|On a bitterly cold day in late January, 1934 a school bus had an encounter with a freight train at a rural grade crossing in Springville, New York. There are no fatalities; luckily only injuries. Some required hospitalization. Both the engineer and bus driver faulting the other for this unfortunate accident. "The cold wave which hammered the mercury to five degrees below zero on January 29, 1934 and kept it hovering around the zero mark that night was expected to moderate slightly the following day."|
|January 29, 1934 was the coldest so far that month, and the coldest day that Buffalo and western New York had experienced since December 29, 1934 when the mercury dropped to seven below zero. It was almost half a century since January 29, 1885 when the temperature slid slightly beyond the five below zero mark.|
| This cold wave was remarkable not only for its intensity, but because of the wide area that it covered. Its territory extended from the Rocky Mountains on the west to Atlantic City on the east, and Atlanta, Georgia on the south. When the mercury read two below zero here on the night of the 29th, it was ten above in New York City, twelve above in Washington, D.C. and fifteen above in Raleigh, North Carolina.
In downtown Buffalo, pedestrians who are fewer than usual, scurried along the street to avoid the biting cold as much as possible. A northwest wind blowing at a maximum velocity of 41 miles an hour intensified the cold. People duck into doorways while waiting for street cars and those riding on the trolleys do not complain about the heat. On one Main Street car, it's possible to count the rate of respiration of the passengers, for each time they breath, steam issues from their nostrils,. Some of them looking like the famous wild bulls of the pampas." 1
"The zero weather took a total of one life in Buffalo on the 29th.. The Medical Examiner issued a general warning to motorists to be careful in cranking their machines. "'Motorists shouldn't overdo it," he says. "When the mercury is below zero motors get mighty stiff. The exertion expended in getting them started is tremendous." 2
January 29, 1934, is a Monday, the start of a new school week. 28 high school students from Glenwood, New York, and East Concord, New York were being transported by school bus to the Griffith Institute which is the public school in Springville, New York. The bus driver is Walter G. Kummer of Golden, New York. He's employed by Arthur and Walter Wohlheuter of Colden, New York, the owners of four school busses. Thirty miles south of Buffalo, New York, along the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad line from Buffalo to Pittsburgh, is a grade crossing on Sharp Street in Springville, New York. Sharp Street is a long and winding north south road which ends at North Buffalo Street in Springville, New York. Where the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad crosses Sharp Street the railroad right-of-way is level with the highway. Sharp Street parallels the railroad for a short distance before crossing the track at a diagonal. Although the person in the driver's seat has to really cram his neck around to look for approaching trains, the view up and down the railroad line is not obscured. There's a simple wooden railroad crossing sign at this location.
It's around 8:30 A.M. Bitterly sub-zero cold temperatures end the blowing wind compounds the wind chill. Fine powdery snow was swirling around and the highway has an icy glaze. Two other school busses successfully went over the grade crossing. The third school bus was not so lucky.
Walter Kummer, the bus driver stopped before proceeding over the track. As an added precaution he asked the children "if everything was all right," and he said, "they called to him that it was safe!" The windows of the bus were frosted over because of the cold and interaction of the students breaths. The students can't see the approaching danger. 3
Kummer shifted gears to proceed. Suddenly, bearing down on him is a huge black shape. A freight train. He stepped on the gas pedal but the snow and icy highway condition impeded his momentum. The school bus is hit by a double-header steam locomotive hauling a northbound 95 car freight train traveling around thirty miles an hour en route from Salamanca, New York to Buffalo. The engineer was Augustus "Gus" Kessler of Golden, New York.
"Fear and hysteria followed by fainting, gripped the students as the lead locomotive drives its cowcatcher into the side of the bus squarely in the middle, lifting it clear off the tracks." The floor of the bus was gone, with only the railroad track below. Fortunately, the bus remained upright during this terrifying ordeal. Crying and screaming, the students are hurled about in all directions as the bus is carried 500 feet down the track. Those students sitting in the middle section of the bus were the most seriously injured.
"A few of the older boys regain their senses after the stunning crash. They crawled from the school bus and, with members of the train crew, assist in carrying the injured to the nearby farmhouse of Fred Sixt." 4
Dr. John A. Kerr of Springville arrived on the scene a few minutes after the accident and assisted in the removal of the injured to the Sixt home where they are treated. He was later aided by Dr. Mark Brooks. "They were all badly frightened," Dr. Kerr says, "and as soon as they were released from the wrecked vehicle we had great difficulty in controlling them until we could find out how many were injured." 5
Also helping out in the accident aftermath was Erie County Deputy Sheriff Harold G. Goodmote of Springville, New York who en route to Buffalo who was traveling about two minutes behind the school bus. "I thought sure those youngsters were all dead when I first saw the wreckage, but when I got into the bus and found many only frightened, it seemed a miracle had happened." 6
Three most seriously injured students with broken bones were taken to Buffalo General Hospital: Harold Reed, George Barthel, and Lois McLean. Another seriously injured student, Mattie Kowalski is treated in Springville. Others bruised and in shock but not requiring hospitalization included; John Krawczyk, Elmer Timor, Ruth Cranston, Wahneetah Bockahanan, Dorothy Gutekunst and Dorothy Timor. The Gutekunst girl's left hand was frozen while she was assisting in extricating other pupils from the wrecked bus. All would recover in time.
Other students on the school bus treated and released to their parents included: Edward McLean, Evelyn Smith, Gertrude Wohlheuter, Robert Barthel, Carl Fuller, Esther Fuller, Agnes Fuller, Robert Smith, Marie Smith, Dorothy Lester, Evelyn Spaulding, Robert Furman, Marion Wittmeyer, Harold Spaulding, Robert Georgia, Willard Griffith, Frances Kuhl and Alberta Sean. 7
A thorough investigation was immediately launched to find out who was to blame for the accident. Deputy Sheriff Goodmote took a statement from both engineer Kessler and bus driver Kummer at the scene of the accident. Kessler said that he blew his whistle twice before reaching the crossing and did not see the bus until the engine was upon it. The conductor, too far back in the caboose an the train could not corroborate the engineer's story.
Kummer said he stopped before crossing the tracks, looked both ways, listened for an approaching train whistle but heard nothing. He proceeded after the students gave the all-clear from the bus although the windows were frosted over, obscuring their view.
Springville Institute Principal Lyle G. Palmer ordered an early dismissal of the rest of the student body upon learning news of the accident.
That evening Mr Kummer in relating the story of the crash told a Buffalo Times reporter that "Snow was blowing in clouds down the track. I believe that steam from the engine was blowing ahead and blended in with the snow, hiding the train." 8
The Springville Institute Board of Education led by President Lionel True met on January 31st to review reports from several sources. "'This accident Monday makes it imperative that we do everything possible to have the crossing protected. I believe we will take action on this at the meeting. 9
The New York State Police also investigated the accident which led to a public hearing an March 13, 1934 before George Derail of the New York State Motor Vehicle Bureau. Six of the school children and bus driver Walter G. Kummer testified under oath that he did indeed stopped, looked and listened before proceeding across the grade crossing. Engineer Kessler also testifying under oath refuted Mr. Kummer saying that "the bus never stopped before proceeding over the grade crossing." 10
It's uncertain what the verdict was from this inquiry. No information could be found in Buffalo's newspapers. One thing for certain was that as a result of this accident, school busses were not allowed to use the Sharp Street grade crossing for the next twenty or so years until crossbucks and a flasher were installed in the late 1950's.
1. "Cold Spell To Loosen Grip On Buffalo Today, " Buffalo Courier, Express, 30 January, 1984, pp 1 & 8.
2. "Zero Weather Cause of One Death In City, Buffalo Courier Express,, 30 January, 1984, p. 1.
3. "Children Hurt In Bus Wreck Out Of Danger," Buffalo Courier Express, 30 January, 1934, pp 1 & 8.
4. "Children Hurt In Bus Wreck Out Of Danger," Buffalo Courier, Express, 30 January, 1934, pp 1 & 8.
5 "Engine Carries Auto 500 Feet: 10 Are Injured," Buffalo Evening News, 29 January, 1934, pp 1 & 3.
6. "Crossing Crash At Springville Hurts 27 Pupils," Buffalo Times, 29 January, 1934, pp 1 & 2.
7. "Engine Carries Auto 500 Feet: 10 Are Injured," Buffalo Evening News, 29 January, 1934, pp 1 & 3.
8. "State Police Head Inquiry Into Springville Bus Crash," Buffalo Times, 30 January, 1984, p 3.
9. "Enquiry Underway In Wreck Of School Bus," Buffalo Courier Express, 31 January, 1934, p 11.
10. "Six Children Heard At Bus Crash Inquiry," Buffalo Courier Express,, 14 March, 1934 p. 7.
A Special Thanks to Alan V. Manchester - retired Springville Middle School science teacher; Assistant Curator - Pop Warner Museum; President Past President of Concord Historical Society; and WNYRHS member, for bringing this story to my attention. GJ.
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