An old legend says whenever you hear a cardinal sing, it’s the spirit of a loved one come back to visit.
Birdsong filled the air early Tuesday as dozens gathered to memorialize those 27 souls who perished in Amherst’s greatest disaster — the Great Train Wreck of 1916.
“We want to remember this time 100 years ago and this plaque should help take care of that,” said historian and assistant fire chief Jim Wilhelm.
He waved to a stone monument rising near the railway tracks at the Amherst Sandstone Village on Milan Avenue. It bears the story of how three passenger trains collided early on the foggy morning of March 29 all those years ago, a gory affair that left limbs and severed torsos littering the grounds. In addition to the dead, 47 travelers were injured.
“The carnage people went through here was just horrendous,” Wilhelm said, later adding, “People were just screaming and hollering. No one knew what had happened. They probably thought the world had come to an end.”
More than 500 newspapers across the United States and Canada carried the news, telling how the tiny town of Amherst produced heroes who helped rescue survivors.
Among them were silent picture starlets Mary Pickford and Ella Hall, who were passengers aboard the 20th Century Limited. Offered the chance to recuperate at the hospital in Elyria (the Amherst Hospital had not yet been built), they chose instead to stay and tend to the wounded.
Mayor Mark Costilow gave remarks about those who “came out of the comfort of their homes in the dark that night, first out of curiosity, then to help any way they could.”
“We as Americans are usually at our best when tragedies like this strike,” he said. “I imagine Amherst mayor Foster had to be extremely proud of the residents of Amherst that gathered very close to this spot… Firemen, police officers, doctors, nurses, and ordinary Amherst residents came from all around to help. They searched through the rubble finding dead bodies. They tended to the injured and comforted the survivors.”
Costilow said everyone did what they could, even building bonfires so rescue efforts could continue through the night.
Neighbors provided food, water, blankets, and bandages and even opened their homes to the survivors, he said.
There were also accusations in the aftermath that robbers stole valuables from the pockets of dead passengers, according to published accounts of the day.
In dedicating the memorial to the Great Train Wreck, Amherst fire chief Greg Knoll and firefighters Roger Mace and Jeff Shamhart placed a wreath at its base.
Matt Nahorn, a member of the Amherst Historical Society, intoned the names of those killed, including a few whose identities were unknown.
In a closing prayer, the Rev. David McNeely of Cornerstone Community Church spoke of how “in tragedy the people of Amherst came together to help their fellow man.”
He asked that Amherst residents forever hold true to that spirit demonstrated by their ancestors, and prayed for God to prevent anything so horrific as the wreck from happening ever again.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
Photos by Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times Jim Wilhelm, historian and assistant fire chief, waxes of the fearful night of March 29, 1916, which saw Amherst’s greatest disaster unfold along the railroad tracks that parallel Milan Avenue.