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FIRST FATAL DISASTER TO A PASSENGER TRAIN ON THE ERIE.

They were still using cars with but four wheels under them, on the New York and Eric Railroad, in 1846. The wheels were of what was known as the Winans wheel, and were cast with spokes. In 1846 the female seminary conducted by the Misses Watkins at Middletown, N. Y., was a school noted in all that part of the State and the adjacent portions of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. At. the close of the school for the summer vacation in the above year, the young ladies attending the institution joined the Misses Watkins in an excursion to the then Mecca of all pleasure-seekers who could make the spot available, the Elysian Fields at Hoboken, whose shady groves, green fields, and pleasant nooks long since fled before the encroachment of railroad tracks, stockyards, coal-yards, oil-yards, and docks and dock approaches. The day selected for the excursion was Friday, July 24th. Two extra passenger cars were put on the regular morning train on that day to accommodate the excursionists. With these cars the train consisted of four passenger and three milk cars. One of the passenger cars had also an apartment for baggage and the mail. The train left Middletown at 6:30 in the morning, with about 200 passengers aboard, in charge of Conductor James Lytle. The engineer was Joseph Meginnes; the engine, the "Orange." The number of excursionists was increased somewhat by others who boarded the train at New Hampton, Goshen, Chester, Oxford, and Monroe. About a mile east of Monroe the railroad track was carried across the outlet, or an arm, of Seaman's mill pond by a trestle bridge. The opening thus bridged was twenty feet wide and twelve deep. The water at the bottom was shallow.

The young ladies of the seminary and their parents and invited guests were in the rear car of the train. The next car was one of the two "diamond cars." This car was larger and heavier than the others. It was filled with passengers, as was the one ahead of it. The combination car was next to the milk cars. Among those in the second passenger car was George Stevens, aged seventeen, and his sister. They were from New York and had been visiting friends near Goshen, at which place they got aboard the train to return to New York. just before the train reached the trestle at Seaman's mill pond, young Stevens went out on the rear platform. Ogden Hoffman, Jr., son of the famous New York lawyer of that name, and who had also been visiting friends in Orange County; Ogden H. Dunning of Goshen; Ira S. Crane, son of Dr. John S. Crane of Goshen John Hawkins of Hamptonburgh; John Monnell of Middletown - and Edgar Monnell of Goshen, had also gone out and were standing between the two cars, some on one platform and some on the other. The train was moving rapidly on a declining grade, when suddenly the passengers in the combination car found themselves violently thrown and tumbled about over and under the seats. Capt. Lytle, who had been through the train collecting fares, was going toward the door leading to the baggage apartment and was hurled forward with such force by the sudden stopping of the car that he was carried bodily through a pannel of the door and thrown in a heap among the mass of disarranged trunks, hampers, baskets, and other belongings of the passengers.

Almost simultaneously with the commotion on the combination car, passengers in the second car felt it suddenly begin to thump and bound roughly on its way. Occupying one seat in the centre of that car were a little girl, who sat next to the window; Nathaniel Webb, Esq., editor of the Goshen Democrat; Capt. Israel H. Wickham of Middletown, and his little boy. When the thumping began Mr. Webb glanced ahead out of the window, and saw timbers flying wildly, and water splashing. Then came a tremendous shock, and Mr. Webb felt a violent blow on the left side of the head. Then there was an awful crash, and for a moment all was still, and then from beneath the ruins of the crushed car there issued appalling and heartrending shrieks. In a minute, having partially recovered from the stupefying effect of the blow on his head, Mr. Webb hastily put the little girl out the window, and disengaging his feet with much difficulty from the crushed seats, made his escape by the same window.

The locomotive and two milk cars were about ten rods beyond the stream, safely on the rails. A little in the rear was a milk car thrown from the track. About two yards in the rear of that was the foremost passenger car, deprived of its trucks, and thrown obliquely across the rails. From this, passengers were scrambling through doors and windows. Then came the car from which Mr. Webb had escaped. It was lying directly across the stream, with its forward end resting against the bank and nearly on a level with the surface of it, the rear end lying against the opposite bank, about two feet below the level of the railroad, and so nearly broken in two in the middle that it nearly reached the water in the shallow stream below. Next came the diamond car, with its rear end resting on the bank even with the track, and about twelve feet of its forward end, the car lying obliquely, resting directly upon the second car, which it had crushed down. The fourth and last car was off the track. It had escaped injury, however, as had its occupants.

The rear car had struck the fallen car and run through it about half its length, crushing down all in its way. Between the floor of these two cars lay most of the passengers in the second car, imprisoned and crushed; and it seemed that necessarily most of them must be fatally hurt, so small was the space where they were held. Their groans and shrieks; their heart-rending entreaties for help, mingling with the wild and frantic cries of those who had escaped but were calling upon the name of a missing child, parent, or friend; and the sight of blood dripping freely through the broken bottom of the car into the water beneath, all formed a scene of horror to unnerve the stoutest heart.

After the first panic of the catastrophe was over, and it lasted but a very short time, the hands belonging to the cars, the passengers that were uninjured, and men from the neighborhood who immediately repaired to the spot went vigorously to work, and by demolishing the car succeeded in releasing the sufferers one by one. This was before the days of the telegraph, and wrecking cars or wrecking crews were things unknown. Conductor Lytle despatched a man on horseback for aid, and to carry the news to Middletown, with instructions to get a fresh horse at Chester and another at Goshen. He sent the locomotive forward to Piermont with the news. From there word was sent by a fast steamboat to the officers of the Company in New York.

The only mode of releasing the passengers from the telescoped cars was to tear away the sides, or break up the floor of the diamond car, which formed the cover to the death trap. For some time the rescuers lacked tools to do this expeditiously, but at last axes were obtained from neighboring farmhouses. These had to be handled with care as well as haste, for there was danger in striking a violent blow lest further and perhaps fatal injury should be done to some one of the imprisoned victims.

Only two of the young men who had stood on the platform when the accident occurred could be found. These were Ogden Hoffman, Jr., and Ogden H. Dunning. Neither was hurt, but Dunning never knew how he came off the cars. The others, Ira Crane, George Stevens, John Hawkins, Edgar Monnell, and Charles Monnell, had been thrust through the end of the car and were wedged in beneath the floors of the two for nearly an hour and a half before they could be extricated. Stevens and Crane had been killed instantly, and were crushed out of all recognition. Charles Monnell was fatally injured, and died next day. Edgar Monnell and Hawkins were badly hurt, but recovered.

Gilbert W. Oliver, of Bloomingburgh, Sullivan County, N. Y., had one leg frightfully mangled, but he bound it up with his handkerchief to keep the mangled parts together, and heroically went to work to rescue his fellow sufferers. He persisted in this work until he fell exhausted from pain and loss of blood.

On following the railroad about twenty-five rods back from the stream, the cause of the accident was discovered. A short distance from the track lay the half of one of the car wheels. The wheel from which this part was broken was one on the last milk car. As the car thus crippled had kept the track for some distance, the broken wheel was not noticed. Just before the car reached the bridge, though, it left the rail, and began to strike and splinter the timbers. As it went over the bridge it tore that structure almost bare of its timbers, but the passenger car just behind it got -over the gap in some way, with the exception of its hind truck, which was torn loose on the opposite bank and remained there. The second passenger car also leaped the gap, but its front end struck a little below the surface of the bank and directly against the mass of wreck left by the car preceeding it. The "diamond car" was driven by the impetus of the rear cars violently upon the stalled car, and went crashing halfway through it.

As the "diamond car" rushed upon the car ahead of it, the roof of the latter, instead of breaking up, forced its way through the encroaching car, and in a sound state protruded some twelve feet into it, passing over the heads of those sitting most forward, but striking with great violence those who sat near the termination of its course. Several of the passengers were here badly hurt. One of these, Mrs. Charles Conkling, had the evening before been married at Otisville, and was in company with her husband on her bridal trip. The. sweeping roof of the second car struck her in the neck and breast, and inflicted such a frightful wound that she was carried from the wreck, it was believed, to quickly die. That she did not die instantly is to this day a cause of wonder to all who remember or have heard the story of her dreadful injuries. She lingered for weeks on the boundary of death, but at last recovered sufficiently to get about, although terribly scarred. She never fully recovered from the shock of the disaster, however, and died from its effects a year or so later.

Dr. Boyd, of Monroe, was soon at the scene of the catastrophe, and doctors from Chester hastened to the spot on receiving intelligence of the casualty.

The rear end of the train, which had sustained no injury, was transformed into a hospital. As soon as possible a handcar was provided, covered with cushions from a passenger car, and on it the dead and badly wounded were removed to Stickney's Hotel at Monroe. The accident happened at 8 o'clock. When the messenger on horseback reached Middletown and told the dreadful news, which he had also scattered as he rode, church bells were tolled and all the countryside was wrapped in gloom. A locomotive being at Middletown, a relief train was quickly made up, and, bearing physicians and groups of anxious and grief-stricken friends of the disaster's victims, sped toward the scene of the disaster as train had never sped over the road before. The locomotive sounded its whistle, dolefully all along the line. The train arrived at Seamansville at noon. Two hours later it returned, bearing the dead, and all the wounded that could safely be removed, to the homes which they had left but a short time before, happy and buoyant with expectations for the day, to meet but mutilation and death.

The steamboat that was to have carried the joyous party from Piermont down the Hudson to their destination was despatched instead to New York with the news of the awful fate that had befallen them. President Loder, accompanied by four New York surgeons he had hastily summoned, returned to Piermont on the boat, and hastened thence to the wreck by special train. He arrived on the scene soon after the relief train from Middletown got there. On Saturday he despatched a special car to bear the terribly wounded Mrs. Conkling to her home at Middletown. Charles Monnell, one of the injured, died on that day, and his body was taken to Middletown on a special car. President Loder visited personally the homes of all the wounded, to learn what he could do or have done to alleviate their sufferings.

Another one of the passengers among the seriously injured was Miss Julia Wisner, daughter of Daniel Wisner, of Middletown. Her breast bone was so broken and crushed that its removal was necessary. Miss Wisner never recovered from the effects of her injury. She died a few years later. Her funeral was the largest ever held in Orange County, the procession being two miles in length.

Following is the list of killed and badly wounded in this first serious accident on the Erie Railroad:

Killed—Ira S. Crane, aged 19, son of Dr. J. S. Crane, Goshen - George Stevens, aged 17, New York City; Charles Monnell, son of Joseph Monnell, hotel-keeper, Middletown.

Wounded—Mrs. Charles Conkling, very badly lacerated on her neck and breast; Mr. and Mrs. Penny; George Harding, son of Charles Harding-Otisville. Miss Julia A. Wisner, daughter of Daniel Wisner; Miss Louisa Sweet, daughter of Halstead Sweet; Nathaniel Cooley; Jesse Van Fleet - Miss Sarah Watkins, one of the principals of the Seminary; David Holley, one arm broken, the other dislocated - Mrs. T. C. Royce-Middletown. Gilbert W. Oliver, very badly cut in the leg; Miss Miller, daughter of George Miller--Bloomingburgh. Howard Thompson, milk agent at Monroe. Miss Stevens, sister of young Stevens who was killed; M. Newman; Mr. Bursell; Mr. Strand; Walter S. Corwin-New York City. Edgar Monnell, son of Charles Monnell; Nathaniel Webb-Goshen. John Hawkins, Hamptonburgh. Others were injured more or less seriously.

No accident that had occurred upon any railroad up to that time in this country created so wide-spread a sensation as this one caused. It became the subject of public comment not only in this country, but abroad. It was the first accident of its kind, and revealed new possibilities of danger to life and limb that lay in wait for travellers by rail. It showed, also, the necessity of providing safeguards against the occurrence of similar disasters- not that the managers of the Erie had not had abundant previous evidence of the defects in the equipment of the road, and the insufficiency of its construction. That it should have required an awful sacrifice of life and the maiming and mutilating of two score of persons to spur the management to a correction of those faults presented a subject for much indignant and bitter comment by the press of the country, although the people to whom the results of the disaster came directly home with crushing force put it on record, at a public meeting held at Middletown three days after the accident, that they exonerated the railroad company from all blame. The chairman of this meeting was Capt. Israel Wickham, who, with his little boy, was among those who had to be dug out of the ruins of the second car, and whose escape with scarcely a scratch was one of the miraculous ones of the catastrophe.

This railroad accident led to the prompt abandoning of the use of the Winans spoke car wheel, not on the New York and Erie Railroad alone, but on every railroad where cars were equipped with such wheels, and to the adopting of solid Wheels. It led to the replacing of four-wheeled by eight-wheeled cars on the Erie. From it grew the system of testing car wheels at intervals during a train's trip by tapping them with a hammer to detect by the sound a defective wheel, a system that soon became, and is yet, universal on railroads the world over. It led to the immediate beginning of the work of filling in and strengthening the trestles of the division of the Eric then in operation, and to the ordering that particular care be observed in building similar work on the sections then under construction. Attention was at once especially given to the long and high trestle wall which carried the railroad over the Hackensack River, and its deep valley near Nanuet. This was a slight-looking elevation of timber nearly seventy feet high, and its apparent insecurity had been the source of much loss to the Company in traffic, as a large portion of the travelling public was afraid to risk passing over the lofty structure. This feeling was intensified by the falling of a freight train through the trestle in 1843, and the killing of a conductor. The filling in of this great gap required over 340,000 cubic yards of earth, and the building of a stone arch or culvert, 140 feet long and thirty-foot span, for the passage of the river through the embankment. This was at that time one of the most expensive pieces of work the Company had encountered. It was completed in May, 1847.

The accident at Seamansville, aside from the death and suffering it caused, was a costly mishap for the Company; for, notwithstanding the public declaration that the community did not hold it blameworthy, the Company soon found itself defendant in a host of suits brought to recover heavy damages, the settlement of which, together with the other costs of the accident, compelled an outlay of more than $100,000

Mrs. Pronk, widow of James A. Pronk, Esq., of Middletown, was one of the young ladies on that historic train. C. W. Dimmick, now of Washington, D. C., was also a passenger.


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