July 15, 1864 The Great Shohola Train Wreck

Note the pointed tops of the Confederate grave markers, different from the arc-shapes at the top of Federal stones.  Rumor has it that the point was there to “stick it” to any Yankee, dumb enough to sit on a Confederate gravestone.  No Rebel would ever be so disrespectful.

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, Maryland to the Federal 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.

shohola station

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.

He might have been drunk that day, but nobody’s sure. He disappeared the following day, never to be seen again.

Erie Engine #237 arrived at Lackawaxen at 2:30pm 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 now lay between the two speeding locomotives.

ShoholaWreckPA

The two trains met head-on at “King and Fuller’s Cut”, a section of track following a blind curve with only 50’ of visibility.

King and Fullers Cut
King and Fullers Cut

Engineer Samuel Hoit at the throttle of the coal train had time to jump clear, and survived the wreck.   Many of the others, never had a chance.

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.”

Frank Evans, a guard on the train, describes the scene: “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.”

51 Confederate prisoners and 17 Union guards were killed on the spot, or died within a day of the wreck. Five prisoners escaped in the confusion.

shohola2Captured at Spotsylvania early in 1864, 52nd North Carolina Infantry soldier James Tyner was a POW at this time, languishing in “Hellmira” – the fetid POW camp at Elmira, New York.  “The Andersonville of the Northern Union.”

Tyner’s brother William was one of the prisoners on board #171.

William was badly injured in the wreck, surviving only long enough to avoid a mass grave alongside a train track, in Shohola. William Tyner was transported to Elmira where he died three days later, never regaining consciousness.

I’ve always wondered if the brothers were able to find one another, that one last time.  James Tyner was my own twice-great Grandfather, one of four brothers who went to war for 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 Tyner brothers, Nicholas alone survived the war.  He laid down his arms on the order of the man they called “Marse Robert”, and walked home to pick up the shattered bits of his life, in the Sand Hills of North Carolina.

Family Plot
Memorial for the brothers Tyner is located on the old family farm, in North Carolina.  Note the pointed tops, which are different from the arc-shapes at the top of Federal grave markers.  Rumor has it that the point was there to “stick it” to any Yankee, dumb enough to sit on a Confederate gravestone.  No Rebel would ever be so disrespectful.

“About 56,000 soldiers died in prisons during the war, accounting for almost 10% of all Civil War fatalities. During a period of 14 months in Camp Sumter, located near Andersonville, Georgia, 13,000 (28%) of the 45,000 Union soldiers confined there died. At Camp Douglas in Chicago, Illinois, 10% of its Confederate prisoners died during one cold winter month; and Elmira Prison in New York state, with a death rate of 25%, very nearly equaled that of Andersonville”.  H/T Wikipedia

 

Afterward

Burial details worked throughout the night of July 15 until dawn of the following day. 

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.

shohola6lg
Last resting place of the brothers John and Michael Johnson, killed in the Great Shohola Trainwreck

The remaining POW dead and those about to die were buried alongside the track in a 75′ trench, placed four at a time in crude boxes fashioned from the wreckage.  Conventional caskets arrived overnight.  Individual graves were dug for the 17 Federal dead, and they too were laid alongside the track.

As the years went by, memorial markers faded and then disappeared, altogether. Hundreds of trains carried thousands of passengers up and down the Erie railroad, ignorant of the burial ground through which they had passed.  

11df509e6d89fc150e76c8192efc5975The “pumpkin flood“ of 1903 scoured the rail line, uncovering many of the dead and carrying away their mortal remains.  It must have been a sight – caskets moving with the flood, bobbing like so many fishing plugs, alongside countless numbers of that year’s pumpkin crop.

On June 11, 1911, the forgotten dead of Shohola were disinterred, and reburied in mass graves in the Woodlawn national cemetery in Elmira, New York. Two brass plaques bear the names of the dead, mounted to opposite sides of a common stone marker.

The names of the Union dead, face north. Those of the Confederate side, face south. To my knowledge, this is the only instance from the Civil War era, in which Union and Confederate share a common grave. 

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