The wood burning steam locomotive #171 left Jersey City, New Jersey on July 15, 1864, pulling 17 passenger and freight cars. On board were 833 Confederate Prisoners of War captured at Cold Harbor and 128 Union guards, heading from Point Lookout, Maryland to the Union prison camp in Elmira, New York.
Engine #171 was an “extra” that day, running behind a scheduled train numbered West #23. West #23 displayed warning flags giving the second train right of way, but #171 was delayed while guards located missing prisoners. Then there was the wait for the drawbridge. By the time #171 reached Port Jervis, Pennsylvania, the train was four hours behind schedule.
Telegraph operator Douglas “Duff” Kent was on duty at the Lackawaxen Junction station, near Shohola Pennsylvania. Kent had seen West #23 pass through that morning with the “extra” flags. His job was to hold eastbound traffic at Lackawaxen until the second train passed. Kent might have been drunk that day, but nobody’s sure of it. He disappeared the following day, never to be seen again.
Erie Engine #237 arrived at Lackawaxen at 2:30 pm pulling 50 coal cars, loaded for Jersey City. Kent gave the All Clear at 2:45, the main switch was opened, and Erie #237 joined the single track heading east out of Shohola.
Only four miles of track stood between the two speeding locomotives.
The trains met head-on at “King and Fuller’s Cut”, a section of track following a blind curve with only 50’ of visibility. Historian Joseph C. Boyd described what followed on the 100th anniversary of the wreck:
“[T]he wooden coaches telescoped into one another, some splitting open and strewing their human contents onto the berm, where flying glass, splintered wood, and jagged metal killed or injured them as they rolled. Other occupants were hurled through windows or pitched to the track as the car floors buckled and opened. The two ruptured engine tenders towered over the wreckage, their massive floor timbers snapped like matchsticks. Driving rods were bent like wire. Wheels and axles lay broken.” The troop train’s forward boxcar had been compacted and within the remaining mass were the remains of 37 men”. [Witnesses] saw “headless trunks, mangled between the telescoped cars” and “bodies impaled on iron rods and splintered beams.”
Pinned against the split boiler plate and slowly scalded to death, engineer William Ingram lived long enough to speak with would-be rescuers. “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.”
51 Confederate prisoners and 17 Union guards were killed on the spot, or died within a day of the wreck. 5 prisoners escaped in the confusion.
Captured at Spotsylvania in early 1864, 52nd North Carolina Infantry private James Tyner was incarcerated at the Elmira camp at this time. Tyner’s brother William was one of the prisoners on board #171.
William was badly injured in the wreck, and survived only long enough to avoid being buried in a mass grave, in Shohola. He died in Elmira three days later, never regaining consciousness.
I’ve always wondered if the brothers saw each other that one last time. James Tyner was my twice-great Grandfather, one of four brothers, farmers who laid down their tools and went to war for their home state of North Carolina, in 1861.
We’ll never know. James Tyner died in captivity on March 13, 1865, 27 days before General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Of the four brothers, Nicholas alone survived the war, laying down his arms when the man they called “Marse Robert” surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, to walk home to the Sand Hills of North Carolina.
A Trivial Matter