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 and 128 Union guards, heading from Point Lookout prison in Maryland, to the Union prison camp in Elmira, New York. “Hellmira”.
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 running late. First delayed while guards located missing prisoners, then there was that interminable 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.
Duff Kent had one job that day, and that was to hold the eastbound coal train, until #171 passed Shohola station. It didn’t happen. He may have been drunk, but nobody’s sure. 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 two speeding, 30-ton steam locomotives.
The trains met head-on at “King and Fuller’s Cut”, a pass blasted out of solid rock and named after the prime engineering contractor. The section of track followed a blind curve with only 50-feet visibility.
Engineer Samuel Hoitt was at the throttle of #237. Hoitt would survive, having just enough time to jump before the moment of impact. One man in the lead car on #171 was thrown clear. He too would live. There were no other survivors among the 37 men on that car.
On the 100th anniversary of the wreck, historian Joseph C. Boyd described what happened next. Let him pick up the story:
“[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 by cordwood against the split boiler plate and slowly scalded to death, engineer William Ingram lived long enough to speak with would-be rescuers. Frank Evans, one of the guards, remembered: “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.”
Evans describes the scene. “I hurried forward. On a curve in a deep cut we had met a heavily-laden coal train, traveling 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 tender 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…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.”
Estimates of Confederate dead are surprisingly inexact. Most sources report 51 killed on the spot or dying within the first 24 hours. Others put the number as high as 60 to 72. 17 Union guards were killed on the spot, or died within a day of the wreck. 5 prisoners appear to have escaped in the confusion.
Captured at Spotsylvania early in 1864, 52nd North Carolina Infantry soldier James Tyner was in the Elmira camp at this time. Tyner’s brother William was one of the prisoners on board #171. He was badly injured in the wreck, surviving only long enough to avoid the 76′ trackside trench outside of Shohola. William Tyner died three days later in Elmira, never having regained consciousness.
I’ve always wondered if the brothers saw each other, that one last time. James Tyner was my Grandfather twice removed, one of four brothers who went to war for what each saw as his nation, in 1861.
We’ll never know. James Tyner died in captivity on March 13, 1865. Twenty-seven days later, General Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. 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.
Two Confederate soldiers, the brothers John and Michael Johnson, died overnight and were buried in the Congregational church yard across the Delaware river, in Barryville, New York. The remaining POWs killed immediately or shortly thereafter were buried in a common grave that night, alongside the track. Individual graves were dug for the 17 Union dead, and they too were laid alongside the track.
As the years went by, signs of all those graves were erased. Hundreds of trains carried thousands of passengers up and down the Erie Railroad, ignorant of the burial ground through which they passed.
The “pumpkin flood” of 1903 scoured the rail line uncovering many of the dead, carrying away at least some of their mortal remains, along with thousands of that year’s pumpkin crop.
On June 11, 1911, the forgotten dead of Shohola we’re disinterred and reburied in mass graves in the Woodlawn National Cemetery, in Elmira, New York. Site of the largest mixed mass grave, of the Civil War era.