Friday, July 11, 2014

Pennsylvania township remembers horrific train collision that killed prisoners, guards

Marker at national cemetery in Elmira, N.Y., lists Confederates killed in collision.

The men in the first car behind the locomotive never had a chance.

On July 15, 1864, an 18-car train carrying 833 Confederates prisoners and 128 Union guards collided with a coal train about 1.5 miles outside the small town of Shohola, Pa.

The noise and chaos of the head-on wreck brought townspeople and farmers to the rocky site. Folks across the Delaware River in Barryville, New York, also rushed to assist the injured.

“The smoke and debris cleared to reveal a grim spectacle. Both locomotives were elevated high against each other, and cars down the line were crushed, overturned, ripped in half, or on top of each other,” wrote Michael Gray in his book, “The Business of Captivity,” an account of the Federal prison in Elmira, N.Y., the destination of the prisoner train.

Caboose used by historical society (Discover Pike PA)

“All but one man in the first car perished, thrown clear before the impact smashed the car to a length less than six feet,” wrote Gray.

Although the exact number is not known, about 48 prisoners and 17 guards died. The bodies, many disfigured, were buried in a trench along the Erie Railroad. They were exhumed and moved in 1911 to Woodlawn National Cemetery in Elmira.

This Saturday (July 12), the Shohola Railroad & Historical Society is marking the 150th anniversary of the calamity with living history events, including Civil War re-enactors, a man who portrays President Abraham Lincoln and Ruth Randone’s one-woman show, “A Confederate Soldier’s Tale,” based on the train wreck.

An opening ceremony is scheduled for 11 a.m. and a shuttle service will take visitors to the park just outside of the village.

Five Rebels are believed to have escaped after the train wreck. An event Saturday will be “a search and apprehension of escaped Confederate prisoners,” said Martha Shadler, president of the society.

(Courtesy of Discover Pike PA)

A memorial service at 1 p.m. Sunday at the site of the Old Congregational Church in Barryville will remember the victims. Two Confederate brothers who died of their injuries are buried in a cemetery there.

A field trip to the 1864 crash site, now on private property, will follow.

Events at a park in the scenic Pocono Mountains community of Shohola are free; a ham dinner at 5 p.m. Saturday costs $10 for adults and $5 for children.

The doomed train was carrying prisoners from Point Lookout, Md., to Elmira. The collision occurred near one of a series of blind bends.

“There was a lot of terrible scalding from the hot water and the steam engines,” said Shadler. Residents in the area helped tend to about 100 injured passengers.

Shohola train station in later years (Library of Congress)

A jury found that a dispatcher, who vanished a day after the wreck, mistakenly had allowed the eastbound coal train on the track.

Woodlawn National Cemetery also holds the graves of nearly 3,000 Confederate soldiers who died at the Elmira prison are buried. People from the South occasionally stop by to look for graves of their ancestors. 

A monument at the cemetery lists the Shohola train wreck dead. Fittingly, the side with Confederate names faces the south; the marker listing Union soldiers faces the north.

Shadler said members of the 124th New York State Volunteers, 1st New Jersey Battery A and the 141st Pennsylvania Infantry are among re-enactors expected to attend the weekend events.

(Courtesy of Woodlawn National Cemetery)
(Courtesy of Woodlawn National Cemetery)

“They will be camped out tonight (Friday) probably to Sunday. They will show how they lived, cooked and ate. They are setting up a Civil War-era hospital.” Another group will fire artillery.

The township of Shohola and Barryville are about 70 miles from New York City. The area is known for its pretty lakes and rivers and offers second homes for residents of NYC, New Jersey and Philadelphia, said real estate agent Bridget Gelderman.

Shadler hopes people will learn about local history, which includes mills and the Delaware and Hudson Canal. And don’t forget to look at what nature offers.

“It’s just a beautiful area.”

For more information about the event, call 570-296-2304.

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