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The Great Shohola Train Wreck – As Told in the History of the Erie

Posted By on May 14, 2014


Today’s post is another installment of a series on the Great Shohola Train Wreck.

On 15 July 1864, at about 2 P.M., a train carrying 833 Confederate prisoners of war and a contingent of Union guards, collided head-on with a 50-car coal train on a single-track main line of the New York and Erie Railroad.  The collision occurred about one-and-a-half miles west of the small village of Shohola, Pike County, Pennsylvania.  The train carrying the prisoners was headed west from Jersey City, New Jersey, to the newly-established prison camp at Elmira, Chemung County, New York.  The coal train was headed east from the Hawley branch railroad and was hauling coal from the vast anthracite coal fields of central Pennsylvania to the  New York area.  It was the greatest railroad disaster of the Civil War – and to that point in time, the greatest recorded railroad disaster in history.  Forty-eight prisoners and seventeen Union guards were killed in the accident and many more were seriously wounded.

In the official history of the Erie Railroad, Between the Ocean and the Lakes, published in 1903, Edward Harold Mott gave a description of the accident and presented an eyewitness account, that of Frank Evans, who was identified as one of the Union guards on the train.

A copy of Between the Ocean and the Lakes:  The Story of the Erie, is available as a free download from the Internet Archive (click on book title to go to download page, choose format on left and download).


AT KING & FULLER’S CUTFrank Evans of New York, a survivor of this terrible catastrophe, recalls for the author these recollections of it:

“It was about the middle of July, in 1864,” says Mr. Evans.  “I was in the Union Army, and was one of a guard of 125 soldiers who were detailed to take a lot of Confederate prisoners from Point Lookout, Virginia, to the prison camp at Elmira, N.Y., which had just been made ready to receive them.  There were 10,000 prisoners in all to be transferred, and this lot was the first installment to be moved.  There were about 800 of them.  We came on the Pennsylvania Railroad to Jersey City, and the prisoners were transferred to the Erie train by boat.  The train was made up of emigrant cars, box cars, and all sorts of odds and ends of cars, and was a long one. Two guards were stationed on the platform at each end of each car.  We got started from Jersey City about 5 o’clock in the morning.  I was one of the guards stationed well back on the train, and a lucky thing for me that I was so stationed.  We passe through the little village of Shohola early in the afternoon, going something like twenty-five miles an hour.  We had run a mile or so beyond Shohola when the train came to a stop with a suddenness that hurled me to the ground, and instantly a crash and roar that rivaled the shock of battle rose and filled that quiet valley.  This lasted but a moment.  It was followed by a second or two of awful silence, and then the air was filled by most appalling shrieks and wails and cries of anguish.

“As soon as I recovered from the confusion caused by the shock and the fall, I did not need to be told that our train had met with some frightful mishap.  I hurried forward.  On a curve in a deep cut we had met a heavy-laden coal train, travelling nearly as fast as we were.  The trains had come together with that deadly crash.  The two locomotives were raised high in air, face to face against each other, like giants grappling.  The tended of our locomotive stood erect on one end.  The engineer and fireman, poor fellows, were buried beneath the wood it carried.  Perched on the reared-up end of the tender, high above the wreck, was one of our guards, sitting with his gun clutched in his hands, dead!  The front car of our train was jammed into a space of less than six feet.  The two cars behind it were almost as badly wrecked.  Several cars in the rear of those were also heaped together.

“In a very short time a score of people arrived from the village, and the work of removing the dead and rescuing the wounded began.  There were bodies impaled on iron rods and splintered beams.  Headless trunks were mangled between the telescoped cars.  From the wreck of the head car thirty-seven of the thirty-eight prisoners it contained were taken out dead.  The remaining prisoner was found alive and uninjured, surrounded by debris, like a nut kernel in its shell.  Three of the four guards on the car were also taken out dead.  The fourth one was the one who sat dead on top of the upturned tender.  From the wrecked cars thirty-three of the guards were taken, twenty of whom were dead.  Fifty or more of the prisoners were killed, at least 100 or more wounded, a number of the wounded dying soon after they were removed from the wreck.  The fireman of the coal train was instantly killed.  His engineer escaped by jumping.  The engineer of our train was caught in the awful wreck of his engine, where he was held in plain sight, with his back against the boiler, and slowly roasted to death.  With his last breath he warned away all who went near to try and aid him, declaring that there was danger of the boiler exploding and killing them.  Taken all in all, that wreck was a scene of horror such as few, even in the thick of battle, are ever doomed to be a witness of.  And, as we heard during the day, it was all called by a wrong order given to the engineer of the coal train by a drunken despatcher somewhere up the road.  Id we could have got at him we would have made short shrift of him.

“We were until night getting the dead and wounded out of the wreck and things in shape to proceed on our journey.  A coroner held an inquest, and the dead were all buried in one great trench dug by order of the railroad officials, between the railroad and the river, which was a few hundred yards distant.  The bodies were put into pine boxes, each dead Union soldier having a box to himself.  The dead prisoners were buried four in a box.  We did not get on our way until the next morning, and left many of the wounded at Shohola, taking a number of them with us.”

That frightful accident occurred about 2 P.M., Friday, 15 July 1864.  The cause of the accident was a drunken telegraph operator at Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, four miles west of the scene of the disaster.  His name was Duff Kent. He had been carousing the night before, and was under the influence of liquor at his post when Conductor John Martin, of a coal train that had come in off the Hawley Branch of the Erie, eastbound, asked him if the road was clear for him to go ahead.  Kent said it was, although the train that carried a flag ahead of the extra having the prisoners aboard had left the station on its way west but a short time before, and Kent had been informed that the train bearing the prisoners was on the road.  The train should have left Jersey City at 4:30 A.M., Friday, 15 July, but was delayed an hour or more by the captain of the Union guard returning to the vessel on which the prisoners had been brought from City Point, to look for three of the prisoners who had escaped.

When Conductor Martin got the word from Kent, his train started east.  It consisted of fifty loaded cars.  At King & Fuller’s cut (so called from the contractors who made it), a mile west of Shohola, the train was going at the rate of twelve miles an hour, and in that cut met the extra train, with its load of 833 Confederate prisoners and 150 Union guards, traveling twenty miles an hour.  The cut is a long one, on a curve.   Neither engineer could see the track fifty feet ahead of him.  Neither knew of the other’s presence there until they came face to face.  The engineer of the coal train, Samuel Hoitt, had time to jump from his locomotive.   He escaped with but slight injury.  His fireman, Philo Prentiss, was crushed to death.  The engineer of the passenger train was William Ingram, whose cool bravery in the face of a horrible death is described above by Mr. Evans.  His fireman was Daniel Tuttle.  Both were buried in the debris of the locomotive, the fireman being instantly killed.  G. M. Boyden, a brakeman on the coal train, was also killed.

An inquest was held at Shohola, by Justice Thomas J. Ridgway and a jury.  It exonerated every one from any blame, although the criminal carelessness that had caused the slaughter was well known.  Kent was not molested; but on the very night following the accident, and while scores of his victims lay dead, and while scores more were writhing in agony, he attended a ball at Hawley, and danced until daylight.  Next day, however, he disappeared, the voice of popular indignation becoming ominous, and he never was seen or heard of in that locality again.

The trench in which the dead were buried was seventy-six feet long, eight feet wide, and six deep.  The official report of the killed that were buried places the number at fifty-one Confederates and nineteen Union soldiers.  The wounded, some of whom died later, numbered 123.  This, at that time, was the most horrible and disastrous railroad accident on record.  The common grave of the unfortunate victims was in time washed away by floods, and the bones of those it contained were carried along, year by year, until at last the ground was left tenantless of its dead.

This series of posts will continue in a few days.


To see all the posts in this series, click on ShoholaTrainWreck.



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