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Revisiting the ‘Angola Horror,’ which claimed 50 lives in 1867

ALL ABOARD — Pictured, a CSX engine crosses the bridge over Big Sister Creek, the scene of the wreck of the New York Express. Photos by Paul McQuillen.
ANGOLA — The village of Angola became the center of national headlines, when the last two cars of an eight-car Buffalo & Erie Railroad passenger train jumped the tracks on Dec. 18, 1867 and plummeted into the ravine below.

Although no one was killed from the fall’s impact, approximately 50 people died in the inferno that resulted, as the last passenger coach erupted in a ball of flames. The actual count of dead is not known.

In her newly released book “The Angola Horror,” Buffalo News staff member Charity Vogel detailed the events of that day.

She explained that, in 1867, “Angola was still mostly agricultural, though the railroad depot and the village’s commercial center were hubs of activity.”

The Buffalo & Erie’s Railroad’s New York Express was running late, as it approached the village of Angola at 3 p.m. on Dec. 18, a week before Christmas. The express, traveling between Cleveland and New York City, was originally due in Buffalo at 1:30 p.m.

A little more than two years previous, on April 27, 1865, the funeral train carrying the remains of Abraham Lincoln crossed that same bridge on its journey from Washington, D.C. to Lincoln’s final resting place in Springfield, Ill.

On the morning of Dec. 18, the four passenger cars of the eight-car express were carrying holiday and business travelers heading to New York City. Each of the coach cars could accommodate approximately 50 passengers, their luggage and packages. The cars were heated by pot-bellied, coal-burning stoves and the only light in the otherwise darkened cars was provided by kerosene lanterns mounted on the walls of the coaches.

According to Vogel, the train left Silver Creek at 2:50 p.m. and headed east toward Angola. The express had yet to cross the 50-foot-high truss bridge over Big Sister Creek, a waterway that had frozen over.

The railroad tracks connected Angola to points east, such as Buffalo, Niagara Falls and New York City, and west to Erie, Cleveland and Chicago. “By 1860, the area around [Big Sister] creek was home to about 45 families,’ Vogel explained.

There was no scheduled Angola stop for the express; as it approached the village and passed Angola’s depot, the train was traveling an estimated 28 mph and was already two hours and 45 minutes behind schedule. Just prior to reaching the station, as it was approaching the truss-bridge over the frozen Big Sister Creek, “suddenly, in the air around them, they could hear the shriek of the train’s whistle,” Vogel said. A switchman at the depot, watching the train pass, was heard saying, “That train’s going like Jehovah!”

At some point, the train struck a “frog,” or juncture of rail, which had been replaced earlier that day. The last car’s last set of wheels hit the frog, causing the car to jump the track; its wheels began dragging along beside the rails. That car pulled the adjoining one off the track; both cars became uncoupled from the main train and from each other.

While the engineer was told to stop the train, according to Vogel, it would not be possible to do so, before the train crossed the bridge.

Josiah and Huldah Southwick’s home offered a view that included Big Sister Creek’s truss bridge. That day, as the engine came into view from the Southwick home, Alanson Wilcox and Josiah Southwick were witness to the unfolding events.

The last car twisted free, as the rest of the train began to cross the bridge and began a leftward tilt. “Fifty feet in the air, the train clung for one last long moment to its iron path,” Vogel said.

As the engine crossed the bridge, the end car began its descent down the 50-foot slope, which led to the frozen water. The full passenger car “turned over and over, spinning on its horizontal axis, as it plunged some 50 feet to the snow below,” Vogel reported. “Then, with a crash that could be heard on the streets of the village above, the rear coach slammed into the floor of the gorge, sending up geysers of splinters and soot that could be seen rising over the walls of the ravine.”

The coach came to rest on its end, at a 45-degree angle at the bottom of the ravine. The contents of the wood-burning stove and kerosene lamps spilled out into the wooden passenger coach and over the occupants. “Coals landed everywhere and everywhere they found fuel for flame,” Vogel said.

In the meantime, that second-last vehicle was being dragged across the bridge. By the time the coach reached the far side of the bridge, the momentum of its swaying had won out and the car lost its hold on the rail. “The coach broke its coupler pin, then dropped from the bridge,” Vogel said. “When it came to rest, the car had landed flat on its side. It had tumbled 31 feet down the slope.”

Southwick and Wilcox reported that they could hear the screaming of the passengers who were attempting to escape the wreckage. Men, women and children were struggling to escape the fiery inferno of the first car. The screaming did not last long.

Three passengers from the last car survived the plunge and fire; the others perished in the blaze.

Many Angola residents watched the event from their homes, shops or village streets, and the citizens quickly reacted. “Train wrecks were often difficult disaster scenes to reach, occurring at or near bridges, gullies, cliffs, blind spots or other topographical challenges,” Vogel explained. The rescuers descended into the creek, to offer aid, rescue or recovery and then to raise the injured and the dead up the ravine.

Frederick Hoyer, a physician from Tonawanda, was a passenger in one of the forward cars. He was joined in his efforts by Angola physician Romaine Curtiss, a Civil War surgeon. Curtiss said that the most immediate need was to secure a setting where the injured could be treated and the dead could be collected.

The Southwick home, as well as that of Frank and Thankful Griffith, were utilized as temporary hospitals. The more injured individuals were taken to the Southwick residence. The Angola depot and freight house were utilized as a morgue.

Curtiss and Hoyer spent night and day at the scene, attending to the suffering and dying. Dr. Orin Payne, who had been a passenger on the train prior to the wreck and had been detained in Silver Creek, hurried to assist in the efforts.

One passenger on the second-car was killed, although many were injured. The death toll, estimated at 50, will never be known for certain, Vogel said.

A relief train bringing doctors, medical supplies, railroad personnel and bedding for the injured was sent from Buffalo.

“Bodies were borne by Angola men through the creek bed, up the inclines on either side of the creek, then loaded onto sleds and sleighs and dragged or driven down the streets of the village ... to the freight house,” Vogel said. Bodies were laid out, in an effort to identify the individuals. The remains were eventually placed in makeshift coffins, sometimes two or three to a casket.

The survivors were boarded on an express from Cincinnati and transported to Buffalo. Those who were seriously injured remained in the makeshift hospitals. They later traveled by hospital train to the Exchange Street Station, from which they were dispersed to Buffalo hospitals for care.

Many of the bodies and body parts were never identified.

The dead were eventually transported by funeral train to Buffalo, arriving at the Exchange Street station early on the morning of Dec. 19. Approximately 2,000 mourners turned out for the arrival of the deceased. The corpses were taken to the Soldier’s Rest Home, which had been made into a temporary morgue for that purpose.

The unidentified bodies, placed in 23 coffins, were arranged for viewing; unclaimed bodies were buried in Buffalo.

A memorial service for the victims was held in the Exchange Street Station on Sunday morning, Dec. 23. An estimated 10,000 mourners attended. Nineteen plain, wooden boxes contained the unclaimed remains.

“Railroad officials claimed 19 people lay in the boxes; passenger lists, had they been kept, would have indicated that far more unidentified and unclaimed victims presumably lay in the coffins as well,” Vogel said.

HERE THEY LIE — Ted Dibble, who collects historical information at Forest Lawn Cemetery, is pictured at the unmarked grave site of the unidentified victims of the Angola Horror.
Four weeks after the crash, the unidentified and unclaimed dead were buried in a common site in Buffalo’s Forest Lawn Cemetery. No marker or memorial stands on that triangle of ground. “No tablet or obelisk indicated ... the presence of the wreck’s dead,” Vogel said.

After an investigation, the official cause of the wreck, as determined after a coroner’s inquest, was “from some cause which could not be discovered. A car axle was so bent as to throw the car off the track and down the fateful precipice. The bending of the axle occurring, perhaps, weeks before the accident, had escaped detection.”

In August 2008, the village of Angola dedicated a memorial marker near the site of the crash, at the intersection of Mill Street and Gowans Road. At the dedication of the memorial plaque, Angola Mayor William Frawley noted that the Angola Horror is “one of the best kept secrets in American history.”

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