricate another,” he said, of what happened next, “but when I got to him the flames were all about his head—he was lying on his back and it was useless.”68 Betts counted eleven corpses around him in the end of the burning car as he pulled himself forward through the flames.

In these moments, as he gazed at the bodies of the wreck’s dead, Betts saw a face he recognized. It was the man Betts had met earlier that day at lunch in Brocton—Stephen W. Steward, the bank president.69 Steward was buried beneath a mound of corpses, twisted metal and timbers. Somehow, he remained “yet alive.”70 The banker’s face was close enough for Betts to see—and want to save. Steward looked into Betts’s eyes, and “implored most piteously, with outstretched arms,” for Betts to pull him out.71 Betts tried as hard as he could. But the flames around him grew too intense. He was forced back, the heat in his face and on his skin like a brick wall. “I think everything was done,” Betts said, later, “that could be, under the circumstances. And all were saved from the wreck—that it was possible to get out.”72

Backing away from the collapsing, white-hot interior of the burned car, Betts kept Steward’s face in view for as long as he could. Until there was nothing left to see; until the image was seared into his memory.73

Notes:

(1.) Cyrus Wilcox testimony, Buffalo Daily Courier, Dec. 28, 1867, p. 8.

(p.258) (4.) The eyewitness testimony of New York City theatrical agent Isadore Mayer was reported widely in newspapers around the nation after the wreck, including in the Buffalo Post, Dec. 19, 1867, p. 1, as well as in the Erie (Pa.) Observer, Dec. 26, 1867, page unavailable.

(5.) Information on what would have happened to the human bodies aboard the New York Express in the immediate aftermath of the wreck, including in the fire which consumed the Toledo car, was provided by the medical and forensics staff of the Erie County (N.Y.) Medical Examiner’s Office, Buffalo.

(6.) Buffalo Post, Dec. 19, 1867, p. 1.

(7.) Cleveland Herald, Dec. 20, 1867, p. 4. Some material was reprinted from wreck coverage by the Buffalo papers, including the Express.

(9.) See “Viewing the Remains of the Victims of the Angola Disaster for Identification, at the Soldiers’ Rest, Buffalo,” a scene of bodies inside the Soldiers’ Rest Home in Buffalo, by J. Harrison Mills, published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Jan. 11, 1868, p. 265, for examples of this type of pugilistic pose and extreme charring.

(10.) Background provided by the medical and forensics staff of the Erie County (N.Y.) Medical Examiner’s Office, Buffalo.

(11.) Semi-Weekly Wisconsin, Jan. 25, 1868, p. 4.

(12.) See the lists of corpses and injured victims, and descriptions of their conditions, as printed in papers around New York State, including the St. Lawrence Republican and Ogdensburgh Weekly Journal, Jan. 21, 1868, p. 1.

(13.) “The Tragedy of Travel,” Harper’s Weekly, January 11, 1868, p. 18.

(16.) Estimates of the duration of the screams of the dying at more than fifteen minutes, and even twenty minutes, as reported in various papers, including the Cleveland Herald, Dec. 20, 1867, p. 4; the Erie (Pa.) Observer, Dec. 26, 1867, page unavailable; and the Owatonna (Minn.) Register, Dec. 25, 1867, p. 1, the latter report based on interviews with a passenger who had been on board the forward part of the train, as well as family members of the Fishers—Alexander, Emma, and Minnie—who were on the train.

(18.) Testimony of Isadore Mayer, in the Erie (Pa.) Observer, Dec. 26, 1867, page unavailable.

(19.) Testimony of Peter Emslie, chief engineer of the Buffalo and Erie Railroad, Erie (Pa.) Dispatch, Dec. 24, 1867, p. 1.

(22.) Report on the condition of Mrs. Lydia Babcock, in the Utica Weekly Herald, Dec. 24, 1867, p. 8.

(24.) Account of the Fisher family group in the fall of the second-last car, in the Utica Morning Herald, Dec. 23, 1867, p. 8. Description of Emma Fisher as “insensible” after the wreck, Owatonna (Minn.) Journal, Jan. 23, 1868, p. 4.

(26.) Harper’s Weekly, January 11, 1868, pp. 19–20.

(27.) Ibid., p. 20.

(29.) Account of the aftermath of the derailment for Alexander Fisher, Emma Hurlburt Fisher, and Minnie Fisher, as described by Emma’s husband Andrew Fisher to various Minnesota newspapers, including the Owatonna (Minn.) Journal, Jan. 23, 1868, p. 4.

(31.) Testimony of Josiah Southwick before the coroner’s jury in the Angola inquest, Buffalo Daily Courier, Dec. 24, 1867, p. 8.

(32.) The quote of Wilcox to Blackney comes from Wilcox’s inquest testimony, Buffalo Daily Courier, Dec. 28, 1867, p. 8.

(33.) Testimony of John S. Taggert, Buffalo Daily Courier, Dec. 24, 1867, p. 8.

(35.) Testimony of James Mahar as to his actions immediately after the wreck, in the Buffalo Express, Dec. 31, 1867, p. 2.

(p.259) (36.) Testimony of an eyewitness in the Pittsfield (Mass.) Sun, Dec. 26, 1867, p. 2.

(38.) Pittsfield (Mass.) Sun, Dec. 26, 1867, p. 2.

(39.) Angola resident and mill owner Henry Bundy, as quoted in the Buffalo Evening Courier and Republic, Jan. 2, 1868, p. 4.

(40.) Pittsfield (Mass.) Sun, Dec. 26, 1867, p. 2.

(41.) Cyrus Wilcox inquest testimony, Buffalo Daily Courier, Dec. 28, 1867, p. 8.

(43.) Assessment of the “goodly” number of Angola citizens working on the wreckage in the Buffalo Patriot and Journal, Dec. 25, 1867, p. 1.

(45.) Testimony of Angola resident Alanson Wilcox before the coroner’s jury in the Angola inquest, Buffalo Daily Courier, Dec. 28, 1867, p. 8.

(46.) Testimony of Josiah Southwick before the coroner’s jury in the Angola inquest, Buffalo Daily Courier, Dec. 24, 1867, p. 8.

(47.) Details of the ancestry of Josiah and Huldah Southwick are found in the family documents and records preserved by the family of Diana and Jerry Crippen; Diana Crippen is a direct descendant of the Southwick couple. Used with permission of the Crippen and Southwick families.

(48.) Testimony of Josiah Southwick before the coroner’s jury in the Angola inquest, Buffalo Daily Courier, Dec. 24, 1867, p. 8.

(49.) Chain of events by which Josiah Southwick rescued the baby and the check agent, as described in the Buffalo Daily Courier, Dec. 24, 1867, p. 8.

(50.) Actions of John Vanderburg upon reaching the bottom of the gorge, as described by Vanderburg in the Buffalo Daily Courier, Dec. 28, 1867, p. 8.

(51.) Henry Bundy, as quoted in the Buffalo Evening Courier and Republic, Jan. 2, 1868, p. 4.

(52.) For the rescue of Tennessean R. M. Russell, see the testimony of Angola resident John Martin, Buffalo Daily Courier, Dec. 24, 1867, p. 8. The R. M. Russell rescued from the Angola wreckage, reportedly from Trenton, may have been Robert Milton Russell, a Tennessean from that part of the state who had fought during the Civil War for the Confederacy, including under General Nathan Bedford Forrest. An 1848 graduate of West Point, Russell had won distinction during the war for his bravery and leadership abilities. He had recruited a volunteer infantry regiment from his home county in Tennessee in 1861; later, though injured in battle, at least once seriously, he had risen from the ranks of the cavalry to be named a colonel under Forrest. Russell’s service had included fighting at Fort Pillow and at battles including Paducah and Harrisburg. After the war, Russell had heard reports that officers like himself might suffer penalties for their service under Forrest, a widely reviled figure in the North. “If it should prove to be true you will probably hear from me from Mexico or Canada after a while,” Russell had written in 1866 to his brother John Russell. “Although my conscience is perfectly clear of having done any wrong yet I think this would be the best course for me to pursue as to go before a Military commission is the same thing as to go to the gallows, all cases being prejudged.” Information about Robert Milton Russell’s service in the Civil War can be found in Tennesseans in the Civil War, part 2, 97–99, 198–200. The letter of Robert M. Russell to John Cowan Russell, dated Feb. 12, 1866, is in the collection of Russell’s family, including Diana Dallosta. With permission of Diana Chester Dallosta and the Chester and Craner families.

(54.) John Martin’s discovery of R. M. Russell’s watch, and his return of this item, are described in the Buffalo Daily Courier, Dec. 24, 1867, p. 8.

(55.) Statement of Andrew Fisher, brother of Alexander Fisher, about his brother’s last hours, as given to the Owatonna (Minn.) Journal, Jan. 23, 1868, p. 4.

(56.) Death of Alexander Fisher, as described by Angola pastor Rev. Charles R. Strong in a sermon reprinted in Fisher’s hometown newspaper, the Owatonna (Minn.) Journal, Jan. 23, 1868, p. 3.

(57.) Testimony of Peter Emslie, chief engineer of the Buffalo and Erie Railroad, Erie (Pa.) Dispatch, Dec. 24, 1867, p. 1.

(59.) Testimony of Benjamin F. Betts, Buffalo Patriot and Journal, Jan. 1, 1868, p. 1.

(60.) Testimony of Dr. Frederick F. Hoyer, Buffalo Evening Courier and Republic, Jan. 2, 1868, p. 2.

(p.260) (61.) The fact that “two physicians” were aboard the train and thus ended up being the first doctors to treat the seriously wounded is mentioned in the Buffalo Daily Courier, Dec. 25, 1867, p. 8. The newspaper does not mention Dr. Frederick F. Hoyer by name in this account, but he was aboard the express and detailed his work on the wreckage in subsequent inquest testimony. The other doctor may have been Dr. Orin C. Payne, who reportedly got off at Silver Creek but may later have arrived in Angola and worked on the victims at the scene; it may have been a misstatement about Dr. Curtiss; or, there may have been a third doctor who was, like Hoyer, on board the train. For Dr. Payne getting off the train at Silver Creek, see the Fredonia (N.Y.) Censor, Dec. 25, 1867, in the obituary for his sister-in-law, Mrs. Lydia M. Strong of Buffalo.

(62.) Benjamin F. Betts, Buffalo Patriot and Journal, Jan. 1, 1868, p. 1.

(65.) Testimony of John Martin, Buffalo Daily Courier, Dec. 24, 1867, p. 8.

(69.) Benjamin F. Betts’s view of Stephen W. Steward is mentioned in inquest testimony in various papers, including the Buffalo Daily Courier, Dec. 27, 1867, p. 3, and the Buffalo Patriot and Journal, Jan. 1, 1868, p. 1. The story of his encounter with Steward in the burning car was picked up by the New York Times.

(70.) Buffalo Courier and Republic, Dec. 20, 1867, p. 3.