A service to commemorate the souls lost 100 years ago in the Great Amherst Train Wreck of 1916 will be held March 29.
As the date nears, a recently-surfaced letter from one of the deadly incident’s survivors is casting new light on what happened when two New York Central Railroad trains on a Pittsburgh-Buffalo-Baltimore route and the Chicago-bound 20th Century Limited collided.
The crash happened around 3:15 a.m. in heavy fog.
Amherst history detective Jim Wilhelm has spent countless hours researching how it unfolded.
The Pittsburgh-bound Buffalo Flyer No. 86 was so overloaded with passengers that two engines were commissioned to make the run six minutes apart, he said.
The front train halted on the tracks near present-day Amherst Manor where Lake Street and Milan Avenue intersect. A signal tower there appeared to be malfunctioning and the engineer feared derailment with visibility so limited ahead.
A few minutes later he hopped back aboard and started chugging forward at about 5 mph. Before he could go very far, though, the second train came along and smashed into the back of the first at 65 mph.
Then along came the 20th Century Limited from the opposite direction. The enormous metal train “sliced right through the other wrecked cars sitting across the tracks like a knife,” Wilhelm said.
Jodi Simon, a Florida woman who read earlier this year about the crash’s impending centennial, reached out to Amherst city council clerk Linda Turley.
She shared a letter typed by her great-grandfather Albert V. Sammis of Huntington, N.Y., the day following the crash.
It chronicles his experience as a passenger about the 20th Century Limited.
Sammis was asleep in his berth when he was awakened by two crashes — they marked his train hitting the wreckage of the two others lying ruined on the tracks.
“It was some few minutes before I could get my senses together. I then found I could move and attempted to get up. This I finally did with difficulty on account of our car Nov. 44 lying over on an angle of about 45 degrees,” Sammis wrote.
It was pitch black outside. Sammis said he and a porter tried to clear the aisle and untangle passengers from their bedding.
When fully dressed, the passengers made their way to the door, stumbling outside and crawling slowly over the wreckage to escape.
“I started to get down on the ground, and as I did so the porter said: ‘Look out there are two dead men lying there,’” Sammis wrote. “I had nearly stepped on them in the now semi-darkness. Instead of being two men, it was one man cut in two lengthwise. You may imagine my feelings, but this was not to be compared with what came later.”
Making his way across the scene, he found bodies scattered “in every conceivable position in the mass of wreckage, many dead, others terribly mangled but still alive.”
Accounts confirm 27 died that night and 47 were injured.
Sammis’ letter evokes how Amherst firefighters arrived. Bodies were carried away from trains and placed on Pullman mattresses.
“The injured by this time seemed to have recovered from the shock and their cries were heart-rendering (sic). A large number of the dead were literally torn to pieces and never knew what happened. Doctors had by this arrived from nearby towns and attended the injured, all of which were then placed on the forward cars of the eastbound train and taken to the Elyria Hospital. In the meantime a relief train from Elyria had brought more doctors and helpers, but the work for the most part was finished,” the tale said.
With the sun rising, Sammis returned to the obliterated trains: “What had been invisible in the darkness was plainly visible now. The Century had cut completely through two cars, which had been thrown across our tracks. The bodies of the dead on this side (there were none left alive) were in even worse condition, if possible, than on the other. One could hardly walk through the wreckage without stepping on some part of a human body. I tried to get away from all this, but that was impossible, for it was on all sides.”
The letter gives Sammis’ opinions on what must have occurred for such devastation to unfold, including his assessment that the death count was so large because the Buffalo Flyer cars were made of wood rather than steel.
Wilhelm said the Sammis account has cleared up several disputed details about the train crashes, including some conflicting information among the articles of more than 500 newspapers that carried the story across the U.S. and Canada.
Observances will be held on the 100th anniversary of the crash, starting at 10 a.m. at the Amherst Sandstone Village on Milan Avenue, where a monument has been erected.
The enormous sandstone marker bears a plaque telling the story of the Great Amherst Train Wreck.
At 11 a.m., a service will be held at Crownhill Cemetery, where five of the wreck’s victims are buried. Flowers will be placed on the graves and two Amherst pastors will speak.
At 5 p.m., the Amherst Historical Society will open its Grange Hall at the Sandstone Village to the public. Inside will be large displays bearing photos and research about the wreck.
“I think that due to the fact that this is 100 years after such a tragic thing happening in our community, it really needs to be put out there for people to learn about it and pay their respects, and not forget about it,” Wilhelm said.
He wants residents to see the hidden history of the crashes, from the prominent passengers and movie stars on board to the heroic deeds performed in the aftermath. “Those are the things that stand out to me,” said Wilhelm.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
Photos courtesy of the Amherst Historical Society These photos show the aftermath of the Great Train Wreck of March 29, 1916, which unfolded along Milan Avenue.
Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times This monument has been raised to commemorate Amherst’s worst disaster. It will be dedicated March 29.