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WNYRHS HISTORY - EAST AURORA RAIL DISASTER

Historian's Corner GIF This page is devoted to some of the many historical articles about railroading in the Western New York area, written or edited by Society Historian, Greg Jandura. As more articles are added, old ones will be archived. So sit back, or feel free to print out, and enjoy the rich railway heritage of Western New York.



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"INTO THE PIT"
Rail Disaster in East Aurora 1893

By: Greg Jandura


          It happened 110 years on July 18, 1893 making front page news in all of Buffalo's leading newspapers. A serious derailment at East Aurora, New York, 17 miles southeast of Buffalo involving a 12 car excursion train returning from the annual summer picnic at Lime Lake on the Western New York & Pennsylvania Railroad (which in 1900 became the Northern division of the Pennsylvania Railroad).

          The excursionists are from the Sunday-school of Bethany Presbyterian Church, the Reverend Lansing Van Schoonhaven, Pastor, and Bethlehem Presbyterian Church, the Reverend N.B. Chester, Pastor. About 500 people are on board, the majority being children of various ages accompanied by their teachers and chaperons. The excursion train had departed from the Central Station (Exchange Street) about 9 o'clock that morning. The Engineer, Fred C. Ransbury, in charge of engine #124, Fireman, John N. Norris, and Conductor, John B. Conley. The excursion embarked upon its return trip from Lime Lake at exactly 6:30 o'clock that same evening. About an hour was consumed in the run to East Aurora.

         "The accident is one of the most remarkable in the history of railroad wrecks. The engines were crushed into masses of twisted steel, and lay at the bottom of a turntable, covered with the timbers, broken glass, and iron coming from the first two cars of the train. They were filled with excursionists and that they escaped with only broken limbs is cause for thankfulness.

          The accident, was due to carelessness on somebody's part. Opinions varied among the railroad employees as to the one upon which the blame should rest. Somebody blundered and the life of one man, if not more, will probably pay the penalty of the oversight.

          The evening local train from Buffalo to East Aurora #112 where it terminates departed from Buffalo at 6:35 o'clock and is due into East Aurora at 7:17 P.M. with Engineer Phil Howland in charge of engine #30. He had taken his machine to the turntable just south of the station preparatory to turning it around to face northward toward the city for the morning trip." 1.

          "The switch track is about 200 long and leads to the turntable, a wooden affair built when the road was known as the Buffalo & Washington Railroad (1867-1871) and ran only to that point." 2

          "To run the engine to the turntable it's necessary to open a switch. It was left open while the engine was being turned about. The claim is made that the accommodation train# 112 had the right of the main track until 7:35 o'clock. It was now 7:30." 3

          "Just beyond the turntable is a sharp curve, and beyond that the track rise to a heavy grade. At that unfortunate time the fated excursion train, heavily loaded was coming down the hill. When the curve was reached, Engineer Fred C. Ransbury on engine #124 saw the danger, but it was too late for the air brakes or anything else to stop the trains downhill momentum and it piled into the pit on top of the engine #30 already upon the turntable.

          The pit is about six feet deep and the turning track stood at a right angle to the switch, so that the drop of the engine was a sheer leap into space. Engineer Ransbury and his Fireman, John N. Norris stood manfully at their posts trying until the last moment to do what they must, to lessen the effects of the unavoidable blow.

          The great machine shot straight ahead off the end of the track into the cab of the engine upon the turntable knocking it from its standard and mixing the two into one tangled mass." 1

          "The two engines came together with a crash, reared, plunged and went down together into the pit of the turntable. The baggage car left the track but did not turn over. The first baggage coach backed with a crash upon the second passenger coach, reared a few feet and telescoped the second coach about one-third of its length.

East Aurora Wreck 1893 ©Robert Ruhlman - Click to ENLARGE (10K - 50K)          In every car women and children screamed, many with pain of injury, others from fear. Women grew hysterical looking for their children, and the poor children cried, looking for their mothers. It was a time for level heed men to assert themselves, and the level headed men were there in every car, but it was impossible for a time to subdue the excitement. The cry ran about that many were killed, and indeed it was very hard for even the most hopeful to believe that lives had not been lost. An alarm was raised that the telescoped cars had caught fire and that imprisoned people would be burned alive." 3

          "But this additional horror was fortunately averted by the prompt action of the Village of East Aurora fire department. Then the scene became indescribable." The valves controlling the whistles on the engines becoming loosened, releasing their steam, the whistles shrieking in agony, sympathetic with the other shrieks coming from frightened women and children." 1

          Drs. Gayle, Hoyt, and Mitchell of East Aurora were quickly upon the scene, and rendered valuable service in caring for the sufferers. In their work they received assistance not only from the passengers who were unhurt, but by dozens of kind-hearted East Aurora people. They threw open their homes, furnished linens for bandages, provided mattresses, helped to quiet the women, soothed the children and did everything possible to alleviate the general stress. Halleck Welles, proprietor of the Eulalia Hotel, where many of the suffering were taken was foremost in his assistance." 3

          "The most serious injury of the lot was that of the fireman, John N. Morris of 272 Peabody Street, Buffalo. He was found unconscious in the pit of the turntable, and when the doctors examined him it was found that he had hit his head on some hard substance causing a concussion to his brain in addition to a cut over his left eye when he jumped from the engine." 2

          "The whole side of the second coach had to be chopped away before those inside could be released. It was thought that many must have been crushed to death. When the breach was made, however, it was found that the baggage car in crashing through had taken an upward course, leaving the trucks behind, passing over the tops of the seats, so that death itself had not come to those within." 1

          "When it was thought that everybody was out of the cars, groans were heard coming from the forward end of the first car. Axes and saws were procured and an effort was made to cut though the outside of the car to see who was inside. a man climbed into the car though the window and reported that a little boy was pinned down under the stove. It was Willie Widmer, 8 years old, who lives at 219 Massachusetts Street in Buffalo. He had been sitting on the first seat of the car next to the baggage car, and when the two cars were telescoped had been thrown down. The stove fell over him and caught his legs. After the first few cries he bit his lips and said nothing. He lay there for three quarters of an hour and never uttered another cry. A man went into the car and held the brave little fellow's head while outside, men worked desperately with saws and axes to cut him free. It was soon seen that it would be a work of hours to free him with the implements at hand, an East Aurora man who makes it his business to move houses got some jack screws and a long timber and soon had the car raised in such a way that it was an easy matter to remove the stove and get the boy out. He was taken to the Hotel Eulalia at once. All this time he never whimpered. Willie Widmer was found by the doctors to have a scalp cut, a great contusion on his left leg, knee and ankle and also a cut underneath his left knee. Grown men were pale and trembling, women and children were crying and screaming hysterically, but young Widmer was made of sterner stuff. He did not cry when he was in the wreck and he did not cry when he was at the hotel. It was an exhibition of pure grit that will be remembered by those who saw it."

          "Another injured individual Mr. Z.L. Parker an older gentleman living at 2317 Main Street in Buffalo was standing on the front platform of the baggage car when the crash came. He was thrown into the pit with the engines, amid the escaping steam. How he got out is a mystery to him, but he did, and has only a sprained ankle and sever bruises about the head to show as the result of the accident.

          There was one act that came very near being heroic. Bob Hanson, flagman on the excursion train was thrown from the baggage car and received a broken arm and a crushed side. This affected him not at all. He seized his flag and came up the back to warn a freight train coming down the grade. He accomplished his purpose, but after that he fell, and was found an hour afterward having fainted by the track." 1

          "Meanwhile the excursionists began to recover from their fright. It was found that nobody had been killed. They walked up to the depot and sat down to wait for another train. A great many went up to the hotel and stood around outside. Inside of an hour and a half the excitement had in a great measure subsided. and the excursionists compared experiences and told stories until the wrecking train arrived.

          Word was quickly sent to Buffalo for assistance and Western New York & Pennsylvania Superintendent C.T. Dabney with Drs. Daniels and Doooley headed for the scene ahead of the wrecking train. A start was made of the relief train from Babcock Street at 9:05 and promptly at 9:25 it rolled into the East Aurora station. Never before had there been such a lively trip made over this section of the road as Engineer Frank Griesen made the #28 go over the rails at a speed of a mile a minute.

          The wrecking train drawn by engine #166 followed the relief train and the crew was soon at work. The baggage car had been driven over to the main track throwing it about five feet out of line, but not enough to block the main siding, which will be used as a main track until the wreck is cleared.

          The relief train was greeted with cheers when it rolled into the East Aurora station. Excursionists who had begun to think that they would have to spend the night in the country grew lighter spirited. Some of them even laughed and joked with the East Aurora folks, who were at the station in scores, and the older young men were not averse to conversing with the pretty Aurora girls who were there in large numbers.

          The doctors went at once to the Hotel Eulalia where the wounded were and made a critical examination of all those who were there. They found but little to do as Drs. Gale, Hoyt, and Mitchell had skillfully performed their work. Dr. Daniels took the names of all the injured, who were at the hotel and gave orders to have a car cleared of excursionists so that a place might be made ready for the wounded. Carriages were procured and the injured were taken to the station and placed in comfortable positions in the cars.

          The trains started for Buffalo at 10:30 o'clock and reached the Central Station (Exchange Street) at 11:50 o'clock. The train shed was thronged with friends and relatives of the excursionists and the gateway was blocked.

          At midnight the train was fully unloaded and nearly everybody was gone. Carriages had been provided by wholesale, and but for the late arrivals, who were still engaged in saying "'Terrible! '" scarcely any inkling would have been had of anything unusual. One party of half a dozen young people was still on the spot. One young man had wrenched his foot so badly as to be unable to walk and had to be carried by the others. Another male member of the party who carried a couple of tennis racquets, had his head tied up with a bandage, but was able to take care of himself. The young women with them were uninjured. “We were going from 15 to 20 miles per hour”' said one man who was waiting for a carriage. "It wasn't over 20 miles at the most. What a slaughter there would have been had we been running at full speed.'"

          "'When the train struck'" said a youth who was looking after some of his friends, "'I went head first over two or three seats. I don't know exactly where I did land.'" He was not hurt, apparently.

          By 12:30 o'clock the last person from the wrecked train, uninjured or otherwise, had left the station." The crew of the excursion and other eyewitnesses to the derailment were interviewed that evening in East Aurora by reporters of the Buffalo Morning Express relating their own personal accounts of what had happened.

          "Fred C. Ransbury, the Engineer of the excursion train, said that in coming around the curve near where the switch leading to the turntable is located, he saw the engine on the table and believed the track clear. "'That train (Aurora Accommodation) is given the right to use the main track until 7:35 o'clock, but as he saw the engine on the table, I believed it was all right in going ahead. It was just between daylight and dusk, the worst time in the world to catch the target on a switch, and I did not see that the switch was against me until I was within five car lengths of it. I put on he air, slowing the train down to about 15 miles an hour, and got my reverse lever half over when I had to jump over the side of the pit..'"

          "'I was in the back coaches when the crash occurred,'" said Conductor John B. Conley of the excursion train. "'We had been running at the rate of about 25 miles an hour and had slowed down coming into East Aurora. I bumped against a seat and bruised , I guess I am lucky in getting out as lightly as I have.'"

          "'I prefer not to say anything which will cast any blame on anyone in connection with the accident,'" said Mr. C.T. Dabney, Superintendent of the Buffalo Division, when asked where the blame lay. “We will begin an investigation into the causes of the wreck at my office tomorrow and after that is over I can tell you more about it. Our rules read that Train #112 can use main track to a point until half a mile south of East Aurora until 7:35 P.M. to switch the train. All trains will be governed accordingly and must approach point named prepared to stop. This will give some information.”

East Aurora Wreck 1893 ©Robert Ruhlman - Click to ENLARGE (10K - 50K)          “'I was sitting on my steps,” said S.C. Smith, one of the men living in a house near the turntable and was watching the men turning the engine. I heard the excursion train whistle as it came around the curve and I watched it. The train seemed to me to be going about 12 miles an hour when it went through the switch. Suddenly I noticed it leave the main track and almost before I knew it the engine went into the pit. The women screamed and nearly everybody came out through the windows. In fact it was about the only way they could get out." "'Is it unusual for these men to leave the switch track open when turning the engine?'" asked one reporter. "'Yes, always. They run in, turn the engine and run right out. As a rule they are not usually in there over three or four minutes.'"

          Ezra Smith, a railroad employee was another eyewitness to the wreck. ""I was near the turntable,'" said he, “when Engineer Howland of the Aurora Accommodation called to me to turn the switch. I ran but was unable to reach it in time. I yelled to a co-worker who was standing near it, but he did not understand and failed to turn it. If he had understood what I had been saying, the wreck would not have happened..”

          Conductor Matt O'Brien of the Aurora Accommodation was unwilling to say much about the wreck. "'I was at the station when it occurred,"' said he, "' and for that reason can say nothing of the circumstances."

          "But had you a right to leave the switch open?"' asked the Buffalo Morning Express reporter. Conductor O'Brien replied, "'This train has the right to use the main track until 7:35 o'clock. The wreck occurred at 7:30 o'clock.'" 2

FOOTNOTES:

1. "Piled Into a Heap," Buffalo Daily Courier, 7/19/1893, p. 1.

2. "Open Switch," Buffalo Morning Express, 7/19/1893, p. 1.

3. "Awful Peril," Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, 7/19/1892, p. 8.

POSTSCRIPT
         Take Oakwood Avenue in the Village of East Aurora to the corner of Elm Street. To get there, you drive past the Fire Department Building to your left then go under the present day Norfolk Southern Railroad overpass. When you emerge you find to your left the "Red Caboose," an ice cream stand in a "real" railroad caboose. Immediately to your right is Wallenwein's Hotel & Horse Shoe. Travel the one short block to the end of Elm Street. If the brown brick building on your right looks familiar, it's the one in the wreck photo without the towering smokestacks. This is the spot where this spectacular train derailment occurred 110 years ago. The structure built in 1890 and opened in 1891 served as the electric power generating plant for that end of the Village up until 1898. Abandoned for many years the interior was gutted, and exterior restored. In January, 2001 the "The Source" was opened by Chiropractor and Physical therapist Dr. Seth Kaiser who I wish to thank for his assistance in documenting this structure.

         The Hotel Eulalia which served as a make-shift hospital in treating the wounded is now the home of the Aurora Theatre at 673 Main Street.

          I wish to also thank Joe Streamer, Paul Pietrak, and Robert Ruhlman for allowing the WNYRHS to re-print the two accompanying photos to this article. These photos and others from the collection of Robert Ruhlman can be found in the book "Western New York and Pennsylvania Railway," which is available at the Society Store.

 

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