Thriller Thursday – Disaster on the Rails

Here’s another one for the Thriller Thursday series at Geneabloggers.

It was a cold, dark Friday evening in January. Snow blanketed the ground. The Atlantic Express train had departed Albany about 2:40 in the afternoon and was en route to New York City. The train was packed with passengers including quite a few politicians and prominent businessmen. Extra parlor-style passenger cars, as well as a second engine, had been added to the train to accommodate the all the travelers. The train was nearing the end of the 150-mile trip when an overheated axle forced it to stop. By now it was after 7 o’clock and the train was near the Spuyten Duyvil Junction.

Spuyten Duyvil. It was an area in the Southern Bronx named for the adjacent Spuyten Duyvil Creek – a body of water separating the Bronx from Manhattan. It is a Dutch phrase meaning Devil’s Whirlpool and is descriptive of the turbulence of the creek, particularly during high tide. And so to those of us predisposed to superstition, what could be more prophetic than to have disaster strike on the evening of Friday the Thirteenth near the Devil’s Whirpool?

The year was 1882, and the passengers, though inconvenienced by the unexpected stop, were keeping warm and comfortable with the stoves and lamps in the parlor cars. When it first became necessary to stop the train to let the overheated axle cool, the brakeman was supposed to walk back the track far enough so that he could use lanterns to signal any approaching train in enough time for it to stop. And in fact, this very night, just 13 minutes or so behind the Atlantic Express was the Tarrytown Special. It was pulling only three passenger cars and reportedly moving at speeds up to 25 miles per hour.

Now this particular section of the train track was said to mirror the curvature of the creek. It was described as curving like the letter S, with very few areas of straight line track. As it happened, the brakeman for the Atlantic Express walked back several lengths along the track with his latern. He was positioned near a curve in the track. Unfortunately, the Tarrytown Special conductor never saw the brakeman’s signal until he rounded the curve. At that point, he not only saw the signal lantern, but also the glowing lights of the Idlewild, the last car of the Atlantic Express.

The Tarrytown conductor may have signaled for the brakes to be applied, but the train had not slowly significantly before barreling into the Idlewild and ramming it into the next to the last car, the Empire. Both the Idlewild and the Empire were what was known as parlor-style palace cars. They were luxury cars that would have had individual chairs rather than bench seating. There was thought to be about 10 to 12 people in the Idlewild and as many as 18 or 19  in the Empire. However, since the train had stopped, some of the travelers had been wandering through the train. Upon impact, people in both the Idlewild and the Empire were thrown to the floor. The chairs, lanterns and stoves were toppled over. Some people were pinned under the debris. Fires were started when the stoves and lanterns were knocked over igniting the woodwork and upholstry. The Idlewild suffered the severest damage, followed closely by the Empire.

According to eye witness reports, most of the passengers probably survived the initial impact. Unfortunately, those in the Idlewild were pinned by debris and unable to escape the burning car on their own. Their cries and moans could be heard, but rescue efforts were hindered by the lack of axes to break through the crushed train cars and the debris. Also, there was little or no water readily available to douse the flames. In the absence of water, some would be rescuers threw snow on the fire. Most of those in Idlewild either burned to death or were overcome by the smoke before they could be freed.

Initial reports were that nine people, possibly more, died. Amazingly, after all the dust settled and some heretofore unaccounted for people were located, the number was revised to seven dead and several dozen injured. Those who were killed were NY State Senator Webster Wagner; Oliver B. Keeley, a stove manufacturer from Spring City Pennsylvania; newly married Parker Valentine, aged 22 and his bride, 19 year-old Louise Gaylord; Rev. Father Marechal; Mrs. Maud Brown; and Mr. D. L. Ransom. Only one passenger on the ill-fated Idlewild car survived, that being Miss Mary E. Daniels. She was badly burned, but apparently recovered from her injuries. Mr. Valentine Sr., the father of the groom who perished, was also on the train. He had happened to step out onto the back platform of the Idlewild just as the Tarrytown Express was bearing down on it. He managed to jump off the platform and escape to safety in the nick of time.

The story of the train wreck at Spuyten Duyvil, New York was reported throughout the nation. While the coroner’s inquest found fault with nearly all the personnel of both trains as well as the railroad officials for failing to put forth proper procedures to ensure the safety of passengers, the ultimate blame seemed to rest on the brakeman of the Atlantic Express. He was put on trial for manslaughter that November. Surprisingly, he was found not guilty.

My connection to this tragic story is Oliver B. Keeley. He was the son of Joseph Keeley and Anna Markle and he was my 3rd cousin, 4 times removed. He was only 36 years old when he died. He left a wife, Mary (nee Stauffer) and a young daughter named Clara.


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