100 year anniversary of Great Train Wreck nears


By Jason Hawk - [email protected]



Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times Few people know Amherst’s past better than historian and assistant fire chief Jim Wilhelm. Here, he shows documents and pictures chronicling the Great Train Wreck of 1916.


Photos courtesy of the Amherst Historical Society These pictures show the devastation left when trains collided in 100 years ago on Amherst’s west side.


Photos courtesy of the Amherst Historical Society These pictures show the devastation left when trains collided in 100 years ago on Amherst’s west side.


Photos courtesy of the Amherst Historical Society These pictures show the devastation left when trains collided in 100 years ago on Amherst’s west side.


Fog engulfed Amherst around 3:45 a.m. on March 29, 1916, as a steam engine chugged to a halt on the tracks near modern-day Lake Street.

It was the eastbound Pittsburgh-Baltimore-Buffalo Limited, and its engineer was confused, thinking there was trouble on the tracks.

What followed was by far the most deadly night in the city’s history. The anniversary is nearing and local historians are preparing to mark it.

A railroad switch malfunction — the switch house was located close to where Amherst Manor now stands — led three New York Central Railroad trains to collide, killing 27 people and injuring 47.

The Buffalo Limited was slammed from behind by its trailing second section, another train scheduled just minutes behind the first.

“The back was a wooden passenger car. That other train went right through it, killed almost everyone on board immediately,” said Amherst assistant fire chief Jim Wilhelm, who has spent years researching the city’s tragic past, from infernos to crashes.

Then along came the Twentieth Century Limited, at the time the fastest train in the world, heading westbound and smashing into the wreckage.

Wilhelm said the crash site sprawled from Miller’s Crossing near the Amherst Eagles aerie to Hamilton Street.

Old newspaper headlines noted “bodies tied up in sacks” and pieces of flesh strewn around “the grim scene.” Amherst firefighters had to build bonfires to provide light for rescue and clean-up efforts.

Investigators tried to place blame for the crash on the switch operator and the conductor of the second train, but ultimately it was decided the weather and switch malfunction — not human error — were overwhelmingly at fault.

The tragedy doesn’t end there.

In the aftermath, money was discovered missing from the pockets of dead and injured passengers. A grand jury was called but an indictment never came.

Five bodies were so badly ravaged in the crash they were not identified and were buried at Crownhill cemetery in Amherst. Eventually one was exhumed and named by his widow.

A newspaper in South Bend, Ind., provided the names of the remaining four but it’s impossible to know which body is which. Wilhelm said one day a marker might be erected at the cemetery bearing their names.

A meeting on commemoration of the 1916 Amherst Train Wreck will be held at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 20 at the Grange Hall of the Amherst Sandstone Village, 763 Milan Ave.

The open meeting will focus on how to best build a memorial and to raise funds for the project. Donations are being accepted.

For more information, call Wilhelm at 440-320-6912.

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.

Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times Few people know Amherst’s past better than historian and assistant fire chief Jim Wilhelm. Here, he shows documents and pictures chronicling the Great Train Wreck of 1916.

http://theamherstnewstimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/web1_DSC_6655.jpg

Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times Few people know Amherst’s past better than historian and assistant fire chief Jim Wilhelm. Here, he shows documents and pictures chronicling the Great Train Wreck of 1916.

Photos courtesy of the Amherst Historical Society These pictures show the devastation left when trains collided in 100 years ago on Amherst’s west side.

http://theamherstnewstimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/web1_DSC_6661.jpg

Photos courtesy of the Amherst Historical Society These pictures show the devastation left when trains collided in 100 years ago on Amherst’s west side.

Photos courtesy of the Amherst Historical Society These pictures show the devastation left when trains collided in 100 years ago on Amherst’s west side.

http://theamherstnewstimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/web1_DSC_6665.jpg

Photos courtesy of the Amherst Historical Society These pictures show the devastation left when trains collided in 100 years ago on Amherst’s west side.

Photos courtesy of the Amherst Historical Society These pictures show the devastation left when trains collided in 100 years ago on Amherst’s west side.

http://theamherstnewstimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/web1_DSC_6668.jpg

Photos courtesy of the Amherst Historical Society These pictures show the devastation left when trains collided in 100 years ago on Amherst’s west side.

By Jason Hawk

[email protected]

Amherst News Times
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